At every reading or workshop I give, a hand will raise and the question is asked: Where do I get my ideas from? And here’s the god’s honest truth: I don’t know! Who can keep track of what comes and goes through the labyrinth of flesh known as the brain? That’s not what I say though. What I say is that ideas are cheap. They are everywhere, all the time. They are the constant stream of images and words at the bottom of the mind’s screen. The trick of writing is not coming up with ideas, but of grasping one or two and turning them into art, which means having the discipline to actually sit down and get them on paper. For that, it helps to have a process to get you in the chair. Arcane rituals don’t hurt either, and neither does a thesaurus and sheer pluck.
So when Mindy Mejia, one of my fellow authors at Ashland Creek Press, asked me to join a writing process blog hop, I said yes. Process can be examined; ideas, not so much. Mindy is the author of The Dragon Keeper, a touching novel about the relationship between a zookeeper and a Komodo Dragon. I never thought I could feel such strong emotions for a reptile, but by the time I finished reading her book, I wanted to marry one.
But I have no time to take on another relationship right now. I have to answer these questions.
1.) What am I working on?
Although I usually write fiction, right now I’m working on a true crime memoir that I’ve been picking up and putting down for close to 15 years, tentatively titled Fair Game. I work on it for a few months, then I let myself get distracted with other writing projects, like, oh say, a novel. But sometimes it’s family matters, like a wedding, which is what distracts me at the moment.
2.) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
By its nature, true crime memoirs are always different from one another because the writer is remembering and trying to make sense of his or her own relationship to the crime. In my case, Fair Game is about the murder of a woman I knew in the mid-70’s in Stamford, Ct. She was killed with a bow-and-arrow and hastily buried in the woods. Her murder is technically unsolved. This is my take on her story, which I thought I knew then, but turns out I knew nothing.
3.) Why do I write what I write?
The better question is why write at all? What makes me sit down at my desk every day and put down words that form in my head? It’s like holding a séance with a laptop instead of a Ouija board. Having said that, my subject matter might seem capricious, but I do have themes. Whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction, poetry or drama, the underlying questions usually have to do with environmental issues (Float), social justice (Fair Game), or animals (Addled).
4.) How does my writing process work?
With novels, and very often with short stories, I have this odd tic of starting with the title, and work from there. For instance, with Float, all I had was the word float. I opened a document and typed it in. Over the next few months, while I was working on other things, I’d write down different meanings of the word, like floating on water, or floating on air, or to float a loan or an opinion. Flotsam is from the French word flotter, to float, and there’s lots of floating garbage in the book. A float can be a glass ball used to suspend a fishing net, and a float can be the flat, wooden part of a dock. You can float through the day like a jellyfish, or float over stress in order to survive. Then one day I had an image of a man in a failing fish processing plant, and I sent him to the beach to read words in the sand. I wrote the first chapter, sat for a while, then wrote the book. The important thing is to sit down everyday to write, at a scheduled time, even if you don’t have a plan. Just write, or take notes, it will come, and you’ll want to be there when it does. A story might take me one to six months, a novel two years or more. The non-fiction project is taking much longer. That’s probably because being non-fiction, I can’t just make it all up in my head and must rely on the cold, hard facts.
There you have it. My process, such as it. Let’s hear from someone else for a while. I went to a wonderful reading last week at Toad Hall, the independent Rockport, Ma, bookstore that donates its profits to environmental causes. We were entertained by friend and local author Thomas Hauck as he read from his new book, The Body on the Rocks. It is a collection of murder mystery short stories set here in Gloucester, and I can’t wait to read it. He’ll be up next in the #Mywritingprocess blog hop. Watch for Tom’s writing process blog coming soon.