Making peace with your process – Wendy Wax
By Wendy Wax
I am, alas, a perfectionist. Since birth I have always believed that there is a best/right/more perfect way of doing pretty much everything. I clung to this belief for a very long time.♥
When our first son was born I was forced to admit that no matter how many parenting manuals I devoured, I was not a perfect parent. When I began trying to write my first novel as a stay-at-home mom of a two-year-old and a newborn, a clearly imperfect decision I chalk up to post-pregnancy hormones and lack of sleep, I wanted to believe that perfection was possible in this new arena.
As I wrote during nap times and stolen moments, I told myself that there must be a “right/best” way to write a novel. That, if only I found that right/best way, the words would flow joyously onto the page and writing would stop feeling like brain surgery without anesthesia.
I am nothing if not determined and so I inhaled everything I could find about writing. As I became friendly with other writers, I interrogated them about their processes. I met a former engineer who outlines each novel, including each scene and which character’s point of view it will be written from. One author uses color-coded index cards for each character’s scenes and arranges and rearranges them in different orders until she’s satisfied. Another creates a collage for each book. Still another convinced me to buy a plotting notebook she uses religiously; something for which I have never forgiven her. Every one of these “sure fire” methods, including three weeks spent attempting to write an outline, completely shut me down.
Don’t get me wrong, if you want to write well you need to learn and hone your craft. Knowledge and understanding of character development, plot, conflict, and story structure are important. But how you use and implement this knowledge is a very personal thing. As with voice, each writer’s process is unique. It’s important to make peace with it.
Perfectionism is a hard thing to let go of. For a long time I told myself that if I just tried hard enough I, too, could figure everything out before I started. But I was living in denial. Slowly it dawned on me that the synopses I was required to write in those early years were, well, pure fiction. They might reassure my editor that I actually had a story to tell and provide a roadmap of sorts, but once I began writing everything changed. The final manuscripts bore almost no resemblance to what I’d planned to write.
Recently, after twenty years and more than a dozen novels, I finally accepted the truth. If this were a Writers Anonymous meeting, I would be holding up my hand and admitting that “I am a ‘pantser’ pretending to be a plotter.”
The truth is my process is messy. It involves panic and uncertainty, which I overcome through sheer force of will. (My husband, a financial right brain type, doesn’t understand why after so many books writing hasn’t gotten easier. But then, after thirty years and all evidence to the contrary, he still thinks I’m going to learn to pack light.) To this day I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter to anyone else how I write a novel. It only matters that it’s as good as I can possibly make it and, hopefully better than the one I wrote before it.
There is no shortcut to this. No one trick that works for everyone. No perfect process. What it requires is that you sit down, butt in chair and fingers on the keyboard, on a regular basis. To be a writer you must write. Period. You must put something on the page. And when you do, you have to remind yourself that it doesn’t have to be perfect. Because you can fix anything except a blank page.
As you complete your first novel or continue to build your body of work, you’ll discover what does and doesn’t work for you. I urge you to pay attention. This, however messy or imperfect it might be, is your process. Making peace with it can be incredibly freeing.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says USA Today bestselling author Wendy Wax, whose new novel A Week at the Lake has just been published, “writes with breezy wit and keen insight.” Her books, While We Were Watching Downton Abbey and her Ten Beach Road novels — the recent The House On Mermaid Point, Ocean Beach and Ten Beach Road — have been featured in national publications such as USA Today, Ladies’ Home Journal, Woman’s World, and online at sites such as On A Clear Day You Can Read Forever, Luxury Reading and Book Reporter. Wendy lives in Atlanta where she is at work on her next Ten Beach Road novel.