Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Process? Yeah, I'm still searching for the perfect one....

by Sarah Pekkanen

I love, love, love that our current topic is process (did I mention I'm happy about it?) because it's a subject that has been consuming me lately. I've taken on a free-lance assignment that has allowed me to interview some big-name authors, and you can bet I've asked them to detail their workdays. I'm scrutinizing their schedules like a stalker. How do they fit in writing around teacher work days, book tours, sick kids and Facebooking? Do they write in the mornings, evenings, or carpool lines? What's their secret?

I think I'm fascinated by the topic because I'm still searching for the perfect process. If only I could stumble upon the key, imagine how much easier writing would be! Knocking out a novel would finally resemble my old fantasies, the ones in which I sat down at a table and let my fingers dance across the keyboard while I nodded in delight at my own cleverness. Sure, I'd get a little frustrated sometimes, but a quick walk in the woods or sip of cappuccino would steer me straight. (Just for the record? That never happens. Never. I don't even like cappuccino.)

But I know, deep down, it isn't simply a matter of happening upon the perfect coffeeshop or setting aside the hours from 1 to 4 pm to write. I don't think anything can really make writing a book easy. Some books come easier than others - I learned that firsthand, having just today turned in the final revisions on my third and quickest manuscript - but none of them are truly easy (and if you have experience to the contrary, please don't let anyone know. That's like casually mentioning that you fit into your size 4 jeans a week after giving birth. We may act happy for you, but we hate you a little bit inside).

So, here's my process: I'm a new fan of outlining. I didn't outline much at all for my first book, The Opposite of Me, but I had a pretty general outline for Skipping a Beat. I outlined much more extensively for my third book, These Girls, which will be out in April 2012. And I have a fourth book due April 1 (which I haven't even started) so you can bet I'll outline like crazy. I don't have time to get off track and write 50 pages that I have to delete once I figure out where the book is going. I need to get it right the first time to make my deadline. The books I love for helping to form outlines are Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. I re-read them before writing every book, and I recommend them to everyone I know.

In terms of writing time, I squeeze it in when and wherever I can. Yesterday I took my oldest son to see "Transformers 3" and I snuck in a flashlight and hard copy of my manuscript, to proofread before turning it in. I bring my laptop everywhere - and I've taught myself to type in a moving car without getting carsick (when my husband is driving, just in case you're wondering). It's pretty easy, if you keep your head low enough so you don't see the scenery whipping by in your peripheral vision. Here are some of the places where I've written: In the waiting room of my kids' dentists office, in the waiting room of my own doctor's office, in the carpool line, on my back porch, at Chuck E. Cheese, in movie theaters, on the Amtrak train between Washington DC and New York, in hotel rooms, in my bedroom, in coffeeshops, on my living room couch, in bookstores, and in the hairstylist's chair while my single process color is setting (what, you thought my color was natural? Why thank you!)

So I think my process is that I don't really have one. I just try to write, almost every single day, and aim for at least 1,000 words. But some days I write much more than that - there was one, glorious night when pages poured out of me like water - and some days I write less.

Now I'd love to hear from you. What's your process? Because if you've found the key to writing books without pain, I'd love to hear it.

Sarah Pekkanen is the internationally bestselling author of The Opposite of Me and Skipping a Beat, and the upcoming These Girls, which will be published in April 2012. Please visit her website at


  1. It's ironic because this was exactly what I inquired about on my blog today! Well, one of two things I inquired about, anyway.

    I have a finished 120,000 word manuscript and the plan for that was... there wasn't a plan. Because at the time I was just writing for fun. Then it was finished and I realized it was kinda good. Like, maybe if I actually tried to hone my craft this could actually become a reality.

    So, if all goes well (fingers crossed), I'm hoping the first book of four will get respresentation. I have already created an outline for the other three books.

    I'm finding I really like outlines. :)

    I'm also going to try writing in the car pool lane as well. ;)

    Thanks for the great post!!

  2. Great blog, Sarah. I outline too but still have to sometimes throw out pages.

    Recently I've been doing a trick that's a tad airy-fairy but here it is:
    When I come across a plot problem I can't immediately solve, instead of thinking it to death I just let it go, trusting that the "muse" will sort it. Damned it she doesn't always come through.

  3. Process? I'm supposed to have a process? That explains so much . . .

    Sometimes I have a very general outline in my head. Mostly, I have to know how it ends--what that final scene looks like--and then I just write "toward" it . . . I'm big on the "I will write 1000+ words today" mantra. Speaking of which, I need to go get started.

  4. Loved the story about taking a flashlight into the movie--so funny!

    I tend to do more revising on the run. I've dragged my mss to the the dentist office, the kid's ortho waiting room, the carpool line, the airport, the library, and countless other places. Haven't tried the hairstylist yet, but now that you've mentioned it....good idea. :)

  5. Karin - I so agree about letting the muse take over. The subconscious can do amazing things if step back and let it.
    Sara - I hear you! Funny how those little pockets of time exist everywhere...
    Judy - I agree, 1,000 words a day is a really do-able goal!
    And Kelley - best of luck with your book and congrats on finishing!

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