The Writing Process

  • Now, whether it be bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on the event—a thought, which quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom and ever three parts coward—I do not know why yet I live to say, ‘This thing’s to do,’ sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means to do’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me.

Prince Hamlet, Shakespeare

Beyond inspiration, writing is a deliberate process. The completion of a poem, a paper, a short story, an article, an essay or a novel requires the writer to confront the vast nothingness of an empty file or blank sheet of paper and to fill that space with thoughts, images and ideas. 

For the ambitious, it means identifying an audience, creating credible and compelling “living people,” writing engaging dialogue, weaving an unpredictable plot that enthralls and conveying meaning through cogent themes—all while telling an interesting story. It is a daunting task and it is the reason so many aspiring authors never get beyond “wanting to write something…” one day.

For many writers, it is the most difficult river to ford, and it requires an author to introspect, to discover an individual method, series of conditions, exercises and actions that will begin the process of writing. For some, it will involve detailed outlines, character charts, story boards, brainstorm clouds and other devices.

For others, it will mean setting up a premise, conflict, theme or advanced storyline. And some writers will first consider their targeted audience and the message they want to convey. Whatever works, it helps get beyond that blank page stage, which is key.

The next challenge is the “set-aside,” which is the amount of time dedicated to writing on a regular basis. More tortoise than hare, consistent writers write consistently. If a writer does not set aside time to write, then he or she will not write. And at the other end, inconsistent writers are not productive.

This set-aside can range from “a couple of hours in the morning, four days a week,” to “four hours on Saturday,” to a full-time schedule. It should be something that comfortably works, though it does not hurt to create a little stress, as strained vines produce better wines.

To demonstrate the power and potential of a set-aside, consider the following supposition. Let us say a writer has decided to dedicate two hours in the morning to writing— let us say 5:00 a.m. to 7 a.m.

To many, 5:00 a.m. seems like an early start time, but if writing is to be a career, it should be considered a job, with all the seriousness of any other job. So the job starts at 5:00 a.m. Plan for it.

Make whatever accommodations are required. But no one is expected to work seven days a week, so let us say weekends should be taken off. And holidays—let us say they should be taken off too. And then there is the two-week vacation from work—plan on taking that off as well.

What does that leave us with? About two hundred and thirty workdays in one year. Now, let us say that in those two hours, the writer produces exactly one page of work, the equivalent of four hundred words—one page per day, and nothing more. When one page is done— the writer should stop, revise, research for the next day of work and get on with life. By 7:00 a.m., the workday is done.

If a writer is dedicated and strives consistently at this plan, then at the expiration of one year, the writer is capable of having penned a 230-page novel, containing 92,000 words.

If the writer has taken sufficient time to revise and edit the work one page at a time over the year, then the manuscript will be free of misspelling, grammatical errors and annoying bad writing habits. In this way, an author can complete one novel a year, working only two hours per day. How do you “Eat an Elephant” (or a Whale?) One bite at a time.

Of course, the work takes place in the “writer’s space.” It could be a corner of the bedroom or garage, it could be the kitchen table as the family sleeps, or it could be a favorite booth at the coffee shop that advertises free Wi-Fi, but it too, should be consistent.

This is essential for a writer being able to enter his or her “zone”—that state of mind where ideas begin to flow, where the Muse—for whatever it means—begins to provide inspiration.

And so day after day, the writer obeys the calling. The most difficult part is always the beginning, the set-up, introduction of the voice, the players and the message. But at some time along the way, a perceptive writer will detect a faint heartbeat just beyond the realm of conscious perception. And then if work continues and Fortune smiles, there will be a remarkable moment when the work will take a discernible “first breath,” and then the writer’s creation begins breathing on its own.

Ah, and that is the most exciting moment for any work—the instant when the story or piece begins to take a life of its own, independent of the author. By that time, the characters know who they are and act independently, according to their own idiosyncrasies, while the force of the story drives them forward, right to the conclusion.

I remember writing sessions during Murder From The Grave when I would sit back, entertained, and watch the action happen. I just wrote what I saw and heard.

When I am on a regular writing schedule, my goal is to average 1,500 words per day, six days a week. Sometimes I write 2,300, while at others I might squeak by at 600 words. I typically get up at 4:30-5:00 a.m. and spend the first thirty minutes reviewing and revising the previous day’s work.

This is a ritual for me, as it works to create a continuity and rhythm for the present day’s work. My morning goal is usually 800-900 words. It is a three to four hour session.

The running word count is easy to check. It is simply a matter of highlighting the day’s work in Microsoft Word. The bar at the bottom of the screen will indicate exactly how many words have been written, relative to the number of words in the document.

During my afternoon or late night session, I set my goal at 700-800 words—two to three hours. I have to admit, there are some days when I do not write any words, because on some days, I am just not in the mood.

Fortunately, I do not have many of those days, but the key is that even on those days, I sit in my “writer’s space” for my “set-aside” time. I might be doing research or working on another piece, but I make every effort to remain true to the process.

Inspiration is a wonderful thing, and yet if a writer relies on irregular moments of inspiration to do consistent work and accomplish extraordinary things, then he or she will join the great body of “talkers” who say they want to write, but will never produce.

The key to becoming an accomplished writer lies in the process. Sometimes it is a lonely place, and often the world is slow at recognizing genius, but writing is what writers do—not for the money and not for the kudos, but for the sheer love of creation.

And so I ask all writers who have taken the time to read this blog: what are the challenges you have faced relative to the process of writing? What successful strategies have worked for you? Do you think it is useful to track how many words you write each day? Do you rely on inspiration, or do you have a regular writing schedule?

While on a schedule, how many words do you write each day? Have you ever experienced the instant where one of your stories “took its first breath” and began a life of its own, independent of you?

Thank you again for taking the time to consider my blog. If you have any comments and suggestions, I am anxious to hear them.

Marcus McGee

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