March 29, 2016

Writing Truth: We’re Making It Up as We Go

Swirling lights with text: Can Writing Processes Be Messy?

Last Friday, the Romance Writers of America announced the finalists for the biggest romance awards, the RITA for published books and the Golden Heart for unpublished stories. These awards are the Academy Awards of the romance genre, complete with fancy dresses at the award ceremony. *smile*

So I’m beyond thrilled that my beta buddy, conference roomie, and all-around writing bestie Angela Quarles had her book Must Love Chainmail named as a finalist in the published paranormal romance category for the RITA award. We even share editors, so I’m excited for our editors, Jessa and Erynn, too. Yay!

I bring up Angela’s final not only because I’m proud of her and her story, but also because her success reminded me of an important lesson for all of us. The road to success can look an awful lot like chaos. *smile*

Writing… Creating… Sausage-Making?

I’ve posted about the learning curve of writing skills before. When we’re newbie writers, we might think we’ll never be skilled enough to measure up to the authors we admire.

Some writers even stop reading for pleasure because reading an awesome story can make us feel like we’ll never be that good. (Not a good idea, by the way.)

But writing is a lot like sausage-making. No one really wants to know all the pieces and parts that goes into sausages because the end product is so yummy. Likewise, a lot more ugliness can go into drafting and editing story than we can tell by reading the finished product.

As a friend of Angela’s, I was there as her alpha reader for Must Love Chainmail. (Alpha readers sometimes come in before beta readers, when the story might not be complete.)

I was there when the last few scenes were missing because she was still debating how the story should end. We were both there for each other as we commiserated over the feeling of not knowing what the heck we were doing with our stories.

Yet, despite all that ugliness, her story is now up for the biggest award in our genre. Messy processes might bring on our self-doubt, but they can’t prevent us from ending up with a fantastic story.

In other words, writing stories is messy and can even be ugly. We can despair when looking at another writer’s finished product and think, “I’ll never be that good.”

The problem with that despair is that we’re always comparing our messy and ugly processes with someone else’s finished story. (And we hope for that writer’s sake that their finished story isn’t messy or ugly anymore. *smile*)

But the level of ugliness during the drafting and revision process has absolutely zero impact on the quality of the finished story. Zero.

If we do a good job revising and editing, sections where the words flowed effortlessly won’t be any better than sections where we fought for every word over bleeding fingers on our keyboards.

Don’t Worry about Ugly Processes

When we’re still discovering our writing processes, we might struggle with what we think our process “should” be. It’s easy to think our way might be wrong.

We might come across one successful author who talks about their word output each day while another one talks about the number of revision or editing passes they go through on a story. When we don’t know any better, those details from successful authors can feel like “here’s how to be successful too” instructions.

If that process worked for them and ended up with a beautiful story, it couldn’t have been too ugly, right? If our process differs—especially in ways that feel messier—we can doubt ourselves and our process.

Should we plot our story instead of writing by the seat of our pants? Or should we trust our muse rather than try to make a puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit somehow work anyway? Which way would be better?

There’s no wrong answer and no right answer—only what works for us (and that might change from story to story). No matter how ugly or messy our process, if it ends up with a great story at the end, it worked.

If our story turns out really well, other writers will probably come along and despair at ever writing as well as we do. And of course, they’ll assume that our writing process wasn’t nearly as ugly as their messy approach. *smile*

We’re All Just Making It Up as We Go

Just as Angela and I shared our doubts about knowing what we were doing with our stories, we hear other authors—multi-published and bestselling authors—bemoan the same thing.

On Twitter, I’ve lost track of the number of tweets I’ve seen along the lines of “I keep hoping that writing a story will get easier, but with every single one, I reach a point where I doubt my ability to pull it off.”

For every writing role model we have, I’d bet most of them struggle the same way. At some point while we’re drafting or revising our stories, we’re likely to feel like we’re floundering in the dark. And we’ve been drinking. And there’s an earthquake under our feet.

That doesn’t mean we’re a failure. It doesn’t mean we’re an amateur. It also doesn’t mean that we can’t end up with an awesome story at the end.

The doubts and ugly processes we all go through are yet another reason why the writing community is so important. The biggest reality check is seeing those tweets from successful authors and knowing that we’re not alone.

