WriteChatWednesday: The Writing Process

What is #WriteChatWednesday?

We believe what makes Kaylie Jones Books special is the way our writers and staff support one another. Kaylie Jones Books is truly a collective of writers who believe in sharing their knowledge and experience.

#WriteChatWednesday is our latest blog series written for writers, by writers. Each month, our writers will be answering questions about writing and publishing submitted by our readers.

Meet Our Participants

DAVID ANDREAS

DAVID ANDREAS

ANGEL OF THE UNDERGROUND

David hopes ANGEL OF THE UNDERGROUND, the flagship publication of ODDITIES KJB, will satisfy fans of character-driven horror stories.

JUDY MANDEL

JUDY MANDEL

EDITOR

JUDY L. MANDEL is a writing coach, teacher, and editor. She is the author of the NY Times Bestseller, REPLACEMENT CHILD - A MEMOIR.

MATT MCGEVNA

MATT MCGEVNA

LITTLE BEASTS

MATTHEW McGEVNA was born and raised in Mastic Beach, Long Island. Born of Irish descent, he attended fiction and poetry workshops in Galway.

LAUREN J. SHARKEY

LAUREN J. SHARKEY

INCONVENIENT DAUGHTER

LAUREN J. SHARKEY's debut novel, INCONVENIENT DAUGHTER, is forthcoming in 2020 and based on her experience as a Korean American adoptee.

PATRICIA A. SMITH

PATRICIA A. SMITH

THE YEAR OF NEEDY GIRLS

PATRICIA A. SMITH’s nonfiction has appeared in several anthologies, including One Teacher in Ten: Gay & Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories

RONNIE K. STEPHENS

RONNIE K. STEPHENS

THE KALEIDOSCOPE SISTERS

Ronnie K. Stephens is a full-time educator and father of five, with a strong interest in poetry, fiction, and activism.

THEASA TUOHY

THEASA TUOHY

FLYING JENNY

THEASA TUOHY—novelist, journalist, and playwright—has worked for five daily newspapers and the Associated Press.

What are your must-haves when you sit down to write?

DA: Silence. When I sit down to write, it’s mostly when the world is fast asleep and I can concentrate without any distractions, even those I’d create on my own. I don’t allow myself TV or music until I’m finished.

JM: Coffee, sugarless gum (lots).

MM: When it comes to what I must have in order to write, I’m a walking writer cliche, but I’ve worked hard to become a walking writer cliche, so I feel I’ve earned it. My imagination of myself as a writer was always that guy in the corner of the coffee shop with a black beret and a cup of coffee. OK, I don’t have a beret, but I need two things: a coffee shop and a cup of coffee. I need a hot cup of coffee next to my notebook or laptop.

LJS: Must-haves, that’s a good question! I guess, quiet and a bottle of water because if I have coffee, I’ll take a sip, decide there isn’t enough milk or sugar or something, and then next thing I know I’m in the kitchen doing a million other things. Oh, and having a deadline always helps.

PS: I sit down to write first thing in the morning; that way, the day doesn’t get away from me. And since I teach full-time, it’s how I ensure I get any writing done. I set my alarm for 5:00AM – 5:30AM (I aim for 5:00AM but sometimes I need that little extra bit of sleep). My coffee is pre-set to be ready when I get up, so I stumble to the kitchen, pour a cup of coffee, and head to my desk. I love my writing room and I write at an old desk that was my grandmother’s and then my mother’s.

RKS: I have five children, so I’ve learned to write in just about any environment. Ideally, I’ll have a flat surface for my laptop, hot coffee, and alpha waves playing. However, I’ve been known to write entire chapters in the Notes section on my phone with one hand while snuggling a child, and the early drafts of nearly every poem I write are typed in 5-minute sprints before one of the kids has another existential crisis.

TT: When you sit, all you need is a computer or pen and notebook. But a lot of work is done in your head − in bed, in the swimming pool, on the street.  Watch out for cars and buses!

What is your writing routine like?

DA: Much like drawing, I write in spurts. I accomplish a great deal in a rapid amount of time, then stop for a few days or weeks on end. I purposely don’t write every day so the need to write builds in me. When I’m ready to explode from not doing anything productive, I go back to writing for days or weeks on end.

