I used to write when the spirit moved me, or when I had a good idea for a scene. Now, I’m much more disciplined about it, but I still find deadlines to be really helpful.
I find NaNoWriMo to be really helpful in sketching out my ideas for novels. I need that initial push and the time crunch aspect to motivate myself to get the ideas down on paper and not get bogged down in a linear way. When I first started writing, I thought I had to write the story through completely, in an actual time line. Now, I’m much more likely to write big scenes or moments, and leave the little nit-picky things for later. (Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, calls this writing in big chunks, and it’s how she writes.) Giving myself permission to do this is very freeing. However, unlike Diana, I usually have some idea of where the book will go, and I do like to outline sometimes, especially if it’s a more complicated story. But I don’t always do it. I also don’t do detailed character lists before I start. Some characters I have from the beginning, but some just spring up.
Of course, this is how I write fiction. Writing non-fiction is a completely different beast, and for that, it’s best for me to go straight through so I don’t get muddled. My journals are a huge help in establishing time line and refreshing my memory of minor details. (I’ve kept a journal regularly since I was 13 years old, so I have 20 years of journals saved up.)
Usually I sit down and just write whatever is in my head for the moment. It’s easiest for me to start, of course. When I’m continuing a piece, I have to re-read what I’ve written over the past day (or many days), until I feel I’m suitably in the setting, and then I continue. Sometimes I need to review my notes to see if I have any ideas that I haven’t used, or I haven’t fully developed. I do not (or try not to) edit much in the re-read, because then I’ll get stuck and not write new material.
Once the new material exists as a first draft, I let it sit for awhile–usually a month or so–and let it marinate. If I try to edit when I’m too close to it, it’s not a good edit. So when enough time has passed, I’ll go back to the work and edit it. I’ll do this a few times. Then it’s time for beta-readers. This is where I am with the memoir.
The readers send their feedback, and I work it in–or not. Then I edit again, and then I consider it “done.” There is only one finished piece I have; that’s Pilate’s Wife, which I now need to publish. (More on that soon, I promise.)
Eventually there’s a point where you need to stop editing and realize that it’s as done as it’s going to get. There are always things you could change, I suppose, but then nothing would ever be finished, and readers would have nothing to read!