How I Write

I’ve been writing for a long time, but it was only within the last two years that I decided that I would seriously dedicate my time to finishing many of the stories that I had started and stopped over the years.  My ideas are a dime a dozen.  I have many of them written in my online notebook, in an offline notebook, and on many scraps of paper that I have scrounged from hotel rooms, conferences, and other miscellaneous places over the years when ideas sprung from my ever-wandering mind.  They often strike at the most unlikely moments like a bolt of lightning on a cloudless day.  Sure, some hit at the proverbial times, like in the shower or in the midst of a long run, but many make their presence known at 3 AM in a sudden spurt of wakefulness or in the middle of a terribly boring meeting at work.  All I can do is diligently write them down and see where the ideas take me.  Eventually.

Two years ago while in the midst of making yet another excuse for why I couldn’t write a novel (I don’t have time!  I’ve never done it before!) or turn any of my ideas into stories worth sharing, I decided to do something about it.  For someone who hates excuses more than anything, I sure did let myself get away with that for so long.  Finally, I put my foot down and made a commitment to write every day.  I decided to get up 30 minutes earlier every day during the week and dedicate an hour to just writing.  I didn’t put any pressure on myself to write some specifically; I just told myself to write, and I did.

So the habit began.  I get up at 4:30 AM every morning during the week.  I have breakfast while I check work email and read the news.  Then, I put away my work laptop, grab my trusty personal laptop, plop in my favorite chair, and start writing with a big cup of coffee on the table next to me.  While getting up at that hour may sound torturous, it’s actually a very nice routine that I find relaxing and often the most fulfilling part of my day.  The house is quiet.  I’m alone with nothing but my thoughts to guide me.  It’s easy to get lost in whatever world I’m creating and interact with the characters that come to life on the screen before me.  I’m a morning person by nature anyway, and this routine taps into one of the lucid periods of my day.

In the two years since I started this routine, I’ve completed three novels of at least 80 thousand words each, and I’m halfway through another one.  During this time, I’ve also done multiple edits on all of the novels based on feedback I’ve received from beta readers or editors who have looked at my work.  Most importantly, I am finally seeing those ideas of mine come to life.  It’s amazing to watch the stories transform from a few paragraphs to a hefty novel.  Oftentimes, the stories end up in totally different places than where I first imagined them, but that’s part of the magic of writing.  You just never know where you’re going to go.

Writers tend to divide themselves voluntarily into two semi-religious camps: (1) fly-by-the-seat-of-the-panters and (2) outliners.  I’m an outliner of sorts.  I take my idea and turn it into an outline by chapter where I map out the general arc of the story.  I also write character summaries that tell me everything I imagine a character to be down to her eye color and the dimple in his chin.  Once I have these things in place, I start painting in the color of the story.  While I may like to have such structure to guide me, I don’t let it dictate and control the story.  I’ll often go off on a tangent, decide I love that tangent, and alter the course of the story because of it.

My stories are also not immune to being influenced by current events.  The novel I’m drafting now, The Weight of Regret, was conceived to begin in a nursing home where a grandson found a long-lost grandfather as the story unfolded about a man who had abandoned his family decades earlier.  However, a recent news story about a man found in a ravine in Utah intrigued me enough to change the whole setting of the novel.  I think the story is better this way.  I’m not afraid to pivot if I can make the story better.

While I may do a lot of upfront work, I would be remiss if I pretended that I had everything mapped out from the beginning.  Writing is much like black magic.  You just don’t know where you’re going to end up.  A relatively minor character may take hold of my imagination and I may end up with a stronger protagonist in a seemingly secondary character.  That’s the joy of writing.  There are rules, but then, there aren’t any, so to speak.

One last thing that helped me get over the hump of writing a novel was letting go of perfection in the first draft.  I just pour out my mind on the page.  I let ‘er rip.  I don’t edit or judge as I’m writing in that first round.  That helps me get the foundation for a good story put down, and I rely on the multiple edits done after the first draft to craft the story.  It’s like a lump of clay.  You want to get the basic shape first; then, you nip and tuck until you have a beautiful vase.

How I write is kind of disciplined, but then, it’s not.  That’s the paradox of being a writer, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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