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The Craft of Routine

The early stages of a writing career are about learning the craft. After that, it’s about crafting a routine. Good writers are ones who master the craft. Productive writers are those who master a routine.

When I signed with my first agent she asked me, “How long does it take you to write a novel?” I hemmed and hawed. Translation: I’m pretty slow. When I signed with my second agent, she asked me,  “So how long does it take you to write a novel?” Why are these folks so interested in how fast I can write? Answer: Because productivity matters in publishing. And productivity is about mastering a routine.

For the record, I am not opposed to routine. In fact, I quite love it! Waking up with “no agenda” is, for me, like waking up to a polka-dotted sunrise — weird. I require rituals like a blind man does a cane. Nevertheless, I have had a difficult time crafting a writing routine.

Recently, I have begun re-reading Stephen Koch’s Modern Library: Writer’s Workshop. In his chapter on The Writing Life, Koch says this:

For all its inner excitement, the writer’s life is ascetic and solitary.  You are going to be spending almost all your working life alone in a bare little cell. True, the day job that you will almost certainly need may relieve the solitude. But it will increase the pressure. You will have to carve writing time from the corners of exhaustion and self-denial, and defend it from competing claims that will flow unendingly from family and friends, from your own enthusiasm and — not least — from your own impulse to escape. (emphasis mine)

“Carv[ing] writing time from the corners of exhaustion… and defend[ing] it from competing claims” is hardly a writing routine, but it pretty much describes mine. Yes, one of those “competing claims” is this blog. But there’s plenty to choose from.

And it doesn’t help that one of my favorite writers tends toward tedium. In an interview with BookReporter.com, Dean Koontz was asked to describe his typical writing day:

I don’t write a quick draft and then revise; instead, I work slowly page by page, revising and polishing, trimming page 1 repeatedly until I feel I can’t do better with pace or language, and only then moving on to page 2. This means anywhere from twenty to fifty passes at each page before proceeding to the next. At the end of each chapter, I print out and pencil the hard copy four or five times, because I see things on the page that I didn’t see on the screen. Some days I’m lucky to squeeze out a page of copy that pleases me, but I get as many as 6 or 7 pages on a very good day; the average is probably 3 pages.

“I work slowly,” says Koontz. “This means anywhere from twenty to fifty passes at each page before proceeding to the next.” (D’ya hear that all you slave-driving agents?) Of course, “working slowly” doesn’t negate routine. Or productivity. In fact, Koontz has mastered a routine that both complements his writing style and fuels production.

But as much as I resonate with Dean Koontz’s plodding page-by-page editorial pace, it’s just not practical.

So here I am, under contract for two books, growing in the craft and crafting a routine. As much as I would like a routine that involves “twenty to fifty passes at each page before proceeding to the next,”  it’s more realistic for me to “carve writing time from the corners of exhaustion.”  Now if I can just manage to make that “carving” a habit…

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Question: Do you have a writing routine? Was it difficult for you to develop a writing routine? Or is your routine more about “carving writing time from the corners of exhaustion”?

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{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Katie Ganshert June 3, 2010, 7:34 AM

    Excellent post! I’m a big believer in a routine. My routine is different, depending on the time of year. I’m a school teacher, so during the school year, writing, for me, is the sacred writing hour I carve out before I get ready for work and before my son wakes up. During the summer, I keep that sacred hour, but also add in my little man’s naptime.

  • guy stewart June 3, 2010, 7:49 AM

    As I have no published novel, no contract and no agent, I suppose my observations are somewhat moot. I DO have 37 professional/semi-pro publications and a children’s sermon book that’s been available for 12 years now…

