Guest Post: How exactly does an author write? by V.E. Bystry
If you are reading this, chances are you consider yourself one of three different kinds of people. One, a writer. Two, an aspiring writer. Or three, someone who enjoys learning about the writing process, perhaps you are interested in how your favorite author goes about their work.
For one, how exactly does an author write? Do they just wake up, slam a cup of coffee and start pounding away on the keyboard or commence scribbling in their notebook? I don’t know about all of you, but that doesn’t describe me at all. Coffee isn’t exactly the most tasty beverage in the world in my opinion, but to each his own.
Writing is a myriad of different things combined into one. First, you must be able to lose yourself in the flow of the words. If you’re thinking too hard about what you are going to type or jot down next, you most likely need to take break. Does this mean that you can’t brainstorm and plot out a basic outline for your novel? Of course not, and it doesn’t really matter anyway, at least in my experience. I do write down an extremely watered down version of the book, listing the chapters and describing the major events that should take place at that time. Notice I said should. More often than not, the characters take off on their own, saying what they want to say, and acting the way they want to as well. The outline that I took so much pleasure in forming gets thrown out the window. New plot developments that I hadn’t planned for start to take shape, enriching the story. I love it when this happens, and if this happens to you, embrace it. You may ask yourself “What the hell is going on here? Why is my protagonist doing this?” Trust me, let it go and follow your character down the path that they have chosen. You will be thankful for it later on.
When is the best time to write? The two most popular times of day from the many authors I have talked to, has been either early morning or in the evening. I suppose it depends on your particular lifestyle. For me, the evening works better. This is because I have two children, age three and under, who love to be loud and crazy and play all day. Entertaining them and teaching them the alphabet and how to count while writing a novel isn’t exactly the best advice I would give. That is definitely too much to handle all at once. So, after I get them all tired out, dress them in their PJs, and tuck them into bed, it’s mommy and daddy time. For me, this is the perfect time to write, and I try to do some every night. The wife will probably want to spend some precious alone time together, which will lead me to my next point.
Do you have someone that supports you wholeheartedly in your endeavor to follow your dreams and become an author? If you have a significant other, this is crucial to your experience. They must be there to provide the critique, give and honest opinion about your work. That is also a key factor. Be sure that they understand that you don’t want them to just tell you that your work is absolutely breathtaking. They need to be honest, and in order to help them with that, ask them questions. Was the way this character acted seem real to you? Would an event like this happening really have this kind of effect on the people it touched? Keep them involved in your projects, though at a nice, regular interval. Either wait until the work is complete, or ask them to look it over every 10,000 words or so. Don’t finish a page and say “Hey, honey! I just finished something else for you to read!” they will become irritated and will most likely not give you an honest opinion, or eventually, not even read it at all.
A phrase I often heard growing up was “Write what you know.” To that, I say nay nay. If that could even be possible, how can all these amazing writers publish fantasy, horror, science fiction, or supernatural works? I’m pretty sure Stephen King has never traveled to other dimensions, J. K. Rowling has probably never killed someone by shouting “Avada Kedavra!” while pointing a wand, and Michael Chrichton has never assembled a real, live dinosaur. The phrase itself has a slight truth to it, however, in that you should write what you know about people. Inspiration can come from anywhere, at any time. You pass countless stories and scenarios that you could implement in your work every day. That’s right, the dude you ride in the elevator with up to your floor has something to say. The woman you pass in the office everyday has a story. The colleagues chatting at the water cooler or in the break room are telling a story. All you have to do is listen. Observing the way people use their hands while they talk, how they speak, other body gestures as they interact with others, can help you invaluably in your writing. Being able to draw on these experiences will enable you to envision your story better, and write it down descriptively.
Life experiences can only take you so far, unfortunately, but the next point I’m going to make shouldn’t upset too many of you. If you want to write, you have to read. Crazy idea, right? How else are you supposed to learn how to put words down on paper if you haven’t seen it done exceptionally? I’m not a betting man, but if I was, I would say a good 95% of you that read this blog post do read. It was actually what gave you the drive to become a writer yourself probably. If you already read a lot, I only have one other thing to bring up to you. Broaden your horizons with the genres you pick. I mostly read Stephen King novels throughout my high school career, but towards the end, I picked up some John Grisham, R. A. Salvatore, Brian Jacques, and J. K. Rowling. A couple years after that, I made the mistake of picking up 50 Shades of Gray, just to broaden my horizon even further. The only thing I learned from that novel was how not to write, which I guess is a plus.