JM: I try to reserve the mornings for writing whenever possible, which is when I feel my brain is working best. Hopefully from 9:00AM to 2:00PM.

LJS: I get asked this question a lot, and unsurprisingly, the answer is always changing. When I was applying to graduate school, I treated writing very much like a job so much so that I quit my actual job and wrote every day, Monday through Friday, from 9:00AM to 5:00PM. In grad school, that routine obviously got harder to keep up with.

PS: Here’s my routine: I open my email and I read Richard Rohr’s Meditation, a contemplative piece that comes to my inbox each morning. I follow that with a daily reading from Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening, and then I read some poetry. I make my way through one of the many, many poetry books I own. Then, I get to my own work and write for however long I have—sometimes an hour, sometimes 20 or 30 minutes, whatever I have. So each day, I’m not writing lots of words, but I’m keeping the story in my head and that helps to get things down and keep it moving.

RKS: My house is anything but routine. While writing my novel, I tried to write for 45-60 minutes before school started, which worked most days. The bulk of the novel, though, was written during four 8-hour writing sprints during which I typed furiously, producing about 10,000 words per sprint. I know it sounds facetious, but I think I think it’s important for burgeoning writers to understand that, for most of us, writing is not a full-time profession and there are constant distractions. Routine is awesome, but it’s not a requisite to finishing your project.

What time of the day do you write and why?

DA: At night. Sometimes I’ll write during the day if a major thought occurs to me, but I don’t usually sit down until around 10:00PM. I like to let my thoughts build throughout the day, so I can hammer them out at night.

JM: Mornings.

MM: There’s a bakery/coffee shop about 15 minutes from my home that opens at 6:00AM I set my alarm for 6:00AM on weekends and get to the bakery by 6:15AM to work. (Yes, I wrote this blog post in the bakery).

LJS: Before I approached writing as my 9-to-5, actually even during the 9-to-5, I found my sweet spot was between 4:00AM and 6:00AM when the world was quiet and my head wasn’t cluttered with junk. When I got into grad school and really began discovering what my book was going to be about, I had a lot of difficulty keeping up the early morning routine. This was mainly because my project started as memoir and I was revisiting a lot of darkness and reliving a lot of trauma. I found it hard to do that work in the mornings and then go to my job, or class, or wherever and not be bummed the fuck out. So, I switched to writing at night and that’s still typically when I write. I don’t know, ask me again in a few years.

RKS: I can’t think of many times during the day that I’m not writing. The bulk of my creative writing is squeezed into rare moments when I’m not caring for my kids, but I write reviews, curriculum for a youth poetry organization, etc. throughout the day. I’ve heard a lot of writers who dedicate a specific window to writing; that’s just not possible in my life. However, I think that I get the most from my creative writing sprints specifically because I am, in one way or another, always writing or reading. I listen to audiobooks during my commutes, while I lift weights, and even when I cook dinner for the family. I engage with brilliant writers regularly on Twitter, a brief but sure-fire way to stay engaged in high-level conversations on social media. Basically, I write when I can and read when I can. Like any other muscle, it’s less important that you exercise writing at the same time every day and more important that you are tending to writing on a consistent basis.

TT: I hit the computer as soon as I roll out of bed.  Good to get your hands on the keyboard, while still in the state of half-asleep, half-awake.

Do you set a quota for yourself? If so, how do you stick to it and what do you do if you don’t reach it?

DA: I don’t set a quota. Some days I feel productive after writing one page, some days I feel productive writing five or more. It all depends on whether or not I feel the story is progressing.  My mantra in this area is “little by little.”

JM:  I don’t set a quota, but just the time allotment. When I can’t stick to it, I allow myself to feel guilty for the rest of the day, even if it was unavoidable. Life happens.

MM: As you get older you’re going to feel the walls close in around your time. It will be vital that you dig in somewhere during those 14 waking hours and carve out some time to do your writing. Make an appointment with yourself and keep it. Don’t overreach. In my younger years I would say, “I’m going to get up at 8:00AM and write until 8:00PM – 12 hours of straight writing!” I got absolutely nothing done. Keep your windows narrow and you will force yourself to write within that narrow space.

