Writing Habits

Thank you to Jack Milgram who created this infographic about strange quirks and writing habits of famous authors.  Check them out and see if any of them overlap with your own.  I share desk habits with Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carol.  I drink coffee although not nearly as much as Honore de Balzac.  And, like Vladimir Nabokov, I have been known to write on index cards.

Deadline Dead Ahead

I’m doing hard copy edits on the book that’s due today. I have two more chapters and the backmatter to go.  This gizmo to the right has been my best friend.

It is my mom’s typing stand.  Mom was a graduate of Miss Hickey’s Business School. She worked in accounting but, to my knowledge, she was never a secretary which is kind of sad because this is one handy-dandy stand.

I generally only do one hard copy-edit per manuscript, unless a section is giving me troubles.  When that happens, I print it out, go into the dining room and work on paper.  Then I come back into my office and prop the manuscript up on the stand.

I hope that all of you take the time to do a paper edit when you write something.  I’ve already been through the manuscript 3 or so times on-screen.  And I’ve listened to it read by Speak.  I find mistakes via Speak that I don’t find on-screen.  I find mistakes on paper that I didn’t hear and sure didn’t see on-screen.

Given the fact that we want to give our editors the best possible work, I would definitely recommend doing a hard copy edit.  But you’re going to have to find your own typing stand.  This one is mine.



Sit and Write as Jane Yolen: How to Approach Your Writing

typewriterAbout two weeks ago, I blogged about taking classes online.  The first class I attempted turned into a ball of frustration as I tried to locate, sans links, the course site and readings.  Because I take these classes for FUN, I quickly gave up and moved to the next course.  Creative Writing: A Master Class for which I downloaded the itunes app.

The first lecture was given by playwright August Wilson.  Wilson discusses his efforts to have his work accepted so that he could attend the National Playwrights conference.  Wilson described writing several plays only to have them rejected one by one.  It wasn’t until his fourth or fifth effort that his work was accepted.

What did he do differently that time around?  He says that that was when he realized that he was sitting in the same writing chair as Tennessee Williams and as Ibsen.  An unknown with no plays to his credit, he was in the exact same position that they were when they sat down to write.  He had to figure out how to get actors onto the stage and all of the other things that have to be accomplished in a play.

He had to do these things but so did the greats.

Think about your own writing.  Are you writing picture books like Jane Yolen?  Maybe you are writing early readers like Arnold Lobel.  Me?  Some day s I write nonfiction like James Cross Giblin.  I’m getting ready to work on a middle grade novel just like Bruce Coville.

No matter what you write, you are doing the same thing as the luminaries in your field.  You have the same goal.  You have similar tools.

Will this realization change how you write?  So often we are told to remember that we are in competition with every book that is in print.  Your work has to be that good or better or it will never see print.  And, that’s true enough.

But Wilson has definitely hit on something.  As soon as you sit down to write, or stand at an easel to paint, you have the same goals and the same means to get there as the greats.

You just need to make the work your own.  How about them apples? (To quote my grandmother.)


The Writing Life: How Many Projects Do You Work on at a Time?

deskWhat kind of a writer are you?

Are you the type of writer who works on 1 novel manuscript at a time?  That’s the way my friend Kris works.  She starts working on a novel, contemplating the plot, getting to know her characters, studying her setting.  Then she starts writing ahd that the only thing that she writes.  She may shift to something else briefly if she gets a rewrite request from her agent, but normally she works on that one piece until it is ready to send to her agent.

Maybe you’re a writer who has 6 different manuscripts going at once.  Jane Yolen told me that she tends to work on several different manuscripts at once.  When she gets stuck on one she sets it aside and focuses on another.

I used to think that this was how I worked because I might be noodling over one, researching another, and writing a third.  But then I realized something. Although I’ve got a fiction piece in progress, a nonfiction book in the works, my blog posts, and an article for CBI, when it is time to get something done, than that piece is the one I focus on.  Sure, I may be researching a new nonfiction book while working on that fiction, but once I have a deadline in hand, all other big projects go by the wayside.  Yes, I still blog but I generally focus on one book manuscript at a time.

The reality is that there is no one way to work.  We each have different work habits, schedules and demands on our time.  The key is to find a way to write that works for you.  It doesn’t matter what works for Kris, me or even Jane Yolen.  Whether you write in long hand or type it out on the computer, work on one manuscript at a time or ten, you have to find what works for the one and only you.



How Soon Do You Share Your Work?

