How Do You Write?
Jen Fejta holds a BA in English and French Studies from Lewis & Clark College. She works at Literary Arts in Portland, Oregon, where she directs Delve: Readers’ Seminars, a program that engages readers with discussion-based seminars led by professional writers and scholars on classic and contemporary literature.
She is also my friend and cohort in the writing and editing process.
Jen: So let’s start with your day. What time do you wake up? Is writing the very first thing you do, or is it the last thing? Now that you’re working at home, how is your day structured?
Kiersi: I’m freshest in the morning. A lot of my stories are based on dreams. I find that when I wake up in the morning, sometimes I am exhausted and lazy. Those times, I have to take a long shower and cook a big breakfast for myself to feel ready for the day. Most of the time, though, I wake up rejuvenated, with the energy that I need to write.
I like to start early if I can. The other morning I woke up at 5 a.m. My neighbor was making some noise, and I’d gotten to bed early, so I just jumped out of bed and I was ready to rock and roll for about four hours until I stopped for breakfast.
Jen: Do you find it’s typical for you to work in these big chunks of time, like four to five hours, or do you find that you break it up more on a regular basis?
Kiersi: I guess it really depends on the day. I like to focus if I can, because it takes a little while to get into the stride of writing fast. The times that I hammer out lots of words is when I invest a lot of hours in it. So the bigger the chunk of uninterrupted time, the better. Sometimes for a break I’ll walk outside, play with my rats, or snuggle with the cat.
Sometimes for a break I’ll walk outside, play with my rats, or snuggle with the cat.
Jen: You mentioned that you get a lot of your inspiration from dreams. When you wake up in the morning, are the dreams that you’re writing about influencing stories that you’re currently working on? Do you start a brand new story, or do you use them more as exercises to follow the path and see where it goes?
Kiersi: Some of my best stories have come from dreams. I might have a dream and scribble it down first thing when I wake up, and the idea will stick with me for a while. Then, maybe a week or a year later, I’ll decide to sit down and turn it into a story or a book. My dreams can be really, really vivid sometimes–vivid to the point where I’ll open up a Word document and write two pages purely of imagery I remember from my dream.
A lot of the time too, though, it’s just inspiration, a sign of creative juice flowing. That’s when the dreams are the most vivid and frankly, kind of insane. It puts me in the mindset of thinking about fantasy, and thinking about a universe that’s separate from reality.
Jen: Let’s talk a little bit about the way that you write. You said that you like to open up a Word document to write. Do you write exclusively on your laptop? You’re not a pen-and-paper kind of person at all? Why do you choose to do it that way? Is it efficiency, or comfort?
Kiersi: Efficiency. I type 110 words per minute, so it’s just a waste of time to write with a pencil on paper. My brain works so much faster than that when I’m in the groove that hand-writing my thoughts distracts me, because my hand can’t keep up. I have to keep slowing down and rewinding my thought process. The computer is the most efficient way to take all the energy in my brain that is escaping like air out of a hole in an inflatable mattress and put it down on paper before it’s all gone.
I type 110 words per minute, so it’s just a waste of time to write with a pencil on paper.
Jen: What about when you’re editing? A lot of writers like to print out their work because they don’t want to see it on a screen, but view it in a more tactile way. Do you need to see it in different forms, or are you comfortable viewing it just on a screen?
Kiersi: If you print it on paper and edit it, I feel like there are two problems: First problem is that you’re killing trees. (Jen laughs.) The second problem is that you can’t make a change as soon as you see an error in the writing. I really like to go through my story as if I am just a reader, and find those issues and problems that don’t feel right or cause me to lose the flow of the narrative, and I fix ’em right away. If it’s a bigger scale problem, I’ll sit back and think about how to fix it, but for the most part when I see a problem I want to repair it immediately. I definitely do all my editing right on the computer.
Jen: I want to bring up a couple points that you mentioned earlier. You and I have talked in the past about this concept of the “muse.” You mentioned dreams as being a source of inspiration, you mentioned sometimes you get a little writer’s block in the middle of the day and you need to go on a walk. Some writers treat the concept of the “muse” as this very personified thing, that the muse comes to you. Other writers have argued that no, you go to the muse and work for this intellectual writer’s nirvana. My question is: does inspiration just come to you in the middle of the night, or is it something you find you have to meditate on to get to that level?
