As I start another book, I’m getting off another message to those of you who read my blogs. And I notice that some of the recent responses from you ask about my writing habits.
For those of you who also write, I always say that there is no one ‘right way’ to do it (or anything in life). Some people write half a page a day and agonize over each word and sentence. Others write pages and pages, and that’s fine too. Whatever works. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else’s writing style or habits. We each do whatever works best for us.
One of you asked ‘where to start’ when you finish your novel. The first thing you need is an agent. Most publishers won’t read books that don’t come through an agent. So you need to find an agent to get your work published. I know there are lists of agents in literary journals, and it can be harder to find an agent than a publisher, but you really have to. And then it’s the agent’s job to send your book to publishers. It’s usually a long slow process, and perseverance is the name of the game. I was very lucky that my first book was published—but the next 5 weren’t, and were never sold or published. But my 7th book was. If I had given up before that, I would never have had the career I have today. So you just have to keep at it and not give up (as with most things in life), and keep writing.
Someone else asked if I would consider writing a book about how I write, and the answer to that is: No, I wouldn’t. That seems pretty dull to me. (You just have to plant your bottom in a chair, keep it there, and do it. There’s not a lot of mystery to it). So, no, I would never write a book about how I write.
Another person asked about my writing schedule, do I write all year round, etc. And that person very wisely guessed that my success is based on hard work—and oh boy, is that true! I work very, very hard. Very early in my career ( I only had one baby when I started writing), I figured out that if you wait for time and the opportunity to present themselves—it never happens, and you don’t get anything done. So I made writing my priority, and I turned down just about everything else. For about 30 years, I never had lunch with friends, never broke into my writing time. And my rule of thumb about school related activities for my kids, was that if the child was actually involved (like a school play or a track meet), I was always there—-but if my kid wasn’t present, I didn’t go—-which meant no ‘coffees for Mom’s, no PTA meetings, etc.) The only greater priority in my life was my family, my children and husband. They always came first—but after that, I turned down just about everything else so I could write.
In one form or another, I do pretty much write every day. Not always on a book, sometimes it’s an article or an essay, a poem or a thought, this blog, or a series of letters and emails. In order to feel comfortable, I need big chunks of time to write. I always allow myself more time than I need for a book, because if I feel crowded, or pressed for time, then I cant’ write. I need the luxury of time, with nothing else to do.
My process is that first I have an idea, and it may only be a tiny kernel of an idea, something that intrigues me. It may just be a thought, a tiny piece of something about a person, a news item, something in history, or a philosophy about life. I start making notes, and do so for several months usually, as the story emerges in my head. Sometimes I sit for hours, just staring into space, pursuing the idea. And then about the characters to go with it. And then one day, I sit down at my typewriter and write the outline for the story. By then, I pretty much know the story. And the outline tells the story chapter by chapter. The outlines are anywhere from 40 to 70 pages long. And then I go over the outline, correcting it and making changes. And when I’m comfortable with it, I send it to my editor and agent, and they suggest some changes. I make those changes if I agree with them, without compromising the essence of the book, and then send the outline to my publisher. And by then, it is a total mess, with things crossed out, corrected, written over, full of asterisks ( my editors hate the mess I make!! and beg me to change my typewriter ribbon more often, which I forget to do, and when I’m excited about what I’m writing). And then my publisher suggests changes too, so I do another re-write on the outline. And whenever I write, I do nothing else. That’s all I do, so as not be distracted from the book. When my kids were little, I only wrote at night after they went to bed. But now that they’re grown up and in college, I write night and day when I’m working.
Once the outline is set, I put it away, and let it simmer for a while. And I am usually working on 3 to 5 different books, in various stages at the same time. I work it all the way through to the end of the story, and then put it away for a while, and it continues to cook somewhere, in the back of my head.
