By Alan Orloff
If you asked 50 writers to describe their “writing processes,” you’d probably get 75 different responses. Some writers stick to a set of inviolable rules, others “meander across the meadow,” while others invoke voodoo dolls and incense, heavy on the incense (substitute “alcohol” for “incense” as required).
Hey, whatever works!
Here are a few questions to help you “define” your writing process, along with my responses.
Are you an outliner or a “seat-of-the-pantser”?
I’m an outliner. Maybe it’s my quantitative background and schooling (yes, I’m a reformed engineer), but I feel more comfortable when I know where I’m headed. I think if I tried to wing it, I’d write myself into a dark alley in Newark with no visible path home. (No offense to anyone living in Newark! Or in dark alleys!) When I taught writing workshops and my outliners’ outlines weren’t working, I’d suggest they change their outlines. When things weren’t flowing for my pantsers, I’d suggest they change their pants. Ba da bing!
Do you write daily or whenever you can grab a chance?
Sometimes I write daily, sometimes I write whenever I can grab a moment. (I know, I know—this is a waffle-y answer. Everything’s not always black and white. Or even gray.) When I’m working on a draft, I’m pretty diligent about writing daily. But between projects, I have to admit I don’t write every day. Of course, if you counted emails and social media posts and bios and those frustrating attempts to distill 80,000 words of a novel into four pithy sentences for back cover copy, then I suppose I do write every day. But that’s not the type of writing I call writing.
Do you revise as you go or do you plow through?
I’m a big proponent of the Plow-Thru Method (patent pending). When I’m in first draft mode, my only goal is to hit my word quota (see below), quality be damned. That’s what the second draft is for—making my first draft readable. And the third draft is for making the second draft not suck, and the fourth draft is for…well, you get the idea.
Do you have a daily quota or do you write for as long as the spirit moves you?
Per the Plow-Thru Method, I sit at my computer and type until I hit my daily quota. Sometimes it’s a thousand words, sometimes twelve-fifty, and when I’m really behind, two thousand. Depends on the schedule. After I hit my quota, I move on to other things, even if I’m in the middle of a sentence when I hit my mark. Seriously, I am not joking about getting up right in the middle of
Do you write what you want or what you think has a shot of selling?
Do you listen to music when you write?
I love music. But I can’t write when it’s on. Same goes for talk radio or TV or the latest episode of Bosch.
Alan Orloff has published ten novels and more than forty-five short stories. His work has won an Anthony, an Agatha, a Derringer, and two ITW Thriller Awards. His latest novel is SANCTUARY MOTEL, from Level Best Books. He loves cake and arugula, but not together. Never together. He lives and writes in South Florida, where the examples of hijinks are endless. www.alanorloff.com
By Leah Dobrinska
The single most common question I get asked as a young(ish!) stay-at-home mom of five kids (by day!) and author (by night!) is “how do you find time to write?”
For me, this is like someone asking, “how do you find time to eat?” or “how do you find time to sleep?”
Writing is such a crucial facet of my identity and it brings me so much joy that to not do it feels like it would be a great loss to who I am as a person. I often tell people I feel most like myself when I’m writing.
But I’ve realized this isn’t exactly what folks really want to know when they ask me this question. They want practical, logistical answers explaining how I find the time to write. Or more accurately, I should say, how I make the time to write, given the other demands on my time. So, I’ve started compiling a list of tips for fellow creatives. I thought I’d share it here.
These are things that work for me as a writer who, from the outside looking in, doesn’t have a ton of spare time to devote to my craft. Maybe these ideas will help you make some time to do the thing that fills your cup, brings you joy, and allows you to feel most like yourself.
That’s about it. Nothing fancy. Nothing ground-breaking. But this method works for me. As someone who is not a full-time author but instead writes within the margins of her day, these are my tips for other busy creatives.
I’d love to hear from you. How do you find time to write? Do we use any of the same strategies? Share your best creative tips in the comments below. Write on!
Leah Dobrinska is the author of the Larkspur Library Mysteries, a cozy mystery series set in the Wisconsin Northwoods; the Mapleton novels, a series of award-winning standalone small town romances; and the Fall In Love closed-door romcoms. She earned her degree in English Literature from UW-Madison where she was awarded the Dean’s Prize and served as a Writing Fellow. She has since worked as a freelance writer, editor, and content marketer. As a kid, she hoped to grow up to be either Nancy Drew or Elizabeth Bennet. Now, she fulfills that dream by writing mysteries and love stories.
A sucker for a good sentence, a happy ending, and the smell of books—both old and new—Leah lives out her very own happily ever after in a small Wisconsin town with her husband and their gaggle of kids. When she's not writing, handing out snacks, or visiting the local library, Leah enjoys reading and running. Find out more about Leah, join her newsletter community, and connect with her through her website, leahdobrinska.com.
Writing a novel is like a car trip with a whiney inner child demanding, “When are we going to get there?” For me, the beginnings are easy. The trip is planned, the car is packed and the excitement about a new experience is growing. My planning usually involves a lot of “think time” imagining the story in my head. After I have the concept, I write a synopsis long-hand to give me a sense of where the story is going. Now I’m set.
Except, like a journey to places unknown, often the road isn’t quite clear. For years I’ve struggled with the middle part of the book. Tina de Bellegarde, a Level Best author, put it so well in a recent podcast when she called it “the messy middle.” It’s those chapters that drive the reader to the climax of the story. They need to be vivid enough to keep the reader drawn in and have the details and clues to make the story real. For me, a good middle is like the difference between traveling for miles and miles over flat, boring prairie, or driving the curving highway through the mountains. One will put you to sleep and the other will keep you anticipating the next bend in the road.