What kind of atmosphere does a writer require when they are going to town on their story? Again, just like the time of day thought, this depends on your preference. I’ve met people who can’t do anything unless it is absolutely silent, can’t do anything unless the television is on providing background noise, or loud music is blasting out and displacing the silence to the abyss. Find what works for you, and stick with it. Thankfully, I can write pretty much at any time unless I’m directly being talked to. I enjoy listening to music while I write, mostly metal or hard rock. It really gets me pumped up and it is a great muse for action scenes.
The last question I have is, what method of writing do you prefer? Do you enjoy writing the whole thing down on paper with a pen? Or do you type it all in a word processor and call it a day? I wrote the first half of my debut novel, SPIAR, in Steno Pads. I was underway, hadn’t brought a laptop computer, and it was convenient at the time. Now, getting back home and transposing the entire thing was not something I want to experience again, and so I try to limit my long hand writing. It is great for finding errors and changing things as you go along, but that is also something you can do while typing or easily change words afterward.
In closing, I would like to hear what all of you have to say. When do you like to write? Do you listen to music as you tell your tale? Are you observing the environment around you at all times, absorbing all the information you can? Are you reading as much as you should? Is there someone who has your back, pushing you to follow your dream? Please, sound off in a comment, hit me up on facebook, twitter, or shoot me an email. I’d love to hear from all of you!
Easy days and blissful nights,
I tend to write in fits and starts and always come up with the best ideas when away from pen and paper. I agree about reading to expand your writing knowledge base, thanks for the post.
I always carry a notebook and (apologies) like to eavesdrop on conversations – not for the gossip but to hear names and situations. Love to people watch at cafes and seeing what they wear, how they eat and drink and capture that.
Thank you for the comments, guys. It’s always great to hear feedback on the different approaches authors take when writing.
I like to just sit down and not think. When some words form in my head I just write them down. I don’t give any thought to the words I have written
instead I just read them and let the words develop the story I wish to put into verse.. when I find myself having to think deeply to continue the poem, then I get up and go for a walk because I know the words won’t be the ones I need.
Characters vetoing the outline…yes! Almost panicked the first time it happened when writing “Forge,” but I trusted the characters and was glad I did.
I head for my computer as soon as I rise, and often again late at night after the house is finally quiet and everyone else including the pets are asleep. I used to love music, but now I use http://mynoise.net to find soothing sounds that don’t distract me. But sometimes I listen to music to help me feel a particular mood, if I’m having trouble focusing.
As for technique, I am a devoted “pantser,” possibly because having been a reporter (Chicago Sun Times, Arizona Daily Star), I had to write on the fly a lot. I find that my fiction writing is very much like transcribing the words and actions of my characters as they tell them to me or I “see” them, which is a wonderful gift, I admit.
Everyone has to find his or her own way of writing, I believe. In the end, that’s the only way that works!
Writing really is an individual experience, isn’t it? I prefer working on a computer, for the ease of rearranging words as well as for quick looks at Wikipedia — because sometimes I find factoids that slot perfectly into my fantasy worlds-in-progress. I use outlines, but they focus more on the characters’ motivations and goals than on specific plot events. And while writing, I listen to trance music mixes to help me focus.
Great comments, all! I’m glad that you have contributed to this guest post! I also prefer to write on a word processor, but when desperate, I will jot some things down in the small journal-like pad I carry around with me most of the time. I would also love to write in the mornings, but having two kids under the age of four can complicate that, and I find myself writing mostly in the evening time. Even then, I can’t write as much as I would like to since they sometimes stay up late haha.
I write when I can, which for me is not often enough, usually in the evening and Sunday afternoon. When I feel myself forcing the words, I sit back, close my eyes and ask my cast of characters to talk to me. They do and the words flow again.
How do I write?
