You know what? I'm not doing it wrong. I'm doing it right. I'm doing something that works, and produces books, which are books that for some inexplicable reason people are willing to give me money for, and screw it. I don't care if I'm punching cards in the right order. I care that I'm writing books, dammit.
I hereby declare today, December 16, 2008, the first annual freedom from writing guilt day. On this day, I empower everybody who is engaged in some kind of creative endeavor who reads these words to quit feeling guilty for doing it wrong. If your process is working--and by working, what I mean is, creating finished works with a general upward trend in quality over time--then stick to it! Do what you are doing! It's fine! you're doing it right! If it's not working--if you're stuck, or if you're not getting better, or if you are not finishing things--then change it up! Do something else! try things until you find a process that does work!
Here is some writing advice I will henceforth be ignoring:
1) You must write new words every day or you are not a real writer.
...whatever. Some days, maybe I won't write. Some days I might even take off, and call a weekend. Some days I might take off and do nothing productive at all. I propose, "You must complete and release new projects every once in a while, on a schedule that suits your creative capabilities."
2) If you are stuck, it's because you are overediting. Push forward
...whatever. If you are stuck, it might be because you need to go back and fix earlier work that's no longer supporting the story as it moves forward. It might be because you need to go research related material until you get an idea. It might be because you need some cooking time. It might be because you need to go back and fiddle with stuff for a while until it all clicks together in your head.
To refute an oft-quoted and asinine comment, writing is not digging ditches, and if you treat it like digging ditches, you will get... very nice ditches.
Ditches, it probably goes without saying, are not very good books.
I think in reality writing is more like baking bread. You have to control a lot of variables: the temperature has to be within acceptable ranges, the yeast has to be happy, the moisture content of the air has to be right. Or maybe mountain climbing is a better metaphor: you are up there at the mercy of the elements, and for success, preparation and luck and timing are everything.
This is not to say that if you are constantly getting ten thousand or thirty thousand words into something and stopping dead, and never finishing, you shouldn't maybe make yourself quit dicking around with those first three chapters and move forward. But if you consistently find yourself pausing a third of the way into the book to rearrange the first hundred pages, and then moving on, that's okay. It's fine. Go ahead and do it. You may be stuck because you need to
3) You must write a book a year.
whatever. Okay, you most likely must write a book a year to support yourself, in whole or in part, as a writer. But that's industry, not art. No less a light than Dennis Lehane has said it takes him two years to write a novel he's happy with. (He writes pretty good novels, I note: I'm a fan.)
4) You must not write too fast.
Whatever. Write as fast as you are comfortable writing. Some writers draft a novel in four weeks. (Mostly they probably don't write every day between novels: I suspect they tend to be binge writers, who do a lot of their processing in their head rather than on the page.)
I get this one a lot. "You write too fast! Your books would be richer if you wrote more slowly!" Considering that most of the books I've published in the last few years were decades in the making (Undertow, Carnival, A Companion to Wolves, and The Stratford Man came from new ideas) and that one of the most consistent critiques of my work is that it's baroque, incomprehensible, and overly complicated (even the books I think are transparent and straightforward, like Dust) I suspect that spending more time on any given book would, well, result in stuff nobody wanted to read.
5) You must work on one project at a time.
Whatever. See number four.
And now I have an eight-year-old novel I need to continue revising. But first, tea.
I leave you with the only good set of musts I know for any working writer:
You must write.
You must revise what you write.
You must finish what you write.
You must release what you write.