Kiersi: Yeah… Both.
Jen: What’s your experience with it?
Kiersi: Definitely it is a little bit of both. Writing takes work. Writing takes practice. Writing fast and a lot and getting into something… I find I hit my stride and get that inspiration when I’ve been working on something for a while. Let’s say you’re writing a book and you’re in the last quarter of the book–it’s that last quarter of the book when the plot is intense, and the characters are being beaten up, and all that other stuff. That’s when I get the muse and I get the rush and I hit the stride, and just start pounding out the words like crazy.
Writing takes work. Writing takes practice.
It does sometimes hit in the middle of the night. I have a really hard time falling asleep these days because my brain is always in that mode, the mode of thinking about stories and ideas. It seems that even when I’ve ended my work day, my brain is still pounding on it. Even when I’m not writing, some part of me is still working through the kinks in the story and the characters, especially if I was stuck on something before I stopped writing for the day. So let’s say it’s 11 o’clock at night and I’m trying to fall asleep, then, boom! Great idea. Then I have to pull something out like a notebook or my iPhone and write it down before I’m able to relax and close my eyes again. But it’s nice to be in an environment now where I can do that. If I need to stay up until two in the morning typing away because it hit me right then, well, so be it.
Jen: When are the times in your writing process that you find are the hardest to find that inspiration? I know when you were working on Sophie (The Devil’s Throne series), you struggled through a lot of the editing process. Is that the moment where you’re trying to go back and fix things that’s the hardest, or what do you find?
Kiersi: Absolutely. Even when I was a student, editing my work was always the hardest part of the process for me. I never edited my papers. I’d write a paper, and then I’d do a mandatory edit just looking for grammatical errors. Occasionally I would correct large portions, but rarely. It worked well for me for a long time. I got As and Bs in high school and college on my papers.
Editing is hard. Creating for me is very easy, but editing is like pulling teeth. As a writer you’re forced to acknowledge your weaknesses and that is painful. After you’ve written a book or two books, and then you come back to the first one and you need to edit it… I’ll think, “Oh man, what the hell was I doing? What was I thinking? I’m a terrible writer.”
Creating for me is very easy, but editing is like pulling teeth. As a writer you’re forced to acknowledge your weaknesses and that is painful.
Jen: So you’re not the kind of writer who goes through drafts, are you? Some writers will completely re-write their work from A to Z.
Jen: (Laughing.) Not very many, though. But a big project like Sophie, let’s say just Sophie: Book One (before I had a decent title, this is how I referred to Fire & Brimstone), how many drafts would you say you did?
Kiersi: Maybe three or four?
Jen: Three or four back-and-forths between yourself and your writing group and your editor?
Kiersi: Yeah. As soon as I finished writing it I sent it to my friend, and he sent me back some big picture feedback. Then I had to go through and incorporate that big picture stuff. After that I sent it to somebody else, and I got some more feedback and did some more big picture stuff. And then after I finished writing the second book, I went back and worked on the first one again because I had learned so much more at that point (as a writer and about my own story).
As far as complete, deep-level editing and deep-level revisions, I’ve done one major overhaul. Then I’ve done some other adding here and subtracting there.
Jen: And what’s harder? Changing the big picture stuff, or trying to work on that one sentence or one paragraph that just doesn’t read right?
Kiersi: They’re equally difficult in their own way. Sometimes when a sentence is wrong, it’s not wrong because it’s a sentence. (Thoughtfully chewing on a sandwich.) It’s wrong because it’s the product of a lot of other things being wrong in the story. That’s hard. You have to diagnose the problem, and then you have to fix it, which is usually… You can’t just edit anymore. That scene needs to be completely cut and re-done, or re-imagined. That’s really difficult: to diagnose the problem, completely delete something and start over until it meets your standards.
Sometimes when a sentence is wrong, it’s not wrong because it’s a sentence. It’s wrong because it’s the product of a lot of other things being wrong in the story.
