Authors’ Roundtable: The Ritual of Writing, with Sean Ellis and Dawn McCullough-White

11 Aug

This week’s topic is “The Ritual of Writing.” What are your particular rituals or idiosyncracies pertaining to the act of writing? Do you need quiet? Music? A beverage of choice? With us are Sean Ellis, author of the just-released Adventures of Dodge Dalton in the Shadow of Falcon’s Wings, and Dawn McCullough-White, author of Cameo the Assassin.

Sean Ellis

I don’t have a writing ritual. I don’t think I even have anything that could be construed that way. I sometimes wish I had a ritual, because that would make me a disciplined writer, and I am anything but.

I actually used to think that I would have a ritual. ‘When the day comes,’ I told myself, ‘that I am finally able to write professionally, I’ll pack my laptop down to the local bookstore/coffee shop…or maybe a library, if they’ll let me have coffee (coffee is very important to my day, whether I’m writing or not), and then I’ll sit at a table and create magic.’

I think I’ve executed that scenario once…maybe? Come to think of it, that was for a college paper I was writing, so I don’t think it counts.

James Michener once said that every first novel is written between 1 and 4 in the morning. Every second novel, too, and most third and fourth as well. Most aspiring authors have a job, and perhaps a family, and may not have a few hours during the course of the average day to plink away at the keyboard. So writing time perforce comes out of the sleep budget. I suppose I’ve done that once or twice, but not in a disciplined or routine way. If I’m writing at 2 a.m. it’s because I’ve got some idea in my head burning its way out. I wrote most of Shroud of Heaven while commuting on public transportation. I wrote a great deal when I was in Afghanistan…there wasn’t much else to do really. And lately, I’ve just had to grab time whenever I can, provided of course that the muse is singing.

And that I think may be the point. For me, writing–that is the act of putting ideas into actual text–is only a very small part of the process. I’m sure I’m like most writers who are constantly mulling over story ideas–mine usually play like movies in my head–and when I figure out exactly how I want to present a particular idea or write a bit of dialogue, I’ll usually try to get to my computer before the spark dies. And once I’m actually writing, the floodgates usually open and I pound out 2,500 words before I know what’s happening.

The problem with disciplined writing, at least for me, is that the creative periods aren’t bound by the schedule. Conversely, my daily routine might not always respect the unpredictability of the thought process. That’s why my Netbook has been invaluable; I can now write almost anywhere, anytime. Back before I had my first laptop, I would often scribble story ideas on whatever paper was handy. I have since found old legal pads, folded pages, post-its–and yes, even napkins–with rough outlines I have come up with while I was supposed to be doing something else. I know of some writers who carry a notebook everywhere and may actually even compose some of their work longhand, but that would never work for me. I must have a QWERTY keyboard in front of me in order to produce the finished product. I actually believe that touch-typing enables me to engage both hemispheres of my brain in the creative process. I can’t prove it empirically, but I’m much more> creative at the computer than I ever was with pen and paper. I also play a lot of Spider Solitaire and frequently check my email and Facebook when I really should be writing.

Maybe those things count as rituals. Whatever works, right?

Dawn McCullough-White

My ritual of writing in the most technical aspect involves me getting off one computer that is hooked up to the internet at 10pm and moving to the dining room where my laptop is set up on the table. I sit down until Midnight and either write, edit, determine the sequence of events coming up next or stare at the screen bleary-eyed hoping the words will come. But in a more creative/spiritual version of the same events, what really takes place is, at the stroke of 10pm I can feel a little tug psychically that literally pulls me into the other room. It’s as if something is pulling me to work on my novel. It’s persistent and once I begin writing it’s a huge rush. If, on the other hand, I’m unable to write or don’t bother I feel sort of muddled, and have a really difficult time falling asleep.

My novels are character-driven, and so when I set upon writing a book the very first thing that comes to me is an interesting character. This is achieved usually when I’m listening to music, a song might bring up an idea for a character, or a scene a character is in. There have been a few times I’ve watched a movie or read a book when I wondered what some minor character might be thinking, and wanted to expound about that. Occasionally I’ve had dreams that turned into plots, or a major scene for a novel, unraveling who those characters are. Sometimes I do a depiction of this person, then maybe draw some scenes. I generally write the novel with a really sketchy outline, that has definite plot point scenes that will occur throughout the book. I’m lucky if I know what the ending will be. It makes getting there much easier. It generally takes me two years to complete a 200 page novel. If a scene isn’t coming to me I don’t force it, I let it unfold when it wants to. This means I could be sitting around for three months without looking at my novel, and then one day I’ll be doing some completely mindless task like vacuuming or driving and a scene or a series of scenes will come to me.

Techniques that keep me creative are to never ever force the writing. I never set goals insisting I must write so many words at each setting or I must sit down and write every single day, or set deadlines as to when the work must be finished. I’ve been writing novels for twenty-six years, and at this point I can feel when each part of the book (rising action, climax and falling action) will occur throughout the year, and when the novel will be completed within a couple months. I never want to make the writing an unpleasant job, or rush the flow. I am always in search of new music to represent certain characters and influence the my ideas, and the general feel of certain settings and scenes. I have folders on my iriver dedicated to specific characters.

So, what I actually do is sit down with a scene completely finished in my head, put on the music I believe accompanies it best and then write it out. Occasionally I have a few notes I’ve written to myself to remember some witty line one character says to another or something like that, but in general it’s all just a little movie that I have running in my head that I’m taking dictation from. The other type of writing I do is, if I’ve had a bit of writer’s block I’ll sit in front of the computer and just relax with some music and determine that a couple characters are going to have a little conversation, and just tell myself it’s a “nothing scene” and there’s no pressure to say much of anything. Some of the best stuff I’ve written comes from the “nothing scenes” actually. I’ve had many times when those scenes become ten pages, and are a lot of fun to write. So that’s my method. I don’t abide by any of the so-called writer’s convention rules. I just do what works for me. I see no point in putting heavy regulations on myself. I’m not writing for profit. I’m writing because the story entertains me and hopefully it will entertain others as well.

Thanks to Dawn and Sean for sharing their thoughts. Please check out their websites and their books.
How about the rest of you? What are your writing rituals?

One thought on “Authors’ Roundtable: The Ritual of Writing, with Sean Ellis and Dawn McCullough-White

  1. This discussion is a reaffirmation that there isn't a special method that's a guaranteed route to writing strong fiction.

    I probably should stop waiting for that secret author decoder ring to arrive in the mail 😉

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