Habits of Highly Effective Writers. Anthony Bonds Ponders
Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference in St. Helena, California. Nestled smack in the middle of wine country, the conference is a treat for wine lovers who also happen to be writers.
This year, I came away from the conference with a few nuggets of wisdom to chew over, but more than anything I was reminded that there are as many different approaches to writing as there are writers.
When I first started getting serious about this whole writing thing, I was hungry for a method—a ritual that would magically result in my writing prize-winning stories and New York Times Bestsellers. I was one of those people who, during the Q&A portion of a reading, always asked the authors what time of day they wrote, what their writing spaces were like, whether they used a typewriter or a computer—all the questions that authors are sick of answering all the time. But it was through my own experiences, and trial and error, that I discovered that an author’s writing rituals are highly personal—what works for one may not work for all.
I love talking to other writers and learning about their rituals, habits, and odd tricks that help them keep their butt in the chair and fingers hammering the keyboard. Many writers I talk to set goals for themselves, either in the form of deadlines, words written per day, or sheer hours spent in their writing caves, glued to their desks. One friend of mine had been setting daily goals for himself, but found that weekly deadlines worked better for him—in part because the weekly nature of it lifted the guilt he would feel if he hadn’t made his daily quota of words.
Deadlines can be valuable tools to help us reach our writing goals, but they can also make us feel pretty awful when if we don’t meet them. Tayari Jones (who taught this year at the Napa Valley conference), has a wonderful blog, She Writes, where she discusses her own writing process. She is vehemently opposed to NaNoWriMo (read about it here), and likens it to going on a strict diet in order to fit into a dress by the end of November. Sure, you look good in the dress. But what have you done to nourish yourself and improve your habits? As an alternative, Tayari invented an event called WriteLikeCrazy, where she is using the month of August to buckle in and get some serious work done, encouraging each participant to set out her own goals, and make them realistic.
If writing sloppy first drafts had been a summer Olympic event, I’d have more gold around my neck than Michael Phelps. I have to write into my stories in order to discover what they’re all about. For me, trying to plot and outline is like trying to see my fictional world through a frosted shower window—I can see blobs of colors, and movement, but that’s about it. Anne Lamott (author of the very fine book on writing, Bird by Bird) tweeted the following: “How to write w/sweaty child and dogs snoring in your Q sized bed? Just do it, badly. It’s a privilege. A shitty first draft is a miracle.”
On the other hand of the quality-of-first-draft spectrum, Kevin Brockmeier (the workshop leader at Napa Valley with whom I had the honor to study), attests that he edits meticulously as he goes, refining and polishing each sentence until he moves on to the next one. He told me that he doesn’t set specific writing deadlines or word counts for himself. Instead, at the end of each day, he simply wants to feel that he got good work done. A teacher of mine once told me there are two kinds of writers, word vomitters and diamond polishers. Kevin is a sterling example of a diamond polisher. I’ve tried writing this way, treating the first draft like the final draft, but inevitably I wind up eighty-sixing all those painstakingly wrought sentences in chapter one because of a continuity problem that presents itself to me in chapter three. I find it just about impossible to wear my storyteller hat and my editor hat at the same time, and prefer to think of my first draft as my outline.
A writer must constantly do this dance of assessing her rituals, deciding whether her daily habits needs to change, ever on the lookout for new tricks and tactics to increase productivity. I got to meet Kim Stanley Robinson at his home last month. He has a reputation for being an outdoorsy kind of guy, and rightly so. He lives in a neighborhood with a communal gardening space that any self-respecting Hobbit would envy, and he writes out doors every day in his back yard. There is a tarp set up for when it rains, and on cold days he wears gloves with the fingers cut off so he can type on his MacBook. Literally, rain or shine, he’s out there several hours every day, wracking up the word count. When I asked Stan why he writes outside, he told me a story about how, many years ago, he felt like he was getting tired of writing. But he started writing in new places, and voila, writing was a joy once again. It wasn’t the writing he was tired of, it was his writing space.
By keeping my eyes open to other writers’ rituals and integrating them piecemeal into my own routine, I’ve been able to find a rhythm that works for me and keeps me writing. While I am sad to report that there is no sure-fire ritual for being a happy, productive writer, I find it encouraging that basically every serious writer has a rhythm that works for them, if they are diligent enough to discover it.
Your job is to find out what works for you, and do it. If some habit or ritual you’ve been doing for years doesn’t work anymore, do something else. Join a writing group. Write with a pen and paper instead of on the computer. Write underneath your kitchen table.
Do whatever you must, but at all costs, keep writing.
Anthony Bonds is the author of The Moonflower King, and is a member of Calypso Editions. Having earned his MFA in fiction from San Diego State University, he has worked as an editor and designer in publishing since 2008 and lives in San Diego with his wife. You can read his blog at www.anthonybonds.com.
He is also included in A Year in Ink, Vol. 5 and recently chosen to be the prose editor for the upcoming A Year In Ink, Vol. 6.