Friday, May 1, 2015

Write First!

By Art Taylor

Boy, does this week's question hit home: "When you’re in writing mode, do you follow a word quota, a time quota or do you just wait for your muse to arrive, words in hand?"

Given that I keep "Write First!" as the top item on my electronic to-do list each day and that's it's been carried over unchecked day after day after day for more days than I can count now...well, I feel lucky on any day when I get to write at all, much less for a certain number of words or for a certain amount of time (and no, writing this blog post doesn't count).

As Meredith wrote earlier this week, I've tried a couple of these approaches at different times over the years. Maybe the most effective was when I'd set aside a certain amount of time for my own writing each morning before the day got underway (teaching, grading, email, Facebook)—but these days, I'm wrangling a toddler first thing in the morning and then heading straight into the classroom soon after some days, so that doesn't work.

While I've tried the word count approach (and I know it works for some), I'm just ultimately not that kind of writer. As much as I like to push ahead in whatever story I'm writing, I'm more likely to be tinkering and tucking, then taking a few small steps, then tinkering some more. How many new words I've written on any given day isn't as much a measure for me as what I might have done with the words that are there—incremental additions maybe but significant changes, I hope. Looking at the xxx number of words I should've written but didn't just demoralizes me; it's counterproductive on so many levels.

I recently told the students in my fiction workshop at George Mason University that some of the best things they might get out of a creative writing degree was (1) a group of readers whom they could trust and (2) a sense of their own writing routines. More than word count vs. time quota vs. whatever, I think that writers need to recognize something about their own process and then to capitalize on that wherever possible. Much of that may involved how you measure progress, but it's also about providing the right circumstances to conjure up that muse (no waiting for her, that never works). Do you write best in silence, ambient noise, music? Morning or evening? Does a walk first help? A break for a walk during a writing session? A cup of tea or coffee or bourbon? Longhand first or directly on the computer? Carrot or stick?

Here's mine: morning, music, tea, walking away and coming back, and a combination of notes in a notebook and composing directly on screen.

I do try to set deadlines for myself so that I have some goal I'm working toward, and daily goals of some kind help toward that—but usually those are along the lines of specific tasks: draft such-and-such scene, revise such-and-such passage, figure out a troubling plot point, rework the ending, etc. I measure success there by whether I feel like I've reached the point that I can cross off that task, no matter how many words or how quickly or slowly I get it done.

As I'm writing this, I'm also prepping for this weekend's Malice Domestic—and on the day this post is published, I'll be well into the thick of the festivities. I'm looking forward to seeing many old friends and making new ones over the weekend, and I hope to see many familiar faces at my two panels on Saturday morning:
9 a.m.—Make It Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees
Linda Landrigan, Moderator, with Kathy Lynn Emerson, Barb Goffman, Edith Maxwell, and Art Taylor

10 a.m.—In the Beginning… Early Influences
Art Taylor, Moderator, with Dorothy Cannell, Parnell Hall, Margaret Maron, and Daniel Stashower

Additionally, two of my stories are finalists for this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story—"The Odds Are Against Us" from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and "Premonition" from Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays—and I hope that folks will not only check out those stories, but also those of the other finalists, Barb Goffman, Edith Maxwell, and Kathy Lynn Emerson, all linked from the Agatha Awards page here.


RJ Harlick said...

Have a great time at Malice, Art. Wish I could join you and the other Criminal Minds this year. Maybe next year.

Paul D. Marks said...

Good luck, Art!

Robin Spano said...

Wow every time I read your posts I think, this guy is a real writer.

Good luck at Malice. Are your two stories feeling competitive with each other, or are they each happy for the other to win?

Art Taylor said...

Thanks for the comments, y'all! Just checking in after a long and very fun first day of Malice. :-)

As for my stories, Robin... They're feeling a mite testy with one another these days. We'll see if they make up before the short story panel tomorrow morning! :-)