Learning to Write While Writing
How do you write a book? It’s one of the most frequent questions I get, and while I always try to answer it honestly, I wonder if I should tell the full truth: that “how do you write your books?” is also my go-to question, whenever I meet other writers.
Of course, I’ve written a book before, now two in fact (my second book, Cilla Lee-Jenkins: This Book is A Classic comes out in March 2018). But as I begin the third book in the Cilla series, and as I consider the terrifying-yet-exciting prospect of a totally new project after that, I realize that with each new project, I feel like I’m back at square one, asking the authors around me, “so, how exactly do you write your books?”
Writing is funny work. It’s abstract, it involves hours (or even days) at a time sitting by yourself immersed in your own imaginary world. Because it’s so personal, it’s the biggest privilege (Your own imaginary world! For days! Usually in pajamas!). But I find that writing, for me at least, can be quickly derailed by obstacles, doubts, and procrastination.
When I started writing (with no idea that the story I worked on every night would actually someday be a real book), I imagined that once you were published, there would be some core wisdom about writing that you’d know once finished: a wisdom that provided a stable, concrete answer to how, exactly, you go about turning ideas into published products.
But as my debut year winds to a close, I’ve discovered this isn’t how it works. The more I write, (and the more I ask my fellow authors for their advice) the more I’m learning that the key to writing might simply lie in the sheer number of strategies you learn and create. It’s all about finding new ways to approach/trick/cajole/bribe yourself into the actual physical process of writing.
So, as I immerse myself in revisions for my most recent book and face that exhilarating and terrifying prospect of a new manuscript, I thought it would be fun to create a list of concrete writing approaches that have worked for me in the past. Some sillier (and more fun) than others. But all have worked for me in the past, and many are things I do everyday.
Tips about Writing I’m Learning as I Write:
- You can write anywhere. I wrote my first book on my iPad, lying in bed, typing with my thumbs. No joke. I write on my phone on the subway, on manilla folders in the hallways between the classes I teach, and a few times (in very desperate situations) on the backs of receipts. (I’d recommend against this one, though, as later, when you’re throwing the contents of your handbag all over the kitchen table muttering “where’s the CVS receipt?! I NEED it!!” you get weird looks from your housemates).
- In writing, any trick you need to play on yourself to get yourself to stay in the chair and write is fair game. Mine include:
• Painting my nails very slowly over the course of a morning, because as long as they’re drying, typing is the only thing I can do that won’t make a mess;
• Putting a dog in my lap as I write (she falls asleep and is adorable, and only a monster would disturb her, especially if just to make more coffee and procrastinate);
• Buying an elementary school writing keyboard (these are available on Amazon, and have a tiny screen not unlike a TI-85 calculator. Also, they have no wifi capabilities, which makes an embarrassingly large difference);
• Cutting myself a deal that says as long as I’m productive, I can stay in my pajamas all day long. Though again, I get some weird looks with this one, and always have to resist explaining to the UPS man, when I answer the door at 4pm, “no seriously, I’m having a really productive day!”).
- Life is great material. I’m always stealing ideas from the things around me — the pink sunglasses someone’s wearing on the subway, the curtains in my friend’s living room, the funny dynamic between a neighbor and her dog as they pass me on the street. Life can also be a great curative for writer’s block. I work a great deal at a writer’s space in downtown Boston, right by the Boston aquarium and an old carousel. When I’m stuck, on nice days, I often go down to sit by them, with a notebook. I give myself different challenges — can I write a scene with my characters in these spaces? How would they react? Are there any kids or families nearby who they’d talk to, or want to play with? Nine times out of ten, this kind of guided change of scene helps me jumpstart my writing again, pushing me to break out of whatever boxes I’ve been stuck in or circles I've been running around in. Which brings me to:
- Give yourself permission to see things in new ways. My best writing happens when I’m taken by surprise — when a character hops into a new scene or place, or does something unexpected or funny, or and I want to know what happens next. Sometimes I force this process — I change tenses, just for a page, to get a new perspective. Or, my favorite, I turn an exchange into a play, or a scene into lists. (As you can possibly tell, I love lists). This always helps me see the story I’m working on in fresh ways.
- And finally, the biggest insight I’ve gained on writing, by writing, is this: some people think to write, but most people write to think. I heard this piece of wisdom a long time ago, but didn't understand it until I really began my own writing. There are some (lucky, amazing, magical) people in this world who need to wait until they really KNOW what they want to write before writing it. But once they do, they go, and they write with purpose, direction, clarity, and a concrete end-goal in sight. But most of us can’t do this: we write to think. For me, this means that I often don’t know exactly what I think about something, or all the various and complex ways I feel about something, until I write it. Most of the time, this means that when I write, I sit down with a hazy end-goal in mind, and bang out words. It means that my ideas and plot lines snarl and tangle, meandering with my developing thoughts. It means characters change their names, or disappear and reappear midway through stories. And it means that when I finish a first draft, most of my writing is simply, well — thinking. It’s snippets of ideas, throat clearing, hashing out. In other words, it’s a total mess. But, BUT. Sometimes, every once in a while, writing to think means something else. It means that every once in a while, my writing takes me to unexpected new places, where deeply-rooted memories, feelings, and truths bubble up, as if my typing hands were in on a secret kept from my conscious mind. Sometimes, when I write, the real reason I’m writing a story — the raw emotion I never knew was there — suddenly appears. And there are few feelings as magical and satisfying as that.
I hope to write more, and as I do, I hope this list will expand (I’m realizing a lot of authors I know include chocolate in their writing strategies, and that feels like an excellent idea that I’m missing out on). But I hope too, as I learn more about writing simply through the act of bribing myself into the chair, that the process of generating this list, and finding new ways to approach stories, myself, and the people around me, never ends.
Susan Tan has worked with children's books since the age of 14, when she was a Page in the children's room of the Concord Public Library. She went on to study English at Williams College and earned her PhD at the University of Cambridge in Critical Approaches to Children's Literature. While in graduate school, she began to write a children’s book of her own which became her debut novel, Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire.
Cilla is based on Susan’s own experiences growing up in a mixed-race family, and deals with the questions, challenges, and many joys that navigating different racial and cultural identities can bring. A second book in the Cilla series titled Cilla Lee-Jenkins: This Book is A Classic is scheduled for release in 2018. Susan was the 2015 Gish Jen Emerging Writers Fellow at the Writers’ Room of Boston and currently teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. You can follow her on Twitter (@susansmtan), or write her a message on the "Contact" page.
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