Hey, look, I’ve got another author interview on creative process for y’all’s edification and enjoyment. Woo hoo! Today we have the fascinating John Brown, a man deeply interested in how writing works. Get ready, get set, get your drink, maybe some nachos, got em? Okay…GO!
Maya: Hi John, let’s jump right in. Can you describe your writing process?
John: I try to write 1-3 hours per day. I want to average 2 at least. I’m a big believer in the idea that ideas come when you’re on the move. You don’t wait for inspiration to strike. You get to work. The more I work, the more ideas I get.
It’s like two men looking for lightening. One sits in his house hoping something comes by. Another one is outside all the time, marching around, long copper rods in hand, watching the skies. I want to be the fool running into the weather.
Except, on second thought, while the fool charging into the rain is dramatic, it makes it seem like you have to wait for some act of God. I’ve found you can’t wait for an act of God with writing. I can’t. So maybe it IS the guy inside, in his barn. Maybe he’s there with old horse collars and moonshiner car parts and a chicken, hunkered over a dynamo, cranking it by hand, sweating for a few watts at a time. And he has those copper rods up on the roof just in case, but he ain’t waiting. Of course, who wants to sweat in a barn with a chicken sidekick? I’ve got to get another metaphor, but I think you get the picture.
On the other hand, if you don’t know what in the crap you’re doing, work isn’t going to do you much good. Goofing around might. Just because it’s fun. But there’s a lot of going nowhere when you don’t know what you’re doing. Thrash harder and longer and you’re still just thrashing about, going nowhere fast. Which, I suppose, is why you’d better be having fun.
I usually reserve the evening hours for family. So I need to organize my schedule to get my writing time in before 6 PM. Because my day job is flexible and because I get up early (most of the time), it isn’t too difficult to get that time scheduled in.
As for location, it’s usually in my office, but it can be while I’m driving or out on a long walk. Or anywhere, really. I wrote a great portion of one novel in a medical clinic waiting area, half the time worrying about the germs I was exposing myself to and the other half of the time with some Disney flick blaring in the background. But even that was not a madhouse of distraction. I have to be able to go into writer land. I developed the beginnings of one story while driving to and then walking around a Lowe’s home improvement store trying to find a bathroom and thinking I might not make it the mile distance from one end of the store to the other. Sometimes I think and invent when I’m out walking. I’ve found it helps to talk to myself. Out loud. I just can’t do it all silently. And I’ll have some paper and a pencil handy, sometimes a notebook or just two sheets stapled together and folded in quarters so it fits in my shirt pocket and is stiff enough to write on. The good thing is that I live in a rural area so nobody but the cows see the crazy guy gesticulating to himself and scribbling on his sheets. Still, most of the time it’s in my office.
[Maya says, I really like this next part…]
I use the sketch/draft method. I’ve found that creativity revolves around (a) asking yourself key questions and generating answers in a variety of ways, (b) feeding your mind, e.g. researching specific things, living life with your eyes open, etc., and (c) following the zing, which means being on the alert for the things that spark your interest and following those leads when they come.
Here’s what I mean. I have a model in my mind of how story works. This prompts me to ask some questions when developing a story. What’s the main problem the character is facing? What would make this character cool? How could I give it a twist? These types of things. And I’ll generate some answers. Some options.
I’m a big fan of lots of options. I’m a big fan of manure. Give me a big of list of crappy options. Thrown them on the garden of my mind, and all that manure will grow flowers. It’s farmer’s faith.
But this is all sketching, all doodling with purpose. And I’ll keep asking and sketching and feeding and following the zing until something bigger starts to emerge. Usually, what I’m building up to is a character or five that I love (odd, funny, evil, whatever) and a problem I find fascinating. I have a few key elements I know I need for the story engine to turn over and come to life. And, yeah, there will be setting stuff too. And I usually need to do setting development before I can get the full picture of the characters and problem. But I can generate cool setting until the cows come home. It’s not until I get the problem and character that the car comes to life and begins to rattle and roar.
