I'm at the point in my writing where I can comfortably say that I'm good but still no where near as good as I think I ought to be (I imagine if you ask other writers that almost all of them will say there in a similar space). In trying to get my skills to where I want them to be--where I need them to be for the work that I'm trying to do--I've been taking a closer look at the process.
"Process" is one of those art words that has a vacillating meaning. What "the process" is can vary drastically from one artist to the next.
For me, the process is largely panic.
About a month ago, I finished the latest draft of what I hope will be my first novel. I got about 80,000 words done in roughly a month and a half. Pretty great, yeah?
Yeah, until you realize that doing that meant spending literally every waking moment that I wasn't at work sitting with the laptop frantically stitching words together.
I had made a deadline. My writing group friend and I had decided that we would both finish our current drafts by the end of May. A reasonable person would have set daily word goals--1,000 to 2,000 words a day would have finished the draft in plenty of time.
I didn't see the day-to-day. I saw a giant, looming deadline and twenty-plus chapters that needed extensive rewrites.
This is a pattern in my life that is by no means limited to my writing. And it's served me reasonably well: it's how I managed to get a teaching job at the end of June and have two courses prepped through October by mid-July and how I went from a proposal to a successfully completed and defended thesis in a month and a half of work.
The thing with panic is that, while it might help me get done what I need to get done, it does so at the cost of my equilibrium. After a certain point, a sort of writing delirium sets in. I've focused on one thing too long, and I can't shift my brain to anything else. I forget directions. I stare blankly at the microwave trying to remember how to get it to open (this one was particularly embarrassing--my microwave door just has a handle).
And this hyper-focus doesn't make my work any better. I pounded out draft after draft of my thesis, and got a long list of revisions for each one. The novel draft I finished last month is with my writing group friend, and I'm sure she'll have a set of things for me to double check or revise.
I get things done, but it doesn't actually save any steps. It doesn't necessarily speed things up.
I'm gearing up to dive into a new project. I don't have a hard deadline for it set--right now the goal is just to complete a draft by sometime next March. I want to try something different. I want to be more consistent. I want to take more time with my process.
In trying to "refine my process" (which sounds nothing at all like the sitting-in-my-pjs-and-munching-on-chips-while-I-scroll-through-blogs-and-listen-to-podcasts-while-occasionally-getting-distracted-by-twitter situation that it actually is), I've started looking at other writers' thought processes.
I'm of the opinion that there is no one correct "process"; that everyone sort of has to work out how to do this thing for themselves. But that doesn't mean that you can't Frankenstein what other people are doing and come up with something that suits.
I started with trying to get into the heads of writers whose work I love. A couple of them have made this super-easy. Kieron Gillen, writer for my current favorite comic book series, The Wicked + the Divine, posts issue-by-issue writer's notes in which he gives a glimpse into not just his part of the creation process, but also the work that his collaborators do for some of his works on his Tumblr. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man behind the Pulitzer-winning musical Hamilton, published a book that uses anecdotes to guide the reader through the show's journey to Broadway and contains a libretto complete with Miranda's annotations that detail some of the thought behind the lyrical, musical, and story choices made for the show. Seeing the complicated decision-making (and dashes of panic) that go into some of my favorite works has made me regard my personal process with a little more warmth.
Feeling better about what I do is just part of the puzzle (though seeing some of my doubts echoed by creators that I respect does help ease my imposter syndrome worries a little). There's also the issue of learning the craft. If my experience grading papers has taught me anything, it's that everyone thinks that they can write without help, and pretty much everyone is wrong. I'm a reasonably competent writer, but there are things about the craft that I don't know because I lack a certain level of experience.
One of the things that's great about the communication technology that exists today is that people that have the same sets of questions and concerns can reach out, directly or indirectly, to the people that have the answers and vice versa. If I want to have a group of successful authors in my living room, telling me about strategies to aid a writer in my position, I can do that.
Podcasts, man. Podcasts are excellent.
There are a boatload of writing podcasts out there--way more than I've had the time to check out. Do a quick Google search of "writing podcasts" and you'll see a dozen lists of "Best Podcasts for Writers." One cast that's on most of these lists--the one that I've been binge listening to--is Writing Excuses, jointly hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells. They look at everything from character creation, story structure, and setting to publishing, dealing with life as a public figure, and deadline pressure.
These resources haven't removed the panic from my process entirely. I don't imagine I'll ever write in a way that's totally panic-free. But they have changed how I'm approaching my new project. I find myself taking more time to lay out plans, spending more time in the world I'm making, getting to know my characters better. It's too soon to say if this process will be more effective, but it certainly feels better.
And, for now, that's victory enough.