All Your Writing Questions, Answered!
Other writers often ask me questions about how I started writing and for advice on their writing. I try answering your emails and Facebook posts and responding to as many writing questions as possible, but sometimes I can’t get to them all. So I’ve gathered some of the best questions about writing, and my answers to them, here.
Q. Why did you choose writing?
A. Writing allows me to explore wherever and whatever I choose. It’s taken me back in time, to a distant galaxy, to the place where the sea begins. Best of all, though, writing is a way to explore the biggest questions of life. Not to find the answers, perhaps, but to do some thoughtful exploring of the questions. The two most rewarding parts of the experience are, first, when a word or character or place or idea comes out just right—and, second, when something I’ve written truly touches someone in some way. Some of the letters I’ve received have been unforgettable enough to keep me up late at night working on the next book.
Q. What’s the best thing about writing?
A. The best thing is making a word, a place, a character, a dilemma, or an idea come alive. Truly alive. For both writer and reader. Then I have a chance to touch other people in a deep and lasting way. And I am more alive than ever before.
Q. Do you consider yourself successful?
A. Yes, I do consider myself successful, although there is much more I hope to accomplish in my lifetime. I really wish I could have more impact on our society and our democracy, which are in trouble in many ways, and on nature and wilderness, which are under siege by careless human activity. The one place I feel completely successful is as a dad — and that makes me happier than anything else.
Q. What would be your advice to young writers?
A. For starters, writing is the hardest work I’ve ever done — as well as the most joyous work I’ve ever done — which is why all the hard labor is worthwhile. But in this regard, talent will only take you a small part of the distance you need to go. What is necessary, in addition to talent, is discipline and persistence. Stay with your writing, no matter how many rewrites it takes to get it right!
Q. How do you generate your ideas?
A. My best ideas come from life itself. Especially being out in nature, observing the intricate wonders of wildflower meadows or rambling rivers, opens all my senses: I smell, hear, taste, touch, and see many things that inspire me to feel fully alive—and also to write. It’s the same when I’m with my kids. They unfailingly open my senses and make me more aware.
Ideas also come from reading an interesting book or thinking about the problems of the world today. Ultimately, if you notice what’s around you, and really take it in, you have a limitless source of inspiration material. Then just add a pinch of imagination and anything — literally anything — is possible.
Q. How important is research?
A. Extensive research is a must. If I as a writer am going to convince you as a reader to come with me to some fantastic place or time, I must first win your confidence. Your trust. The only two ways to do that are: first, to engage every one of your senses fully; and second, to do my research.
For The Lost of Years of Merlin epic, I researched the legends of Merlin for two years before I could even begin writing. I started with the ancient Celtic text called the Mabinogion and worked forward from there.
To write Heartlight, I needed to learn a lot about the life cycle of stars, the nature of light, and the marvelous morpho butterfly. For The Ancient One, I researched nine different tribes who lived in the Pacific Northwest five hundred years ago. In addition, I needed to understand the smells, sounds, and ecological interconnections of an ancient grove of redwoods. The Merlin Effect required learning about the legend of Merlin, Spanish galleons of the 16th century, the physics of whirlpools, and—best of all—the gray whales. Not to mention the motions and sounds of waves, the rhythms of tide pools, and the screeching of gulls. Research is often hard work, but it is loads of fun. And I get to choose the subject!
Q. What is the best writing method?
A. Writing is a strange, mysterious process. After more than twenty years, I still don’t know how it really works. But I do know it requires special, personal chemistry. So I always write the first draft with a blue felt pen and a pad of paper, because that’s good chemistry for me. Probably because, as a kid growing up in Colorado, that’s how I started writing. Once the manuscript is ready—a good first draft but still far from finished—I transfer it to a computer. Then I do six or seven complete rewrites—as many as it takes to get it right. I also do a lot of background research—about Celtic lore, Native American dances, sunken treasure ships … whatever is needed to make the story authentic. Last of all, I do some careful, delicate editing—marking up the printed copy with my friendly blue pen.
Q. I often get Writer’s Block; how do I overcome it?
A. You are not alone!!! Every writer I know has gone through times of such intense pressure. You are in excellent company.
