Over the years I’ve had people ask me about my writing process, since I’m fairly prolific and have a few books under my belt. I’m not a writing coach and this isn’t intended as advice, so just take this as my own personal experience presented for curiosity’s sake.
A little background: I grew up in a household of people with excellent English skills. Both my parents are incredibly intelligent, as is my sister, and conversation was a big thing in our home. We ate supper at the dining room table every night instead of in front of a television, so I got used to having a time of day to connect with everyone through words. And my extended family is that way, too; family gatherings were mostly hours and hours of people chatting and even debating over assorted and sundry topics.
Moreover, I got a good education in how to write, and it all started with reading. Back when I was still a toddler in a crib my parents would put books in there with me. Sure, at first I’d just tear the pages out because hey–it sounded cool! But they also read to me a lot, and pointed out each word as they said it. By the time I was in preschool I was a book ahead of everyone else in our language skills module. Later on, from first through eighth grade I was put in a small private Catholic school that focused more on a solid education than on indoctrinating religion (though there were certainly religion classes, and Mass on Fridays). There was a very big emphasis on reading and writing as core skills, and the small class sizes helped, too. Plus when I went home at night my parents would check my homework and point out errors and how to correct them. So I was very, very fortunate in that I got a pretty good head start in basic language skills, and I can’t overemphasize that fact.
So that’s the background I came out of. What about my process itself? Well, first of all, I percolate–a lot. I can sit with a general idea for weeks, months, or even years before I finally let it out onto the page. When I’m out walking, or working out, or curling up to sleep at night, I’m often thinking about things I want to create, to include writing projects. It varies, of course, as to how long it takes me to get to the point where I feel ready to write about something. On the one hand, my totem stories usually come to me as I’m working with particular art projects, and as soon as the seed for the story appears, I put down the project and sit and write the whole thing out. At the other end of the spectrum, my totemic work can take years to develop before I feel it’s ready to share. I started working with animal magic in the mid-1990s, but didn’t start writing Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone until late 2004. And while I’ve only been writing about the plant and fungus totems for a year and change, I’ve been working with them to one degree or another since I moved to Portland in 2007. Part of why I haven’t written about that work as much is because it tends to be more subtle, and like the plants in my environment I’ve sometimes taken it for granted. But it’s also because, like the animal totems, I needed a few years of work before I felt comfortable writing with any authority.
There’s no set amount of time, of course, between when I think of or observe something and when I’m ready to write about it. But I am really lucky in that all that percolation makes it easier to write when it does come time to pick up the keyboard. Some people write multiple drafts on paper and in word processors, and that’s how they make the words happen. For me, all that percolation may not necessarily give me a set of words ready to go, but it does give me a whole image of what I want to express–it’s as pretty right-brained way of preparing to write, really. I percolate over impressions and ideas, and I visualize things quite a bit. Even if I imagine trying to explain something to an audience, in my imagination I’m showing rather than telling. This all means that when I start writing, I have a pretty clear idea of what I want to write, and at that point it’s mostly a matter of choosing specific words and organization.
One other thing I’m very, very grateful for is that when I do write something, I can usually get most of what I wanted onto the page on the first try. I don’t remember ever having removed entire pages from something I wrote, and if you were to compare a first draft of one of my books with the final product, you’d probably recognize a lot of that first draft in it. I generally only do one full revision/editing session before I turn in a manuscript (or post to the blog here), because I’m generally pretty happy with what I’ve written. I do admit that I’m not as Type-A about my blog posts as I am about my books; I rarely have someone else look over something I write here, partly because it’s more personal, informal writing, but also because it’s not going to go too far beyond here–and no one else’s job is involved with it. With a book going to a publisher, I’m more than happy to play catch with the manuscript with my editor, though even then my book manuscripts have historically not needed too much back and forth. A lot of that is having had really good editors who make a LOT of good suggestions the first time through, so by the time we’ve both gone over the manuscript thoroughly, once is usually enough for all but some small details. I know some writers feel really antagonistic toward editors because some writers tend to be very protective of their baby manuscripts, but a good editor is there to help make your writing better, and even as happy as I am with my initial drafts I’m always happier with the post-editing version.
Setting’s also important. It’s easier for me to write when it’s quiet, and I get really easily distracted if there’s a movie with dialogue going on in the background or if someone keeps interrupting me. On the other hand, I can be happy at a busy coffee shop where there are several different conversations going on at once, none of which involve me. I don’t need music or tea or aromatherapy, but I absolutely have to have a computer–ever since I got my first typewriter in the 1980s hand-writing just became too slow, and it’s easier to process my thoughts with a laptop now.
Finally, I have to time bigger writing projects carefully. If I’m on a roll I can type out a couple of good articles in an evening, but books are obviously more complicated than that. And when I do get into a longer writing project, I want to be able to focus all my spare time on it in one big block with as few distractions as possible. Because I’m self-employed my schedule has both more flexibility and more variability than it did when I had a regular 8-5 day job. But I also put in more time each week on “work” than I used to; 70 hour weeks aren’t uncommon for me, especially at the height of the festival season. And while I still love to write, my artwork is a big part of my income so I can only afford to take so much time away from it. So I basically have to orchestrate big blocks of time where I can get away without making art and focus only on the writing. (This also isn’t factoring in things like cooking, housework, errands, taking time off to keep from going crazier than I already am, etc.)
When I do make this time, though, I’m a marathon writer. It’s kind of an awesome thing to experience. You know the concept of Flow? It’s like that. Everything boils down to that project, and I can spend literally weeks tunnel-visioned on it. To be very honest, it’s one of those things that I live for, and when I get to have it, it’s one of the most blissful states I can achieve. I wake up in the morning with my ideas waiting to turn into words, and I go to bed that night knowing that I get to do it all over again the next day.
So there you have it–the amazing secrets of how I write! You’re welcome to ask me any questions; as I said, I’m not much of a writing coach so I don’t know how much I can help you with your writing, but I’m happy to share more about my process if you have questions.
Heh, the percolation to write is how I write too. Basically my subconscious composes it, develops it, explores it and I have textual diarrhea onto the page once I start writing. My first draft is the only draft, and I send it to my editor for minor touch ups and tightening of the words. Then I read what I get back, make any final clarifications and post it. So yeah, I know what it’s like.