On a beat up notebook with a ballpoint pen, on a laptop that I won’t give thanks for. I don’t make time for writing, writing makes time for me, because I’m not a writer at all, though I do write. I can’t give credit to a class I’ve taken, an award I’ve won, or any particular lesson I’ve learned; I have none of those notable experiences to wear on my vest, baby. I’m not old enough to (legally) drink. I’m barely old enough to think. The world is a beautiful, ugly place, and as humans we have an obligation to FEEL. TOO. MUCH. My coverless, selfedited, oddly genred debut novel, Burden http://amzn.to/1tFW9Gq ☮ thank you ☮
I write what I know – parenting & “parenting” young Amish runaways – and it’s easier because it’s writing a passion. But, I’ve also been contracted to write on assignment. Interesting. Income.
I’ll do both – write what I know and on assignment.
My first book was self-published. Now I’m writing my 35th – about former Amish. In between I’ve written for compilations and co-authored with a few writing buds, with and without an agent, and mostly traditional publishers.
How do I write?
Early in the AMs. Just like John Grisham – sometimes we’re both up and writing by 4 AM.
Great post V.E. I suspect if you asked a hundred writers what works for them you’d get a hundred different answers, with some sharing some traits and others needing polar opposites to get their stuff done. Which is good because it reinforces the idea that there’s no ‘correct’ way or ‘magic formula’ that you just need to bone up on and away you go. As many others have said on there and elsewhere, each writer eventually finds what works best for them. But what’s great about posts like these is that beginning writers can earwig on what works for others and try stuff out. And if you want to hear how all the masters go about it I’ve always found The Paris Review interviews to be an absolute goldmine. I’ve been reading their collected editions of author interviews in print, stretching back to the middle of the 20th Century, and those interviews always feel like conversations with old friends in cosy armchairs in front of the proverbial fire.
My own writing process is the best compromise I can find between the time it takes to write long-hand then type it up afterwards (which works best for first drafts, invariably producing more creative, thoughtful writing) and straight to computer (which is faster but seems to lack the depth and quality of my hand-written ramblings, so is better suited to second drafts and amends). But I am just as likely to break both those rules, as when for instance I’m typing up the latest hand-written notes from a story, and the next scene or plot development suggests itself so I just carry on typing. Invariably this will involve an extra layer of editing later because the tone of the keyboard writing may be subtly different to the hand-written stuff. But what the hell, we’re not machines, the stuff will come out in the way it must, and the best thing is just to get it down and rework it. Overall though, I tend to think things through more before commiting them to paper, when working long-hand. When typing at a keyboard I suspect most of us are operating on auto-pilot a lot of the time, and that way cliches can tend to creep into you work (like in this comment!).
There’s a great quote on the subject that you may have read, I think it’s by Schopenhauer, which goes something like: “There are three kinds of authors. Those who write without thinking, who are the most numerous. Then there are those who do their thinking as they write, and there is no lack of them. Lastly come those authors who think before they write. They are rare.”
Another key thing for authors (including myself) is the place you do your best writing. We’ve all experienced the trauma of staring at a blank screen for weeks on end, despairing of another interesting syllable ever making the journey from our brains to our fingers, only to find the muse descending when we’re standing at the supermarket checkout. If I’m stuck I tend to find going on walks or doing something physical will often unblock things and get the copy flowing, I think it’s about switching off the left side of the brain with some activity and allowing the more creative right hand hemisphere to kick in. At other times (if the weather’s simply too inclement to go for a walk), I’ll tuck myself up under the duvet with a pen and pad. While that doesn’t seem to support the ‘physical activity’ theory, it does seem to quieten my mind by freeing it from the terror of the blank computer page, and into that quietness tiptoes my story.
Now I’m just rambling. Thanks again for a really useful post.
Hey great article! A lot of what you said really rang true with me. Spot on!
Thanks everyone! It makes me happy that you all enjoyed the blog post!
V. E. Bystry
I may say I’m really a late Comer to this post, but I think I’ve learned quite a lot of what I used to think but never went straight to start doing it. I am about to publish my debut novel which is now with an editor. I’m seeing a lot of things that’s making me wish I had stumbled on this before now.