LJS: Personally, I don’t find quotas helpful. I feel a very crushing sense of defeat and failure when I don’t meet specific goals, and I don’t want to bring that feeling into my writing. Sometimes I do set an intention for myself, which I guess is kind of like a goal. Like, I’ll say, “Today, I have to finish this scene.” I guess maybe I just have an aversion to the word “goal” or “quota” because right now I sound really stupid like, “Lauren, a goal and an intention are the same thing!”, but I think, at the end of the day, you shouldn’t put pressure on yourself in a way that’s going to make you feel negatively. Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to say.

PS: I don’t set quotas or word/page goals normally, except in the summer when I have more time to work. Then I try to plan out what I’d like to accomplish in that time frame. I generally get pretty close to my goal though I don’t always reach it. I’m headed to VCCA this August for two weeks and I’ll definitely have some goals for what I hope to complete.

RKS: During National Poetry Month, or when I’m working on a poetry manuscript, I set a goal of one poem per day. Five hundred words per day when I’m working on a prose manuscript. During November, I set a goal of 1,000 words a day for National Novel Writing Month. Because I don’t get many dedicated writing days, I set lofty goals for those times. If I have a day or two without any other responsibilities, my goal is to produce 8,000-10,000 words. That’s a lot, but one reason I aim high is because I have found that I am much more capable of editing with distractions than I am of creating new work. So, I never edit on writing days. I produce. The editing comes later.

TT: No. Just work until I run out of steam which can be totally unpredictable – a few minutes, several hours, the whole day.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

DA: I walk away from my computer, give myself time to breathe, and ask myself (usually out loud) what I’m trying to accomplish with a particular scene or character. Then I’ll make handwritten notes to keep my thoughts in order. Video games also help. Sometimes I can plan how to hand writer’s block, and sometimes it handles itself.

JM: I walk, or go to the gym, or do research for my project.

LJS: I’m always looking for an excuse to eat, so writer’s block is great for that lol. But seriously, I find that doing some sort of physical activity is great. I love SoulCycle—there’s something about being in a dark room, the music blasting, sweat pouring down your face so much you can’t see, that’s just freeing. I can let out all my anger, frustration, fear, whatever and come back to any project feeling refreshed and ready to work. Obviously, that’s not everyone’s thing, but going for a walk or baking something (even if it’s just brownies from the box) is great.

One more thing I will add is to think about what’s blocking you specifically. Maybe you’re not ready to be writing that particular thing, or there’s an underlying fear you have to confront. Give yourself the time and space to be blocked. Sometimes, the words just aren’t with you and that’s cool. Give yourself permission to write something else.

Earlier in my writing “career”, if you can even call it that lol, what tripped me up the most was this notion of perfection. I wanted it to be good the first time around, you know? And I’d sit down, write a sentence, it would suck and I’d be like, “Oh my god, I can’t do this. This is the worst thing that’s ever been written in the history of writing.” Dramatic—who, me? But then I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Birdif you don’t have it, definitely pick it up—specifically, her essay Shitty First Drafts. Shitty first drafts are the only way to get to okay drafts, and this-doesn’t-suck-as-bad-as-I-thought-it-did drafts. So don’t get hung up on perfection.

PS: I don’t set quotas or word/page goals normally, except in the summer when I have more time to work. Then I try to plan out what I’d like to accomplish in that time frame. I generally get pretty close to my goal though I don’t always reach it. I’m headed to VCCA this August for two weeks and I’ll definitely have some goals for what I hope to complete.

RKS: I actually have a saying in my class: “There’s no such thing as writer’s block. There’s writing, and there’s not writing.” Thinking gets in the way of writing, as does waiting for inspiration. You wouldn’t sit at the track or stand beside your bicycle waiting for right moment to start. You wouldn’t set a barbell at your feet and wait for the muse to start lifting. Why, then, would you sit down to write without writing? When the words you need aren’t coming to you, write something else. If a character isn’t speaking, type the words to their favorite song or rewrite the last journal entry they tore from their diary. What you write is far less important than writing itself. Eventually, you will say what needs to be said.

