ALH Anna Lee Huber - USA Today Bestselling Author

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A Blog for Audrey, and All Aspiring Authors Out There, Especially Mothers
August 20, 2016

I recently had a reader, who also happens to be an aspiring author and the mother of a young child like myself, write to me and ask for some insight and perspective.Writing is glorious and grueling. How do you do it?! More specifically, would you please consider writing a blog post about your writing routine, and how you juggle everything else? Or perhaps you could share with the greater "us" what the various steps of writing and publication are like, in your shoes. I'm curious! I suppose I'm most interested in how you find daily motivation and stick-with-it-ivness. This could tie into either your initial journey, or your current process. Both interest me, but that's be a whole lotta content, eh? Write what wants to be written!”

I think the key for me has been that I feel a calling to be a writer. Almost from the moment I started writing my first adult manuscript, I fell in love with it as I had when I wrote as a child and simply KNEW this was what I wanted to do with my life. This was the career I wanted. And so I’ve treated it as such.

Now, that doesn’t mean I haven’t had my ups and downs. That first manuscript—which shall never be published without a complete overhaul—took FOREVER to finish. This is partly because I was working another job during some of that time, but also because I simply hadn’t developed the work ethic I needed to. And I let my own doubts and fears hold me back. In some ways I was terrified. I just knew that the wondrous story in my head was never going to be as good once I set it down on paper. So rather than fail, I didn’t try.

Which leads me to my FIRST RULE. You MUST give yourself permission to write complete crap. That first draft is going to be a hot mess. Believe me. And that’s okay. That’s where the magic of edits come in. No one is going to see that first draft but you, so just put it down. Get the story out of your head, as messy as it may be. Then later you can sculpt it into brilliance. I always do at least three drafts of my books before sending it off to my editor. And they NEED at least three drafts. Honestly. Sometimes more.

It took me almost three years to finish Manuscript 1. But I learned so much in the process, and I got faster at writing with each subsequent manuscript. Now that I’m on deadline, that helps me immensely, but not every project I work on has already been sold to a publisher. Sometimes I still have to rely completely on my own motivation to get it done.

My SECOND RULE is to figure out how you work best. Try different times and settings and atmospheres. Now depending on how busy your life is, and whether you have children, you might not have much of a choice, but there are still circumstances you can control. Is it better for you to get up to write a few extra hours before work or your children wake, or are you more alert at night after the house falls quiet? Do you need complete silence or music blasting through your ear buds? Do you write better in a coffee shop, a library, or the privacy of your closet?

There is no right or wrong way to do it, as long as it works for YOU. And once you figure it out, guard it fiercely. Don’t let yourself or anyone else take that time away from you. If you don’t make it a priority, no one else will. It can be as little as 30 minutes, but you have to carve out that time.

I’ve discovered I write best in the morning listening to instrumental music (classical or soundtracks with no words). But when I’m on a deadline, I’ve taught myself to focus whenever and wherever I can. At night. In a bustling coffee shop. Writing books is my job, and I have to get it done, whatever it takes.

In some ways I’m lucky that I had a chance to learn how best I work before my daughter was born, though there’s nothing like having a young child to make you adjust your expectations. When my daughter was a baby I wrote whenever she napped. Now that she’s a toddler, that’s not enough time. So we’ve hired my mother as a babysitter. I’m fortunate that she lives nearby, otherwise we would have had to find someone else. And that was a priority, otherwise I would never have finished the last four books. My mom watches the toddler for several hours three mornings each week until naptime, and my husband watches the toddler on one morning. (His schedule is flexible.) So four days a week I can work for about 5-6 hours straight, minus a lunch break. On the other three days, I squeeze in work time during naps, or when my husband watches her, or at night after the toddler goes to bed.

During those mornings when my mom or husband watches the toddler, I guard my time fiercely, and try to use those hours to actually write. I can check emails, update social media, plan release parties, etc. if needed while my daughter is watching Daniel Tiger, but the one thing I can’t do is write. That takes too much focus.

I’ve also discovered, oddly enough, that in many ways I’m more productive since my daughter was born. I think this is because I am somewhat of a procrastinator. Not in the sense that I wait until the very last second to do anything. I’m much too analytical and organized for that. But because the press of the deadline clock actually helps keep me more motivated and focused. I usually don’t get down to the meat of writing a book until about 3-4 months before it’s due. Having a young child adds to that sense of urgency and focus, because when it comes down to it I simply do not have time to NOT write. It gets my butt in the chair and helps me swat away the doubts and work through issues faster, because I just don’t have the time to stew over them. The book must be written, and I’ll deal with the rest later. Before my daughter was born I sometimes spent weeks stalled over a plot issue or a crippling feeling of inadequacy. Now I still encounter those problems, but can more easily find a way through them or brush them aside.