Recently, I’ve been stuck in the middle. The first chapters of the newest Cabin by the Lake mystery moved quickly. I had my death (was it an accident or was it murder?), my main character pursuing it and the momentum growing. Somewhere mid-manuscript, my writing car drove straight into the ditch and got stuck in the mud. It felt like I was trying to move the story in one direction and the story itself wanted to go somewhere else—somewhere way too complicated for my writing skills.
How to get unstuck? In my case, the first thing I did was try writing through it. I kept on the same track with scenes I’d conceived at the beginning of the book. After several days of getting myself mired deeper and deeper into a place that whiney little voice in my head didn’t want to go, I stopped and let it sit. I worked on revising a short story instead.
Next, I sat down with my original written synopsis and wrote out a new one. By this time, the story had changed and new characters had popped in. I needed to decide to keep the changes and the new characters or stick to the old road map.
With a new synopsis and a better sense of where the story might go, I deleted the most recent chapters. Oh, I admit, it was painful but necessary. Didn’t someone once talk about the need to kill your darlings? Well, I sent them off a cliff.
Was I renewed? Was the car out of the ditch and on its way again, the kid in the back happily occupied with the new landscape? Not exactly. The story still felt flat and a little lifeless. As I told my husband on one of our daily walks, “It’s blah, blah, blah. I’m bored with it.”
Perhaps the admission out loud to someone else was the key for me. When we returned from our walk, I realized I needed action to get it going again. I wrote several chapters that included another murder, a wildfire and a daring rescue. The kid in the backseat cheered me on.
I’ve reconciled myself that on writing journeys, the middle will often be messy. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned:
Despite my best efforts, I know the car might still go in circles, get lost or hit the ditch once again. Fortunately, as a mystery writer I can always add another body, another cliff or maybe a wildfire to get it back on the road.
Linda Norlander is the author of A Cabin by the Lake mystery series set in Northern Minnesota. Books in the series include Death of an Editor, Death of a Starling, Death of a Snow Ghost, and Death of a Fox. Norlander has published award-winning short stories, op-ed pieces, and short humor featured in regional and national publications. Before taking up the pen to write murder mysteries, she worked in public health and end-of-life care. Norlander resides in Tacoma, Washington, with her spouse.
By Skye Alexander
Writers, especially beginners, are often advised to “write what you know.” Everyone has a story to tell––maybe two or ten––and for many people, writing a book isn’t quite so daunting if you can draw on the huge body of knowledge and experience you already possess. Although that’s good advice, I find it much more interesting to write about what I don’t know. In the process of researching my books, I dig up a wealth of unexpected booty that fills my stories with riches I never imagined.
I write traditional, historical mysteries in the Agatha Christie vein, set in the mid-1920s. I confess, I never liked history when I studied it in school because most of it centered on rulers, wars, and politics rather than the lives of ordinary people. But once I started researching this colorful period for my Lizzie Crane mystery series I got hooked. I realized how much I didn’t know, and I was determined to rectify that deficit.
For example, while doing research for my second novel What the Walls Know, I discovered that the first automatic gate was invented by an Egyptian guy named Heron about 2,000 years ago. He also invented a coin-operated dispenser for holy water. How cool is that? I also learned that some of the world’s great pipe organs have more than 30,000 pipes and seven keyboards, and this incredibly intricate instrument dates back to ancient Greece. Because the book features a cast of mediums and other occultists, I also delved into the Spiritualist movement at the early part of the 20th century––séances, Ouija boards, tarot cards, etc.–which turned out to be fascinating.
For my third, recently released book The Goddess of Shipwrecked Sailors set in 1925 in Salem, Massachusetts, I had to bone up on the clipper ship trade between New England and the Orient. In the process, I found out that these beautiful sailing vessels not only brought precious tea, spices, teak, ivory, and silk to the U.S. in the mid-1800s, but also opium (which was legal at the time). The Chinese goddess Quan Yin, sometimes considered the Buddha’s feminine counterpart, is said to have protected seafarers and ferried shipwrecked sailors to shore––hence the title for my book. Many of the ship owners whose clippers made it home safely didn’t want to pay taxes on the valuable goods they’d risked bringing from halfway around the world, so they slipped them past the revenuers via a series of smuggling tunnels built beneath the city of Salem by the country’s first National Guard unit.
Because my series is set in the Roaring Twenties and my protagonist, Lizzie Crane, is a jazz singer from New York City, I had to familiarize myself with the jazz musicians of the period. Before I began writing this series, I wasn’t a big fan of jazz but that’s changed as a result of hearing the greats such as George and Ira Gershwin, Bix Beiderbecke, and Louis Armstrong play. YouTube is a valuable resource for this. If you’ve never listened to “Davenport Blues” or “Rhapsody in Blue” I urge you to do so. For my fifth book in the series, When the Blues Come Calling (not yet published), I learned about the rapidly developing music recording industry, how records were made in 1926, and even a portable record player called a Mikiphone that could spin a 10-inch disc yet folded up small enough to fit into a good-sized purse.
For me, every day is an exploration into worlds unknown. During my journey, I’ve learned about jigsaw puzzles, merry-go-rounds, rose windows, ladies’ undergarments, Jell-O, New York’s subways, voodoo veves, and so much more. I never know what tidbits of trivia or historic fact I’ll stumble upon and how they’ll influence the direction of my stories. It’s so much more fun that simply recapping what I already know.
Skye Alexander is the author of more than forty fiction and nonfiction books. Her stories have been published in anthologies internationally and her work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. In 2003, she cofounded Level Best Books with fellow authors Kate Flora and Susan Oleksiw. The Goddess of Shipwrecked Sailors is the third in her Lizzie Crane mystery series. Skye is also an astrologer and tarot reader, and has trained as a medium. She’s best known for her many metaphysical books including Magickal Astrology and The Modern Witchcraft Book of Tarot.
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