We began a series of guest blog entries last week with Susan Meissner on “Writing 300 Pages in 30 Days.” Susan and I have both done that, and it’s hard, but it can be done if you’ve done your legwork first. In today’s entry, Susan talks about what she does BEFORE she starts writing.
I loved the comment by Shruti (in the last post) which I will paraphrase here: Writing a good book in 3 years beats writing a bad one in 6 weeks. I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, writing a good book always beats writing a bad one. Always, always. If you’re going to write a bad book in six weeks or bad one in three years, may I suggest you save yourself the time and trouble and do the thing you are good at instead.
You can indeed spend years tirelessly massaging your novel and end up with a great book but I don’t think it’s a given that a slow write always produces a good book. It’s not use of time that guarantees the best book; it’s use of talent. I don’t strive to write a book in six weeks. I strive to write a good book. I think we all want to do that. You’ve got to write at the speed that allows your story to flow out of you. Speeding it up for the sake of speed alone is not a good idea. And neither is slowing it down for sake of speed alone.
Because of the amount of pre-writing I do, (and quite a bit of it is mental preparation, which is fabulous because that means I can pre-write while I am doing other things) I’ve found that I very quickly gain momentum once I begin the actual writing. The words just fly out. To insist on slowing them down would be like shifting my car into second gear when I’m flying down the highway at 65 miles an hour. Not a good idea. If the destination is the same (writing a good book!), it’s conceivable that you can get there in a fast car in six weeks or on roller skates in three years. It’s getting there that matters, not how long it takes.
I promised to tell you how I become intimately familiar with my story (the people, the place, the plot) before I begin writing. The key for me is creating fully fleshed-out characters that already have layers of personality before I start writing. Here’s what I do when I’m in pre-write mode.
First, I create a biographical sketch for each of the main characters. It’s like an expanded resume or CV for each character. I include all personal data like birth date, parents’ names and occupations, siblings’ names, schools attended, jobs held, favorite food, music, books, movies and the least favorite of each of these. I include the kind of car they drive, the name of the street where they live, the style of house they live in, their pet peeves, their favorite color, and who they hung out with in high school.
Once I have all the superficial stuff down, I interview my characters. I pretend I am sitting across from them, I pull out my reporter’s notebook and I ask them about the stuff that really matters. What do they fear more than anything else? Do they have trouble trusting people? Why or why not? Who is their hero? Who has let them down the most? If they could change one thing about their past, what would it be? I have a list of questions I ask; and I sometimes add to the list depending on where our “conversation” goes. I also “invite” my characters to hang out with me for the day, one character a day, making them experience everything I am experiencing, so that I can decide how they would react and peek even deeper inside their mind.
Every minute I spend with my characters adds to my familiarity with them, which in turn enables me to write about these people like I already know them. Because I do. And the great thing is, I can do this character-building while I am going about my day-to-day life. I use my thinking time when I’m driving to work, making meals, cleaning a bathroom, and errand-running to build my characters, to give them dimension and depth. I mentally engage them in conversation with me all throughout the day so that I can pick their brain, so that I can decide what brings them pleasure, what motivates them, what inspires them and what drive them to their knees.
I may spend several weeks getting to know these people before I actually begin telling their story, so I suppose I have to then expand the amount of time I say it takes me to write a book, even though I haven’t started writing it yet. But the great thing is I am able to do this bit of pre-writing while going about the real world, where I have responsibilities that have nothing to do with writing. I haven’t had to make sacrifices yet. That time is coming, but not yet.
And still I have more to tell you. . . .
Randy sez: Yes, we’ll want to hear more tomorrow. Thanks for all you’ve told us so far, Susan! I agree that getting to know your characters is essential to fast writing. In my current book, one of the tools I’ve been using is to write a few pages from the journal of each character. The character is allowed to disagree with me and even criticize me, so long as he or she is in character in doing so.
The great thing about writing journal entries is that you quickly find your character’s voice, and once you find it, you can’t lose it. Once you get it, you’ll be hearing that voice in your head. Fiction writers are the only people who believe that it’s GOOD when you hear voices in your head.
Those of you with questions for Susan, feel free to post them as comments. She can then incorporate her answers into her next entry.
I’ll start with a question of my own: Susan, can you post an example of part of an interview with one of your characters? (Doesn’t have to be for your current project. It could be for one of your published novels.)