How I Write

I never seem to approach a project the same way twice. I have two computers, a smart phone, tons of notebooks and pens (I’m very picky about them—just ask my husband) and scraps of paper everywhere and in every room in the house.

I write everywhere…in the car, on the couch, at my desk, in bed, and even in the bath but I am not one of those writers you’re likely to find sitting in a coffee shop with her laptop typing away. Too much noise for me. I need quiet to write. Lots and lots of quiet. I can’t even have music playing or I get distracted. I can, however, revise anywhere with any amount of noise going on. I can’t explain it. It’s just the way I’m wired.

To me, there’s something physical about writing, and I almost always start a new project in longhand. Later, when I go to transfer it to my computer, it seems to grow all by itself. When I hit a rough spot in the writing, I generally go back to pen and paper. I’m partial to steno tablets, since I can carry them around easily and because of their size I don’t get intimidated seeing so much blank space around me, waiting for words to fill the pages.

Like all writers, I spend a lot of time thinking. People who don’t write often think we’re just wasting time, but we’re not. If I try to write before an idea has simmered properly, it usually doesn’t go anywhere. So I sit and think. A lot. I spend many hours sprawled on the couch with my dog or curled up in bed with pillows all around me. I jot down any ideas, no matter how crazy they might sound, that have to do with the project at hand. Sometimes this goes on for days or weeks or months, depending on the project. I love to play with words, which makes my job more like play and less like work.

I often work on several different projects at the same time. While I am in the middle of a novel I’m still writing poems and maybe an essay and possibly a non-fiction article too. When one idea isn’t working for me, I can turn the page in my notebook and work on something else. I’m always forgetting what notebook I started in, though, which is why I have so many of them all over the house. And sometimes I get ideas when I don’t have a notebook with me, so I have scraps of important things to remember on the back of napkins, deposit slips, and grocery receipts. These usually land in a basket in the office for me to sort through later.

When my thoughts are zooming around me at high-speed, things get sloppy. If I’m writing by hand, my letters get huge and loopy. If I’m on the computer, I’m punching the keys hard and fast. It’s the big adrenaline rush I’m after, and I want to nab as much of it as I can before it disappears. When I’m first racing to get everything down, I don’t worry about spelling or punctuation or much of anything else. Some people call this free-writing. I just spew words on paper without thinking about whether they’re the right words or what someone might say or think. The meat of the story is what I’m after. Later I go back and clean it all up, rearrange, add, delete, and rewrite.

I do this no matter what I’m writing — poetry, fiction, or non-fiction. There are times when, rereading what I wrote fast and without thinking, I am absolutely amazed by what I’ve written. To be honest, there are just as many times when I reread it and know that it’s not very good, but that’s okay. The important thing is that I finally have something down, in some sort of order that looks like a story.

The second run-through is usually the toughest for me. That’s when I see all the holes in the story that need to be filled in. When I don’t know what happens next, it’s back to the couch to think some more. This is usually when I start second-guessing myself, sure that what I thought was such a great idea is now nothing but garbage. I really need to apply some heavy-duty tough-love on myself to keep writing at this point.

Depending on what I am working on, and what kind of a deadline I have, I repeat the above process over and over again. Sometimes it’s a matter of days, sometimes weeks, and with books, it could be years. (Yes, you heard me right – some books can take me years to write.)

If I’m working on an article, I’ll often go online and research the topic, looking for experts in the area to give me some meaty quotes. That’s usually enough to get me back to the computer to finish up the article. If it’s a book I’m working on, and I’m trying to fill in the holes or decide what happens next, it can often be a lot harder. I try bouncing ideas off a writing friend. I do a lot of brainstorming and mind-mapping. I play outlandish games of “what-if,” hoping to jumpstart my brain in a different direction. Sometimes I’ll grab a stack of index cards and write a single sentence describing each scene I have already, on a separate card. Then I shuffle through the cards and see what my mind fills in by itself. I am an excellent procrastinator. Mostly it all comes down to just applying the seat of my pants to the seat of the chair and doing it.

After I feel I have a complete story, then comes my favorite part. Revision. I love to polish my manuscript, sort of like rubbing a genie’s lamp and knowing something wonderful is going to be the end result. In the process of revision I ask myself a lot of questions. Do I use strong, picture words? Does one chapter flow into the next? Do my characters act and react consistently throughout the story? Is my plot interesting, filled with enough conflicts to make the reader want to keep turning pages? Each chapter of my book should be filled with questions. When you answer one question, you need to ask another one. Once you’ve stopped asking questions, the reader has no reason left to turn the pages, and the story is over.

Everyone wants to know where I get my ideas. Ideas are all around me. I have so many ideas, I think I have to live to be 157 before I can write about them all. My ideas come from watching and listening to the things happening in the world around me. Everywhere I go, I watch people and observe how they react to the world around them. In New Orleans I used to love to ride the ferry back and forth across the Mississippi river, just to people-watch and to write in my notebook. Ideas can come from TV shows that don’t end the way I want them to, stories my kids shared with me about school, conversations at parties, a line in the newspaper, or from entries in my journal.

And a lot of my ideas come from those scraps of paper I have tossed all over the house, in my purse, on the floor of my car, and tacked up on my bulletin board. Ideas are the easy part…it’s the writing that makes all that hard work.

—Susan Taylor Brown