Letting the flavors mingle

I often get asked how I can write a 350-page book in three months. The first time I was asked this my answer was, “I don’t know. It just happens.”

But I kept getting asked and I soon decided my answer needed some work, because my answer was no answer at all. So I analyzed my process of taking an idea and turning into 80,000 words of story. What do I do on Day 1?

When I stopped to figure it out, I realized I don’t start on Day 1. I start before. I pre-write in a way that doesn’t involve much writing at all. I mentally flesh out my characters before I write about them. They spend several weeks with me, attached to my ankle like prisoners on a chain gang while I pepper them with questions. I ask them about their past, their future, their goals, their fears, their pet peeves, their greatest joys. I invite them to comment on my day, on their day as my prisoner, on life, on truth, on justice, on love. I file away their responses in my head, and each one of these responses adds tissue and muscle to their character.

I call this marinating.

My characters – who all want something and are opposed by someone or something because that is the very essence of story – are becoming more pronounced, more distinct, more flavorful, if you will. The story – their story – is marinating in my head. The story appears to be sleeping, I appear to be not writing.

But I am. I am just not using words at the moment.

And when enough time has elapsed and the story, the characters. the plot, has been tenderized, well, then I start writing. The story usually flows out – with considerabl effort, I assure you – in a span of three to four months. Sometimes two. Sometimes five.

I’m pretty sure it happens that way because of the marinating time.

And that sure seems like a better answer than, “Duh, I dunno.”

Author: Susan

This post has 7 Comments

  1. lisa on March 27, 2008 at 4:05 am

    Yes, that’s a better answer :). I’m trying to marinate now. But work keeps getting in the way!!! I hope whatever stage you’re in – marinating or writing – it’s going well. (Also, thanks for the review of “my hands came away red” – I just saw that recently and it made my day). Cheers, Lisa

  2. Clair on March 27, 2008 at 9:28 pm

    I think I can understand marinating…but I am doing that with a story, and I keep getting stuck because I know the details cause some problems. Any suggestions?

    Also, I just read your newest book Blue Heart Blessed. I enjoyed it-I do like reading books that take place in Minnesota since that is where I live.

  3. Marybeth on March 28, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    Hi Susan– I just read Blue Heart Blessed and found your blog as a result. I am so excited to have discovered your writing! I added your blog to my “Blogs For Writers” category in my blogroll on my blog.

    Your answer about marinating made so much sense. With six children I have to write FAST when I can grab a few minutes. And so, I tell people that I might appear to be taking a shower or driving a car or stir frying over the stove, but in my head I am writing.

    For me, between plain old aging and a million different thoughts in my head, I have learned to jot down notes– nonsensical looking phrases to anyone else but me– and that helps me hold those thoughts when they come. When I am ready to actually put words on a screen, I pull out my notes, fire up my brain and bang out a draft.

    It’s good to hear there are others who have a similar process to mine! Keep up the good work. IMHO, Blue Heart Blessed was masterful– right up there with Quaker Summer. My only question is, when is the movie coming out??

  4. Susan Meissner on March 28, 2008 at 8:21 pm

    Hey, Lisa! Thanks for stopping by the Edge. Make sure you let me know when your next book comes out. It was my pleasure to chat about my hands came away red.

    Clair: Problems are the heart of story, friend. I don’t know what problems your details are causing you, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If the details are causing logistical problems (like you’ve got the sun coming up when it should be coming down)well, just the write the thing and fix the logistics when you are in edit mode. If the details are causing character conflicts, well, then YAY! Friction is good. Write the thing anyway! See what comes out when you drain away the soaking juice and write the thing. Sometimes I don’t feel like the story is ready, but I begin to write it anyway and find that I was wrong. It was ready. It came together as I wrote, not as I was thinking when I kept it doused in marinade.
    Let me know how it goes. . .

    Mary Beth! Thank you, thank you for your encouraging words! Anytime I am compared with the visionary Lisa Samson, I am a happy camper. So do YOU know anybody in Hollywood??!! 🙂

  5. Nicole on March 30, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    Speaking of Susan’s book Blue Heart Blessed, for those of you who have yet to read it, you must! If you need a review which doesn’t give too much away, stop by here: http://hopeofglory.typepad.com/into_the_fire/2008/02/more-than-a-lit.html and enjoy! It’s a wonderful story.

  6. Jamie Morris on March 31, 2008 at 3:53 am

    Wow! What a great and useful insight into a writer’s process. Thanks for the generosity of taking the time to really delve into the question: that’s a gift that you’ve given to other writers.

    I wanted to let you know, too, that I cited you–and linked to your website–in a blog post of my own about the way we sometimes label “setting” as “character” in writing workshop discussions.

    I appreciated having you as a resource and just wanted to say thanks.

    Appreciatively,
    Jamie Morris
    Woodstream Writing Workshops

  7. Susan Meissner on March 31, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    Nicole, you rock. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

    And Jamie, thanks for linking back to the Edge. And for your very affirming words.

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