Posted On November 16, 2012 by Print This Post

Theresa Stevens on Habits and Processes

November is synonymous to Thanksgiving, major food coma, and for us writers,  NaNoWriMo, the mothership of the fast draft. Whether you’re a Nano veteran or newbie, you’ve got your own method of madness to get those words on a page.

To commemorate the second week of Nano, we’re running an older post by editor Theresa Stevens on ways to spark your creativity and boost that word count. 

Usually in this column, I answer questions mailed in to the “Ask an Editor” mailbag. Sometimes, though, we do an FAQ post about commonly asked questions. This time, the FAQ is a question you’re more likely to hear rather than ask. “What’s your process?”

I’m leading a workshop now that brought this question to mind in an unusual way. In the context of discussing narrative elements and how to identify and manipulate them, we discovered that some of us draft in present tense or first person, even knowing the finished manuscript will be in third person literary past. It was a fun moment in class — the confession, the “me too” sharing, the giggled relief to know that this is something others do, too. And it made me realize that we talk a lot about character and story and sentences and conflicts and markets and branding and queries, but we almost never talk about the physical process of pulling a book together.

And yet this is the part that non-writers are often most curious about. They know what a book is, but they don’t know what it’s like to write one. How do we find the time? Do we use a pen and paper, or do we type? Where do we sit? Do we prefer silence or music, solitude or public cafes, long working sessions or quick bursts of productivity?

These questions are deceptive in a way, because though they might seem focused on trivial work habits, they are all linked by a common factor. They all can be used to train the creative subconscious into coughing up the goods. This is the part of our mind that handles idea generation, intuitive problem-solving, daydreaming, and similar mental processes. And some believe that just as we can use rote repetition to remember multiplication tables, we can use repetitive habit to train the creative subconscious into generating good story material.

There are a number of ways this training might be accomplished. Perhaps you use the clock as an external cue, stopping all other activity at 9 p.m. every night without fail and writing for 30 minutes, no distractions. Or perhaps you use a page goal or word goal, writing every day until 2,000 new words are on the page, never quitting until that number has been reached. Maybe you start each new writing session by turning on a particular song, lighting a candle, shutting off the internet, or doing some other action to signal to your deeper mind, “It’s your time to shine!” Any or all of these techniques might be workable methods.

It’s also possible that the drafts themselves will incorporate cues to this part of the mind. “Hey, deep mind, it’s time for a new character, so let’s switch to present tense for a bit until you’ve really got a good handle on who this newbie is.” Or maybe you keep multiple word processing files open at once, one for the actual draft, one for stray ideas that pop up when you’re drafting. Maybe your drafts are littered with asterisks and side notes — “This guy needs a better name” or “What kind of car should she drive?” — to soothe your perfectionistic editor while your deeper mind is in charge. These are all very natural things we do in the drafting process, and yet, sometimes these are the very things we’re least likely to discuss.

Maybe that’s because we know that process is somewhat idiosyncratic. Danielle Steele is known for locking herself in her office for a block of days without interruption to generate a first draft all in one long rush. Does that mean this will work for you? Maybe, maybe not. You might be a writer who needs a pause between writing sessions to recharge the battery, or else you risk creative exhaustion.

Or maybe it will work on one project, but not on the next. This is the part of process most likely to turn our foreheads read with blood. “But I wrote my last book while listening to Mozart’s cantata Davide Penitente. Now if I play it, I get this slightly disgusted feeling and spend the afternoon staring out the window. Must be writers block.”

Or might be a need to change the process. Sometimes a particular trigger can become so deeply associated with a particular project that it won’t work for other projects. It’s not writers block. It’s your deeper mind’s way of telling you that the cantata project is finished, and it’s time for something new.

So when you read your favorite author’s Write or Die totals, day after day, in a twitter post, what you’re really reading is a snapshot of her process. She’s trained her mind to generate productive outcome at that pace, consistently, and she’s using a particular tool to help her with that. In fact, whenever another writer talks process, that’s the take-away for the rest of us: here is a training technique that worked, and it might work for you, too.


What process tricks have you discovered to help you generate words? Do you use them for both drafting and revising? Have you ever tried any tricks that really, really didn’t work for you?

RU Nano-ers…we’re past the halfway point already! Will you have time to stuff the turkey and cross the 50K word finish line? Tell us about your story and share your word count.


Join us on Monday, November 19th, when Cherry Adair presents: Secrets to Turn a Character from Cardboard to 3-D. 


Bio: Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.

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16 Responses to “Theresa Stevens on Habits and Processes”

  1. Morning, Theresa & RU gals!

    I’m not doing NaNo (never seem to have a project to draft at this time of year :-(), but I’m constantly refining my process. The fastest draft I’ve ever done was about 50k+ words in two weeks. The slowest is…well…that manuscript is probably still in the works.

    After all my moves and travel, I try to have a process, but stay loose with it, so I can quickly recognize when it’s not working. And instead of getting stuck because it’s not working, I just play around and find another process. I find it’s SO much easier if I find a process that works with what’s happening in my life at the time, instead of hanging on to the old one and being miserable because I can’t make it work.

    Tweaking my process also keeps the whole thing fun!

    Happy Friday,

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | November 16, 2012, 6:32 am
  2. Hi Theresa,

    I jot down notes all the time. When I have a few pages, I type them up. As I write, I go through the notes and add to them. I don’t count words because I don’t write fast.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | November 16, 2012, 7:57 am
  3. Good morning all. When it comes time for my first draft, I set myself a weekly word count goal and go. I try not to edit on the first draft because many times things come out of the blue and I find they work.

    When I’m stuck, I grab my IPod and go for a walk. There’s something about the fresh air that gets the creative juices flowing.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | November 16, 2012, 8:23 am
  4. My process needs an overhaul – this will help! Thank you!!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | November 16, 2012, 9:02 am
  5. I do things differently for each book. Through to exercise my brain before writing, I look through many vocabulary words. Music works for some stories. It would be best if I could wake up at 5 am to do some writing when my subconscious mind works wonders or very late at night. But I can’t allow myself to do that on the regular basis because I get children to school and get to work.

    Posted by Anna Labno | November 16, 2012, 9:54 am
  6. Morning all…

    My writing seems to work best late at night…after DH has gone to bed, after the cats have gone to bed, when it’s peace and quiet and I’m so tired….but my brain kicks in and generally a half hour or more will fly by and then I’m writing.

    Unfortunately I don’t get those quiet times very often! And I rarely get inspired in the mornings when I have time!

    Obviously my routine needs some adjusting as well! =)


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | November 16, 2012, 2:30 pm
  7. <>

    Really, it’s let the muse have full warp speed. Setting a timer for 30 minutes can help with getting started.

    >> Do you use them for both drafting and revising? >>

    Revising is a very different process for me. I first have to make a very, very fast pass through the manuscript and clear out the junk that wandered in (and continue clearing it during the revision). Since I really have trouble getting details into the story — I’m very right brained and details are very left brained — I’ve been playing around with discovery writing. I get to a scene on a beach, so I go research that location. What trees are there? What does the beach look like? How warm is it? What does the water look like? What does it smell like? Then I work on a separate piece where I describe everything. I did try this on a short story before I wrote it, and I did have an easier time getting more description of the setting in, so I may try this on a first draft.

    >> Have you ever tried any tricks that really, really didn’t work for you? >>

    Daily word count goals. If I start focusing on getting a specific word count, I end up paying attention to the word count and not the quality of the writing.

    Posted by Linda Adams - Soldier, Storyteller | November 25, 2012, 8:07 am

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