Censorship, Limitations, Freedom Of ExpressionI know people who won’t bring a manuscript to critique group until it is polished.  Me?  I’ll bring a much earlier draft.  After all, I’m less interested in line edits than I am in knowing if the plot works.

Then I read a blog post from a writer who won’t even discuss a manuscript until she’s completed a fairly polished draft.  She claimed that if she talks about her idea with other people, the need to actually write it down dissipates.  Seriously?  I just didn’t buy it.

But then I noticed something.  I came up with an idea for a fiction novel.  I immediately discussed it with the friend who inspired it.  And I discussed it with my husband as I started doing the research — its historic fiction so there will be a lot of research.  And I blogged about it.  Before too long I realized that some of that enthusiasm had waned.  Had talking about it consumed some of the energy that would have driven me to write it?  I honestly don’t know.

But about the time the enthusiasm for one project was waning, I read a couple of tweets by agents.  One wanted X.  Another wanted Y.  My imagination made a leap and combined X and Y to create my own idea.  I’m not sure why but this time I decided to do something a bit different.  I’ve blogged a bit about doing setting research but that’s been it. I haven’t told anyone what I’m working on beyond the fact that it is early middle grade science fiction.  What inspired it?  I’m keeping that to myself because I don’t want anyone to read it with those bits of inspiration in mind.  They were there and if they come through great.  If they don’t, they still sparked the story.  What matters is whether or not it works.

I knew that finding time to work on this would be tricky, because I’m also writing a book for Red Line. In spite of the Red Line book and teaching a class, I’ve been working on this fiction project for about a month now.  I can’t say that I’ve made an astonishing amount of progress.  I have about 21 pages.  But 21 pages on this story is a lot more than I’ve managed on the other.

Did talking about the project sap the energy?  I really can’t say.



Writing Solutions: Be Flexible

FlexibleWhere do you like to write?  I have my own office.  That said, it is the home office with the home computers.  Sometimes I have company.  A friend of mine takes her laptop and writes in a coffee shop.  For me, that environment is too distracting.

How do you write?  I have one friend who always writes the first draft in longhand.  I prefer to draft on the computer although I may print that out and revise in longhand in the dining room.  Another friend never prints a draft.  She works entirely on-screen.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?  For those who don’t know the terms, a plotter plans out their story ahead of time. A pantser writes by the seat of her pants figuring it out as she goes.

Do you start with plot or character? Or perhaps a topic you want to explore?

What you should be seeing here is that there is no one way to do things.  From where you write to how you start your story varies from writer to writer.  It can also vary from one project to another and also depend on where you are in your life.

Most writers prefer to work in certain ways.  A writer who plots the whole story out in a database on her laptop might not be table to imagine working any other way.  But the ideal writing solution for you right now might not be the ideal writing solution for you next week or even tomorrow.  If you’re lucky, you’ll transition in to your next “best way to work” without even realizing you’ve done it.

If, on the other hand, the best way to work quits working, take a look at your circumstances.  Has something changed that requires a new way for working?  If that’s the case, be flexible and write on.  Too read more about writing time, check out my post today at the Muffin.


Work Habits: How do you write?

work habitsDo you have to write in a specific place such as your office?  Maybe you only write first drafts long hand, polishing things up on the computer.  One of the things that we quickly learn as writers is that what works for you may not work for me.  Check out this infographic to see how these famous writers write/wrote.


I have to admit — Mark Twain’s lying down would not work for me.  I’ve tried working on my laptop sitting on a bed or chair.  Nope.  I need a table or desk.

I’ve seen King’s work space before.  It is in the corner of his living room.  He likes to be in the middle of the action.  Good for him.  I can’t do that either.  I can iron or mend in the middle of the action but not write.

I love Vladimir Nabokov’s index cards.  Back in the old days, I took notes for books on note cards.  I’ve also written picture books on post-it notes.  Makes it much easier to see the whole and play with the order.

Nude?  All I can think is that suitcase does not look comfortable?  Not one little bit.

So clearly I’m not recommending all of these methods but maybe you’ll see one that either reminds you of how your work or inspires you to try something new.  NEW, not necessarily nude.


To Outline or Not to Outline

The outline (yes, the entire outline) for my YA novel in progress

I’ve had several people ask me lately about outlining my work.  Do I or do I not outline a manuscript before I start writing?

My answer was the same as for the question about which comes first, plot or character.  “Sometimes.”