When learning about their process for a book we loved, we’re likely to discover that rather than looking like a straight line from beginning to end, their process looked like the footprints of a headless chicken running around a yard in swirling circles and dead-ends. *smile*

The Ultimate Goal: Find What Works for Us & Our Story

All that said, efficiency is good, especially as we’re trying to produce more books to create a backlist. But what’s efficient for someone else might be inefficient for us or vice versa.

Personally, I edit as I go to some extent (even though that’s usually considered an inefficient no-no) because I have a hard time seeing alternatives once words are written down. If I think of an improvement to the previous paragraph or scene or chapter while I’m drafting, I can’t count on the hope that I’ll be able to fully capture that thought later. To remember the full idea, I’d have to write the whole thing down, so I may as well just make the change.

In other words—for me—allowing myself “top of mind” edits as I go is more efficient. But that doesn’t mean my process would work best for others.

That’s my point here. What others think of clean or messy or efficient or inefficient doesn’t necessarily apply to us. One label isn’t automatically bad or worse than the other. An efficient process that doesn’t work for us wouldn’t be better for us.

So while we should remain open to experimenting and trying new processes—especially when we struggle with what’s worked for us before or are starting a new story or genre—there are some things we shouldn’t worry about when choosing our process.

It doesn’t matter if our process goes against the “rules,” if it’s ugly and messy, or if we feel like we don’t know what we’re doing and we’re just making it up as we go.

None of that affects our ability to end up with a quality book. What matters is if it works for us, some how, some way. What matters—the only thing that matters—is putting finished stories in the hands of our readers.

And as readers, we shouldn’t despair of ever ending up with a story as clean, or smooth, or beautiful as the one we’re reading. We look at our story and know the sausage-making that went into it, forgetting that the other author went through the same ugly process. To other readers, our story might look just as clean, smooth, and beautiful. *smile*

Have you ever worried that your process was too messy to end up with a clean book? Have you seen successful authors discuss their writing processes, and if so, what did they share? What’s the messiest process you’ve seen (with your own work or with others)? What’s the “cleanest” process you’ve seen? Do you disagree that we’re all just making it up as we go?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Christina Hawthorne

Wonderful post. You do have a way of demystifying the writing process and bringing it back down to earth, even if the earth is a bit muddy underfoot. You’ve inspired me to admit to a couple of supposed violations.

I don’t edit as I go in the sense that I labor over passages. No way. I’m a firm believer in not doing that. It’s a waste. BUT, like you, if a change that’s important strikes me and I can alter it in a couple of minutes or less, I’ll do it.

My other criminal behavior is committed when I pick up where I left off the next day. I’ll back up 100-300 words and skim what I wrote while making minor, superficial changes. The process takes less than 15 minutes and means I’m at full speed when I reach the new material. It also acts as a finger warm-up and works better than dipping my fingers in coffee. 🙂

Angela Quarles

Great post Jami! Thanks for the shout out! This actually is a good reminder for me, lol, because I’m in that ugh-this-is-mess phase! Every time I try to clean up my process but I think there’s no avoiding a certain amount of mess during the process….

Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin

Thank you for a timely pep talk! I’ve been struggling with finding a reason why the events in my book happen. No matter how well written it is, without a purpose for the story, there’s no point to it. Down side is that now that I HAVE figured out the purpose, it’s going to take some serious reworkings of the sequels I had planned, as well as adding a sixth book to the series! Fortunately an unrelated idea I’ve been mulling over for the past six months can be tweaked to bring the five preceding books to a conclusion. What started out as one book, has now turned into six!

I can’t help but feel daunted at the George R.R.Martin size of the task ahead and that I’m just not up to it. If he’s struggling to write such a large series, what hope is there for me! I wish I knew more about his process, I’d feel so much better if it was chaos!

L Rita St. Claire
L Rita St. Claire

6+3 = 9
but so does 5+4
The way you do things isn’t always the only way to do them. Respect other people’s way of thinking.
-Whispers of the Soul

