On My Writing Process


I recently got into a conversation with a fellow writer about my writing process. It started with his simple—albeit loaded—question, “How do you write?” His tone wasn’t accusatory in the least, but something about the question caught me off-guard. It made me wonder. How do I write? l almost didn’t want to tell him. As if my writing process is like some secret family recipe I’m fearful to share with others because I’ll expose the fact that I cook with Saltine crackers. (Saltine crackers, by the way, is the hidden ingredient in my grandmother’s carrot loaf recipe, a carrot recipe superior to all others…) 

I’m what’s known in the biz as a “pantser,” the opposite of the “plotter.” I’m jealous of the plotters, those writers fortunate enough to have the foresight where their novels are heading and how they will end. Not me. I’m a pantser; I write by the seat of my pants. It’s a blessing and a curse. My characters and my story are unscripted, so they evolve as I go, but some days I sit in front of my computer and find myself running on empty. My creative outlet is dried up and I cannot for the life of me find anything interesting to happen to my characters. Those days are hard, and I lament the fact that I don’t/can’t/won’t convert to the plotters’ camp.

I also approach each writing session as if I’m trying to seduce the words out me. My friend laughed when I told him I play music and light a candle—the scent? Orange marmalade, a scent that conjures smells of cloves and fallen leaves and honey. Depending on the day, depending on the story, depending on where I am in the conflict, I choose my music carefully. Right now, I’m writing almost exclusively to a bluegrass station on Pandora (“Appalachia Waltz,” to be exact) because the majority of my manuscript takes place in the mountains of West Virginia. With my first novel, The Number 7, I wrote to a lot of Django Rhinehardt and Edith Piaf. My other idiosyncrasies? I can’t write by hand. I’m usually only creative in the morning. And I start each session with a cup of black coffee.

I know I’m not the only author who demands certain writing conditions. Capote wrote lying down. Kerouac wrote from midnight till dawn. Angelou kept a hotel room and paid for it by the month. Nabokov wrote on index cards. Rowling outlines. Dan Brown hangs upside down. All this goes to show we writers may be a finicky bunch, but we cannot let our demands prevent us from the hard part, the writing. As E.B. White warns us, and which I agree with whole-heartedly, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.”