My Writing Process — 2022

One of the goals of Words Deferred has always been to open up my writing process for everyone to see. I don’t claim to have the perfect process, and I think the best way to write will ultimately be different for each writer. However, there’s surprisingly little talk among writers about the day-to-day details of what writing is like, and I want to do my small part to change that.

As the end of the year approaches, I thought it would be interesting to look at the writing I’m doing and the tools I’m using in 2022. Then I can look back on this next year and see how things have changed, or if they’ve stayed the same.

Ideation

Writers are known for carrying little notebooks and jotting down ideas whenever and wherever they appear. In the past, I’ve carried pocket-sized notebooks, but I went entirely digital several years ago.

My digital notebook of choice is Microsoft OneNote. I have separate tabs for general brainstorms and ideas, short stories, novels, blog posts, lists of books I might eventually read, and more. When I need to take notes on the go, I just jot them down on my phone. OneNote synchronizes automatically between phone and laptop, with only occasional weird formatting issues.

My OneNote. There are a lot of pages hidden under those headings…

Novel Writing

For novels, when I’m ready to go beyond the idea-gathering stage, I move all my notes from OneNote into Scrivener.

As far as I am concerned, Scrivener is the best novel-writing application out there. Where it really shines is in the way it lets me split a big project into nested parts. I split Razor Mountain into folders for each act, then split out each chapter into its own document under those folders. I have separate sections for major characters, locations and other research notes.

With a click of a button, I can look at the chapter summaries on a cork-board view, and I can drag-and-drop chapters in the document tree to rearrange them, something that has been really convenient as I’ve merged and moved chapters in Act II. Scrivener also has built-in support for “snapshots,” which I use to save each revision of each chapter. I typically save at least a rough draft, a second draft after some editing, and a third draft once I’ve gotten reader feedback.

To ensure that my work is fully backed up, I save my Scrivener files to Dropbox, which copies them across my computers and my phone for safe-keeping. I do have the mobile version of Scrivener, but I almost never use it. I love taking notes on my phone, but I do not enjoy long-form writing on that tiny keyboard.

Serial Publishing

I’m publishing Razor Mountain as a serial in three places: here on the blog, on Wattpad, and on Tapas. I chose to do this so that I could get a feel for the different platforms, and to try to increase the visibility. However, I haven’t done much to promote the Tapas or Wattpad versions, so pretty much all of my regular readership is on WordPress. I keep telling myself that I’ll eventually put some love into Tapas and Wattpad, and that may actually happen at some point. Either way, I’ll continue on all three until Razor Mountain is finished.

Because I’m posting to three platforms, my process for this is a little bit insane. It goes something like:

  1. Write the first draft and first round of edits in Scrivener.
  2. Copy it to Google Docs for easy beta reader feedback. Fix the formatting that doesn’t transfer nicely.
  3. Make changes based on feedback in Scrivener, and decide how to split the chapter into multiple posts.
  4. Copy it to a OneNote template with the brief description at the top and links to previous/home/next at the bottom.
  5. Copy from OneNote to WordPress. Schedule the posts.
  6. Copy from OneNote to Wattpad. Fix all the formatting that doesn’t transfer nicely. (Wattpad has no way to schedule posts.)
  7. Copy from OneNote to Tapas. Fix the formatting that doesn’t transfer nicely. Schedule the posts.
  8. On the scheduled day, chapter parts automatically post to WordPress and Tapas.
  9. I have to manually post the saved draft to Wattpad. I also have to update the previous/next links in the WordPress post, and I need to add links to the Razor Mountain home page. Depending on how busy I am, I sometimes forget to do these things, and I typically don’t catch it until I start posting the next chapter.

Some of this complexity comes from posting in three places, each with their own idiosyncrasies. It’s obnoxious how often copy/pasting between tools and websites causes the formatting to be lost. It’s doubly obnoxious that Wattpad doesn’t let me schedule posts.

I suspect there is probably a way to add WordPress links (previous/next and home page) that point to a scheduled post and only work once the post is “live.” I haven’t spent the time to figure it out though.

Short Stories

The majority of my writing time this year went toward Razor Mountain and the blog, but I have managed to sneak in a few short stories.

For microfiction, drabbles, and flash fiction, I often just work in OneNote. Unlike novel writing, I sometimes do work on short short stories on my phone, and I typically do not need organizing features or formatting more complex than italics and bold.

