Writing Tips from Jillian Cantor, author of The Hours Count
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!
How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters?
The absolute first thing I do is decide my main characters’ names. I feel like I need to know someone’s name before I can start to know him or her. My favorite place to figure out first names is the Social Security popular baby names website, where you can view name popularity by birth year (back to 1879) to see what common and (uncommon) names were in the year your character was born.
After I decide names, I’ll start to make notes of other things, like birthdays/age or relationships to other characters, quirks, where a character lives, or things he/she likes or dislikes. But I start drafting pretty soon into this process. I mostly learn and get to really know my characters as I’m writing the first draft, thinking about what they do and how they react and speak when I put them in different situations. So I think the best way I get to know my characters is to write them. By the time I get to the end of the first draft, they’re often different than what I started with (and I know them much better). But then I go back and revise.
After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write?
The first line of novel is really important. It sets the tone for the entire book. I want it to show what the book is ultimately about, but also to be interesting and hook the reader. When I first start thinking about and developing an idea I always start thinking about first lines. I jot down ideas, often for weeks or months. But, I don’t wait for the perfect first line before I start drafting a book. I begin with the first one that comes to me and then I keep writing from there to get my first draft going. So just the act of getting words and ideas down on the page is the most important action I take in order to actually start writing. I set a goal for myself – usually 3-5 pages a day – and I make myself sit down and write something, make some progress in the draft, even if it’s ultimately terrible and will all be changed in revision.
Most of the time the first line that appears in the final draft of the book is not at all what I started with. I keep thinking on that first line, even as I keep writing the first draft. Usually I don’t understand enough about the story myself until I finish or get most of the way through a first draft. So I start writing at the beginning, but 9 times out of 10 that beginning changes by the time I make it to the end!
Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?
I always write at home, and I need quiet to write. I negotiate my writing schedule around my kids’ schedules so I usually write while my kids are at school during weekdays, or very early in the mornings on the weekends or during the summer when my kids are home – really, whenever I can find uninterrupted quiet each day. I have an office in my house where I can shut the door, and I do write there, but when no one else is home I also write at my kitchen table.
I like to drink coffee while I write, and that always helps to get me thinking. Or when I get stuck, I’ll exercise. Taking a long walk, run, or hike, often helps me work through a plot a point I was stuck on or figure out a problem in my story.
What’s the best piece of advice you have received?
The best advice, and I got this from a writing professor in grad school, is simply, “butt in chair.” As in, just sit down and force yourself to write something, no matter what it is or how terrible you think it is. The hardest part is making yourself sit down to do it. So I don’t let myself make excuses – I put my butt in the chair every morning and write something.
What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound effect on you?
I read Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott in the first fiction writing class I took, and I still have a copy on the shelf in my office. I love what she writes about first drafts and I feel like it’s still important to give myself permission to write something terrible the first time around as long as I write something. I’m a big believer in the importance of revision! Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen is one of my favorite novels, and the first I read by her. I come back to it, and her novels, again and again, because I feel like I learn so much about sympathetic character development from her. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which I first read in college, always makes me think about writing characters in a world different from our own today (which is applicable for writing historical fiction as well) and the fact that characters still need to first be inherently human and relatable, no matter how different their world is from the one we know.
Learn more about the book below!
A spellbinding historical novel about a woman who befriends Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and is drawn into their world of intrigue, from the author of Margot.
Look out for Jillian Cantor's new book, The Lost Letter, on sale now!
On June 19, 1953, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for conspiring to commit... Read more >