Like most people, I used to think that writers relied on short bursts of inspiration in order to develop short stories and books.
I once also believed in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and moderate politicians.
Writing – at least to do it well – requires a great deal of time.
Most people have the wrong perception of authors, believing the writing takes place in short bursts each day midst brunches, drinks, social gatherings, walks on the beach, and readings before packed rooms. Nothing could be further from the truth. Writing is hard work that requires skills shared by many other professions, such as carpentry, engineering, and architecture, whose best and brightest are adept at juggling multiple projects, solving problems, imagining new perspectives and enduring long hours.
One can’t wait for inspiration; one needs to provide it.
That means scheduling time to write, even if that means writing one to two times a week for an hour. Obviously, the more time you devote to writing, the more ideas you’ll develop and the more content you’ll produce. But start small, if you cannot find larger time slots at first. Consider the casual runner who wants to run a marathon. It takes months to prepare for a 26.2-mile marathon. Or consider the 40-year-old who decides to play the guitar, practicing chords before being able to eventually riff complete songs.
Early in my life, I disregarded advice like this. Why wouldn’t I? Bred on journalism, I’d often research a topic or person for a few days and then knock out a story immediately consumed by a sizable audience. Sometimes, I’d just show up at an event before writing an article.
On days when I wanted to work on some fiction, poetry or other nonfiction, I’d simply sit in front of my typewriter or Mac and start writing until I lost interest or focus or even any clue as to the desires of my characters or the flow of my story. As a result, I have hundreds of pages buried in several file folders, awaiting further inspiration – or a burn barrel.
I did not learn writing discipline until I was awarded my first book contract for a sports journalism text, eventually entitled “Field Guide To Covering Sports,” which is now used in college courses. I soon realized that I’d need to schedule large blocks of time in order to make a spring deadline seven months away. By grinding away, I wrote nearly 300 pages thanks to a routine where I’d write anywhere from four to fourteen hours a day, depending on my work schedule and my ability to get by on very little sleep. I no longer measured success by a set number of words or pages but by time spent writing.
This approach enabled me to complete my second book, “Monster Trek: The Obsessive Search for Bigfoot,” a nonfiction book released earlier this year. I’ve now come full circle, finally prepared to work on a historical fiction book set in Florida I first worked on sporadically (spastically?) a few decades ago. I am currently developing my writing work schedule.
Besides setting aside time, writers need to consider process. Every writer has his own approach to writing, whether that’s stopping in the middle of scenes, writing the first few pages by hand or editing every line at the end of the day. There’s no one way to write a longer work. Here’s my process once I’ve finally settled on a story idea.
- I work like a journalist, which means that I attempt to research thoroughly before writing anything. This research includes reading articles, books, diaries, captain logs, memoirs, footnotes, old newspaper accounts, brochures, websites, and everything else I can access. I especially enjoy finding older texts in libraries that might not be online. I also like to interview numerous people who can supply insights, stories, context, expert knowledge and details. These interviews can be anything from extended, formal conversations where I have my digital recorder rolling to a chat with a ranger at a national park to a store manager. Like with all interviews, I seek information and not quotes. Sometimes, I’ll fire off a quick question via email or social media to a potential source to either set up a chat or to ask a question. I leave the option to the source. After I believe I have dug deep enough, I start writing. I often tell my journalism reporters that if you have two days to report a story, then do two days’ worth of research, but if you have two weeks, do a full two weeks’ worth of reporting. Since books rarely have deadlines, one can easily get lost in research, as I frequently do. Yet, that’s where I find both essential details and feed my imagination.
- Along the way, I constantly writes sketches of people, scenes and locations and outline opening scenes for chapters that I save both digitally and in file folders.
- By hand, I outline the entire book so I’ll know where I will need to go. This step enables me to think about the book structurally, a great help since I know that plot, scenes, characters and content will change along the way, whether the work is fiction, nonfiction or a text.
- I then start writing the opening chapter, going as deep as I can over days and weeks. Inevitably, I take detours in order to chase butterflies – or, in one case, to pursue spiders. As I wrote a chapter about the Green Swamp in “Monster Trek,” I thought about a moment when I had leaned against a royal palm deep in the woods. At the moment, I had leaned against an oak and watched life scramble in and out of the shadows across the sandy soil all around me. I’ve always been mesmerized by Florida’s wetlands, having hiked and canoed through them since I was a teen living near the Everglades. Anybody who spends time in these remote areas knows that insects rule, especially spiders and ants. In just a few minutes, I noticed what appeared to be several spider species: wolf, spotted orb weaver, and banana spider, whose enormous, intricate webs and lengthy legs can prompt chills. I wondered: How many spiders reside in this area? I figured readers would find this interesting as well, so I tracked down a biologist at Florida State University who revealed that millions of spiders can reside in a mile of lush wetlands like those that surrounded me. In fact, more than 250,000 spiders probably lurk in a square mile back home. Creepy and cool. These asides do not hinder my progress; rather, they offer depth to my stories. As a result of these excursions, I write pretty slowly for a journalist, but that’s OK. By the way, Kurt Vonnegut once said his goal was to write 250 worthwhile words a day. A writer who can accomplish that would have a book at the end of the year, even after taking off weekends.
- I revise along the way, often changing scenes and chapters so much that they barely resemble the original draft. That’s not to say that I’m writing sections that will need an overhaul. But it happens. So don’t fall in love with early drafts. There are exceptions, of course, but there’s a reason we have erasers, delete keys and burn barrels.
- I edit for accuracy along the way, worried that I will forget to verify facts during the editing process. If I am on a roll, I’ll bold and underline the section that requires a fact check, otherwise, I’ll verify at the moment. I’m far more concerned by a factual error than a grammatical mistake. That said ….
- I next edit for sentence style, story flow, grammar, spelling and punctuation. Keep in mind that punctuation is far more subjective than one was taught in school. For example, you can interchangeably use a colon, long dash or parentheses, depending on whether you want to elevate, set aside or list information. If you are able, read each sentence aloud so that you can hear how it will sound in readers’ minds’ eyes and so you can catch awkward sentence constructions.
There are other parts of the process that do not fit neatly into a list, as cited above. For instance, I frequently read work by other writers right before diving into my own work in order to prime the pump, so to speak. I might read the opening lines from my favorite books when I’m starting a new chapter. Or I might start by reading the previous few pages from my own current work.
Often, I play music while writing. Right now, I’m listening to John Lee Hooker’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.” Typically, though, I’ll play movie themes or classical jazz. I grew up writing in a newsroom where machines clattered, colleagues yelled and phones constantly rang. Didn’t matter if a reporter was loudly speaking with a source on the phone a few feet away, you still had to make deadline. Some friends who write prefer complete silence to a soundtrack. That’s the joy of writing: You can adapt an approach that fits your personality – and that’s, ultimately, what we need to do: create an environment where we can write, and then do so on a regular basis. After all, we are really our own muses.
Gisondi, author of Monster Trek: The Obsessive Search for Bigfoot and a professor of journalism, traveled to eight locations across the country, trekking into swamps, mountains, state parks, and remote woods with people in search of bigfoot as well as fame, fortune, adventure, and shared camaraderie. In this session, he’ll show you how to develop scenes before, during and after you’ve spent time in a locale through research, interviews and observations.