For longer stories, I usually use Microsoft Word on the laptop. Oddly, I copy to Google Docs for easy beta reader feedback, but I never really write in it. I’ve been using Word for years and I’m comfortable with it.

For all of my stories, I save everything to Dropbox to make sure it’s backed up. When it comes time to find places to submit stories, I use Duotrope.

Blogging

My blogging schedule has fluctuated over time, but these days I try to post Razor Mountain chapters every other week.

Unless a chapter is around a thousand words or less, I will break it into 2-3 parts of about a thousand words each. I’ve read that 500-1000 words is the sweet spot for keeping readers’ attention for blogs, and a slim majority of my WordPress readers are on mobile, where a post of that size feels bigger on the page than it does on a full-size monitor or tablet. Tapas and Wattpad don’t have that kind of detailed dashboard for writers, but they do say that most of their readers are also on mobile.

Along with the chapters themselves, I write a development journal for each Razor Mountain chapter. Sometimes I post the chapter parts earlier in a week (e.g. Wednesday and Thursday), and the development journal on Friday. If I have three parts in a chapter or get a little behind, I will sometimes post the development journal the following Monday. I used to worry about maintaining an exact schedule, but nowadays I just aim for a schedule and adjust as needed.

I write blog posts unrelated to Razor Mountain on the “off” weeks, and sometimes for the Monday of Razor Mountain weeks as well. I’ve been blogging long enough now that I have a few ongoing series of posts, so I will often mix one of those posts with something stand-alone in a given week.

I’ve gotten in the habit of posting reblogs every other Wednesday. Writing three blog posts in a week is too much for me, and reblogs are low-effort (while hopefully still interesting content). They occasionally result in some cross-pollination with the other blog’s readership. Their main purpose is to serve as a good motivation for me to regularly read other writing blogs. I maintain a list of interesting articles and blog posts in my OneNote, and trawl through them for these reblogs.

For the header images on my posts, I use Pexels. I don’t usually do any picture editing apart from cropping. If I have a really difficult time finding an image that I’m happy with, I will occasionally check Unsplash. Both of these sites offer pictures that are free to use and do not require specific license language to be displayed.

(If you’re blogging, please do yourself a favor and always check the licensing and make sure you’re attributing correctly. There are trolls out there who will sue you for hundreds of dollars, even for such non-crimes as using the incorrect version of Creative Commons. And if the image isn’t licensed for your use, don’t use it!)

I make it easy on myself and always use the same cover image for Razor Mountain chapters, and pictures of mountains for development journals. For all other posts, I just search for terms vaguely related to the content.

I always write my blog posts in OneNote, do an editing pass, and then copy/paste them into WordPress. I almost never publish a post immediately. Instead, I schedule them for 7:00am CST on a subsequent day—usually Monday, Wednesday or Friday.

Tracking

My latest endeavor is to try to get a better understanding of how I’m using my writing time. Lately, I’ve been using ClickUp. I like it for charting “deadlines,” even if they’re entirely self-imposed, and laying out a schedule of things I intend to write.

And even though I’ve explicitly said in the past that I don’t want to end up tracking things in Microsoft Excel, I’ve been doing a little bit of tracking in Excel. I haven’t found a great way to roll up the time spent on different projects in ClickUp in a way I like. Excel makes it dead simple to make a few columns and track days, projects and half-hour increments. It’s all compact and easy to eyeball, and there’s always an easily searched website that will tell you how to translate a few columns into an interesting graph, even if Excel formulas make me feel a little dirty.

This tracking stuff is still in flux, and I expect it to change. In every other respect I am an old man, set in my ways. It’ll be interesting to check back in next year, and see if anything is different.

This post is already much longer than I planned, so I’ll end it here. Hopefully it was interesting to see how another writer works. If you’re an author who writes about your own process, I’d love to read about how you’re working. Leave a comment or a link to a post of your own.

Reference Desk #16 — ClickUp

This series is all about tools and resources that are useful for writers. It’s been a while since I added a new entry, because I’ve written about pretty much every tool I use for my writing. However, I recently added a new one to my arsenal: a web-app called ClickUp.

Time Tracking for Writers

Part of the reason I started this blog was to get better at writing frequently and consistently. In that, it has been a success. I don’t write every day, but I do write several times a week. Between my job and family and everything we have going on, I’ve reached the point where I’m mostly happy with the amount of time I’m putting into my writing, and I’m balanced with the rest of my life.

