I remember getting very discouraged as a beginning writer when I read, “You’re not a serious writer unless you write every day.”
I understood where they were coming from. You had to make it a habit. You couldn’t just wait until you were inspired to write. But the reality was–like so many other writers and would-be writers out there–I had a life that didn’t care whether or not I wrote. In fact, many of the things and people who depended on me each day would probably prefer that I didn’t write. And so writing every, single, day because not only arduous but pretty nigh impossible.
And so I got discouraged, and for a long time saw myself as a not-so-serious writer.
My new philosophy on writing became: The first cardinal rule to writing is that you put words on paper. How they get there isn’t important. You just have to get them there.
And then as I started writing books, I learned the value of planning, plotting and outlining. Writing every day is great, but unless you know what you’re going to write, most of that writing is just practice. I spend weeks and months planning my next project. Then when I am very familiar with what it is I am going to write, I launch into my new writing project. And guess what? I’ve found that my writing is a LOT faster because I know what I am doing.
There are good things and bad things about my approach, what I call immersive writing. I want to talk about both, now that I have been doing it for many years.
First the good:
Immersive writing–surrounding yourself with the story as much as possible–gets you thinking about it to the point where you see it all the time, even when you’re not working on it. Your subconscious works on plot problems when you’re busy working on other things. You find that you can describe better because you see it in your head. (I try to use places I have actually been as models for the places I am describing, just as I use occupations and other details that I am familiar with. Don’t imagine stuff you’re unfamiliar with.) Not only will the writing go faster, but the writing will be more vivid. The actual rough draft usually takes me anywhere from three weeks to three months to write, depending on how much time I can commit to it. When I am seriously writing, such as in the summer months, I usually write 10-14 pages a day. At that pace, a first draft gets done pretty quickly. Remember, all the research, all the planning, all the character description, all the plotting, happens before you actually start writing. Well, not ALL of it. I usually am pretty detailed in the first 3-5 chapters, with less details as the chapter summaries go on. Then when I get about five chapters in, I revise the chapter summaries based on what the characters are doing. You want to give them some latitude to live their lives. So that’s the good stuff.
Here’s the bad:
Like I said, it’s immersive–It pays to have an obsessive personality. If you spend three months plotting out a story, you become pretty familiar with it. By the time you’re ready to write that first chapter, you know a lot of the details. Sometimes I write a short story or two based on scenes in the book just to get a glimpse at the characters or the world they are living in. That also helps me embrace their universe. But doing all this makes me a hard person to live with sometimes. My wife grows to dread that faraway look in my eyes. When I am in my immersive mode, and she’s trying to tell me something over the dinner table, and I get that hundred-yard stare, she knows I have gone bye-bye. People who write every morning for thirty minutes don’t suffer from the same immersive stare. They plug in and plug out. But I have a hard time making that transition.
You also have to learn to edit AFTER you have written the first draft. Keep going to get that first draft done, and clean it up later. Don’t stop. The editing phase is somewhat boring to me, but it’s absolutely necessary. You need to crank out that first draft as quickly as possible, then fix the problems later.
If you’re the type that needs a routine type of writing, and can’t commit to tackling a major project for three months, but would rather peck along on it for a year or two, then Immersive Writing is probably not for you. But if you’re like me, and can find blocks of time when you can write, and other times when you can plot and plan, then this might work for you.