Simple systems for the writing life.

So, here’s a weird thing.

I love systems.  But I hate routines.

Call it “the creative nature” or simply the knee-jerk rebellious reflex of Muse or my inner child, but “routines” are about as sexy as a glass of warm milk, and I tend to shy away from them, even when I know they will make my life easier.

Prior to my Year of Cruise, I would do one of two things:

  1. I would say “I am going to make my life easier!” and set up all these routines, which would eventually fall by the wayside as I got bored, confused or distracted, or
  2. I would say “I hate routines!” and then go in my usual pell-mell fashion, expending all this energy and still missing crucial steps or being frazzled and pissed off and inefficient.

This year, I finally decided to do something different.


You guys know I am an obsessive plotter.  I have a process that I’ve dialed in when it comes to creating a book.  It isn’t that I necessarily planned it that way from the jump.  It’s just after ten years and lots of trial and error, I know what  works for me and what doesn’t.

That’s not to say it’s static, either.  I still explore new solutions, and tweak the existing process.  For example, finding Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering two years ago (well, the previous ebook iteration called Story Structure, Demystified) was a game-changer.

What’s more, I have a structure for each scene, as well.  I know how a scene should open and close to best fit into the novel as a wholeAnd as I’m developing series, I also have a series arc, which ties into the novel arc, which is reflected by the scenes.  There’s a microcosm/macrocosm element to it, as well as something inherently organic.

How you do one thing is how you do everything.

I started to look at how I “plot” my life.

I understand the basic structure of a story — the rising action, the pacing, the exploration of character.

Were there any parallels between how I write stories, and how I orchestrate my life?

All my stories hinge on character.  In my opinion, if you don’t have a good sense of character, then plot goes out the window. 

Guess what?  Exact same thing with routines!

Just like a plot will ring hollow and “not work” if it’s contrived and externally developed without an eye toward character, routines won’t work if it isn’t something my “character” — ME — would do naturally, “in real life!”

Every scene, in my opinion, should have a focus that ties in with the overall story goal.  Days aren’t really that different.  Do I know what’s really important in my “story”?  And am I approaching my days with that story question in mind?

Pacing’s a key, too.  I’ve often harangued students for keeping up a break-neck pace, the dreaded “falling asleep at the edge of your seat.”  Stories need an ebb and flow.  Why did I expect my life to be any different?  Why would I schedule myself to the point of crashing, when I, too, need a rest period to punctuate the action?

There is no “right” process.

This post was inspired by some research I’m doing for an upcoming blog post on writing processes.  There are a million permutations on how people get from premise to completed novel, and it’s amazing to explore.

I think that one of my biggest missions in life, beyond writing the novels themselves, is to help other writers get the support they need to write their novels.  And I get the strong feeling that systems, and most importantly self-exploration, is a key there.

I’m not saying that everyone should do my crazy-ass “plot your life” thing.  But it does occur to me — maybe, as writers, we sometimes explore the goals and motivations of our fictional lives more than we do our own.

And that if we can explore our lives with the same passion that we devote to our writing…

Well.  I’m not sure what would happen then.  But I’m really, really curious to find out.

How do you use routines in your life?  What do you feel works about your writing process, and what doesn’t?  And do you feel like there are any parallels between how you write, and how you live?  (Or am I just crazy? <g>)

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5 Replies to “Simple systems for the writing life.”

  1. Yay for crazy-ass new ideas! It’s funny, but my process for writing the trilogy was just to establish start and end times and rough word-count–a ‘routine.’ I just had to get ‘but in chair,’ know I needed to focus to generate output, and ‘let it flow.’ You can see the copious volume of output that led to. As we discussed on WU the other day, part of that was due to being a pantser, but I think there was just so much in there that had to come out. It was like opening flood-gates in stages. I can see now that shaping that mass of output into polished works may take nearly as long as writing the first draft, but that’s okay.

    My process for the prequel had to change. Just by the very nature of choosing the project, I had to change. I knew how everything had to end, all the way down to the precise results of many of the characters’ arcs. But in chair did not lead to word count. I had to focus. I used the elements of plot structure (mostly learned from you on book one–still haven’t read Brooks, shame on me). It came more slowly, and so often I was so sure it was crap or felt formulaic or forced. I needed more than routine. I’m not sure I came up with a solution, but I’m not so hung up on word-count anymore. I’d rather be ‘feeling it’ and write 1,000 words than force 2,500. I had to find ways to be in the mood for feeling it. Some days are better than others. Still and evolving process that I once thought I had nailed.

    Recently reading bits of the prequel back after a few betas has been interesting. I can see evolution. It will still need lots of work, but I’m thinking it’s not so raw as the trilogy.

    Hence, I’m evolving. That can only be a good thing. Especially in the year of the cruise, right? 😉

    1. Evolving is a great thing. 🙂 Actually, it’s been fun to watch you as you develop your process. It’s definitely a matter of figuring out things about yourself and how you work, and seeing how that influences how you write, rather than just investigating the story, although they’re sort of symbiotic!

      I think that adaptability/flexibility are key, too, which it sounds like you get as you let go of your word count goal. I’d say exploring and playing with what motivates you and “puts you in the mood” would be fascinating and helpful. Can’t wait to see what your next project turns out like!

  2. Am definitely not so good at routines. But when I look at my writing – if I can get a good first line, that’s the way in. Then I follow all the next steps to the end of that path. Sometimes I have to track back, circle around, and find the path from a new direction, but the first line is the first step. Maybe I can look at this idea for a way to get other needful things done, not just writing? Cathy, wonderful questions on what a routine might be if it wasn’t one. Thanks!

  3. What’s worse is we try to convince ourselves that the crazy breakneck speed is worth it, and that we actually like it. When in reality it’s killing us slowly. Thanks for making me think, as usual 🙂

  4. This all really resonates with me, Cathy! I followed you over here from the Fluent Self/Floop, curious to know more about the project behind the editorial revisions you mentioned. (I wrote thrillers in another lifetime–well actually another decade, though it sometimes feels like another lifetime. Now doing the blogging, freelance writing thing.) Just signed up for your RSS–look fw to reading more!

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