Posts Tagged ‘process’

I’ve been thinking about the cliché about how it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination.

I completely believe this. And for me, the fact this is true brings much of my happiness and enjoyment of life.

I’ve been trying to think of what in my life it has ever actually been about the destination, and I am drawing a blank. Even when I travel, it’s not so much about getting to a place as it is about what I do in that place once I’m there. In other words, it’s about the experience of the travel and the location and what I learn while there, not just the achievement of checking it off my list.

This kitten totally agrees with me and wants to take a journey himself.

This kitten totally agrees with me and wants to take a journey himself.

University? Of course getting the diploma has been helpful (although less so than I would have thought), but that’s not what I think of first when I think of my college years. I think of getting to immersively study music, I think of all the life skills I learned, I think about moving away from my family for the first time, I think of my friends and my professors and the university environment.

Career and artistic aspirations? In a writing career, there are various milestones, and I take goal-setting seriously. But each of those milestones is only a blip on the radar, and then everything continues on, and I keep writing. Finish a draft? Great, keep writing. Sell a story? Great, now write another one. It is the enchantment I have with writing that keeps making it worthwhile. And that is all about the process.

Romantic relationships? Well, now that I’ve achieved Girlfriend Status(™), I can cross this off my list of priorities. Haha. But again, this is mostly not about having a significant other or being married or whatever step you’re at. It’s about building something meaningful over time. There is no checking out just because you’ve reached a specific status.

Friendships? Amazing pets? Etc? Same as above.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy reaching a goal or celebrating a milestone. And sometimes, usually when it involves something really unpleasant, all I can really focus on is the end result as I push through the work to achieve it.

But most of life isn’t spent celebrating milestones. Most of life isn’t checking off big accomplishments. Most of life is in the moments in between.

So it behooves us to find a way to make those moments something precious.

It’s no accident that Viktor Frankl’s three criteria for a meaningful life have little to do with materialistic metrics for success. Having work or a project that you find meaningful, having and maintaining personal connections with people and/or communities, and having a positive perspective on suffering and life in general: these three things are all focused on the moments between. They are ongoing. They revolve around fostering a general sense of purpose rather than centering on very specific goals. And, I think, they allow for greater resilience in the face of adversity.

So yes, I care the most about the journey. I care about the hours I spend writing that rough draft, and I care about the time I spend with the people I love. I care about the two weeks I spent in Bali, not just my ability to say I’ve been there. I care about improving at things and learning new things. I care about the regular Thursday night dance and having ice cream and struggling to practice singing as much as I’d like. I care about taking a walk with Nala every day.

And when I reach a destination, I try to stop and appreciate it, but ultimately it is never long before I’m thinking about my next steps. And I’m glad that’s true.

To me, the next steps are happiness.

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It’s time for me to start work on a new writing project, aka a new novel. And this endeavor has forced me into taking a look at the writing angst I’ve been feeling for the last month or so. It hit pretty much the moment I finished the previous novel.

Something I’m fond of saying is that one of the most important parts of being a writer is learning how to emotionally manage yourself. Because being a writer can be emotionally brutal (as can being a musician, as can being most kinds of artist). So if you want to be in it for the long haul, you’re going to have to learn how to deal with all the fun experiences that go along with it: the rejection, the waiting, the insecurity, the criticism, the solitary nature of the work, working on big, long-term projects, being able to finish, finding self-discipline, finding focus, handling the inner critic, etc., etc.

I had such a lovely time writing BEAST GIRL that most of my writer neuroses have been exceptionally quiet all year. My biggest worry was that my moving would derail the rough draft, and once I got over that hump okay, I had a relatively easy time focusing on the writing and revising in a calm fashion. A calm that shattered once I no longer had any work to do.

Suddenly the decision of the next project seemed a lot more weighty than it had before. I came up with a bunch of ideas, and then I came up with a bunch of reasons why I shouldn’t do any of them, or why I should do all of them, just so I could spend a nice period of time dithering and working out all that pent-up writing stress. (This makes it sound like I did this on purpose, but I can assure you it was entirely accidental.)

Finally, late last week, I decided to talk out my decision-making problem with any writer friends who were willing to listen. I talked and I dithered, I wrote summaries and dithered some more. I’m quite exceptional at the practice of dithering. And by the end of the day, it struck me.

This wasn’t about choosing which novel to write next. It seemed to be about that. That was certainly mostly what I was talking about. But that wasn’t my problem. My problem was in managing my writing-inspired emotions. My problem was FEAR.

I am underneath a giant spider. It is scary.

I am underneath a giant spider. It is scary. And also reminds me of LOTR and Harry Potter simultaneously.

Once I realized this, I was actually much more cheerful, as I have confidence in my ability to wrangle neurotic writer feelings. I was afraid agents wouldn’t like BEAST GIRL. I was afraid no one would like the next novel I wrote either. I was afraid it would be hard, and maybe I’d get stuck, or else I’d just be writing very badly, or I’d finish only to have all the agents say, sorry but I already have several manuscripts just like this one. Which is all fine and good, and the fear is real enough, but there’s nothing I can do about any of those things. I can’t control whether anyone likes BEAST GIRL. I can’t control how smoothly (or not) the next novel goes, or whether it ends up being like other novels that hit agents’ desks a year from now.

