How Do You Write?

That’s been a frequent question I’ve gotten lately. “What do you write?” Or “How do you write it?”

And it’s one I love answering. Because I’m still discovering what works the best for me myself.

Because I’ve started writing about real people, the first thing I have to do is begin identifying what I need to come up with a blueprint of their lives. Usually, that is at least one nonfiction biography source. Sometimes, I’ll only have one, but for others, I may find several. Who were their best friends? Their spouse? Acquaintances of theirs in the movie business? All of these are potential books or data sources to be mined for information– life events, funny stories that I can use, personality traits I need to make sure to feature… all of it.

Where did they live? Did they move around? Did they have a favorite vacation spot? I need to research these locales.

My weapon of choice is Alibris.com. The majority of my money is spent on research books. I’ve also gotten very lucky that a Mennonite Thrift Store here in town has a lot of old Hollywood bios. So then what? I invest on one of those lovely 5-subject college-ruled notebooks (the kind with pockets), one project per notebook, a different pretty color per book. It’s a big thing for me, hand-writing my notes. Helps me commit the info to memory.

Then I google old news stories, names, places, pictures, maps, etc. I create a folder in my “Novels” folder for each project, and keep all the info in one place. Sometimes, I print the articles if I need to take some of this info with me. These go in the pockets.

Every day– as much as possible, I write before work for 30 to 45 minutes, then an hour for lunch. It’s a stressful job– it ain’t easy. But if you have a goal, you put in the work. It’s as easy as that. When people hear that I wake up at 4:30 every morning, they groan and say they can’t do that. Or “I’m too busy.”

Most of us are busy. I work an incredibly stressful day job. I just shrug. This is a system that works for me. If you don’t like waking up early, then work late. Do what you have to do to put in the work.

One of the first things I learned when I began writing seriously? Don’t work in order. That was the kiss of death for me. I had NEVER been able to finish anything, and I point at that as the cause. If I came to a scene I wasn’t sure how to write, I’d just stop. And chances are, I’d never pick it up again. If I did, I still wouldn’t know, and I would put it down once more.

Now, I write scenes as I think of them. I can put my brainstorms down as they occur. If they don’t work with something else I have, I go back and stitch things together later. I’ve discovered that fixing continuity issues is far easier for me than never getting the material down in the first place. One of my strategies is that when I switch chapters, I put a Chapter ____ at the top of the page. It works in a practical manner, so that when I cut and paste for timeline issues (which always surface, even though I try to prevent them), I never have to worry about renumbering. It’s also psychological. If I initially label it with a chapter number, it’s hard to picture that chapter playing a different role or being in a different place. This way, I can move them around wherever I want. No worries.

Does your work look like it’s becoming a narrative nightmare? Too much exposition and not much else? Dialogue is your friend. I examine every scene and try to figure out where I can add dialogue to liven up the proceedings. It works just about every time.

It’s not easy to start. That’s the scary part– writing down those first few words when you have what seems like an insurmountable mountain in front of you. You just have to keep going.

I compare it to using popsicle sticks to build a toy house. Or building a sandwich. First one piece of bread. Then, another piece of bread. That’s your initial structure– figuring out where the chapters will go. Then you add your meat (or meat substitute, for you vegetarians). More chapters, more research. A little cheese, finessing the timeline, and getting the content in the right place.

Some lettuce maybe? Tomatoes? Add in some details. I try to add the five senses in each chapter. What is this person seeing? Smelling? Tasting? Hearing? That kind of thing. Vivid details so my readers can be in the moment.

And then there’s mayo. Or mustard. Various toppings that I can schmear in the little spots that need livening up. One of the agents I contacted suggested reading Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to see how well he recreated 1930s-1950s New York. It was very effective in putting my latest work over the top for details.

When I have enough to get started, I print it. It looks more professional, and I think better when I see the words in print in front of me. I continue marking up the printed pages, and clipping my notebook paper scenes into the printed copy. Then I transcribe the written portions and add them to the Word version on my laptop. Then I re-print again after I’ve added several more chapters. I recycle several more revisions in so I don’t kill too many trees (and I buy recycled paper too). After a few months to a year, I have 90,000 words. I just keep revising and revising until I like the look of it. Or someone else does.

How do you write? What works for you? What can you not do? What’s your best quality for writing? Share them here.