Here is my advice: Forget about the rest of the world. Just write what YOU want to write. Say what you want to say. And do finish what you begin, even if it doesn’t feel perfect. It’s essential to finish. Most of all, it’s important to write from your deepest passion!
Q. How do you finish your stories?
A. The key, I have found, is to find whatever ways you can to get to the end. Complete the thing, even if you’re feeling bored with it. Then you have something whole to work with, to rewrite or reorder and make into a story you feel proud of.
For example, sometimes it helps to start the tale, then skip right to the ending while it’s fresh, and then fill in the middle. In your revisions, you can always add new themes or characters that add power and originality to your tale.
It’s the writing question fans always ask: “How do you write your stories?” Writers say they hate this question, and probably some really do. Because the writing process can be a fragile structure of instincts, research, emotion, and whatever talent we’re fortunate to possess, held together with the proverbial spit and baling wire. Sometimes we’re afraid the whole thing might tumble down if we look at it too hard!
But writers also love this question because however genuinely modest they may be, nearly any writer loves talking about their own writing. Or, more precisely: how they got the core idea for the story, the bursts of inspiration that pushed it forward, and the key insight that helped tie the narrative together!
So: How do I write my stories? Well, first of all, I still write my first draft of any new novel by hand, usually sitting in my study on the top floor of my house, with the view of the gorgeous Colorado mountains keeping me company. Feeling the texture of the paper and ink, and seeing the story progress down the lines of the page, gets my creative juices flowing. Even if I have to ice my left wrist at the end of a long day, it’s worth it.
Before I even start to write, though, I’ll usually create a lengthy description of each character. That helps me to “see” the characters in my mind, hear their voices, know their good and bad sides, and start getting to know them and care about them. I also need a big question or two that needs answering, like “Can spirituality exist without religion?” or “How can a person overcome their deepest hurts?” or “What difference can one person make?”
Finally, I need a place that feels so inviting, mysterious, and beautiful that I’d love to travel there myself! If you’ve read any of my books, you know that the places are just as important as the people in my stories. And while there are many inviting towns (and some unfriendly ones) and even a city or two in my novels, the wild natural world is where my characters have most of their adventures.
I need to get three elements worked out before I can start a new book: Detailed descriptions of each new character; a big idea that drives the plot, usually in the form of a question or two that the characters will answer in their thoughts and actions; and an amazing environment for their adventures.
Nature to me is a brilliant and mysterious teacher. A powerful healer. And my greatest inspiration. Since I was a boy, I’ve loved being in the wilderness, marveling at the grand sweep of the not-human world: the river of stars in the night sky, the grand march of a mountain range, or the vast expanse of the open ocean.
And more: Unspoiled nature is one of the few places left in this hyper-networked, noisy civilization we’ve created where we can still experience silence. That kind of silence is among the wellsprings of my creativity. Which I guess is why my characters often find themselves (in both senses of the phrase) in such places in my books!
Once I’ve got these elements lined up, I write that first draft by hand. Then I transfer everything to the computer, which is where I do all the rest of the writing.
While inspiration is a component of writing a book, no successful writer I’ve ever heard of got that way by relying upon inspiration alone. Woody Allen is supposed to have said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” I’ll typically go through seven or eight drafts of a novel, a process that takes some discipline–although the fact that I love my work certainly helps.
It’s in this lengthy revision period that my characters open up and tell me who they really are: their most profound fears, their greatest hopes, their deepest longings. It’s where the towns, forests, and other places in the story reveal their secrets, as well. It’s important that these all become truly real to me as the writer, because that is what makes them real to you, the reader.
As the novel revisions progress, I usually refine my focus. This means developing the key characters and the main arc of their adventures, without adding much that might dilute the mix and prevent me from finishing the story. I can always jot down a great idea to keep in reserve for a future book.
There’s nearly always a point in the final drafts where a writer gets totally tired of everything about a project, never mind how much he or she loves the people and places in it. If I get to this point, I’ve learned it’s important to find whatever ways I can to complete the book, no matter how exhausted I feel. One key realization I’ve had is that there’s no law that I have to write the story in the “right” order! I can always skip to the ending while it’s fresh and exciting in my mind, and fill in the middle later on.