Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What’s your writing process?

Helen Hemphill, who contributed this week's post
Every writer has a unique process that feels right. For me, it’s a weird combina- tion of writing nonstop or writing not at all. I can write like my fingers are on fire or not touch the draft for weeks, but rarely am I a “two-page-a-day” person anymore. I used to be very intentional about writing those two pages, but sometimes I felt as if I was pushing too hard. Pushing the story to go places it didn’t want to go. Push- ing characters to make choices that weren’t really their own. Pushing to get done! I became more interested in finishing the pages than actually writing the pages. That was wrong.

In learning my own writing process, I’ve learned some things about myself. Hate drafting. Love revision. Revision is fun, and I can do it in tiny bites on the run or during lei- surely sessions with a glass of wine and good music. Writ- ing a first draft means quiet, discipline, frustration, and, well, it’s kind of like real work. I know that I have to sit there and do it, or I might find a million reasons not to do it. May- be you love making the marble of a story, but hate sculpting the raw manuscript. Maybe you like to write scenes and figure out the puzzle of how they fit together instead of writing a linear path from beginning to end. That’s the interesting part about writ- ing. You can take classes and learn craft, but no one can actually tell you how to do it. You have to find out on your own.

So, how do you find your process? Some of it depends on your own tempera- ment. I’m a morning person, but I don’t think my best writing happens in the morn- ing. It takes me a few hours to get my mind fully immersed in the story. Tony Earley, a terrific writer of adult fiction, once told me he revises daily, and by the time a novel is done he can recite the first chapters of the book easily. A few of my friends are night writers. They stay up late with their laptops and work while the house is quiet, children and spouses sleeping.

So, the first thing to figure out is your own clock. When do you work best?

Then, set up your physical work space accordingly. If you write at night, maybe the kitchen table is perfect. An out-of-the-way desk might be your best option if you write in the afternoon (like me).

Get to know yourself as writer. I hate writing exercises. I enjoy stopping in the middle of my writing to read books I love as inspiration. I have to have coffee or tea at my desk. I have to have my Flip Dictionary. And, as I said, revision makes me so much happier than actual drafting.

Honor your process. Don’t try to mimic some other writer’s pace or routine. Do what works for you. If that means writing naked in the bathroom, do it! Don’t beat yourself up if your writing process is unique to you, because that’s part of your creative contract with the world.

When other writers ask you about your process, make up something normal and rational. Go with the two pages or the 1,000 words a day. Then do what you do. Nobody will know.

Enjoy writing. It’s pretty weird how many people want to have written but don’t care so much about the craft. Find a process that makes writing fun for you. Then do that. Writ- ing a book takes a long time. You should enjoy the journey.

Hailed as “a strong new voice in children’s literature” by Kirkus Reviews, Helen Hemphill grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas and now lives with her family in Nashville, Tennessee and Austin, Texas. 

Her novel Long Gone Daddy won the Teddy Award for young-adult fiction from the Writers’ League of Texas and was named to the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age. In 2007, her second novel, Runaround, was named a Top Ten Youth Romance by Booklist and Best New Books for the Classroom by Book Links. Her new book for middle school readers, The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones, was named “most distinguished book of 2008 for young adults” by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library; to Best Children’s Books, Bank State College; to the Kansas State Reading Circle 2009 Recom- mended Reading List; and to the Winter 2008-09 Kid’s Indie Next list.  

Ms. Hemphill is a graduate of the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College and holds an MA in English literature from Belmont University. Ms. Hemp- hill is a member of the Southern Artistry register at the Southern Arts Federation and is an Artist in Residence for the Tennessee Arts Commission.


  1. I'm with you, Helen. The only time I rigidly stuck to an "X pages/day" rule, my writing felt like homework. I'd rather write a good paragraph than ten crappy pages.

  2. I love your advice about what to tell other writers when they ask about your process. Great article!

  3. Great Article...I consider myself to be late night writer, even though I am I early riser which equals no sleep at all. BTW it's funny that you mention writing I come up with most of my ideas while in the's really the only place I can be to myself...seeing that I have roommates while in college!!!!

  4. I read somewhere that Toni Morrison (I think), gets up before daylight and does this whole ritual of lighting a candle of inspiration before writing. Assuming I could drag myself out of bed before having to drag my daughter out of bed, and assuming I could find a candle (my daughter keeps swiping mine) I would probably set my hair on fire at that hour and then guitily stare at a blank screen...and fall asleep with my head on the keyboard.
    I am a night owl, which clashes tremendously with an early rising spouse and child. I force myself to write mornings, revise afternoons (spent at the skating rink, five days a week while my daughter practices or teaches beginner classes). All the while my natural biorhythms are screaming at me "Something wrong here..." I am sort of counting down the days until I am an empty nester next year (or at least I will not be responsible for hauling Lily here there and everywhere), and I CAN write at night.
    I also remember reading about authors who check into a hotel (presumably very successful authors with BIG advances) to write, so they wont be bothered by lifes' petty annoyances...the cat sitting on your keyboard, the kid who calls because she forgot her art portfolio and it's her entire semester's grade, the persistent robo calls (which I dont answer, but it's still a ringing phone) from politicians, the school system, charities... I am looking forward not to checking into a hotel, but into our vacation house for extended periods of time next year (off season of course...we can't afford to rent our own house in the summer).

  5. Thanks, Helen, for posting your writing process so that I might feel "normal" when not following the "norm."

    Tracy, you host the best guests!

  6. Mary Ann, your post about the candle before dawn had me laughing out loud!

  7. Love the part about making up something rational to tell people, then just doing it your own way anyway! And a reminder to enjoy the journey (as it may be a meandering one!).

    Thank you, Helen, for the great suggestions, all given with humor and grace!

    Jessica Young

  8. And here I was, thinking I should put pants on. But no, I'm honoring my process.

    Funny that you said, "It’s pretty weird how many people want to have written but don’t care so much about the craft." I did a blog post at YA Fusion this week about things my father used to say, and that's pretty darn close to one of his favorite sayings that I forgot to use. He often said, "I would like TO HAVE DONE, as opposed to, I would like to DO." In my case, sometimes I enjoy the writing, other times, I would like to have written. Maybe even with my pants on.