When I’ve got character and problem, I usually feel the story like some machine full of power, rocking back and forth, busting to get out. That’s the time to sketch an outline if I haven’t already for the main story and the secondary story arcs. Just bullets. And I’ll probably run out of steam, have a lot of gaps. But that’s the nature of a sketch. It’s a guide. And I’m out running.
And so I might write an exploratory draft. Or I might begin in earnest, trusting I’ll be able to invent the rest of the plot, fill in the details, when I get closer to it. But usually I have a rough idea of my direction. Although, with the last draft of the book I’m writing (this has been something of a maddening journey), I wrote a chapter outline. 32 pages. Took me 25 hours. It’s a very detailed sketch. And so far it’s been paying big dividends, even if it’s still a malleable thing.
Maya: All right, with all that structure in place to support your writing, have you ever had writer’s block. Or given up writing for a while? How or why did you come back to it?
John: I had writer’s block for five stinking years. I won a first prize in the Writer’s of the Future contest, came home from the workshop, and couldn’t finish a thing. It was this evil presence. This invisible force field. I couldn’t get around it. Like being lost in the wilderness and finding yourself going round and round. Then I went to Scott Card’s boot camp and saw the wizard behind the curtain of writer’s block. A handful of things I was doing and thinking all wrong. Thrashing about and going nowhere. I changed that, and suddenly I was moving forward. Still had a long ways to go, but I was out of the ditch, up on the road, and running.
Maya: You can’t leave us hanging like that. What were the “handful of things I was doing and thinking all wrong”???? Bullet points, man, I want bullet points!
John: Most of them had to do with the creative process.
[Maya says, “Here follow John’s Four Magical Writing Insights! With supplemental materials! And appendices! Ignore them at your writerly peril…”]
(1) The first huge insight was time. My mind is like an old fashioned coal-fed boiler—it takes a while to get warm. I think most people’s minds are. So if I don’t write consistently, if I’m not keeping my boiler hot with consistent quantities of hours, then all I’m doing is forever warming the thing up, forever getting into the trance only to then stop. I have to have at least 7 hours a week. I do best when I’m at 15 or 20, which can be hard to do when you have a day-time job and family that you want to enjoy. So I wasn’t making time. I was talking a lot about writing, but never really getting around to doing it.
Oh, there was a novel I’d worked on for years. I’d write and get 10k, 15k, 20k words then stop for months. Months! When I came back I had to warm up, but by then it was all cold. I’d changed. What interested me had changed. So I’d start over. Another 10, 15, or 20 k and then I’d stop again. Then I tried dabbling a few hours every other week or so. But it became clear in the boot camp that if I was going to write, I was going to have to make time. Consistently. There was a full time cop in the group who headed up the LA sex crimes division. He found time to write. I’d just listened to Mary Higgins Clark’s autobiography. She was a working single mom when she wrote her first book. She got up 1.5-2 hours earlier in the morning. These people had BUSY lives and figured out how to make time. I decided if these folks could to it, so could I. And I did. I got up early, wrote during lunch, made time. And made sure I preserved family time. Making time was a huge thing. HUGE. Nothing could happen without this.
(2) The second monster insight was what writer’s block actually was. I used to think it was a bad thing, a dreaded thing. Before the boot camp when I ran into a block, I told myself this meant I didn’t have the writer’s DNA, didn’t have the right personality type, maybe God was set against it J. It’s hard to write when you tell yourself there’s no way you can, when there’s a voice in the back of your mind telling you to give up because you’re a freaking one trick pony fluke anyway. But in the boot camp I finally saw that writer’s block was not a sign of deficiency. Now look, I might indeed be deficient, but this wasn’t the sign. No. Writer’s block was simply me bumping out of the writer’s trance. It often involved me running into issues of belief and clarity or simply running to the end of my invention. Writer’s block was normal, to be expected, happened to EVERY writer.
