When you’re pulled in too many directions at once, it’s nice to have a friend who is willing to pinch hit for you. So today, instead of offering my own (cough cough) words of wisdom, I’m delighted to share a behind-the-scenes look at writing from my friend Donna Andrews, author of the New York Times-bestselling Meg Langslow mystery series. Take it away, Donna!
Caution: Writer at Work
by Donna Andrews
I will start the first draft of my next book on Thursday, June 1. Note that I’m not saying “I plan to start” or “I hope to start.” I will be starting it then, because that’s when I need to start to finish it, revise it, and turn it in on time.
And I’ve got my spreadsheet ready.
Yes, I consider my trusty spreadsheet an essential writing tool. I start with my actual deadline, the date I have to deliver the manuscript to my editor, and then set my own deadline for finishing the first draft–optimally four to six weeks before the real deadline. Then I construct a schedule that lets me work at a comfortable pace, writing on weekdays and taking the weekends off to recharge–or catch up. I tinker with the spreadsheet–building in breaks for times when I hope not to be writing–trips to Malice Domestic and Bouchercon, for example. And then–voila! I know what day I need to start my draft.
It helps if I do this process far enough ahead that I don’t finish the spreadsheet and then realize that I should have started five weeks ago.
|Don’t be fooled. That’s not Donna.
She’d never write without Diet
Coke by her side.
Once I start writing . . . (June 1) . . . the spreadsheet helps keep me sane. When I sit down at my computer every day, I don’t have to think about how much I’ve written and how much I still have to write and whether any of it’s any good. I just have to write that day’s quota. As long as I write however many words I’ve assigned myself for the day, I’m allowed to celebrate.
And for this next book, the magic day is June 1. Sorry if I keep repeating that, but as my start date creeps closer, reminding myself helps me focus on everything I need to do before then. Because I’m a planner–or plotter, if you prefer. If I’m on my game, by June 1 I will know how the book starts. I will know who done it, and who got done, and how, and why. I will know who else had a motive, and how Meg, my heroine, unmasks the real killer, and what happens in the dramatic final scene. I’m already over the first hurdle–finding a bird-themed punning title that my editor likes. Now I’m doing my research, scoping out the cast of characters, working out the plot.
If it sounds as if I know what I’m doing . . .yeah, I do. Sort of. After all, I’ve done this before–38 times before. That doesn’t mean I’m all relaxed and “whatever” about it. It doesn’t ever get easy. (Apologies to newer writers, but it really doesn’t.) Some parts of it get easier. But there’s still the challenge of trying to write a book that’s better than the last. Not to mention that with every single book, at some point I reach what I now call the “it’s all crap” phase. Knowing this happens every time doesn’t make it feel any better. So what do I do when that awful feeling creeps over me?
I write the day’s quota. It doesn’t necessarily get rid of the “it’s all crap” feeling. But it gets me one day closer to finishing. I remind myself that if I keep going, the feeling will eventually vanish. And that you can edit crap, but you can’t edit a blank page.
|Ahhhhh! A blank page!|
And what do I do when I sit down at the computer feeling singularly uninspired? Same thing. I do my quota. Inspiration is overrated. I don’t write because I’m inspired; with luck, along the way, I’ll get inspired. But if I don’t–at least I’ve done my quota.
I take comfort in Lawrence Block’s example. In one of his books–don’t ask me which, because I like his take on writing and have several of them–he recounts how, when he began writing full time, he made himself write every day. Some days he couldn’t wait to get to the keyboard, and other days he wanted to do anything else. He wrote anyway, figuring if it was really bad, he could always throw it out. But over time he found that he rarely had to. Sure, what he wrote when he wasn’t inspired needed revision and editing. So did what he wrote on the good days. He’d learned to write at a certain level–a professional level.
Really wish I could find the essay in which he said this. Some days it would help, reading it before I put my fingers on the keys and write anyway.
I was able to find another favorite quote on writing, from Kenneth Atchity’s A Writer’s Time:
I haven’t mentioned the Muse, the mythic word for “inspiration.” She is the last person you want to depend on. Professional writers generally speak of her with a mixture of affection and tolerance. Discipline, not the Muse, results in productivity. If you write only when she beckons, your writing is not yours at all. If you write according to your own schedule, she’ll shun you at first, but eventually she won’t be able to stay away from your workshop. If you deny her urgings, she will adopt your discipline. Nothing attracts her more than a writer at work on a steady schedule. She’ll come around. In other words, you become your own Muse, just as you make the clock of life your clock.
Useful book, A Writer’s Time. Along with Block’s books on writing, like Spider, Spin Me a Web and Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. I sometimes reread parts of them when I need encouragement. And then I write my quota.
If this sounds boring . . . I prefer to think of it as a comforting routine. Starting June 1, every day–well, every weekday–I’ll get up, stumble downstairs to my computer, open my spreadsheet, open my manuscript . . . and do my quota.
And now back to all those things I need to do before June 1. Is my villain’s motive believable? Do I have enough red herrings? Too many? Wait, have I created a perfect crime, one that will be impossible for Meg to solve? Or is the twist too obvious? What if–
You know, I’m actually looking forward to June 1.
Barb again, thanking Donna for finding time in her well-planned schedule to show you how she sets–and keeps–her schedule.
And now for a little BSP, I’m thrilled to share that at the end of April I won the Agatha Award for my short story “Beauty and the Beyotch,” which appeared in issue 29 of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. And last week, this story was named a finalist for this year’s Anthony Award, to be awarded in September at Bouchercon. If you’re interested, I have it up on my website for your reading pleasure. Just click here.