07/17/2013 06:01 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

The Writing Life: What's the Process?


My novel, Bad Girls, just launched -- hooray and hallelujah! -- which, among other things, prompted lots of questions from family, friends and co-workers. Here's one: "I have a friend who has always wanted to write a novel, but she doesn't know how. What's the process?" This one took me aback a little, and I thought, the process, or my process, because, as I finally tell him, "I really don't have one."

I offer careful words of encouragement suggesting creative writing courses and reading books on the topic. I've done both. And I know that there are some writers who create outlines and chart the course of the story and arc of characters in very detailed ways. Some write every single day. Some sit down first thing in the morning to write... at the crack of dawn. When I hear that an author gets up at 5:00 a.m. to write, I am awestruck; I couldn't even begin to clear my head or focus my eyeballs at that hour, no matter how many large lattes with a shot, extra cream and two sugars I drink. I admire the fortitude to tackle tasks at daybreak, and the gritty discipline to write each and every day no matter what.

I'm a night owl. I learned early on when I began writing for local newspapers, to settle down at the computer when everyone else was in bed. The quiet, the solitude was the lubricant that allowed my thoughts to flow. I'd like to be able to write every day, or every night, but life often gets in the way.

When I was working on my book, Raising Our Children's Children (updated and soon to be released as, Room In The Heart), I continued the evening pattern, and to this day, write mainly at night. For that book, I conducted numerous taped interviews which required transcription word-for-word before I could use the material in a cohesive way -- page and pages of dialogue. It was a tedious process, but so important to listen over and over again to inflections, the telling pauses and emotions that poured out along with the words. Most times, after an interview, no matter what corner of New England it had taken me, I would find some quiet spot to pull my car over and hand write, on large legal pads, my impressions, my thoughts and feelings, all the little details that make a story rich and textured; the real writing was done in my parked car, on a beach chair, sitting on a blanket on a patch of grass, or on a bench in a park -- with a pen. Writing that book , by necessity, was very different than writing fiction. It was a project, a calling, a shared journey.

My novel, Bad Girls, is about journeys, or more precisely, those of three women bound together by the mystery of a young woman's death. Though it is not really a mystery, more an unfolding of self-discovery and a look at how families -- who we are, where we come from - create blueprints for our future and what it takes to step off the paths set for us and create our own blueprints moving forward.

Bad Girls began with an idea, a what-if, and grew into a cast of characters who took over and led the way through a story, adding other characters as we went along. Yes, characters accompany me, direct me, whisper in my ear. There was no outline, just scraps of paper with snippets of thoughts, impressions, and dialogue. A notebook lined with descriptions of people, places, the feel of a day, the weather, the sky overhead; like painting a picture but with words jotted down that eventually come together to reveal a story-line. My process is more like a puzzle that takes shape from pieces fitting together forming a whole. Maybe you can't call that a process; it's certainly not something I could endorse.

My favorite book about writing is Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird. She's one of my favorite authors. It's her father's advice Lamott recounts about tackling a large project that has stuck with me, the only thing from all the "writing" books I've read that has. In fact, it's a philosophy that serves me well in other aspects of life; taking things one at a time, not allowing the task, the problem, the challenge to overwhelm; just taking things "bird by bird."

Years ago, when I was painting a lot, I would look at objects more deeply. I could see twenty different colors in a tree and get lost in the process of reaching the right shade, the right depth of hue. I could focus -- as if in a trance -- so that I viewed everything as color and shape to be played with forming something satisfying and whole. Writing is like that for me now.

Sometimes. When I'm in the midst of it, and really looking, I may find inspiration at any hum-drum task, some hazy recollection or hidden behind every wish. Even when I'm not paying attention, words, phrases, moments of clarity can seep into my thoughts at any moment, any time of day or night. There are times when my eyes pop open in the middle of the night -- I'm quite sure this happens to all writers -- and I have to fumble for a pen and a ripped-off piece of something to scribble a startlingly profound insight that just can't wait until morning. Of course, most of the time, come morning it looks like dialogue from Sponge Bob. And even that is better than not writing something down because I'm absolutely confident I'll remember such an obvious solution or crystal bright nugget of genius only to have it disappear into the atmosphere like vapor the moment I wake. But every once in a while the words, if legible, form the truest thing, the most beautiful thing, the best thing I've ever written.

That is my process; its messy, its nebulous, and it can't be recommended, but it's mine.