In fact, I began to see that writer’s block was actually my writer’s Spidey sense telling me when things were wrong. Instead of thinking it was a curse, I realized it was a gift. A super power. Instead of running away from it screaming, I needed to embrace it and listen. After the boot camp, as I repeated my success during the boot camp of actually FINISHING something, I saw more clearly that my Spidey sense would tell me usually one of four things. And the methods for dealing with them were fairly straight forward. I blogged about it them http://johndbrown.com/writers/spiderman-peter-parker-and-the-gift-of-writers-block/ and here http://johndbrown.com/writers/the-writers-trance-the-four-trance-breakers/ .
Card talked about going in and out of the writer’s trance. The idea that writers went in and out, that it was normal, it was simply how things worked—that was a huge thing for me. And because we had to write a story in the boot camp, I had an opportunity right there to learn it was true. To experience it myself. It was a dicey thing, btw. I almost gave up writing altogether that week. I blogged about it here http://johndbrown.com/writers/wandering-around-in-the-bushes-for-10-years/. But I learned that when I come to the end of my invention, when things aren’t working, if I just keep generating options, keeping feeding my mind with fodder for ideas, sooner or later I’ll generate that electricity I want. The trance will come back, and I’ll write to the end of my invention and . . . start the process over again. So I began to have that farmer’s faith I talked about before.
(3) The third insight was Card’s three-grunt lens. Card had us read and give feedback with a specific lens of clarity, belief, interest–where was the story not clear, not believable, or boring? Huh? Oh yeah? So what? Those are “grunts” a reader will make while reading (he explains it in his book CHARACTERS & VIEWPOINTS). Furthermore, many times a story might be boring because I wasn’t in the audience, not because it wasn’t good. After reading 19 stories with that lens over just a few days, many things simplified for me. I saw that rules didn’t matter much. In fact, I think a lot of new writers get a bad case of rule-itis and it hampers them. It was the results that mattered–clarity, belief, interest. That has become my measuring stick.
(4) The fourth important insight was the use of plot patterns. Setting and characters are easy for me to invent. But that’s only half of what a story needs. For me story is made up of character, setting, problem, and plot. You need all four. And problem and plot are the engines that make story go. I didn’t quite understand that at the time. The story that won the WOTF prize, I wrote it after reading Jack Bickham’s book SCENE & STRUCTURE and trying to apply what I found there. But I hadn’t really learned those lessons. At the moment of despair in the boot camp—I had all this great material for setting and characters along with even the idea of a main story problem, but no plot which meant the story didn’t have an engine—I accidentally stumbled upon the idea of trying a plot pattern on for size. The one little plot pattern I knew for the type of story I was writing. And BOOM! The story rolled out in front of me, the music started playing, and I ran back to my hotel to write, write, write. That story went on to sell multiple times. But the key enabler for me was a plot pattern.
I think those were the four main insights. Of course, it still took a lot of practice and work to develop those insights into the model of story I have now. I’m still learning. But it was a week of illumination. As I said, it popped me up out of the ditch and onto the road, and I was running. Five years before the boot camp I had finished nothing. The year after, I finished a novelette, a short story, another novelette, and a novel. And it just kept going.
Maya: Wow, that’s terrific stuff, John. Thank so much for coming by mayaland and giving us all your trade secrets sharing your insights into writing. You rock!
John Brown is the author of Servant of a Dark God and the upcoming Curse of the the Dark God (no release date yet, but it’s in the works). In Servant, one of the mysterious Divines, godlike rulers capable of harvesting a person’s life force, has vanished. Young Talen’s relatively idyllic life is turned upside down when his family is accused of being soul-eaters who worship a twisted god. Pursued by fearful clansmen and a nightmarish earthen monstrosity known only as Hunger, Talen begins to investigate his latent world-changing abilities. Soon he learns of his family’s extensive role in the enigmatic Order, whose mission is to break the yoke of the Divines, and the nature of the dark power that hunts them.
Whew! I think I need to go lie down.