    The concept of “corners of exhaustion” resonate with me deeply. I started my serious writing a bit over 22 years ago by writing late into the night on Fridays and Saturdays after my wife and kids went to bed. This startd around 11 pm and I went until 2 am or so. This lasted about 17 years until Josh took over the basement as his bedroom. Since then, I get up at 4:30 every morning. I am a teacher (I can JUST hear it, “OH! HE’S a teacher, all those summers off and all that OTHER time off! No wonder! I have a REAL job…” Ahem. I have never had a summer vacation. I work PT at Barnes & Noble evenings during the school year and “FT” during the holidays. I also teach summer school all but two weeks during the summer. I earned my masters degree by going to night school for five years. So…I have a real job, too. Two of them. *haughty sniff* At any rate, I had to shift from nights to mornings Saturday and Sunday mornings. Those are times for WRITING. Editing is done during lunch, breaks at B&N, while the fam watches American Idol or THE PROPOSAL. Also, do make myself WRITE, I do essays for my blog on Sundays and flash fiction on Thursday. So I’ve learned to write faster. I combine the flash with writing a first draft of books and novels and I am just about done turning the first “SF novel” I wrote that way into a real novel. So…write when I can, force myself to write regularly whether I feel like it or not, ignore the family when they will feel it LEAST, and have a sympathetic spouse who supports my work.

    This has produced 37 published pieces of fiction, essay, musical, book, and activity book.

    Works for me. Is it a “routine”? Not in the strict sense. I think rhythm is a better word. Yeah, I have a writing rhythm. I like the softer sound of that…

    • Mike Duran June 4, 2010, 5:20 AM

      Wow! I guess you are “carving writing time from the corners of exhaustion.” I’ve also had to craft my time around my work schedule. I work in the construction dept. for a school district. I’m usually up by 4 AM and write till about 6 AM. We work four 10 hour days, which gives me a long weekend every weekend, but leaves me ragged at the end of the workday. I have a Palm device that I use at work to keep writing. It’s helped immensely. But the whole thing has been a dance between productivity during the AM hours and weaseling stuff in while at work. Hang in there, Guy!

  • sarah June 3, 2010, 11:32 AM

    I am trying to set a routine and failing at it majestically. I used to think I work better during the mornings but too many distractions….so now I am trying to write at night after dinner, after my husband has settled down in front of the television. On some nights it works while on other nights I keep on staring at a blank computer screen and then go to bed exhausted.

    After reading this article I think I will now work harder at setting a a routine
    🙂

    But Mr. Koontz that hard on every single page? I am impressed. I thought you should go with the flow, try to finish the piece and then go back and rework it when you have the story out of your system…

  • Jill June 3, 2010, 12:42 PM

    I am a very routine-oriented person. But I stress myself out with my routine, and I get bored. For sure, I will write at least 5 pgs every Sat. I also try to grab free afternoons. It’s amazing how much I can accomplish in just a couple of hours–if I haven’t stressed myself out from my routine. It’s always nice to change things up and write at odd moments. I have a netbook. It’s portable.

    My entire life is carved from exhaustion, not just the writing part, and it all comes from being mom to two teenage daughters, one kindergarten girl, and one 3yo boy. If a magic energy elixir existed, I would buy it. Actually, I know a good one: drink a cup of coffee then sleep for ten minutes. When you wake up, the caffeine will have hit your bloodstream and the little bit of rest will have done you some good.

  • Valerie D June 3, 2010, 4:54 PM

    I’m impressed with Koontz’s dedication. I think it would be much too difficult to work like that. And finding a routine is good for anything, especially writing. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Someone recently mentioned in a writers’ panel that writing is like flexing a muscle (brain), and muscles have memory. If you write at the same time every day, drink the same tea while you write, etc. you will train your “writing muscle” to write each time you use your triggers.

  • Jessica Thomas June 3, 2010, 6:34 PM

    “twenty to fifty passes at each page before proceeding to the next”

    :-O

    whoah.

    I try to write on my lunch hour, which is about 1/2 hour a day. On a frustrating day, I’ll revise a few sentences in that time period. On a good day, I’ll revise a page. As for the actual writing part, I tend to jot paragraphs down on paper at work while my computer is trying to deploy something (which I won’t even get into). It helps if I take a 15 minute walk or so during the day and think about what I’m going to write beforehand. So, I plan it in my head, scribble it out fairly quickly, and spend most time revising. I thought I was slow until I read your Koontz quote.

