I have been furiously writing my new novel. It’s historical YA fiction with a fantastical twist. And that’s all I’m going to tell you right now. But I do want to talk a little about how I write.
I told you about my basic writing process long ago here. In it I talked about my “cowbell list.” It is the list of things I need to tweak or change or amp up in subsequent drafts. I usually put it on a dry erase board in my office. This summer in Nuremberg I bought a real cowbell which I have now hung in my office.
But the cowbell has become intertwined in my writing ritual in other ways. That ritual is what I want to share with you today. I don’t always write at home, but when I do, you can bet I am doing this:
I go into my office and light candles. I love the soft light from them and I usually don’t have any other lights on in the room, except my computer screen. I have a couple of stinky candles my husband hates, but I love.
The second thing I do after lighting those candles is to ring the cowbell. It seems a little silly, I know, and at first I felt silly doing it. But now I have grown to love that noise. It is a signal to the rest of the house not to disturb me because I am about to write. Every time my husband hears it he calls, “Oh boy!” from the other room.
Sometimes I close my office door. That’s if the cats are being their usual rambunctious selves and are chasing each other all over the house. It’s awful to have them tear into my space and interrupt the lovely peace I have created. The husband I don’t worry so much about. He wants me to write as much as I want to and generally leaves me alone unless he comes to ply me with beverages and snacks.
And then, I sit in my IKEA Poang chair, put my feet up, and plop my computer in my lap and write. This little ritual has been working well for me. It’s like I’ve opened a beautiful little portal from my creative self and it just comes pouring out. Usually.
E.L Doctorow said that writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You have a destination in mind (most of the time) but you can only see as far as the end of your headlights. So you write to the end of your headlights and then drive a little further. I find this analogy extremely apt. I know where I am headed, but I can only write to a certain point to where I have to think again.
I don’t listen to music while I write. I can’t–it’s too distracting. But I do like to have a soundtrack for whatever I am working on. This time my husband, the classical music freak, collated a playlist for me. It’s very dark, atmospheric and moody: Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, the first movement from Schubert’s Symphony #8, Prayer of St. Gregory by Hovhaness, and others.
So when the time comes that I’ve gotten to the end of my headlights, I pull out that soundtrack, plug in my headphones, and think of the story while I listen. This is when I can really get mileage out of the music. It inspires me, it helps me to see further into the story. Then I can go back and write more.
That’s how it plays out: write, listen to my playlist, think, and then write again. It’s a pleasing little cycle that really works well for me.
However, please don’t think that everything has been easy in the writing of this novel. Parts of it have really flowed, yes, but there are parts where I get stuck. One portion of thirty pages I had to rewrite three times so I was going in the right direction. It was frustrating, but entirely necessary. I had to find the ways that didn’t work before I hit upon the one that did. That’s just how it goes sometimes.
I also sometimes tend to meander between big scenes. Like I got off the main road and took a few scenic routes on my way to the next big thing. I know when I go back to it in the second or third draft I may have to reroute myself, or trim the route so it more directly segues and flows better.
First drafts are a paradox of making the magic of telling a story along with the detritus of a brain dump. The second draft is all about winnowing out the chaff so you can find the real story inside of it, and the third and all following drafts is about tweaking and tightening so the story is smooth as a river pebble. I’ve heard some authors say they dread the second draft but I find it to be where the interesting work really begins.
I raise my glass to all you writers out there who are working on projects now. What is your process and how do you work best?