Laurie Evans

Great post. My process is so, so messy…in the middle of a very messy draft. But that’s how I work, and it all comes together eventually. I’m trying not to fight it anymore.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Hmm I don’t know if it’s because I hang out at your blog all the time, because no, I don’t get those insecurities at all, lol. Even when my author self-esteem was lower, I never doubted that I would finish my stories, and get them thoroughly edited; all I need is the time. Yes, I know some people still believe that plotting is the only way (a belief that many non-writers have, especially), but I always laugh them off because I love my pantsing method and would never go back to plotting again. My method works perfectly for me. In my view, it’s all about having enough patience to get everything done eventually, and I’ve always had a lot of confidence in my patience (even when I had less confidence in other things, haha.) And wow, no, when I read other awesome stories, I don’t think, “I’ll never be able to do this”; instead, I feel inspired by the story and feel that “I will be able to do this one day too.” Maybe one reason why I have this optimistic mindset, is because I truly don’t believe in natural talent. I believe it’s all about productive and effective practice. 😀 Btw I’m not saying any of this to be mean. Just explaining why I might be feeling very secure in this than maybe many other authors, and I do suspect that spending a lot of time on your blog has built up a good amount of my writer self-confidence,…  — Read More »


Jami, I grinned when I read your “edit as you go” part of your process. I do the same thing, but I just thought my editing as I went was that deeply ingrained skill pounded into my head through years of academic training! In fact, I must confess, that when people write about “let your thoughts go, don’t edit” types of comments, I wonder if that’s truly possible. I tried it once. It worked for a day or two. Then I was back, reviewing what I wrote, correcting spelling, rearranging, etc. When I think of writing process, I have to admit my sitting and thinking time is more like a computer window in the background to my life, where I type in words as I go about my day. I write sermons like this too, so it must just be the way I process information. If I get stuck, I bake bread, I briefly play games, I jot down where I’m stuck, I research, I ask my husband to stand still while I visualize something, using him as the model, Or jot yet another note: Go back here. Think! In bold text. I also think I have so what if an outline in my head after writing academically for so many years. The challenge is to look at other forms in fiction writing to see if I can adapt it in a way I understand. Growing up in the pre computer age of the 1980s I always had to memorize,…  — Read More »

K.B. Owen

Do I worry about whether my process is too messy to end up with a clean book? All. The. Time. LOL! I’m mucking around in the mud right now. I’ve always thought of myself as an uber-plotter, but I realize that the characters start to grow and change as I write them, and then the plot needs to change, and so on…. At least I can take comfort in the fact that I’m not the only one!

By the way, congrats to Angela. She and I were fellow SELF-e award winners from Library Journal this past December, she in the Romance category and me in the mystery category. Way to go, Angela! <3

K.B. Owen

P.S. – the congrats is for winning BOTH awards, Angela! See, I need a second draft even for blog comments. *wink*

Jeff Stone

Great post! Congrats to your bestie! Most Monets are a mess also if you stand too close, but stepping back reveals excellence sans pareil.

I recently dumped most of the second chapter of my Channillo novel into a “Darlings” file and took a much different approach. I also scripted the entire novel on notebook pages that for the most part might as well not have lines since scene descriptions, selected narrative, and key dialogue wrap around each other and all sorts of arrows and diagrams like kudzu. I don’t think it’s exactly what Juan Ramón Jiménez had in mind when he wrote, “If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.”

At least in my case, writing is messy because inspiration is blessedly unpredictable. Just like reading different genres can help the development of writers, experimenting with different techniques can indeed be rewarding—even when the experimentation is inadvertent. John Irving’s habit of writing a novel’s last line even before its first had seemed odd to me, but this time I had the last line written long before those messy pages came together. A story that seemed like it would never come together was quickly and unexpectedly scripted before most of it had been written. This was an unexpected approach, but I’ll take inspiration however it comes to me. Of course, knowing the final words didn’t stop me from changing what happened before those words ended the story. Thank goodness for second, third, fourth… chances!


“Personally, I edit as I go to some extent (even though that’s usually considered an inefficient no-no) because I have a hard time seeing alternatives once words are written down. If I think of an improvement to the previous paragraph or scene or chapter while I’m drafting, I can’t count on the hope that I’ll be able to fully capture that thought later.”

I KNOW this is true for me, but it’s amazing how much easier it is to do it when somebody else says it’s okay to do it that way. That shouldn’t be true, but it is, so I appreciate that you keep reinforcing this idea of, “Do what works and don’t worry about ‘conventional wisdom'”!

Karen McFarland

Ack! Did I ever need to read this now. Me messy? Ha, ha, ha, yeah. Scary thought. And it is scary, almost every single word. And yes, when I read someone else’s work I think I will never write as good as that author. Terrible what we put ourselves through. Great post Jami! Thx. 🙂


[…] Gold (with Angela Quarles) weighs in about writer truth: we’re making it up as we go. I’ve recently said this to a writer friend, and as I mentioned in last Saturday’s update, my […]

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