Process VS Protocol, or why only one thing matters in writing

I’ve been a professional writer (by deed and definition) for a long time. Sometimes it amazes me. I will never be satisfied or ready to rest on my laurels, but I must admit if I never wrote another word for the rest of my life IWriting is hard work. When we accept that fact we have won half the battle. have come further than I had any right to expect. But aside from that, because of my physics and chemistry background I often think about process and how it can be applied to different facets of writing. Or how it can NOT be applied, as the case may be.

I don’t know that this has any value in the long run. But it is something I think about quite a lot, mainly because as a writer I know deep down there are no hard and fast rules to this profession. Therein lies the conflict with the scientific background of my nature and my education. In physics, as in all sciences, we approach a problem with systematic care. We have a protocol to follow: Hypothesis, experimentation, measurement, theory. It is a rigorous lifestyle and one I believe in with all my heart. In science we are trained to put aside what we want and accept the facts.

Here’s the quandary as I see it. With writing there is a process. You have to juggle many different things in a story to keep them all straight. You have to watch the pacing, be cognizant of tone, characterization, info dumps, grammar, tone, texture, quality…it’s damn near overwhelming. If truth be told a lot of this happens subconsciously. I think that’s the mark of a good writer. Don’t get me wrong. I always feel I am in control when I am writing. I hear stories from other writers about how the “character took over” the story. I call piffle on this. How ridiculous. That’s not the character, that’s YOU. The story is coming from you. Nothing is alive on the pages of a story. What a writer must do is make the character come alive for the reader through sleight of hand and smoke and mirrors. That’s the real trick.

So I have little patience when I hear something like that. When a writer bemoans the fact he tried to get a character to act one way, but the character had a mind of his own. Spare me, please. That’s your instinct at work, your subconscious. And as a writer who has done this for a little while at least I can assure you that listening to your instinct is the one thing you should always do.

But where does that leave us? With the hard truth that in writing there is no standard protocol or hard and fast process to follow. I guess if there is one constant in this profession, one rule that has withstood the test of time, it’s this: To be successful you must make yourself sit down and write.

I agree with that statement…up to a point. I have never thought you should try and write a story before it is ready to be written. Which is to say, before your subconscious is ready to take it on. The whole “to write you have to sit down and do it” has always grated on me to some extent because it overlooks this. Forcing yourself to write a story before it is ready to be written is a sure recipe for failure. To be fair this is far different from making yourself sit down and work/write on a story that is ready to be written. No one procrastinates better than a writer. Even Hemingway acknowledged this when he said he made it a point to “fix the refrigerator” first before he started writing. In other words, he looked for anything else he could do before he started writing. I also think he might have meant a writer needs a clear mind and no worries before he delves into a story. But that last is probably to a lesser extent than the fact we often do look for an excuse NOT to write. Writers are really good at looking for reasons not to write. I have a theory about that, too. I think because we know deep down writing is not that much fun. It’s work. Hard work at that.

I have literally dug ditches. I have cut brush with a machete all day long, from sunup to sundown. I have carried 90 pound geophysical cables through ice-cold sloughs, up steep mountains, across baking deserts. I can honestly say that was easier than writing.

Which brings me full circle to the point of this essay. The old saw “you have to sit your butt in the chair” is true for writing, but up to a point. I think what needs to be said, and what that old saw is actually implying, is that: Writing is work. Deal with it.

And that’s the one thing a successful writer needs to be aware of and accept. There is little in the way of process that transfers from writer to writer. We all do it differently. And as far as protocol goes, forget it. That animal doesn’t exist in this profession. But there is one hard and fast truth that has withstood the test of time. Every published writer knows it to be true. Writing is work. We have to deal with that.*

When we accept that as a fundamental truth we realize we don’t really need process or protocol or a list of Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to writing. We know writing is hard work. We accept that fact so we buckle down and do it. The process we use, or the protocol of steps, is, and will remain, secondary.


*In the future I someday want to write an essay about how after you write the story the easy part is over, and the really hard work begins.

11 Replies to “Process VS Protocol, or why only one thing matters in writing”

  1. I’ve always felt those “the character took over the story!” anecdotes were silly. Maybe the writer’s subconscious was fighting his/her conscious mind or something, but it’s all the writer. You’re absolutely right. Writing is work, and hard work at that.

    1. I’m glad you agree with me because I value your opinion a lot. It is a rather silly argument when I hear “the characters just took over!” from a writer, particularly a professional who should know better.

  2. Excellent advice! I’ve had this struggle myself a few times and I struggle to force myself to sit down and write when I don’t feel ready to. Listening to your instinct is very important and it’s true that there is no set protocol for writing. This is really a great post that covers and opens up a lot of important issues regarding the actual writing process which, I agree, should be a relatively unconscious one.

    Thanks for posting.

  3. K.M. once I sit down and start writing, I am sucked in; then, I am very drained afterward. I have always known this about myself. It has been true since elementary school. Therefore, I have really not been able to write as I wanted for much of my adult life, with other responsibilities, mainly family. I write what I am born to write. I am learning to plan recovery times sensibly these days!

  4. Yay! Free pass to play Sims 3!
    All kidding aside, I completely agree. I’ve been saying for years that you can’t write a story before it’s time, and we get all kinds of cues when it’s not the right time too.

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