Today’s post is an interview with the multitalented Jennifer Lawler. She is an author, editor, teacher, and coach, and with over forty books under her belt, she has a lot of wisdom to share about the writing process. Let’s see what she has to say!
How many drafts do you usually write when working on a novel?
Between three and infinity. Usually five or six, although sometimes more. I have one project I’m still working on that must be in its thirtieth draft by now. I write using a layering process, so my first draft might be fifteen thousand words (more like an extended outline). Then I add layers as I work through the various drafts. Sometimes this only takes three drafts—that first extended outline, then a second “here’s where I actually write all the scenes” draft, then a final “here’s where I fix all the problems” draft. But usually it takes more than that.
Do you ever get writer's block and how do you deal with it?
In my experience, writer’s block equals, “I am unwilling to sit down and do the work.” Since I make my living as a writer and editor, not sitting down and doing the work has never been an option, unless I wish to be homeless. Yes, sometimes everything I write is crap, and often I have nothing much to say, but it’s the habit that matters. Eventually the crap becomes something worth sharing, and I end up figuring out something to say. I guess I would say that to prevent writer’s block I have developed an unshakeable habit of working every single day.
The one time I came close to writer’s block—where I really had trouble motivating myself—was when I was more focused on the product (the book) than the process (the writing). The product will sometimes let you down (as will the whole world of commerce that surrounds it) but the process never will.
If I feel burned out or bored, I go do something I haven’t done before or hang out with people I don’t normally hang out with or take a class in something I know nothing about. (Not long ago I learned all about protein folding. Good times!) I read extensively. I also try to bring a playful spirit to my life and work. You can’t invest too much significance in any one project or any one day. People really stymie themselves when they get caught up in, “This must be my breakout novel! This is the project that will prove who I am to the world!” That is so much out of your control. Just do the work the best you can. Lather, rinse, repeat.
When writing a book, do you use an outline (or some other planning device) or do you wing it and see where the story takes you?
For nonfiction, I develop a complete outline and generally follow it pretty closely when I write, although of course as I get into the trenches, I’ll sometimes end up somewhere I wasn’t expecting. But I try to keep focused on my purpose and my audience, and try to limit how far afield I travel. Ideas that get sparked go into an idea file where I can explore them at another time.
For fiction, as I mentioned above, I use a sort of layering process, so my first draft is more like an extended outline. Subsequent drafts may just build on this or may tear it down and start over entirely. It just depends on the project and what I’m trying to accomplish. I write a lot in the same genre, but I’m not interested in writing the same novel over and over. So I’m usually trying to do something different each time, and sometimes that’s easier to do than others.
I usually start with a basic situation—where we are at the start of the novel, and with a vague idea of where I want the novel to end up. That first draft explores how I get from A to B. Sometimes I just have a feeling state I want to capture. Sometimes I have an image that I can’t get out of my head. The first draft is a way of figuring out what those things mean. I have occasional false starts. I’ll get forty pages in and then nothing. Sometimes I come back to those projects. Other times they stay orphaned forever or get cannibalized as part of another project. The thing about being prolific is you’re not afraid of writing stuff that doesn’t go anywhere, or at least not anywhere right now. For someone for whom forty pages is half a year’s work, this is actually a problem. For me, that might be a morning’s work. (That is to say, everyone’s process is different and what works for me may not work for someone else.)
If you could give aspiring writers one piece of advice, what would it be?
Be patient with yourself and your work. I see a lot of writers in a rush to get their work out into the world. “I’m halfway through the first draft of the first novel I’ve ever written, and so I’m exploring self-publishing options.” It’s not that I think, “Gee, that’ll be another piece of crap shoved into the world,” although it very well might be. It’s that I think you’re focusing too much on product and not enough on process. The goal shouldn’t be to get stuff out into the world. The goal should be to get good stuff out into the world. You have to give yourself a chance to figure out how to do good work.
Another aspect of this is dealing with rejection. People get a couple of “no, thanks” responses to their work and they assume they’re no good, instead of recognizing that there is way more rejection in this business than there is acceptance. So you have to be patient with that as well. One guy I know got seven rejections on a novel and gave up writing. I get seven rejections in a day, you know?
Jennifer Lawler is a writer and editor whose articles and essays have appeared in print and online publications such as Family Circle, Cooking Light, Writer’s Digest, and Bankrate.com. She has worked as a book development editor on a wide range of editorial projects—everything from cookbooks to memoir—and launched Crimson Romance, a romance e-book imprint, for Adams Media, overseeing all aspects of acquisitions, editorial, and production. She has also worked as a magazine editor for MSP Custom Publishing and as a columnist for Entrepreneur magazine.
She is the author or coauthor of more than forty books, mostly nonfiction, including her popular and award-winning Dojo Wisdom series (Penguin). She has written a number of romances under three pen names. She offers classes and coaching for writers. For more information, visit her website at www.jenniferlawler.com.