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You Are Not a Story Factory
When your writing process takes too long
I’m frustrated by the way I write, and I’m convinced that I’m setting myself up for failure because what I do isn’t enough.
I spend so much time daydreaming. I tend to get obsessed with things, and then somehow all these weird connections start coming together in my brain and I just get lost in it. It’s all stuff that makes sense to me, but no one else, and I keep exploring it in my head.
When I finally do write, everything comes together so slowly. It takes me months to get a first draft of a short story together. And then, every single time, the draft has the same problem: everything moves really slowly. I’m trying to do better, and keep things more active as I go, but it’s like I completely forget about having a plot until the very end. Every. Single. Time.
I know I’m a good writer. I get a lot of good feedback about my imagery and my themes and my sentences. I revise and eventually I end up with something that realizes all the connections I’ve made in my head.
But everything is so slow, and I keep making the same mistakes and no matter how much I try to produce more stories—goal setting, deadlines, word counts—it always ends up the same way.
How can I get more writing done? How can I do more, and faster? How can I stop making the same mistakes?
I regret to inform you that you are not a story factory.
We cannot hire more staff, build more machinery, or consult efficiency experts to figure out how to get more stories out of you. We cannot pay you more—although I’m sure you deserve it—nor give you bonuses or whatever factory people do to (ethically) get more work out of the factory.
When we start inhabiting the world of being a professional creative person—and maybe even before then, writers are so often aspirational—we enter into this strange world where art meets capitalism, and suddenly, the very arbitrary pressures from the businessy world start intruding on the arty world and suddenly it’s like, what the fuck, why am I not doing things correctly? Why am I not writing daily, setting goals for myself for each draft, hitting my deadlines and then moving on to the next project while this one makes the rounds?
The thing is, this is art. Even if you were writing highly commercial fiction, there is still art to it. There is still a creative process to all of it. And while yes, the business of publishing would love us to put out bestseller after bestseller in rapid succession, that is not how the writing of it necessarily works.
Sure, some writers can do this. Danielle Steel continuously has five books on the go, each one taking about 2.5 years to write, averaging nearly 4 publications a year over her 50 years and counting career. (This with five husbands and NINE children.) Say what you will about Danielle Steel’s writing, that is a hell of a lot of work.
But that is Danielle Steel’s process. Yes, hers may resemble a factory. Yours, however, is unique to you.
One thing all of us as writers need to learn about ourselves is our process. What parts of it are immutable over our writing lives, and what parts change over time, or from project to project? What aspects of writing are always a challenge for us, and therefore a place where we may need some tricks for handling them, and what aspects always come easily? What are things we need to know about a story before we start, and what are things we need to discover through writing itself? What parts of the story do we need to talk through with trusted writing partners, and what are parts must we trust to come to us on a walk, in a dream, or while in the shower? These questions aren’t necessarily ones you can answer immediately, but as you write more and more, you’ll come to understand more of this for yourself.
There’s no singular or correct answer to process, which is why consulting the internet for how you are supposed to write is a dangerous idea, because internet people really like to be right about singular answers, even when they are dead wrong and when there are no singular answers, and this is when I recall that I am an internet person giving free advice… um, pretend I said that better.
Here’s something that is great about your particular process: you have a very clear understanding of the heart of the story early on. Many writers, myself included, spend a fair bit of time after the first draft trying to understand what the story is really about, what the theme is, where it started for them and what the spark is. You do all of that before putting pen to paper.
The time you spend daydreaming, making weird connections and obsessing… that is writing. You aren’t avoiding writing out of fear or resistance: you are writing, it’s just not on paper.
No first draft comes out fully formed, so you are not making mistakes. Rather, your focus is so deeply on theme and heart and meaning, that your first draft primarily explores that. For you, plot comes later. That is fine. It’s story mechanics. It’s figure-outable.
Would your process work for me? No. I’d spend all the daydreamy time watching Netflix and not exploring the story at all. I do better knowing nothing about the story and working it out in a blind panic of trying to get words on paper. As I said, process is individual.
Trust in the process, and trust in what works for you. The cohesion of your unexpected mix of ideas and concepts is what interests you the most about your work, and it is likely also a great strength of yours. Don’t fuck with this.
Sorting out plot and pacing is possibly something you will need a method or trick for. My own is to do a beat sheet—don’t groan. I know three-act structure can sometimes feel lifeless and formulaic, but this is typically what happens when we use the structure to control the story. No story likes to be controlled. They are rebellious like that.
Rather, I prefer to use the beat sheet as a diagnostic tool so that I can find a structure that will support the story. I use it to look for holes, for missing moments, things that were not shown as clearly as they needed to be, things that could come earlier or later, and then use these as prompts to see my intuition tells me about what needs to be rearranged, what needs more and what needs less. I trust in my intuition. Often, it’s less about matching up the beats and more about the process of writing down the structure of the story in a bulleted list that helps me figure out what I need to do.
Perhaps this works for you, perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps you need something more visual, like drawing the shape of the story, or using coloured index cards, or highlighting in different colours, or tacking up chapters all around a room, or something entirely different. Experiment and try things until something clicks for you. Lean into the vulnerability if something sounds like a good idea but you’re afraid to try it; it means you are taking a creative risk, and that is probably a good thing.
Just remember to trust yourself. You’ve done all the hard work to understand your story and your intentions beforehand. Trust that you know it well enough that your instincts will tell you what's right.
And hey, if you aren't sure about something, try it two different ways, and see which one feels better to write. Pay attention to what you like writing more. If you really aren't sure, try a decision you know is totally wrong for the story; in experiencing the wrongness, and parsing out why it's wrong, the what is right for this story might become clearer.
It’s only writing. You are not permanently etching commandments into stone tablets. If it feels like too much commitment, just try a page or two in each way and see if that gives you any answers.
Now, I say all this knowing I hate trying stuff in multiple ways because I always feel that I did all this writing work and I don't want to waste it, this is effort, this is work, and I am fundamentally lazy and I want to work as little as possible because the internet is fully of crappy reality TV drama that I am somehow compelled to watch.
But the story doesn’t let me do that. The story insists on leading me around in circles until I at last discover the route that will take us where we need to go. The story is not a programmable robot, but a wild thing with its own secrets.
Trust the story. Trust the process. Most of all, trust yourself.