Recently a friend from high school sent me a message asking about my writing process and if I had any advice for him about writing. (And oh, if he has a book in him I really want to read it. He’s one of the most effortlessly creative people I’ve ever met.)
I thought I would make the answer into a blog post, just in case some of you have the same question.
I have never attended college or university, not quite on purpose. Life decisions are funny that way. I began traveling at eighteen, met my Superstar Husband, got married and had three kids by the time I was twenty-five. My education on writing has come from reading hundreds of novels of all genres, and many books on writing, and I am endlessly thankful to the authors responsible for these books.
I started my whole fiction writing journey with this book, surely familiar to some of you.
I read Bird By Bird when I was twenty-one and pregnant with Kai, my first born. Chinua was in Israel at the time, and the Passover Massacre had happened the day he arrived, leading to a suicide bombing in a public place nearly every day that he was in Israel. It was a terrifying time, I was staying in Marin County with a friend, and reading this funny, hopeful, down-to-earth book by a Marin writer carried me through. When I think of it I still remember the smell of eucalyptus and lavender, the rain, the hard-boiled eggs I popped like shots to feed my growing baby.
Anne Lamott is a force that calms the soul by writing about taking the smallest chunks, soothing the writer’s anxiety, sitting down to work, turning off the horrid voices that threaten the writer. Reading her book, I thought that perhaps I could write fiction.
From there I moved to On Writing by Stephen King. It is part Cinderella story about his own career, part hard-nosed advice, and very inspiring.
Then there was Escaping into the Open, The Art of Writing True, by Elizabeth Berg, a book that focuses on full, ripe, delicious, sensory writing.
When I read The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard, I felt I had met a kindred spirit. She’s just so delightfully deep and tortured, with humor to save the day. (That could be my bio line.) She insists that it takes forever to write a book, which I don’t think is true, but it is such a pleasure to read her advice on writing and life.
The War of Art taught me about breaking through the initial resistance to get to my writing, or art, or meditation. It’s such a good book and I highly recommend it.
And there was Walking on Water, which taught me about the sacred in art, confirming many things I already knew at the core of me. (If you want more delightful autobiography type writing, read Madeleine L’Engle’s Crosswicks series, especially A Circle of Quiet.)
These were my first books on writing. They taught me to focus on details, to sit down and try to get words out (Anne Lamott said 300 to 500 was okay, but Stephen King insisted on 2000), to immerse myself in sensory details, to dig into my characters. So that was the way I wrote. I started with an idea and explored through writing chapters. And then I tried to come up with a plot and rewrote 14 times. It took ages, as you know.
Enter my next phase of writing.
I had always dreamed of writing fantasy. But it was elusive and far off. It seemed nearly impossible to simply, what—create a world out of my head? It was on my list of most-desired-things though, along with beginning to paint again (happening), sailing the world with Chinua once we’re empty nesters (to be determined), having lots of kids (done), learning to cook (done), and having an outdoor kitchen. (Also done.) But I was frustrated by how hard writing was.
In dreaming about fantasy and writing more quickly, I knew that I needed to think about plotting my books. But how? I write in a dream-like state that falls on me, making me feel that the words are not even coming from me—I’m catching them and pulling them onto the page. I’m almost not there. I listened to a TED talk recently that confirmed this, recently, saying that in flowing creativity, the self correcting part of the brain turns off. This would explain the dream state. It’s an amazing place to be, more fun than anything I know.
And then I listened to a talk by John Cleese that changed everything about the way I think about writing.
After watching this talk, I realized that I could bring the dreaming state into a different part of the process. I dream, I write down ideas and follow threads of thought. I play like crazy before I sit down to write.
He suggests taking 90 minute chunks where you do nothing but dream and play, and that you don’t allow criticism to interfere with any part of that time. So for six months, every time I got on the three hour bus ride to Chiang Mai, I listened to music, stared out the window, and dreamed a whole world. I used Evernote on my phone to write down every thought I had, and after those six months were over, I had come up with the premise and a large part of the plot of a fantasy series. When I was ready, I put my ideas into plot format, writing down scenes in order. I fixed plot holes and added characters when they popped into existence. I wrote down who they were and what they looked like, what bothered them about the world, what they were going to do about it. I did it all on the bus. (I was still working on A Traveler’s Guide to Belonging, but bus time was up for grabs.)
When I finally had everything together, I wrote the first draft in a month, forcing myself to complete it rather than start over halfway through like I had done with my other books.
Each day I looked at what scene I needed to write, then began writing, falling quickly into the dream state that I love, riding along the wave of words that came out of my keyboard. It was the most fun I had ever had writing a book, topped only by the fun I’m having while I write the second World Whisperer book. It's hard to imagine that at one point it was all a fuzzy idea. They're all so real to me now; Isika, Benayeem, Jabari. I practically live with them. I also find that it is not stilted in any way. I know what will happen, but I am always surprised by the way it does. I don't plan dialogue or exact moments, all of that happens as I write.
There are some excellent plot books that have helped me in my new way of writing. The best book on writing quickly is Rachel Aaron’s 2000 to 10000. (Reading this book led me to her own fantasy, and Kai, Kenya and I are now big fans of hers.) She also has excellent advice on plotting in the second half of the book.
And the spicily named Take off your Pants! (Referencing the two worlds of plotting and pantsing, as they are known) is another excellent book on plot. I have adopted Libbie Hawker's character charts and they are very helpful.
We're on countdown! I'm hidden away editing like crazy in my own town and cannot WAIT to share World Whisperer with you.
I hope this little post helped with any questions about resources for writing well. If you have more questions for me, don't hesitate to ask!
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