Jen's Bio: Jennifer Davis-Kay is a freelance editor and writer in Arlington, Massachusetts. While she’s written one-and-a-quarter books, she hasn’t published anything yet, because trying to get published is worky and Jen dislikes hard work. She prefers bubble baths and cold white wine and reading other people’s writing. Don’t follow her example, you’ll never get anywhere.
Hello, Ali’s readers! I’m honored to be asked to guest-post on this most excellent blog. (I am always in awe of how much writing Ali produces. My head is full of great ideas, but getting them onto a page . . . that is my lifelong challenge. Seriously: “Do something more with my writing” has been on my list of New Year’s resolutions since I was, like, 12. Which has been a LOT of years, let me just say.)
Ali suggested that I write about the process I take when writing, which, as I mentioned above, will be a very short post, since I spend most of my time NOT writing. But then I gave it some thought, and maybe I do have some things to say.
A few years ago I wrote a middle-grade novel titled Measuring Up (about a high school girl who starts her own catering business), and I’m now working on a YA novel called Selling Chastity. In both cases, I started with an outline. The story often goes in unexpected directions when I’m writing, and my characters frequently surprise me; still, I find it helpful to have a kind of road map for the overall direction my story will take. My outline literally breaks down the story by chapters — though, as I said, I’m open to twists. Also, after I’ve written a planned section, it sometimes becomes clear that I need to add something else.
For example: In Measuring Up, my main character, Darby, is experiencing her first romantic relationship, and I had a lot of fun writing about her awkward first date. But (spoiler!) she ends up with a different boy at the end of the book, and my writers group (more on them in a minute) said that they wanted to see her on a date with that boy. I had to give this some serious thought, because Darby is with her boyfriend until the next-to-last chapter; I couldn’t have her cheating on him, so how could I send her on a date with someone else? My first instinct was to ignore their suggestion . . . but it kept gnawing at me. And then I figured out how to do it: I sent the whole catering team to the movies for a celebration, except that half the crew backs out, leaving Darby alone with The Boy. At the movies. In the dark. Sharing popcorn, fingers and knees lightly brushing. Ooh la la! It was so much fun to write, and I was so happy that my writers group pushed me to do it.
When I sit down to write, I set a goal of a certain number of pages (usually five, double-spaced). I don’t edit myself as I write; even if I suspect that I’m producing pure crap, it doesn’t matter — all that matters is getting words onto a page. It’s easier to edit something than nothing — I can always go back and fix it later. And I’m often surprised to find that what I wrote is better than I remember it being.
Also, before I start writing, I go back and read a few pages of what I wrote last, which helps me get the “voice” of my story into my head.
I would like to say that once I’m in the groove, the time flies and I tend to write more than my five-page goal — but that would be a lie. This does happen sometimes, but usually I breathe a huge sigh of relief once I reach my goal, and I dash off to do something more fun, like cleaning the cat’s litter box. (Ha.) Writing is hard work, man. But I love the feeling of having written, and the only way you get that awesome feeling is to write something!
The best advice I ever got about writing has to do with conflict. Without conflict, your story is dead. The advice was this: “What does your character want? What’s stopping your character from getting it?” I always have those words in the back of my mind as I write.
Another thing I find helpful is to keep a character chart: first and last name, physical description, and any other details I’ve used to bring this person to life. For example: my character Abby drinks Sprite; Darby drinks Diet Pepsi with a squirt of lime. When Allis “swears,” she says “Holy camoley!” (My daughter says, “No teenager would ever say that.” But I’m writing for a middle-grade audience, I don’t want to use a real swear. It’s a challenge!) Christy Bolander likes to sit in the front row and always carries a notebook. Jory has a pink Bible and never takes off her purity ring. Etc. etc.
I mentioned my writers group above, and they are my best resource and writing tool. I highly recommend finding some kind of writing community, whether in person or online. It’s very hard to be your own critic, and it can be tough to hear a critique from, say, your mom or your bestie. My group is made up of women who I didn’t know very well at first; I like them all, but we’re not best friends, which I think is key (though, over the four or five years we’ve been meeting, I’ve grown to love them all dearly). We meet every three or four weeks and take turns sharing pages of what we’ve written and giving one another suggestions and constructive feedback. There are five of us right now, though the group membership has fluctuated over the years. They have given me such incredible guidance and insight into my own writing, and I value their feedback beyond words.
OK — I think that’s enough for now. I hope that aspiring writers will find something valuable here.
Thanks again, Ali, for inviting me to be part of your blog!