Current Work Breakdown, for Them That’s Interested

As I’ve mentioned recently, I’m revising a manuscript. Here’s a breakdown of what this revision tends to look like on a daily basis:

  • For one hour or so, I reread and ponder the responses of my early readers and my own notes (as I blogged about recently).
  • For maybe two or three hours, I look back over the revising I did yesterday and all the days before, getting a second look at my revisions and changing things here and there.
  • For maybe an hour or an hour and a half, I push forward in the book, maybe revising one more chapter.

I find I’m working anywhere from two to seven hours in a session (with a lot of breaks), depending on what else I’m doing that day and how quickly I get mentally drained. I never sit down intending to work seven hours – generally that’s too much, too draining – but occasionally I’ll look up and be startled to see how much time has passed. (This happens more often in summer than winter – the sun sets so late!)

Sometimes I only skim the responses and notes. Sometimes I never get to the third step, where I’m pushing forward in the book. It all depends on what’s happening that day. If I have a sudden revelation about why one of my characters has been behaving the way she’s been behaving, for example, I may spend the entire session starting again from the beginning and revising with fresh eyes.

Also, about those breaks I take – they involve a lot of resting my writing mind while listening to music. Especially, though not exclusively, a wide variety of cello music, because cello is relevant to the manuscript I’m revising. I’ll probably write more about that at some point.

One more thing about breaks. It can be very hard, on a daily basis, to get started working. You can be overwhelmed with a feeling of “I just don’t wanna” and find yourself slow to begin… SO, it can feel really lovely on days when for whatever reason you find yourself eager to get working. However, if I notice that it’s anxiety that’s making me eager to get working – if the writing has somehow convinced me that there’s some part of the novel I should feel anxious about, and should obsess over, RIGHT NOW, this needs to be fixed or something terrible will happen – I’ve come to realize that this means it’s time for a day off. I spend that day consciously rejecting thought about the writing, resting, and doing things to care for the anxiety instead. The next day, I am generally able to return to the manuscript refreshed and with unanxious purpose.

So. This isn’t always how I revise, but it’s fairly typical for the second or third major revision of a manuscript. As I near any climaxes in the plot and especially as I near the end, my pace will pick up dramatically, and I will probably work longer hours. That just tends to be what the book asks of me.

There is no right or wrong way to do this, no right or wrong way to divide your own time, and you may not have seven free hours (or even two!). That’s okay. Trust yourself, and trust the book to tell you what it needs. It’s going to be hard and it might never feel quite right. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. 🙂

Moving on: this revision isn’t the only creative work I’m doing. Here’s a rough breakdown of my overall work:

  • Maybe 85% of my work is on this revision.
  • Maybe 14.5% of my work goes to planning the next book I intend to write.
  • Maybe 0.5% of my work goes to a third book, the first draft of which I recently completed and which I’m currently taking time away from. I try not to think about it at all, because time away is critically important, but occasionally an idea for how to improve the book will present itself, at which point, I’ll take down a note.

I didn’t plan for this 85/14.5/0.5 split; I let it happen, observed it happening, decided it was okay, and continued to let it happen. If some part of it stops working, I’m sure the percentages will shift, and I’ll reassess.

As far as that next book goes  – here’s a rough breakdown of what book-planning involves at the moment:

  • Maybe 90% of the time is spent reading (probably 80% fiction and 20% nonfiction) and watching things (probably 50% TV and movie dramas, 50% documentaries). With the exception of the nonfiction reading, which is directly about topics relevant to the book, most of what I’m reading or watching would seem, to the casual observer, to have absolutely nothing to do with the book I’m planning. For example, I just watched a Swedish documentary about a world-class ballerina (Dansaran  – loved it) and there is no dancing in the book I’m planning. I’m reading Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, which is about a modern-day hostage situation in an unnamed South American country (and also about opera), and the book I’m planning is a fantasy, not modern-day, that I don’t think has anything to do with hostages or opera. I can’t explain how I choose the things I’m reading and watching. I’m looking for something, something about people and life, something about the way other people navigate their lives or the way other artists record people navigating their lives. Slowly (SO slowly!), I’m finding what I’m looking for. The book-planning process involves a lot of indirect searching for indirect things, and a lot of trusting that if I am thoughtful and attentive about my input, I will make accidental discoveries. In the meantime, it  – writing, watching, and letting things grow in a non-pressurey way – is one of the most pleasurable things about being a writer.
  • Maybe 5% of the time is spent sitting down with my notes, trying to hammer out the plot, and daydreaming. When the majority of my work time eventually shifts to this book (rather than the revision I’m working on), the majority of my planning time will shift to this activity – wracking my brain, hammering out the plot, and also letting my brain wander. I will still be watching things and reading, but these direct activities will take up most of my time.
  • Maybe 5% of the time is spent talking to friends about the project.

All of these breakdowns omit the other part of the process, namely, that whenever I’m awake, I’m keeping myself open to the arrival of an idea.

And that’s what’s going on.

My workspace. (At home in Cambridge, MA. I’m back from Paris. I loved Paris! I also love home.)

Happy-making details: my clock.

Lilies increase productivity. It’s been proven.

Ear plugs and pink duck eraser: v. important.

Postcard of gargoyles on Notre Dame: stirs the imagination.

Nancy Drew-themed notebook: for jotting down clues.

Index cards: a writer can never have too many.