Recognizing the lack of control gives freedom. If my problem with choosing the next novel project was fear, then there was a simple solution. Choose anyway, go for it, be flexible, and see how it goes.

In conclusion, I am now hard at work at the brainstorming/researching/outlining/ figuring out stage of my next novel. Am I scared? Yes. Gloriously so.

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My friend Danielle suggested that I write a post about my novel revision process, and since I just completed revising my most recent novel, now seemed like a good time. And while I’m at it, I’m going to talk about the submission process too. And then you will understand more about how my life works.

I revise very little while I’m writing my rough draft. My main goal is to keep writing and finish the draft. Occasionally I’ll go back and fix some little thing because it’s distracting me. And if something major breaks, then I might have to do more (like add a few scenes or even start over). But in general, my rough draft is not revised as I go.

Once I have the rough, then I print out the entire manuscript and read it to see what I’ve got. While I’m reading, I make a new chapter-by-chapter outline of everything that happens and how many pages each chapter is. (I do this when I’m reading a novel for critique as well. It makes it so much easier to keep track of everything.) I also take a lot of notes. I’ve also probably taken a lot of notes while I was writing the rough draft of things to check on and things to change. So I take care of all those notes and clean the prose up a bit (enough so it won’t be completely embarrassing) and that’s draft 2.

This is the point where I give it to my first reader. He reads for larger scale issues; he is a structure genius, and he also reads for plot, character, world-building, theme, voice, etc., etc. I use his notes to generate a third draft.

Then I hand it to a few more readers. They too read with the big picture in mind, although they also give me more scene-scale notes (and sometimes even smaller scale stuff). They also sanity check how my changes worked out between drafts 2 and 3, which is super helpful since I can’t always tell if I’ve gone too far or not far enough with changes (or nailed them, which does occasionally happen). From their notes, I plan and execute draft 4.

If I’m feeling unsure of draft 4, I will give the novel to a few more readers and make more changes. Once I am confident about the strength of the book, I do final clean up. This involves a novel-wide search for adverbs and another search for the word “that.” I sometimes search for other overused words as well. For this novel, I read the entire book out loud to assist my search for errors and check rhythm, especially of dialogue.

While I’m doing this last clean-up pass, I’m also starting my query letter and my synopsis. The query letter is basically a sales pitch of the novel, sometimes similar to what one would find on the back cover of a book, one page or less. The synopsis summarizes the entire novel, also ideally in about a page. I’m also updating my agent spreadsheet.

Once I am finished with the novel, the query, and the synopsis, I begin querying agents. This means I email my query package to agents (which depends on the agent’s guidelines, but usually includes a customized query letter and perhaps some sample novel pages and/or the synopsis) and keep track of submissions and responses. Depending on how things go, I could spend many months doing this. At the same time, I am beginning my next novel project, generally by doing whatever work I need to do to select the project, and then brainstorming, researching, and outlining.

The length of time all of this takes can vary a lot depending on the length of the manuscript, the extent and number of revisions, the schedules of readers, and how smoothly the rough draft goes. I do have some target dates in mind by the time I begin a rough draft, based on the premise that the project will go fairly smoothly. And since I don’t write a huge amount of words every day, I can generally adapt as I go when there are snags. A lot of my writing time is actually spent thinking.

So this is my writing, revision, and submitting process. Each writer has their own process: some revise a lot as they go, some have readers as they go, some use a lot more readers in the revision process, some use less. The important thing is figuring out what works.

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I spent a lot of time talking about writing last week, which meant it was an incredibly happy time for me. It also means I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about writing, and the process of becoming better at something, and what it really means to engage in and spend your time on the pursuit of mastery.

What I’ve found is this: There is the big picture, the goals/dreams we are pushing ourselves toward. In writing, this might be having a story bought by a certain magazine, or getting an agent, or getting a book deal, or getting into a certain program, or reaching a certain sales goal, or a hundred other goals. These goals can be a positive force in our development, keeping us motivated, focused, and business-minded, as long as we can stay resilient enough to weather the disappointments.

When we achieve one of our goals, we experience a spurt of joy. It is very exciting. If you are me, there might be clapping and bouncing and maniacal cackling. There is a time to savor the achievement.

Similarly, when we fail to achieve one of our goals, we experience a spurt of sadness and disappointment. If you are me, there might be sulking while playing solitaire or making loud “Hmmph!” noises. There is a time to lick wounds and regroup.

If everything in our process is basically working, then either way leads to the same result. The work. The practice. The study. The craft. The art.

Photo by Darwin Bell

The good news is wonderful; the bad news sucks. But what really matters is what happens in between these peaks and valleys. If you’re a writer, you write. If you’re a musician, you play. If you’re a painter, you paint. If you’re a chef, you cook. If you’re an entrepreneur, you come up with and implement ideas. And always, you are working, practicing, and striving to become better.

The bursts of joy and sorrow can be intense, but they don’t last. What does last is our relationship to our calling. The words. The story-telling. The breath. The process.

This is what it means to seek mastery.

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