At a reading I did recently, I met a lovely soul who was at the beginning of her own writing journey. Afterwards, she connected with me via email to ask some questions about my creative process. I thought I would share my response.
Q & A
When you have come up with a story or an idea how do you know it’s a good idea and do you have anyone to bounce your ideas off?
In terms of ideas, I am guided mainly by instinct and intuition. What is ‘good’ is of course totally subjective, and so rather than worry about its relative worth, I am trying to see if I can keep the idea alive and I find that if a story wants to be told, then I will tell it and decide later whether it was a good idea.
I think Andy Warhol was onto something when he said: Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.
I do have a few trusted readers that I like to show my work in the early stages: my husband, and my three friends who are also picture book authors. We have a critique group and it works well. It is a subtle art to be able to edit and give feedback in a constructive way and also to take feedback graciously – so really good if you can find people that can do this in a healthy way. Then again you need to use your instincts to decide which bits of feedback you use and which bits you choose not to.
How do you break up your writing time/days up? For example do you come up with new ideas or focus on some older stories that you’ve written and need tidying up?
As a mother of two children under 4, I have no set routine and just squeeze everything in when I can. But I find that rather than complaining about not having enough time (which I do, regularly!) I find it is much more helpful to try and embrace your constraints as they only sharpen your hunger for it. So that when you do get the time (often after 10pm for me!) then you really maximise it.
I like to have a number of projects on the go at one time, so that I don’t have too much emotion invested one thing. I find that helps when dealing with the inevitable rejections or delays and also cuts down on the wait time – the glacial speeds of the publishing industry! I find I go through cycles, I have a cycle of mad creation then a slower more considered phase of editing and then when those two things burn out, I turn to my own personal reading which I find is always refreshing and helps to ignite the passion once more. The ‘business’ side of being an author, though, doesn’t stop and it needs to be a daily thing. Whether answering emails, promoting your existing titles, or arranging events and things. I do these things as they come up.
Do you ever write stories with one character and another character suddenly appears and takes over your story? The two of them compliment the story, even essential for the story but it appears there might be 2 stories in one and they could stand on their own or work in the same story- what would you do? How do you know which is best- is there someone you discuss this with and who would that be?
This does happen, and I think it is ok to have several main characters as long as you make sure that your protagonist is not less interesting than the other minor characters. The protagonist needs to have the most profound ‘journey’ or change and so I try to keep that in mind, if any other interesting voices appear along the way.
Do you plot out your story or characters before writing or do they just appear whilst you’re writing? If they just appear do you free write and then fine tune it and develop it more then and there or do you let it sit for a while and go back to it?
With picture books, they are very much written in a free-form, organic way. I start with the first line and then follow it from there. If the story has any legs, it will come out pretty much fully formed and then I will go back and polish and refine. This is my favourite part of the process – I adore editing.
With longer projects, say a middle-grade novel, it is a mixture of plotting and then free writing. It is then a fun process to connect the dots. Many writers seem to say that they know how the story starts and how it ends, but it is the middle that is the tricky bit (the ‘muddle’).
I think that like all aspects of writing, there is never one approach that works – there are no rules, just what works for you. I like the fact that you are thinking about and reflecting upon your own process, as it is good to know what your strengths and weaknesses are and then make sure that you adopt a kind of mental hygiene to make sure that you are feeding the good things and not indulging the others (e.g. procrastination…social media!)
For example, I can’t work unless I have a clean work space. And so part of my writing process is to tidy my desk and make a cup of tea. But sometimes…that is all I end up doing and by the second cup of tea, my baby has woken up and the time to write is over. So, I have learnt not to fuss too much about how symmetrical my stack of books is otherwise, nothing will get done.
Do you feel a picture book needs in-depth character development?
Short answer – yes! But I don’t think that ‘in depth’ equates to lengthy word count. A few well-chosen words here or there can make all the difference and reveal a great deal. We could talk about this excellent question for hours though…there is so much in this.
How do you know or who would you talk to if you think you have a picture book but it seems to go on and you know it could develop into something longer?
I would just let the story go where it wants to, unfettered with considerations of form. I love the work of Richard Flanagan and recall he said in an interview that he spent years trying to find the right form for one of his novels. He tried long form and short form – even haiku! If you have the motivation and energy, I would try the story both ways until you feel you have found the right vehicle for it.
Do you write every day? Either morning pages or free writing or do you use writing prompts or do you focus on writing your stories?
I do not write every day. As I mentioned above, there should be no rules with this. Every writer seems to do something different. One of the most appealing approaches I have heard on this was, ‘Try to write a little every day. Without hope. Without despair.’ I am not sure who said it, but it is the second part of that which is the most resonant. I have ritualised writing more of late though, and find that the more I write, the more I want to.