However, ramping up my weekly writing time was an easy way to improve. If I assume that I’m going to maintain my current cadence, I have to find other avenues to increase the quantity or quality of my writing. My next step is to more closely track my writing time and how much of it I spend on different projects. If I can’t spend more time on writing, I have to get more efficient with how I use that time. I read some blog posts by writers who track their writing time, and it seemed like something that might be worthwhile.

If you think tracking your writing time sounds like an awful thing to inflict on yourself, I don’t blame you. It’s a little tedious, and it’s a distraction from the “real” work of actually getting words on the page. However, if you’re the sort of writer that wants to make writing into a full-time job, you might want to consider actually treating it like a job, even if only for a few hours a week—and that may include things like figuring out just how well you’re spending your time.

Even for those who aren’t interested in writing as a job, it can be a valuable exercise to actually track what you’re getting done. In my day job, this kind of tracking has opened my eyes to cases where I was spending much more or less time on certain things than my “gut feel” told me I was.

In any case, I decided it would be worth at least trying to track my writing time as an experiment. If I learned something useful, great. If I didn’t, then at least I tried. Thus began the long and painful search for decent project tracking software.

The Nightmare Hellscape of Business Software

Managing projects is big business, and selling software that supposedly makes those projects run more smoothly is therefore big business too. The Google results are packed with ads, and there are literally dozens of different applications that guarantee they will make your job infinitely better.

I’m sure this is obnoxious enough when you’re some middle manager at a Fortune 500 company, but it’s even worse if you’re just a freelancer or individual who just wants a basic solution for personal use. I’m not going to bore you with the list of products I tried. If you do a web search for project management or time tracking web applications, you’ll find them all.

I had a short list of features I wanted:

  • A list view of projects and categories
  • A way to track time spent on each project
  • A Gantt chart that understands dependencies between projects
  • A low price point – preferably free or a one-time charge

That last point, price, is a tough one. Almost all of these products are trying to sell to big business, and they want that recurring revenue stream. After all, they have to maintain their web infrastructure and all of those collaboration tools…that I don’t plan on using.

I was more surprised at how few tools make it easy to attach dates to projects and then see them all lined up on a schedule. This seems like pretty core functionality to me, but a lot of these products just show projects as line items or colorful squares, and don’t seem to understand scheduling. If all I wanted was a Kanban board, I’d just use Trello.

ClickUp

ClickUp ended up being the first tool I tried that actually did what I was looking for and didn’t try to lock me into a monthly contract after a brief trial.

The two views I’ve been using so far are the list and Gantt views. The list provides a set of category buckets that projects can be dropped into. You can set due dates, a priority flag, make comments, and track time. It’s possible to add more columns here, but I haven’t played with any others so I can’t comment on usefulness.

There is also a nice feature that allows association of sub-projects with a parent. I’ve used this to track things like the individual blog posts and development journals for my serial novel, Razor Mountain, or different drafts of a short story.

The Gantt view puts the list on the left side, and a scheduling view on the right. From here, tasks are placed according to their due dates, but the time range is easily adjustable. It is also possible to add dependencies between tasks in the task details and see them as little arrows on the chart. This is a little bit clunky, and I haven’t used it much.

ClickUp list view. (Project names blurred to protect the innocent)
ClickUp Gantt view.

There are a number of other features that I haven’t really used. ClickUp has several views of the same information, including a calendar and Kanban board. It has a chat feature, video embedding, and a document storage/wiki feature as well. The documents might be useful for some writers, but these are features that will eventually fill up the limited storage available to free accounts.

On that note…

Pricing

One of the key features of ClickUp that makes it work for me is a perpetually free account tier with a reasonable feature set. The only significant limitation is 100MB of storage, which is a good amount, but certainly possible to use up if you start attaching images or video to your projects.

There are several paid plans with various features, but they’re all targeting businesses, and I haven’t felt the need to dig into them. The free tier gives me what I need for my individual tracking.

But is it Useful?

I don’t really know yet. Although I’ve played around in ClickUp enough to decide it’s the tool I want to use for my time tracking experiment, I haven’t been consistently tracking my projects yet. I’ll need to spend some time figuring out my workflow and the features I want to use.

Once I’ve had some time to track my projects and decide if it’s valuable, I’ll write a follow-up post to tell you how it went.

