When the idea of writing a novel first came to me, I tackled it the same way I approached my early years of teaching. I would check out or buy book after book of experts’ thoughts about writing and how to get started. Still sitting on the shelves in my office are books from that period of my life: On Writing by Stephen King, Write That Book Already (Barry and Goldmark), The First Five Pages (Lukeman), and numerous books by Orson Scott Card. Seriously, I probably read forty or fifty other books, and eventually they were joined by The Artful Edit (Bell) and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Brown and King.)
But all knowledge about a subject can’t be found simply in the pages of books about that subject, any more than how to teach can be found in the chapters of college textbooks. As I read for month after month, I began to wonder if I could even start the first page of a novel. Finally, my friend Greg—who always gives me wonderful advice—said to me, “Stop reading and write!” As always, he was correct.
I also read blogs and articles about the way authors approach their writing. Some write 250 words a day or 500, and others write so many pages or so many chapters. Many get up at the crack of dawn and write because they have full-time jobs and have no other time. The most interesting report was from a woman whose blog I read regularly. She has several series going, and she edits in the car pool line at her children’s schools.
It never works to try to teach like someone else. You end up eventually falling into a pattern that is the most comfortable for you and your life. The same thing happened with my writing schedule. After leaving the house around 7:15 A.M. to teach for thirty-four years in high school and another ten years in college, I simply did not want to get up before the sun to start writing. Now that I’m retired from teaching, I don’t have to do that. So I have an erratic schedule. Some days I write in the morning after the news, coffee, newspaper, and breakfast, and edit in the afternoon. Some days I don’t write at all. Often I fit my writing in between lunches and shopping with my friends. I think this is the perfect definition of a retirement job. It does not, however, make me a fast writer. But I never forget how blessed I am to be able to write and not work at a full-time job.
I have also discovered another similarity between writing and teaching: reflection is an important component, even if it happens when I sleep. I can’t skip too many writing days because I get out of “the zone” and have to go back and remember what I’m doing. But I do have to take time off to reflect on characters’ motives, red herrings, and plot or point-of-view problems. Sometimes I have to leave parts of the manuscript alone and go back to them later, a method that is always helpful when I need a more objective view of my writing.
Sleeping—or sometimes lack of it—also plays a huge role in my writing. If I have a problem in the section I’m working on, I think about it before I go to sleep and my mind sorts it out when my conscious mind would have said, “No, you can’t do that.” Other times my work is going so well and I’m so involved with the characters that I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep because I’m thinking about a new direction. It’s helpful to keep a pencil and paper next to my bed.
Never discount the power of sleep and/or reflection when it comes to writing.
Self-discipline is also a huge factor in a writer’s process. Because I was an English teacher, I had to have a great deal of this trait because I was grading hundreds of papers a year. In my writing life, it’s also quite important because publishers want a second book coming out in a decent interval if the writer gains readers for Book # 1. The business and marketing side also take a huge chunk of a writer’s time, so self-discipline is necessary to both sell and write at the same time. Currently, I am writing on two different blogs and working on setting up marketing for my first book at the same time as I am writing my second book. So I fit my writing in between the other obligations to the marketplace.
And yes, I still have time to shop and have lunch with my friends.