Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Writers on Writing: My Approach

Milinda Jay (from GoodReads)
(NOTE: My friend Milinda Jay, whose novel "Her Roman Protector" was published by the Harlequin Love Inspired imprint this spring, has been running a series called "Writers on Writing" on her blog. It focuses on the Love Inspired writers, but she invited some others to play along (including me). These are my answers to her questions about my approach.)

1.What time of the day do you write best and why?

My day job is writing for a newspaper and destination website, so I’m writing, interviewing and editing all day. But I have found that I’m most creative after noon; I tend to write my more personal columns later in the day. I’ve always been a night owl, however, when it comes to fiction. That’s what I did as a teenager and college student, either writing into the wee hours or waking with an idea and writing in the middle of the night. As a young father, I found that I could only have uninterrupted writing time after the kids (and usually, the wife as well) were in bed, so I would work into the night, getting a few hours of sleep, then getting up to help get the kids ready for school and heading to the day job. Now, with the kids grown, I still do most of my creative writing late at night. I don’t know if it’s connected to my own weird biorhythms, or if it’s something I’ve trained myself to do over the years, or if it has anything to do with that contract I signed in my own blood, but all my best work has corresponded to the witching hour.

2.How long do you write every day when you have a deadline looming?

I live with deadlines at work, and they have a way of cutting through the bullshit. You write what needs to be told, without embellishment, when you’re on deadline. It makes for lean prose. In my fiction, at least so far, all my deadlines have been self-imposed.

3.How long do you write every day when you don't have a deadline looming and why?

I’m going to give an answer related to my night-time activities: about two hours, give or take. Some nights I’m surprised to see how late (or rather, early) it is, because I’ve been in the trance state that a good night of writing induces. Some nights are a hard slog for every word. And some nights I have to say ‘screw this’ and go to bed at a decent hour.

4.How do you begin writing a novel?

The short answer: I have no idea.

My first published novel, Welcome to the Dawning of a New Century, started with a short story idea about a meat cutter married to a Vegan. It was more of a concept about ridiculous situations that grew as I came up with more characters. My second published  novel, The Book of Gabriel, evolved out of a set of dreams over the span of several years that I mined during a daily writing regimen I had created for myself in 2008. My third novel (really, a novella), Dragon Rising, was an attempt to write a space opera for my kids, who were at the time ages 10 and 13, something we could share. My current novel project, This Mortal Flesh, also began with a dream (a disturbing one) that made me want to explore the mindset of a sociopathic homicidal narrator. And my manuscript that’s currently in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest is the result of a childish power fantasy story that evolved over thirty years until I was mature enough and had enough words behind me that I could tackle it.

Each one of these began in a different way. I have copious notes and scenes written for a new project that started during a long drive, after the names of towns we passed suggested the names of characters, and I asked myself who these characters might be.

5. Are you a before you ever write your novel planner? If so, how do you plan? Do you use any outlines, books, formats when you plan your novel?

The only novel I have ever outlined in advance was This Mortal Flesh, and I have fallen so far off that outline it’s ridiculous. However, I often write outlines during the process, to help shape the major beats of the plot. Going back over these notes, I’ll often argue with my earlier decisions and make new notes. Then, as I’m writing, I ignore the outline, just sort of finding my way through a vague idea of the landscape.

6.If you aren't a planner, is there a point in writing the novel that you stop, look back and plan? If so, what is your method for doing so?

See above. I will do read-throughs to make sure details match up from chapter to chapter, or to plant the seeds of a plot device, a clue, or create a repeating image from something I came up with in a late chapter. That way, it looks like I always meant to do that. Also, I will never admit to that. You can’t prove it.

7.Where  did the idea come from for the novel you are working on right now?

I awoke in the middle of the night from a nightmare. I had dreamed that I was a flesh-eating zombie, that I had become aware of what I was, and that all the other zombies around me in the ruined city were still mindless. I knew what I had to do to survive (i.e., kill and eat live people), and in my dream I decided that I could do this. In fact, I was okay with this. That’s when I awoke. Did you ever wake from a sad dream and feel like crying? Did you ever wake yourself up laughing at something you dreamed was funny? I awoke with the disturbing realization, convinced at least until the dream had faded and I fully awoke, that I could kill if I had to. What kind of person did that make me? The kind I wanted to explore as a main character.

8.Do you use any visuals for inspiration? (or anything else!)

Not consciously. I have been looking at lots of steampunk items online to fuel a new project’s early conception, but I tend to avoid looking at, reading, or watching TV or movies about the sort of thing I’m currently writing. It makes me feel like it’s been done before, which of course it probably has, but that’s just death to momentum.

9. How do you get through the "murky middle" of your novel?

That part is almost desperately painful. I’m struggling with it right now. I skipped the “muddle” and went on to write the ending chapters, so now that middle ground is all bridge work, but you still have to keep it active, with obstacles and injuries and so forth. Sheer force of will. Stubbornness. Self flagellation.

10.Do you revise every day? If so, how do you organize your revising? What is your revision technique?

I do not revise daily. Going back kills momentum. I do, however back up and re-read previous segments to get me back in the rhythms of the work, remind me where I have been recently. I try to revise as I get notes from my writers group, then do a read-through to note places that are clunky or need more attention, then do another read through to strengthen verbs, increase the specificity of my language, and so forth.

11.If you don't revise every day, when do you revise and why?

See above.

12.Do you have a writing group, or a trusted reader for your novels? If so, how does that work? Do you meet weekly, or only when you have a novel due? Do you share your materials online or in person?

Yes. I’m part of a group that meets twice a month. We email each other almost daily about some aspect of our lives and work, but we send each other chapters when it’s meeting week. We each make notes on each other’s chapters, and review them in the meeting. Some prefer using printouts, and others forward their notes via email.

13. What have you learned about your method of writing after publishing your book(s)? Has it changed? If so, how?

I have tried to experiment with my approaches to fiction throughout my adult life. What I’ve learned is that your approach is only as effective as your ability. Find what works for you to get those words on paper (or screen). Don’t get hung up on how you plan to do it. Just do it.

14. What advice about a writing method would you give to any new writer?

See above.

15. Is there anything you would like to add about writing?

Our mutual friend Mark says it irks him when someone moans about how they hate writing but love having written (as Dorothy Parker famously said). He says he loves the act itself. I can understand what he means, but I guess I have more pain in the process than he experiences. It is difficult. It is work. Some nights, when it feels like your imaginary world is coming together, it is joyous. When that scene works perfectly, it is bliss. When the ideas are coming fast and freely, it is delicious. But making it make sense to the reader is a job. It can hurt. (My back is killing me right now, for instance.) It will drive you crazy.

In a discussion from lunch recently, I compared writing a novel to a love affair. (I’ve never experienced this sort of thing in my love life, but I read a lot. I believe it is true.) I said my problem with working on a novel is that, once I get past those first heady chapters and am facing the weight of time, I suddenly have an idea for another novel. It’s fresh and new, exciting, sexy – but here I am, stuck in a long-term relationship with the current story. I’ll find myself sneaking off to make notes on the new idea, doing research that won’t help me in the current work at all, basically courting the new idea while still trying to keep the faith with the “old” one. I get mad at the current work, standing between me and my heart’s newest desire. In the past, I’ve even let myself abandon the old work for the new one.

My advice: Finish what you start. The new idea will still be there, waiting, maturing, ready to be set in type when the time is ripe.


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