At this point, honestly, I don’t think I can change the big-picture stuff anymore. The book just couldn’t handle it. It would just… turn into a Frankenstein monster. With editing, at some point you have to accept that it’s not going to be your best piece of writing. You have to cut your losses and move on, and try to do better next time.
Jen: You mentioned using writer friends as a sounding board in your editing process. What would you say are the qualities that are positive and what are some of the frustrations? I remember writing papers in college where we had to submit our work for peer editing. I hated peer editing. You’d get paired with someone you didn’t want to be and get a paper back that was all marked up, and you’d think to yourself, “Obviously this person didn’t get where I was going with this.” In that way it’s really easy to be dismissive of their critique. I’d think that would be easy to do with creative writing–to say, “Well, you just didn’t get it.”
What are some of the inherent good qualities of attending a writer’s group, and what are the things you find the most challenging by having your work reviewed by your peers?
Kiersi: The people that I respect the most in terms of their critique are readers.If a reader comes back to me and says “You lost me here,” I try not to accuse the reader of not getting it. You can’t just dismiss that kind of feedback. Instead I say, “Here’s what I was intending,” and the reader says, “Oh! Yeah, I see what you were getting at. Here’s what I needed as a reader to understand that.” That conversation with readers is absolutely invaluable to me.
In my opinion, this is the difference between a fine artist and a commercial artist: a commercial artist is looking for a way to sell.
If you’re truly interested in making money as a writer or making a living as a writer, you need to be interested in what sells and you need to be willing to make concessions in order to sell something.
As far as writing groups, though, other writers understand what you’re going through. They understand how those mistakes happen. They can read something that doesn’t work and give you an educated suggestion on how to fix it from a writer’s perspective. That’s where getting critique from another writer is helpful.
I definitely find some frustration in writing groups where someone doesn’t get the genre. That’s not something that can be surmounted by better writing. If the person critiquing you doesn’t like kids’ books, then there’s really nothing you can do.
It’s also important to remember that not all suggestions are good. Writing groups are natural filters: often, if one writer says something really off-base, the others will say, “Meh, I don’t agree with that.”
For the most part I find reader input to be the most valuable.
Jen: Literature is one of the only fine arts that we have that is done entirely in solitude. It’s not music or performance art that you do in front of an audience. You submit the final product to an audience and get that feedback after the fact. Sometimes we’ll have writers visit in our seminar program that attract thousands of people to the lecture hall, to celebrate something this person did entirely on their own for five years. It’s a very interesting paradox. You mentioned the idea that you write for your readers–when you are in the process of writing, what is going through your mind? Is your primary goal to write something that pleases you as the writer, you as the reader, or do you have an entirely separate person in mind? I guess my question is: Are you writing to anyone in particular?
Jen: You’re writing to you, as a reader?
Kiersi: Yeah. Because I’m a hardcore reader. I know what I like in a book. I’m very choosy about my books. I mean, if you’ve read any of my book reviews, I think I’m pretty tough on books. But it’s out of love, because I want to spend my time on great books and not waste it on not-so-great books. There have been times I’ve picked up a book that’s published by one of the Big Six, with five star ratings on Amazon–sometimes I’ve even heard respected people say they love the book, then I’ll read it and wonder if it was written by a fifth grader (see The Body Finder by Kimberly Derting, which I returned to the bookstore after two chapters). I’ll wonder, “Are you guys messing around with me here? This is total crap.”
I’m a hardcore reader. I know what I like in a book.
I try to write books that I would like–no, love to read. I tend to read my books and stories a couple months after writing them, and it will feel like someone else wrote it. I love that feeling. I love being a writer because I get to write my favorite book. Everything I want to happen happens in it.
I’m pretty selfish in the way I write.
Jen: You do a lot of writing online. When you’re writing, do you have a particular idea of the final design? You look at your work on a screen, you edit on a screen, you publish in a virtual format a lot. You mentioned once that you wanted to publish Sophie like an online periodical, Charles Dickens-style, where readers can sign up to get the latest chapter of the story. Do you find you have this design of the story in mind? Does that make sense?
Kiersi: Yeah, I think so. Like the physical appearance, or the overall “I know what I want this to become”?
Jen: Both. Your website, the way you present your stories online–are those things you’re constantly thinking about, or worried about? How your work is being presented to a virtual audience?