    • Mike Duran June 4, 2010, 5:25 AM

      At first, finding out Koontz wrote that way justified my slowness. How could it be wrong if Koontz does it? But after several years, I’ve realized I’m not Dean Koontz. Nevertheless, I am constantly fighting the urge to scour each previous page before moving on. Thanks for the comments, Jessica!

  • Nora MacFarlane June 3, 2010, 8:56 PM

    I am also one who needs structure to be productive. I’m a teacher, and I have summers off. I create writing schedules for myself during breaks with hopes I’ll stick to them. This year I’ve scheduled BIC time from 9 AM- Noon. The rules? No tweets, no facebook, no blogging, no email, no phone!

  • Tom June 6, 2010, 8:45 PM

    This is the reason I don’t write much. The only fiction I’ve ever gotten any recognition with was a story over at http://www.thefridaychallenge.com that won one week.

    Everyone talks about how much time it takes up. I’ve got story ideas pouring out of my brain, but I don’t want to steal time from my wife and kids to put them down in type. Sure I could write the post EMP blast nanobot zombie story, or the sci-fi version of the Parable of the Vinedressers, or the high school teacher trapped with some of his students on a deserted island story, but at what cost for what reward?

    I think it takes a certain type of intellectual narcissism to write. Normally, I’m about as intellectually narcissistic as anyone I know. But, I’ve trained myself away from that attitude and tried to “take captive to Christ” all thoughts along those lines. So, that kind of shoots myself in the foot…

  • Jeff Chapman June 10, 2010, 8:14 AM

    I love that phrase “carving writing time from the corners of exhaustion”. I used to write at night after everyone else went to sleep but I found myself falling asleep while writing. I would have a sentence in my head then lose it before I could write it down. So, I switched to getting up before everyone else. Now I feel good about myself knowing that I’ve put in an hour or so of writing to start the day. I think the most important part of a writing routine is to write every day, kind of like exercising. You have to stay in shape if you hope to be productive. If you work every day, no matter how little you get done on any particular day, you will eventually finish something.

  • Tim Ward July 1, 2010, 1:51 PM

    I just love learning about writer’s schedules. I think it takes away part of the loneliness of being a writer to know that other people are enduring such levels of seclusion in pursuit of their dreams. That leads me to the connection between friendships among authors, writing groups and word counts as motivators for carving out these writing times. The recognition and even self-reward of good writing can take so long that, I have found critique deadlines in my writing group and a daily goal as my primary motivators for creating a writing schedule.

    I don’t have a set time to write, but I am blessed with a job as a security guard. I sit at a desk where I have all day to write with minimal interruptions. I brainstorm, edit and write longhand, then blog at night and type up what I’ve written in a better version. I’ve noticed though, that when I am moved to a different location for work, I have a hard time getting comfortable enough to write. I guess I am more of a location writer than a timing writer, if that makes any sense.

    Speaking of Koontz, I wonder if he always wrote this way. Many authors I’ve read recommend writing through to the end and editing later, but making notes. I’ve also heard of doing a brief edit for grammar and minor things as you transition into your day’s writing so that you are refreshed by the mood you had as you wrote the previous day. I think whatever gets it done for you is the best strategy. Right now, I like writing longhand during the day and then typing it up at night almost without even looking at it. This allows me to create with more confidence because I have a good idea where I’m going, and also fix broken areas. Freewriting longhand gets it out, but sometimes takes me off path or just plain doesn’t make sense.

    Sorry for the long post, but lastly, I’ve found a writing goal of 250 words is much more likely to get me to commit than higher goals like 500 or even 2000. Usually, I hit 250 in stride and keep going, but if that’s all I got, I’m still happy that I wrote.

  • Nora MacFarlane July 14, 2010, 10:32 PM

    Mike, I’ve linked your post to my blog. Love this article.

  • Jun-Jun January 14, 2011, 12:29 PM

    I agree with you completely; every good writer has a routine they follow like scripture. It only makes sense to do so if they want to keep their skill in top condition. Thank you for sharing this interesting read.

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