What I didn’t know about the writing process

Readers, this spring I feel like I’ve been lurching from one deadline to another. I haven’t talked about this in the depth here, although regular readers may have noticed my quick mentions that I’d spend the weekend working on my book, again, mostly in Links I Love posts.

If you follow me on Instagram, I’ve shared a little more there, mostly snapshots of the writing process, involving multiple pens and highlighters, checklists galore, scissors for “surgery” days, and multiple cups of coffee.

I turned in my third draft on Monday, and later that same day, stumbled upon this quote from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. Dillard is one of those authors whose work seems to belong to me, (with apologies to Annie if that’s weird). In high school, we were assigned her essay on the moth—an excerpt from this book—and I loved it so much I kept reading her work on my own, then studied it in college. And then I graduated, and kept reading.

I love her earlier work best (with more apologies to Annie), and was delighted to have the universe throw this passage in my path the very day I turned in my draft, after I’d spent the weekend laying out my chapters, for the last time, on every inch of the kitchen island and dining room table, because an author seeking to solidify her structure needs to spread out.

How fondly I recall thinking, in the old days, that to write you needed paper, pen, and a lap. How appalled I was to discover that, in order to write so much as a sonnet, you need a warehouse. You can easily get so confused writing a thirty-page chapter that in order to make an outline for the second draft, you have to rent a hall. I have often “written” with the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table. You lay your pages along the table’s edge and pace out the work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, and dig out bits, bent over the rows with full hands like a gardener. After a couple of hours, you have taken an exceedingly dull nine-mile hike. 

– Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I turned in my third draft this week, and expect to start the fourth—and, let’s hope, final—today. (File under “what I learned”: these May deadlines are for the birds. What parent can think when it’s end-of-school-everything season? Or Summer Reading Guide season?)

It may seem funny that I’m hard at work now, when the book won’t see the light of day till March. I’ll keep you posted. But for now I wanted to share what I’ve been doing, and when you get to/have to/I beg you to read it.

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      • If “delicious stage” is code for “about to lose my mind”. I so feel you–and Annie. My July book was in this stage last summer, all pieces all over the back porch and post-its and wine and tears. I just finished a new WIP on May 2, sent it off to betas and now the process begins again… why do we do this to ourselves?

        also, May should be banned from the calendar. Georgia’s temps went from April to summer overnight so I vote the same for May. Just be gone you crazy month of deadlines and end-of-year insanity.

  1. Nancy Poling says:

    Long spells of confusion have certainly been part of the writing process for me. Rather than an outline, I create then recreate then recreate again, diagrams on large sheets of newsprint. Circles and lines go in every direction. I’m lucky in that I’m still able to sit on the floor and rearrange pages and paragraphs.

  2. Teri Hyrkas says:

    Blessings on the writing journey! And as for May… it sounds like an innocent month, doesn’t it? Nope. Mother’s Day, confirmations, graduations, end of school conferences, performances and awards ceremonies. Then Memorial Day remembrances and the first weekend of summer holidays! Oh, and maybe a wedding/birthday or two.The only other month so full of predetermined busy-ness is December. Thank heaven May has an over abundance of nature’s beauty to enjoy which when seen with a appreciative eye, compensates for lots of deadlines and increases in odometer readings. It’s still all worth it, though. 😊
    PS – I also love Annie Dillard. 💗

  3. Erin Kathleen says:

    You’ll never have to “beg” me to read your work! :-} Love the behind the scenes- its always a good reminder of how all good things grow through the dirt (or piles of paper!)

  4. Christy McQueen says:

    Thank you for giving us an insight into what this is like. I had no idea scissors were involved. Yikes! I am eagerly awaiting the news on the subject of your next book! Best of luck with the fourth draft. 🙂

  5. Congratulations! I’m awaiting first-round edits on a novel I turned in months ago. Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten hangs over my desk: Learn to write *this* book. Each one is a new experience, a new challenge, a new joy, a new set of dead ends and wrong turns that ultimately lead to the right path. Here’s to draft number four!

  6. Love how you are not only doing the work but showing the not so glamorous parts of the work. I feel the same thing in art. It’s in the messy middle with hope toward the end!

  7. Saundra Robinson says:

    Don’t know what to say. Looking at your process makes me wonder if I’m doing it all wrong. At 71 and hopefully finishing my manuscript, not sure I have the patience to do it your way. (Applaud you for your persistence.) Maybe I’m stuck in my ways. Will see after I’m published.