When I write nonfiction, the order of events follows some (hopefully) logical sequence.  I follow a process from start to finish.  I relate historic events chronologically.  I write up the life cycle of a particular animal.   I almost never outline my nonfiction although, given how difficult the rewrite process can be, it might not be a bad idea.

When I write fiction, I usually outline.  If it is a picture book, I get out my story board and write a sentence or two for each scene and lay it out on the board.  For a novel, I make a list of the events that have to happen, the scenes that are already in my mind.

For a longer fiction project, I don’t always have the whole plot in place before I start writing.  I need to play with the project a bit to get to know my characters.  At times like this, I start with a partial outline, write, learn more about my main character, meet a few secondary characters and then stop writing for a bit while I add to my plot.  That’s where I am right now on my new YA.  My POV character and the romantic lead each have a sidekick so I’ve added two characters.  Now I need to strengthen the plot.

That’s what works for me right now.  Tomorrow, it may be completely different!


Which Type of Writer Are You?

There seem to be two types of writers:

  1. Those of us who can slap something down and keep moving toward a first draft no matter how bad our initial attempt is.  Sometimes something truly horrid will bring us to a halt, but for the most part we keep going until we have a draft that we will then have to revise.
  2. Then there are the tinkerers.  Before they start work on chapter 2, they rewrite chapter 1.  Multiple times.  They add a new first chapter and then tinker with that too.  Even if they’ve been working on it for months, they can’t seem to move beyond a certain page number because they are writing and cutting faster then they are writing new pages.

There are benefits to each approach:

  1. You know you are going to have to rewrite so getting a first draft down is do-able.
  2. When a tinkerer finishes a draft, things that needed to be set up in chapter 1 are most likely set up.  They don’t have a manuscript full of notes to themselves:  GO BACK AND PLANT CLUES IN CHAPTER 1 AND 2.  WORK THIS THEME INTO THE FIRST 5 CHAPTERS.

There are also drawbacks to each approach:

  1. Because you know you are going to rewrite, you don’t always plan as well as you might.  This means more rewriting than would take place with just a bit more planning.  Also, since you are so comfortable with your rough efforts, you sometimes forget that other writers may be more anxious about their early efforts.  This is something I have to keep in mind when I lead critiques.  Tell me whatever you want — I knew it wasn’t perfect and you aren’t going to freak me out.  But other writers are less comfortable receiving criticism because by the time they show a manuscript it is polished.
  2. If you’re a tinkerer, you have troubles finishing a manuscript because you are constantly fixing what you already have down instead of writing through to the end.  Even when you do get a final draft, you can’t leave it alone.  When you think it is ready and the best it can be, you are probably right.  But a lot of tinkerers never declare a ms finished.  They tinker it well past wonderful, right into overworked.

It probably comes as no surprise but I’m in the first category.  I’ve been known to take a first draft to critique group if I want to make sure the concept has any merit before I polish the piece.  I never outline a picture book before I write and most nonfiction comes together in the first draft.  Or the fifth, the point being that I don’t outline that either.

Which category do you fall into?


Listen While You Work

One of my writing buddies, Kristin Nitz, loves to write in coffee shops.  We laugh at how badly this works for me.  Whenever someone walks past my table, I look up.  “Hmm.  That looks good.”

Distractions can be a problem at home too.  Tuesday was a snow day and I had my neighbor’s son here too.  Even when the boys technically leave me alone, listening to them blow up Hot Wheels or whatever else they are doing can be a bit distracting.  That’s when music comes into play.

Just what I listen to depends completely on what I’m writing.  I really like music and tend to sing along.  Complex orchestral pieces also distract me as I try to pick out harmonies, specific instruments, etc.  Fortunately, someone told me about Pandora Radio.   This site lets you select stations they’ve created based on certain types of music or select your own, by starting with a specific artist or song and then approving or disapproving the songs they run past you.  My stations include:

Nature Sounds Radio:  Think new age.  Nature sounds and light flute or something similar.  Good for masking Hot Wheels explosions.  This is the only one I can do serious writing while listening to.  The rest are for e-mail, blog reading, reading research and picking up here in the office.

Anonymous 4 Radio:  A cappella harmonies.

Celtic Traditional

Bluegrassy Instrumental

Rock & Roll Roots

Jesse Cook

Loreena McKennit

Billie Holiday

George Frederic Handle

Not all music is created equal but spend some time on Pandora and maybe you too will be able to find something that lets you write while the kids are home!