Moving Toward The Mountain

I was recently talking with my daughter about her writing goals, and it got me thinking about my own. I started this blog because my writing life had stagnated. I had an abundance of dreams and aspirations for my fiction. I had ideas. I just wasn’t doing any of it.

This blog has been great for me. Not because of incredible readership or acclaim; but because it got me writing regularly again. I write almost every day. I devote much more of my time and thoughts to writing. Writing has become much more  exciting.

In a lot of ways, this blog is the locus of my writing. Razor Mountain is my biggest writing project right now, and I’m posting it to the blog. I’m doing storytelling classes with my daughter, and posting about it on the blog. I’m reading fiction and books on craft and writing advice blog posts. Those are all great things to do for the pleasure of it, and as ways to become a better writer. But those things are also fodder for blog posts.

Objectively, a blog has no hard deadlines. Nobody’s paying me to write it or yelling at me if I don’t. Even so, this blog has worked as an excellent external motivator for me. For a while, that’s been enough.

My Mountain

A bit of Neil Gaiman’s writing advice has stuck with me.

Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain

If you want to follow this advice, the first thing to figure out is what exactly the mountain represents for you. It will change over time. For me, it means finishing novels and short stories, and submitting them for publication. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but traditional publishing still holds an allure for me. (Mainly the allure of an editor who reads hundreds of stories each month saying “this one is special, and I want to pay you for it.”) And when I say “finishing,” I mean polishing to a standard that I can be proud of; to the best of my abilities today.

Once you know where you want to go, the next question to ask is “how do I walk towards the mountain?”

Getting My Bearings

When I started this blog, just writing something (anything!) several times a week was a big move toward the mountain. Now that I’ve been doing it for over a year and a half, it’s starting to feel like stagnation.

The blog is still valuable as a way to reflect on my work and organize my thoughts on writing, as well as a place where I’ve met other writers and readers. It will continue to be the home of Razor Mountain—my dedication to that project hasn’t changed.

So, how can I walk towards the mountain? I’ve been thinking about that for a while. The strategy I’ve come up with can be boiled down to a few steps.

Evaluate, Plan, Execute, Repeat

Right now, I have a full-time job, and I treat my writing as a hobby. I don’t do a lot of planning. I write what I feel like writing, when I feel like writing it. I don’t really keep track of what I’ve worked on in any organized way. However, my gut feel for how much time I spend writing and what I spend time on are not very useful metrics. Gut feel is usually pretty inaccurate. So my first step is to actually track what I’m writing.

I’ve been evaluating project planning tools, which is annoying because most of them are focused on big business, not on individual creators or freelancers, and most of them have the kind of pricing where you need to call a salesperson to get a quote.

I know plenty of creative people will hear a phrase like “project planning” and immediately go into fight-or-flight mode, but it really is valuable to get all your projects (and potential projects) out of your head and onto paper, or at least a screen. My goal is to get a better view of all the things I could be working on, prioritize them, and then track how much I’m actually working.

Once I have some data, I can make a plan. Maybe it will show that I write less than I thought I did. In that case, I can plan ways to sneak in more writing time. Maybe it will show that I spend too much time on some things, and not enough on others. In that case, I can re-order what I work on, or set limits on certain things.

Once I have a plan, I have to actually try to follow it. It’ll go well, or go poorly, or go somewhere in-between. Then the process starts over again: re-evaluate, make new plans, execute again.

The Experiment is Ongoing

When I write the process down like that, it looks neat and tidy. Real life never quite works out that way. I’ve been working on this for a few weeks, and I’m still trying to find a free tool that I’m happy with. I’ve tried several tools. I stuck with Monday.com for a while, but it’s one of those big enterprise tools, and their free plan removes all the interesting features as soon as the initial trial is over. I’m currently trying ClickUp, which seems good so far. Fingers crossed. It’s an unfortunate amount of work to get projects loaded into a tracking tool, only to discover that it doesn’t do what you want it to.

My initial takeaways are that I do spend less time writing than I thought I did, and that being able to look at a list of projects and decide what’s important to work on next helps me a lot. As a procrastinator, assigning due dates to projects is extremely useful. A project just doesn’t feel real until it has a dangerously fast-approaching due date.

Ultimately, my goal is to treat my writing less like a hobby and more like a job. It won’t be a simple one-time process change. It’ll be more like continuous evaluation and improvement.

I’ll probably have further posts as I make progress. For now, it’s enough to once again be moving toward the mountain.