If there’s a question I get more than, “Where do you get your ideas?” it’s “What’s your writing process like?” Short answer: I’ll let you know when I figure it out.
Longer answer. I’ve tried a number of approaches over the years. I embraced word counts in the early going of my second mystery, Slow Burn, dutifully crafting 500 words a day but no more, following someone’s advice that sticking to this routine was the easiest way possible to produce a novel in six months. Maybe for them. For me it stymied my creative flow and led me down cul de sacs it took days to escape from.
Next I tried chaining myself to my desk for long, unmeasured amounts of time, hoping that sheer force of will would accomplish what circumscribed limits wouldn’t. This approach appeals to my long-distance runner’s mindset: put the miles in and the results will follow. And there’s no doubt that long stretches with one’s novel, especially near the end, are crucial for crafting a seamless narrative that hopefully draws the reader in. The downside of this tactic for me was twofold: finding the time, and the natural diminishing of creativity as the hours wear on (the equivalent of a runner’s body wearing out the more miles you pile on without proper rest).
Thanks to this 2013 article by tweeted by my friend Pete Brown recently, I’m pursuing a method that seems to fit well with my schedule, which involves bracketing my personal writing around a nine-hour work day. The gist is studies that find creativity–work productivity, regardless your field–occurs in roughly ninety-minute bursts, after which you need a break. This make sense based on my habits at my day job as a reporter. Typically, I start my mornings at the office trying to work for about an hour and a half–no web surfing, no email reading, no phone calls unless it’s related directly to the work I’m doing. The result is usually a decent amount of writing under my belt by the time the mid-morning coffee break rolls around.
Before I go to work, I manage about an hour’s personal writing and editing–not quite as much as I need, but a good start. Where the 90-minute concept really helps is at night and on the weekends. After dinner and some TV watching with my wife, I find it easy to step into my office to “do a 90,” as I’ve come to call it. The advantage to this mindset is giving me a defined amount of time to look forward to. It’s easy to procrastinate when facing the amorphous “sitting down to do some writing” without a clear goal, especially in the evenings. Doing “90s” assists me even further on Sunday mornings when I tend to do the writer’s equivalent of a long run. Now, instead of plunking down and beginning a ill-defined grind, I schedule myself according to the ninety-minute rule. This morning, I’ll tell myself, I’m tackling three “90s.” Between each one I’ll take a break: getting more coffee, reading, stepping outside.
So far, it’s been a qualified success, as measured by forward progress in word count and a declining number of cul de sacs. I’m curious what works for other people.