TT: Don’t accept it. After spending many years as a journalist, writing and editing is what I did. It was my job. Of course, there are often times when one sits down at the computer and doesn’t know what to say or how to begin, so just start typing. Write down any old thing. Start with “green,” or any word that presents itself, and it’ll spirit you off. You can always trash, change, edit, but the words in front of you are a start and will take you some place. It’s a process. Just start, and something will happen. That’s the fun – seeing where you go. An old reporter I once knew used to say “Who ever heard of plumber’s block.”

What steps do you take to ensure your writing time?

JM: I try not to answer the phone or look at email or Facebook. Try is the operative word. Those sometimes intrude.

MM: I used to work in a private space in my home, or sometimes I would commandeer my brother’s art studio in the country to write. But that was before I sired an Irish-Puerto Rican clan of hooligans that make writing at home impossible. Nowadays, I have to steal time out of the day to get out of the house and work.

LJS: I’ve been told I’m too hard on myself. So, what I’ve been trying to work on is forgiving myself – for skipping a writing day, for not finishing a scene, for using a semicolon. Just give yourself the space to be human.

PS: My writing space is always organized enough for me to sit down and work. If the room is messy, it’s hard for me to write, so I try to keep the space organized. I want to be able to get up, get my coffee, sit down and get to work.

RKS: My family is priority number one, and my job as an educator takes precedent because I have to make money in order to sustain writing. If I don’t get time to write creatively, I make sure to read so that my mind is still exercising the creative side of writing in some way. When there’s a real deadline, I negotiate time with my wife and we typically work out a day or two dedicated to writing; usually, we have to schedule writing about a month out because of all our obligations with the kids.

TT: I live alone. News junkie that I am, the only early morning distraction is the news.  I stay up late with cable, so little has happened after midnight that I can’t live without for a few hours. Email, the internet, Facebook, etc., can be killers. If you’re not careful you can lose the entire day.

Do you have a core group of trusted writers you send your work to? In what stages do you send your work (halfway, completed draft, etc.)?

JM: I have just a few trusted writers. Sometimes I think it’s a completed draft, and often it is not. Sometimes I have questions and am looking for knowledgeable opinions and guidance.

LJS: You know, one of the reasons I applied to graduate school was because I felt very alone as a writer.

Family—whether it’s parents, aunts, uncles, whatever—can be difficult to say the least. There’s no safety in writing as a profession—financially or personally. While my parents were always supportive of my wanting to write, they weren’t especially fond of writing being my profession. They were concerned about me having health insurance, the ability to make rent, a 401k. And while those are all important and valid, my love for writing was bigger than that.

So, I applied to grad school in search for a community, my tribe. I consider myself really lucky to have found three amazing writers (Melanie, Caitlin, and Alex, I couldn’t have more love for you) with whom I can share my work with at any stage—whether it’s a paragraph or an entire draft—and they provide the most insightful and constructive feedback. I also work with two extraordinary editors who are generous and always willing to answer questions…and I always have lots of questions.

PS: I’m lucky to have a great group of writing friends to whom I can send my work. I was part of a long-time writing group in MA and I share work with one good friend from that group, and I’m part of a vibrant writing community here in Richmond, VA, with plenty of willing beta readers. I also have a very close friend who is a voracious reader but not a writer, and I gave her a draft of my novel when I thought it was close to being done. Her feedback was invaluable as someone who reads closely and who most resembles the type of reader I imagine might enjoy my work. And, I have a dear friend who is a long-time editor—not for literary work but she has an eye and ear for sentences and I also value her feedback, too. I think there’s a danger (might be too strong of a word) about sending out work too early—although I do often read from work in progress at our yearly Faculty Readings at my school to gauge the general interest.  Again, when to send out work might differ depending on what the project is. I’m less reluctant to send out versions of essays to get feedback, but mostly, I try to wait to share work until I think it’s done or close to being done. Everyone’s time is valuable, and I want the best/most useful feedback I can get.