My current writing process is as follows: I develop the story concept. Sometimes this is already done if it’s the second or third book in a contract, other times I start from scratch. Then I dive in and begin to do research. Depending on the time period and the story concept, this can take a week or a few months. For instance, I already have a strong grasp of the general details of 1830s Scotland from my initial research I did for The Anatomist’s Wife, but when I jump time periods, like for the new Verity Kent series, I have to start all over. As Death Draws Near took a lot of research because I moved to Ireland and I was dealing with so many political and religious issues.

Next up, I plot and do psychological character sketches for all the main characters. I need to know what all the arcs of my story are—the mystery, Gage and Kiera’s romance, Kiera’s individual journey, etc. Then I work those into a general outline that I continue to flesh out until it fills about 5-6 pages. I like to know where the story is going, but not get into too much detail, otherwise I feel like I’ve already written the book and it loses some of its spark and spontaneity. My books have never turned out exactly as I initially plotted them, and I’m glad about that. They all took twists and turns for the better.

Then I start writing. I prefer to write the first draft as quickly as possible, so I don’t lose continuity and forget things. Once it’s written, I print out the entire book and do an intensive edit with red ink and post-its. Reading it this way helps me catch things I wouldn’t if I looked at it on the screen. Then I read through it another time as I input my edits and make adjustments. Once that’s done, I do one last fast read-through on the computer and send it off to my editor.

I will admit that the last 4-6 weeks before a deadline are usually spent doing nothing but writing and editing. This is the grueling part. And why I usually like to take a few weeks off when possible after meeting a deadline. Depending on my editor’s schedule, she gets back to me in a few weeks or months with her comments and suggested revisions for me to make. Then it goes through a copyedit and a proofread, after which I get a chance to go through and approve changes, as well as make some of my own. So it passes through at least three rounds of edits at the publisher before it’s considered ready for publication.

These edits don’t always fall at optimal times. I received my copyedits for A Grave Matter two days before I was scheduled to be induced to deliver my daughter, and I had ten days to return them. Needless to say, I didn’t get a chance to review all the suggested changes. But my publisher worked with me, and allowed me to make more significant changes to the proofread edit than they normally would have.

Writing isn’t always easy, but it’s what I’ve chosen as my career, and that’s what keeps me motivated to get it done. This is how I support my family. How I make a difference and contribute to the world. I’m so incredibly blessed to be at the point where I’m paid to do something I love, and I don’t want to ever take that for granted. If I don’t do it, if I don’t get it done, then I’m going to have to do something else, something I probably won’t enjoy as much.

In the end, no one can make me do it. That’s on me. I’m not beholden to anyone but myself. But it also comes down to a matter of identity. I am a writer. It doesn’t matter whether I’m published or not. It’s part of who I am. However, if I don’t sit down and write, then I can’t claim that identity. You can’t be a writer without writing. So if that’s who you are, then that’s what you do. Publishing is simply a goal, a marker along the way. A big one, for sure. But it’s not the be all and end all. Art is art, an expression of the soul, regardless if anyone else ever experiences it.

I hope I’ve adequately answered my reader’s question. Though I do want to add one caveat. My journey, struggles and process is exactly that, mine. Every author’s varies. So what works for me may not necessarily work for you. So please don’t compare and then decide that because you’re not doing exactly what I’m doing that means you’re wrong. (Oh, yes. I know some of you will do this, because I do it, too. I actually have a post-it stuck to my bulletin board above my desk that reads, “It is counterproductive to compare my writing process with another author’s and panic because it’s not the same or less intense.”)

You have to figure out what helps YOU get your butt in the chair and the words on the page. If dancing a “make the words flow” boogie or nibbling on a piece of word-power chocolate somehow aids your efforts, then go for it. No one will ever know. (Unless you admit it in a blog. *Sheepish grin*)

My point is, don’t second guess yourself. You know better than anyone else what you need to do, whether you want to admit it to yourself or not. But if some small little nugget of what I’ve shared somehow helps you do that, then I’m pleased. Cheers and best of luck!

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