When I start a book, it is like climbing a mountain. Brutal, exhausting, an endurance contest. I start the book and don’t leave my desk until the first draft is finished. I work from the outline, but the book just flows on its own (like a movie I see and hear in my head—and sometimes even I’m surprised at what I’m seeing and hearing!) I cry at the sad parts, laugh at something funny one of the characters said. My life becomes totally populated by the people of the book. I don’t talk to anyone (except my kids when they call me), don’t return calls, don’t see anyone, and don’t leave the house. I go from my bed to my desk, to my bathtub at the end of my workday, then back to bed, and then back to work. I work about 20 to 22 hours straight, sleep for 3 or 4 hours, and then go back to work. And I do that until I have told the story and the first draft is finished. Michelangelo called it ‘stealing it from the stone’, when he carved a statue. I’m almost afraid to stop working at night because I’m afraid I’ll forget where I was going with the story, but I don’t forget. And I keep on going until I’m through. That first draft is very rough, and full of mistakes. I read it many, many times afterwards, making corrections, and then when I’m satisfied with it, I send it to my editor (and agent), and then she sends me back a ton of corrections and changes she wants made. I do most of them and re-write it, and the book goes back and forth that way for many months, while I correct it and polish it. And between rounds of working on that book, I work on others. And each time I come back to a book, I see new things I want to improve, polish, or change. I usually re-write a book off and on for well over a year, even a year and a half. And if I need historical research, or about an industry, or geography, my researcher gives it to me (to read and digest) before, during, and after the book, and I weave it in where I need it. So as you can see, it’s a long, arduous process.
I write in old, comfy wool nightgowns, bundled up at my desk. I don’t see anyone. I don’t comb my hair for weeks. And my only concessions to beauty are soap and toothpaste. I just don’t exist while I’m writing, except to tell the story. And if readers say they couldn’t put it down, it’s because I didn’t either, and if they cried, so did I. People bring me food on trays and I literally don’t stop until I’m finished. I don’t go out, I don’t have fun. But I get to go out and play when I finish the book!!!
One of the odd things I’ve noticed is that when I’m working on a book, I always have ideas for other books and things I want to write. I’m working on all my burners and all fired up. But when I’m not working, everything goes to sleep, and I rarely get ideas. It’s only when I’m working furiously that I get more ideas. I know, it’s weird.
So that’s how I do it, and it’s fun to do, although a huge amount of work. When you work 22 hours a day, or even slightly less, everything hurts after a while (at any age), your back hurts, your neck is killing you, every muscle is shrieking. I write until I damn near drop. And even once I’m exhausted, I keep going, and push myself harder. Sometimes that’s when you do your best work. Sometimes my fingers get swollen form typing (I have ice mittens), and often my nails bleed from so much typing. It’s a crazy way to make a living but I love it.
I don’t know where the ideas come from, they just do. I try to know that I’m unimportant in the process, that I’m just a vehicle for the story, like a pane of glass that light shines through. When I start to feel important, light shines through me like linoleum. I think you need a certain amount of humility to do it. It’s a gift, and I’m very grateful for it.
It’s pretty brutal physically, but somewhere you find the strength to do it.
One person asked if I do it all year around. I try not to. For more than 30 years, my life has revolved around my children and their schedules, so I always tried to work it so that I was totally free during their vacations, and I never worked in summer so I could be free for them. That’s still true now as they vacation with me in summer, and three are still in college. So I work like a dog all winter (I work hardest between October and May/June), and take the summer months off. Sometimes now I get a re-write to do in summer, but I try to stay free during June through September, and I don’t work over the Christmas holidays so I can be with them, without distractions, although I’m often making notes on an outline.
When they were young, I was with them all day, and wrote from about 8pm til 3am, then I’d sleep (provided no one got an ear ache, a stomach ache, and didn’t have a nightmare), and up in the morning. Once they were in school, I’d write while they were in school, and then stop in time to pick them up at school and take them to their activities. I’m always in my office by 8am. And I’m blessed that I don’t need a lot of sleep. I manage fine on 4 or 5 hours, which with a writing career and 9 kids is a huge blessing! And my deal with my husband who is the father of my children, and the man I married after him—-was that I would go to bed with them at night, but get up to write as soon as they went to sleep. I was happy to adjust my life to my husband and kids, but now that I’m alone I push harder and keep writing. And I’m always a little sad when I finish a book, I miss the people in it. But once the book is finished, it’s over for me, and I move to the next one. I work a lot of the time. (And I’ve written 106 books, since the first one when I was 19).
Somebody else asked me when and how much I read. Not enough!! I have always been extremely careful not to read anyone else’s work while I’m writing. There is always the possibility that you could be inspired by someone without even realizing it, so I don’t take that chance. I only read when I am not working at all, usually in the summer months, and never when I’m in high writing mode. The only thing I read then is the Bible, or religious articles to inspire me.
So that’s pretty much the story of how I write. Occasionally a rude or crabby reader will write to suggest that I must have other people writing for me. No. No such luck, there are no elves in my basement. I do it all myself…..and I’m so glad that most of my readers seem to enjoy what I do. And now….I’m off to start the new book. Talk to you soon.