  8. Thank you for this! I’ve always felt the pull to get all the words out where I can see them in one place. Yet, I’ve never felt I had permission to do so. All the “real writers” are using their digital systems and software and who needs to really see 80,000 words spread out across a surface to be moved around and crossed out and starred three times with the right color pen? This girl. That’s who.

    Thank you for giving me permission to write like me.

  9. Pam says:

    Brings back bad memories of writing my doctoral dissertation. Shiver. I had three lit review chapters, and the only way to get through them all was to use the scissors and dining room table method. A tactile method can help, especially for those of us who didn’t grow up with laptops, tablets and smart phones. In my first university degree, I wrote my papers longhand and then typed them on an electric typewriter. In my later degree programs, if I hit a writing block, I reverted to paper and pencil or pen to finish writing my first draft. No other technology. It worked!

    Can’t relate to the frenetic May schedule you describe. Here in Canada, K to 12 school usually goes to the end of June. (Universities finish the academic year in April). We have the Victoria Day long weekend in May, in recognition of Queen Victoria, but no frantic end of school year deadlines. That happens in June!

    • Inspired by Hermione says:

      I did grow up with technology and yet, when I’m editing or revising a paper or article, I print that thing and mark it up from top to bottom with my own special (generally illegible) shorthand, go back, make the edits, print it again, ad infinitum until I either can’t look at it anymore or I’m out of time. Works for me!

      • Pam says:

        Sounds very similar to my editing/revising process for written work of any kind. Abstracts, presentations, papers, dissertation. Print, make handwritten revisions (also illegible to anyone but me!), make changes in word processing file, print, repeat. Each draft was printed on a different colour of paper and stacked from oldest to newest, until the project was complete. Like strata in an archaeological dig, the oldest artifacts of my work on the bottom.

  10. Anne, I’ve never commented on your blog before, but I had to read it when I saw that you had posted about your writing life. The quote from Annie Dillard is so perfect. Except that I’m flipping through pages on my computer, and through my handwritten novel bible where I keep my notes instead of laying things out on our dining room table. It’s really difficult to track edits when you have two timelines. I learned from writing my first book, to separate the timelines. It’s much easier to keep track of changes that way. Since I self-publish with the help of my graphic artist husband, I don’t have deadlines, though maybe that would be a good thing for me.

    I often wonder how you make time to write, do your weekly podcasts, write this blog, maintain your social media accounts and be a mom all at the same time. Oh, and read all those books. I have a hard enough time teaching one or two classes at the local community college and working on my novel and blog posts. Needless to say, housework often falls by the wayside. I’m looking forward to reading *I’d Rather Be Reading.* I loved *Reading People.*

    Thanks for all your work. I get so much out of the podcasts and even this blog when I read it.

  11. Robin Troxell says:

    So interesting to see how physical this process is – I think of writing (these days) on the computer. Your process reminds me of research papers in college – taking notes on index cards, lining them up in order, then writing the paper *by hand* (gasp yes I’m that old). So fun to see how you work! Thanks for sharing.

    • I don’t think of myself as much of a creative writer, but I loved writing research papers in college! Index cards and outlines, highlighters and legal pads…. so fun 🙂 And I’m loving the B&J photo here too – my kind of editing process!

  12. Jennifer J Geisler says:

    I love, love, love your books and have either lent them or given them to friends and family. Can you share the title and subject of the latest book (now in 4th draft?) so we can begin anticipating in detail?

  13. Ruth O says:

    Thank you for the window on your writing project-loved the Ben & Jerry’s part!
    Looking forward to the unveiling…

  14. Claire says:

    I can’t wait to read it! You are an inspiration to me. I am working on my writing and trying to make it more impactful. Love what you do!

  15. Brenda Ulinski says:

    Ah, Anne! I see that you like the same cutie pie highlighter pens that I do! I buy them at the spectacular book store in the Uwajimaya market in downtown Seattle. : )

  16. Linda S Fox says:

    So glad to hear that you can’t function solely electronically. I’m writing an intricately plotted bio-terrorism thriller, and, unless I print out several chapters while editing, I simply cannot visualize the events I’m writing about well enough to trace the plot progression.

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