Recently, a friend who is interested in writing approached me. He wanted to know if I would share my experiences, working habits, difficulties, success and so on. I was happy to answer his questions and I thought I would share them with you – if any of you could also benefit from this:
Where do your ideas come from?
I don’t know. It’s a mystery. Everywhere. Nowhere. I could be sitting in a meeting and someone says something and it sparks a wild train of thought. I could be working on some story and go for a walk and see someone do something and it gives me the next part of the plot. Sometimes it’s a dream. Sometimes, when I’m in the shower. Ideas come when you are in absent space. Empty bowl. Not worrying or obsessing, unless what you want to write about is worry or obsession – then that helps!
What is your writing process?
I write three pages a day, five days a week. I begin by going over yesterday’s pages, rework them and then add three more. I can write more than three pages, but try to write no less. They don’t have to be good; they just have to be done. Like I said, I can go back and rewrite, or edit, them later.
How do you approach a new character? What tools do you use to flesh characters out to make them more 3D?
Characters create themselves, really. Once you have someone appear, you have to allow them to be themselves. You discover their motivations, back-stories, and issues as time goes on. Sometimes you can hear them clearly all at once, sometimes it takes time; and then you go back and rewrite the earlier material to reflect whom they really are. Language is very important- syntax, vocabulary – everyone has his or her own way of speaking, which reveals a great deal in itself. I try to make speech as natural as it can be, within the rules of story telling. Real speech is incomprehensible on the page.
Do you have any writing rituals?
How do you fluctuate between creating and editing your work?
I do both at the same time. Once I have a draft, it’s all editing and rewriting, which is actually my favorite part. It’s in the editing that everything comes to life. Also where you get to excise your “writerly” over-indulgences. The most important thing in editing is cutting out the chaff.
How much research do you do when writing?
I don’t know. Depends on the book. The Wanting took a lot of research. The Heart of Henry Quantum took a little. I research as I write – my character wants to talk about some subject I know nothing about, so I just stop writing and look it up. I do a lot a research on line, which is okay for a character like Henry who really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But for Not Me and The Wanting, I was more scholarly about it. I bought or borrowed a lot of books. For The Wanting I went into archives as well. It was really fun.
Where do you like to write?
I prefer to write outside when the weather is warm. I set up a table in a space outside my office. Other than that it can be almost anywhere: office, kitchen table, sitting on the couch with the laptop on my – yes – lap. I like quiet. No music, no talking. I don’t work in cafes. I will, from time to time, work in a library.
What has improved in your writing from your first book till now?
Experience, is all. You just know better how to do things. Doesn’t mean it comes any easier, by the way. Often it’s the opposite. But you do learn what works and what doesn’t. The main thing is discipline. Do it every day like a job. Don’t wait for “creativity” to strike. It won’t.
What do you struggle with when writing?
How do you keep track of your story when writing?
Great question. I often do lose track of what was said and done, and I often forget the names of minor characters. I do write a history of the major characters, a timeline, so to speak, and sometimes I write out little plot possibilities, but basically I start the book on page one and write in order till the end. If I lose track, I just go back and read. I’m having a little trouble with the ending of the sequel I’m now writing because I know how it will end - in fact, I’ve already written the ending –now I just have to write a few pages to get there. Normally I wouldn’t know the ending, and so the flow is always forward, revealing itself to me as I go along. What I’m doing now is different. I’m learning another part of the craft.
What is the most important thing when starting a new book?
Well, I can go for months, even years, starting new projects that go nowhere. It’s the fallow time they say you are supposed to experience. I find it terribly upsetting and demoralizing. But when I finally do light on something that can go more than 50 or 100 pages, it’s a total high – you know you are going to have a great ride getting to the end. I think my advice is simply, just keep starting. Don’t fear throwing your pages away. I’ve thrown away hundreds and hundreds. There’s always another story in you. Sooner or later it will find its way out.
How much time do you dedicate to your writing?
As long as it takes to write my 3 pages. If I have a deadline or want to finish I can write all day and into the night.
How much of your personal life do you incorporate into your stories?
A lot, but it’s all camouflaged. I don’t write about myself in any way that you could call autobiographical. But you do use your own experience, because those are the most real for you.
What do you do when you feel suck or “blocked” in your writing?
Get depressed. Complain. Then get back to work. When I’m really stuck, I just talk it out with my agent or wife or best friends. This usually doesn’t give me an idea, but loosens my mind.
What would you say, now, to yourself when you started writing?
Do it. Don’t wait. Don’t fear. You may not succeed, but you will be the person you want to be.