I recently attended an author’s book signing/reading at a local library and I was intrigued by the questions being asked of her by the audience. Being an author myself, I thought of how I might, if in her shoes, answer the questions she was being asked and how my answers might differ from hers.
One question she was asked related to the characters in her books. Were they drawn from people she’s known? Were the settings familiar places? Her answer surprised me. She said that her characters were made up and did not come from real life. Maybe she felt the need to give an evasive answer to protect herself from lawsuits, I’m not sure, but in thinking of the characters in my stories, I would have to admit that most of them are derived from people I’ve known, whether briefly and superficially or for years and intimately. It may be a personality, a physical trait, or because that person had a profound impact on me, but somehow using real people gives me a foundation from which to start and a recurring visual as a reference point while I write. Once I have the foundation, I can then add layers as the character develops.
The settings for my stories are also familiar to me, which is different from the author who didn’t place much emphasis on it. Whether it be a tree-lined street in a small town, a river winding through the mountains, or the inside of a house I once visited, my stories all reflect places from my life’s experience. I’ve been there and I can see it. I’ve often thought the mind is like a computer and for fifty-three years (pre-writing life) files were uploaded into my mind, hundreds and hundreds of them, one after the other. Files filled with people and places and things. From the time I was a small child until the present. And I was running out of capacity. And because I have a great memory, for the past five years (writing life) my mind has been doing a subsequent download–not to be confused with a document dump–and the process doesn’t seem to be slowing.
Of course with our extremely litigious culture, there will be the obligatory disclaimer at the beginning of each book: This is a work of fiction. The events described herein are imaginary. The setting and characters are fictitious and not intended to represent specific places or persons. If you say so.
Another question asked of the author was how she puts her stories together. Does she start from the beginning and write all the way through until the end? I’ve found that once I have the general plot for a book, I have a tendency to break it down into chunks. I often begin with an opening scene and then write individual stories within the overall narrative. In most cases, I write the ending early in the project. Once I have the beginning and end, all that’s necessary is to fill in the remainder. Not so easy that. I may dwell on a particular part of the story for days, thinking about which way I want the story-line to go. On a good note, this process allows me the freedom to create, but it also gives me many decisions to consider, and that’s where the work initiates. But it’s a rewarding work.
An additional question the author was asked involved the when of her writing. Do you have a set time or routine in place as to when you do your writing? For her, now that her children are in school, she has a definite routine; she’s up at five thirty and begins writing with her first cup of coffee and once the kids are off to school, she has the entire day for writing until they come home in the afternoon. I would love her writing schedule and hope to be in a similar place some day.
For now, I write when I can, and in my case, this is much more complicated and sporadic. Since I still have a full-time career, I have to work my writing in wherever and whenever I can. I travel a lot for my job and find I’m most productive in my hotel room, from six o’clock until I fall off to sleep. And since I travel, I find that while I’m driving my mind is running about as fast as the engine of the automobile, which isn’t necessarily conducive to good driving skills. Sometimes ideas will come to me and I feel a need to write them down or email them to myself in order not to lose them. Other times I just mull an idea, over and over, and never really come to a conclusion, but I realize that massaging process is important to the final result. In addition to driving, the other activity I find to be the most creative for me is when I’m walking my dog.
A final question for the author was asked by me. Do you find the querying process and the accompanying rejections to be discouraging or frustrating? I knew when I asked the question that she might respond that her manuscript was accepted on her first query, which would have discouraged me more than I already was, but I took the risk nevertheless. Her answer not only surprised me, but gave me much encouragement. Her first book had taken her five years to write. In addition, she told the story of sending out over one hundred query letters, and receiving either a rejection or no response, which is in reality the same thing. And then she endured silence for two years before someone showed an interest in her manuscript and offered her representation.
The funny part of her story, if being rejected can be funny, was that on her daily trips out to the mailbox she would find new rejection letters in the mail and on her way back to the house she would rip the letters into shreds so her husband wouldn’t see them. Picture Clark Griswold ripping up his one year membership in the Jelly of the Month Club. In my case, all of my rejections and no responses have come via email and my wife is intentionally shielded from seeing them, although I do cry on her shoulder from time to time in a reverse Sally Field, “Why don’t they like me? Right now, they don’t like me. Why don’t they like me?”
I’ve found that the more I write, the better my writing becomes, which is not unique to me. It isn’t so much how you write, your particular process, but that you write. If it is in you, your job is to get it out. Turn off the television. Turn off talk radio. Walk the dog. But do what you are inspired to do. As Mr. Twain once said, “Write what you know.”