Kiersi: I ran into a really big problem the other day sharing links on Facebook. I posted a blog post about a young adult novel competition that She Writes–which is an online community for female writers–co-hosted with a non-profit called Girls Write Now. I designed a nifty little banner for the post. I really wanted it to look professional, and be something I myself would find interesting on someone else’s blog and would garner my respect.
So I designed this banner, and then tried to post it to Facebook–but my stupid banner wouldn’t show up. I tried to troubleshoot that thing for hours and hours and hours. I ended up wasting the whole day and never figured it out. That was image was key.
I often combine my posts with images. In my experience blogging so far, people are way more likely to click on a link with an image (on Facebook). The image piques their interest. As a result of that Facebook fiasco, that post did not get as many hits as it should have because I posted it without an image. I think about that a lot when I write for the web. I have a background as a web designer, and a background in typography and print design. I’m lucky to have a sense of those things (that a lot of writers don’t have).
Books are really hard because you don’t get feedback until you’re done. You’ve written this whole book and gone through the process of getting it edited and gone to a publisher–and what if it pans? What if nobody likes it? Because you never asked the readers if they liked it. The online presence really helps you ask the readers, “What did you like? What did you not like?”
I think if I get enough readers coming to read the story on my website for free, eventually someday I’ll have some people willing to buy it.
The internet is all about giving people stuff for free so they can try you out before they buy. Writers should embrace that.
Jen: Okay, final question. So you’ve done books, you do short stories, you want to write an online periodical–but when is a piece finished? We talked about how you know when it starts, but how do you know when it’s finished? “The Mirror” could go on for many more installments, but when do you know when the work is done? When you can’t look at it anymore or there’s no story left to tell? Do you get tired of it? Some authors say they just decide to finish it when they can’t stand it anymore.
Kiersi: I write from Point A to Point B. My stories almost always have a “this is where I want to go” point. For The Mirror I probably only have two or three more installments I want to write. I know where I want it to end. I know what I want to have happen. I created Calean and I created his shadow because, eventually, Calean will have to face his shadow head-on. The story is not about the king or the castle or the city or the beast, it’s about Calean and his shadow. The story is about a boy who is haunted by himself, and thinks he needs to severe that shadow, that it’s a curse. It’s his albatross that he’s carrying around with him. But that’s not the case at all: he’s just like all of us. We have these deep, dark things inside ourselves that we are afraid of. Instead of trying to cut them away, the answer is to take that power inside yourself and harness it, to be comfortable with it. The theme is that Calean is not comfortable with himself. He’s going through adolescence, you know–it’s a hard time. He’s a very troubled person, I want him to become a real person.
The story will end when Calean becomes someone he can be proud of. The story doesn’t matter–the old man and the castle don’t matter. It’s just about where Calean starts and where Calean ends.
With Sophie, I knew from the very beginning how I wanted it to end. I won’t say it because that would give away a lot, but I knew when I first started writing that book what the climax was going to be. The climax is going to be a sinker. It’s going to be a big one. There’s no point writing a story unless you have that big one waiting for you at the end. There’s really no point. You want your reader to feel like, “Oh man! I can’t believe it! That book was crazy!” (Jen laughs.) If you’re trying to figure out where to end it, you’re already headed the wrong direction in my opinion.
You want your reader to feel like, “Oh man! I can’t believe it! That book was crazy!”
Jen: So you probably have some unfinished pieces that never really found an ending. But for the most part, your most successful pieces–are those pieces where you know the final destination in your mind before you even start writing on the computer?
Kiersi: A lot of the time, yeah. Sometimes I’ll start writing something just because of what it is: like Sophie. I started writing The Devil’s Throne series because I wanted to write a YA book, because that’s where the money is right now. I mean, the final destination is what keeps me going. It’s the climax at the end that keeps me going. I want to know what happens as much as you do. I’m discovering the story just like a reader would. There are plenty of stories I’ve started and simply not finished because I lost interest.
I don’t know if that has to do so much with the story as it has to do with me. (Both laughing.) Just being a writer with ADHD.
(Long pause.) Did I answer that question?
Jen: (Cracking up.) Yeah. I think you did.