RKS: I do almost all my writing in a vacuum, but I do rely very heavily on one person for poetry edits. Most often, we do live editing sessions on Google once I have arranged the poems into a manuscript, but sometimes we also tackle a specific suite of poems that I am looking to submit or that she is looking to submit. I have never had someone read or critique my creative nonfiction prior to publication, and the only person who has worked with me on my fiction is my MFA thesis mentor. That said, I long for a small group of trusted writers with which to exchange work, and I think that all writers should capitalize on an opportunity to work closely with other writers at any stage of the process.

TT: Love my writers group! Indispensable. But you must have a compatible, supportive group. Nothing worse than getting in with people who try to impose their own vision/version on you. Supportive, means they are trying to help you on your own journey.

What’s your editing process like?

DA: Once I get one awful draft out of my system, I go into editing with a great deal of relief that there’s something to edit. The process usually consists of reading whatever I’m working on over and over on my computer until I feel it’s ready for a printed draft. Once that’s accomplished, and I’m holding something physical, I can take my red pen and mark the hell out of all the things I didn’t notice while reading on a bright screen. It’s not until I can read pages out loud without finding faults that I believe I’m finished with what I’m working on.

JM: I print out chapters and edit with a pen, then go back in and make changes in the computer, often changing the changes. This goes on in an seemingly never ending loop—many revisions.

LJS: In a word? Tedious AF. I guess that’s two words. Is “AF” even a word? I don’t know lol. Okay, yeah. So, I usually send everything electronically either through Google Docs or as an attachment. I always send my manuscripts—especially when I’m sending it to an editor, or someone I hope to get feedback from—in an editable file. Once I receive the track changes back, I print the manuscript out, and read through it. After I’ve given it a solid read and have decide which comments/changes to act on, I open a fresh document in Word, and retype it…the entire thing. I’m not sure why I do this, but I like to start from the beginning and let the story come through me in its entirety when revising. Obviously for final edit, it’s a little different because the changes are usually minimal.

PS: In terms of editing—I read everything out loud. For The Year of Needy Girls, I printed out an entire copy of the mss, read it though, and put sticky notes on revisions I wanted / needed to make. I did this more than once. When I’m at that stage of editing, I like a hard copy in front of me. I’ll also mention that I used Scrivener to keep track of everything! After I found myself scrolling through pages and pages of text to find certain scenes, I discovered Scrivener and that made it so much easier to keep track of my work. I’d recommend it.

RKS: While writing my first novel, my mentor identified a handful of idiosyncrasies in the way I structure my sentences, and she warned me against the use of “it” in writing. My first stage in revision is reading through to eliminate those ticks, as well as to tighten lazy language, like “it.” I’m fortunate in that I don’t tend to make many grammatical mistakes or typos, so cleaning those up is only a small part of editing. As a story takes shape, I look for lulls in tension and try to read through the lens of Gardner’s profluence. Whenever a passage feels stagnant or tangential, I consider its purpose and either revise to better integrate it into the story or cut it entirely. Oddly, I edit my own work exclusively on the computer, but I often print out others’ work and edit by hand.

TT: In some sense, I edit as I go along. I keep picking at stuff. With drafts, I make notes in red about comments after meeting with my writers group, then leave it until the next write through. The second draft is what I call “layering.” I flesh out the story with more and more atmospherics, visualizing the scene and putting in more descriptive details.

Closing thoughts?

JM: One of the best tips I heard recently was that putting a draft in your drawer does not make it better. If it’s crap going in, it will still be crap when you take it out of the drawer. And, from my favorite mentor—“Trust yourself.”

LJS: There is no formula or recipe for being a writer. Don’t look at this blog post as “Okay I need to write in the mornings for as long as I can because that’s what worked for this writer.” You have to find what works for you. The process is different for everyone. I’ll leave you with the best piece of writing advice I ever received, “Keep the faith, Lauren. This is a journey. Journeys are inherently filled with uncertainty and stake. “

About the author: Lauren J. Sharkey

Lauren J. Sharkey
LAUREN J. SHARKEY is currently a Master of Fine Arts candidate, Creative Nonfiction Editor at Reservoir Journal, and Marketing & Web Development Coordinator at Kaylie Jones Books, where she also maintains the title of Editor. When she's not busy writing, Lauren J. enjoys doughnuts, SoulCycle, and blasting the best of the 90s in her Camry.

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