breaking it in
No serious pitcher plays with a brand-new glove. You've got to break it in first. Stretch a couple of heavy-duty rubber bands around it, or sleep with it under your mattress—the methods vary, but the principle remains the same. You break a glove in a little if you want it to fit properly.
For the writing process that best fits your talent, temperament, and material, break your projects in, too. That means getting a bunch of words down before you go down the process rabbit hole. Keep an open mind as you go and pay attention to what works and doesn't.
"The zero draft is the draft you will never show anyone," comic book writer Warren Ellis suggests. "It’s the draft you know is wrong but which contains the bare bones and meat-scraps of the story you’re trying to write. Get to the end of the zero draft, wait a day, and then go back and make it readable to other humans and fix all the egregiously wrong stuff, and that’s your first draft."
Process matters in any writing project. Where are your notes going to go? How often will you write each week, and how long will each writing session last? There are many questions, but despite what the manuals say, there are no universally right answers. Only answers that work well for you and this particular kind of project. Finding them requires doing some of the work first, unless you've just completed something similar.
This is an uncomfortable truth for would-be writers to accept. No one wants to spend hours, days, or weeks writing only to realize they've been doing something "wrong" all that time. Uncomfortable or not, the fact remains: you learn how to work on a project properly by working on it improperly first. Mistakes teach faster than manuals.
Though they were all experienced pros, the creators of Disney's Lilo & Stitch only learned how to make that film by making Mulan first. "[Mulan] was a difficult film to finish," co-director Dean DeBlois recalled in this excellent oral history of Lilo & Stitch. "There were lots of divorces and ailments that came out of that process. I remember myself working daily until well past 11 p.m., listening to people riding the Tower of Terror and poor custodians pushing around vacuum cleaners in these trailer buildings." On Lilo & Stitch, the team wanted a better experience—personally and creatively—and had less time and money this time around. Luckily, having just made one Disney movie, they were ready to design a better approach to making another.
"We want to figure out how we can make this movie so that everybody goes home at night to have dinner with their loved ones," DeBlois told the team at the start. "Everybody gets a weekend. We’ll figure out how to make this and be happy doing it." By establishing a working process on terra firma—the still-raw trauma of making Mulan—the creators sidestepped many of the issues that had plagued that earlier film.
"Mulan was five years of hell," art director Ric Sluiter recalled. "Lilo & Stitch was two years of bliss. Everything went so smooth." The second film also vastly outperformed expectations, making $273 million on a relatively skimpy $80 million budget.
I hate first drafts, but I don't mind starting at zero with my own writing. Even when working with clients, I try to maintain the same open attitude to our methods. To start, we establish a rough approach to everything from idea-sharing to research-gathering. Then, we see what breaks. I've got a sense of how to proceed on a book or book proposal—this isn't my first rodeo—but each collaboration presents unique challenges. So we adapt to them. Things get easier as we go. Eventually, with patience, the process starts to fit like a glove.