We know readers tend to be writers too, in this feature, we’ll share 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?
I believe that story comes from character; I have to know my characters inside and out in order to write a novel that’s halfway worth reading. That said, I’m also a big fan of trusting my gut. When I was starting my novel Bittersweet, Mabel Dagmar began speaking to me very early in the game, long before I knew how untrustworthy she is or exactly what had happened over the course of the summer in which the book takes place. I took dictation for about fifty pages, until I knew she had a hold on me; then I went back to the drawing board and really got to know her by thinking about her all the time, filling out a character sheet on her, and imagining who and what she would come in contact with that would challenge her.
Once I know a character well, I’m able to ask what she wants, deep down, in her core. Everyone wants something. A novelist’s trick is to write a story that aligns many wants to support a thematic idea, without it looking like that’s what I’m doing. As plot grows, it’s valuable to understand whether a character’s desires align with that central idea; if they don’t, out she goes. Bittersweet is the story of Mabel getting what she wants, plain and simple, but it took me a long time to understand what that was and how the book would tell that story.
I’m also a big believer in casting (in my mind) a real actor (preferably someone I’ve seen on screen in a number of different roles) to play each of my main characters. That way, when I’m stumped about how a character would drink a cup of coffee or walk down the street, it’s easy to see her with my own eyes (plus, then I get to call watching a movie “research,” which is just one of the thousand reasons I love my job). And revision is my best friend, because I can stretch the limits of my characters and then pull back in the next draft after I’ve learned how they would or wouldn’t react.
After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write?
I need to write about fifty pages in order to understand whether the story I’ve imagined actually has legs; if I can’t make fifty pages work, then there’s no way I’ll be able to compose four hundred. In these first fifty I’m looking for moments that crack me up, that make me afraid, that feel risky, that open my up to questions about the book I didn’t know I had when I first started it. If I don’t discover something new in those early weeks of work, then I know I haven’t found my next book.
Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?
I used to be much more precious about my writing rituals; becoming a mother definitely cured me of that! But strangely (or maybe not so strangely) my most productive two years of creative work to date came right after giving birth: I wrote a novel and two screenplays, and produced a short film. I think the secret lies in the preciousness of childcare; if I only have two hours to work in a day, I’m not going to squander it, whereas in the unscheduled days before my son was born, it was easy to while away the hours.
I’m lucky to have both a home office and a great local café (where I wrote most of Bittersweet). But if I’m alone at home, I’m just as likely to spread out on the dining room table as I am on my son’s bottom bunk.
I’m currently in the final push on a novel called June. I’m writing from a pretty strict chapter outline that I’ve developed over the course of the past year. When I sit down to write on a given day, I use this outline as a roadmap. Its signposts and landmarks are the actions and beats I know need to be accomplished in the scene at hand, even if I don’t know exactly how I’ll get from A to B. The fun lies in discovering.
Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author?
As a kid I loved theater. In my childhood out in Oregon, I went to this amazing camp where we did Shakespeare every summer. As a result, without trying to ingrain the five-act structure inside myself, it is. Also, I grew up advocating for the characters I was inhabiting, as actors are wont to do. Both traits have served me well as a writer. Of course, I thought I wanted to be an actor, but in college I realized I’d have a lot more power (and probably be just as poor) in the writing life.
I wrote a creative thesis in college. It was the first time I’d written anything longer than twenty pages, and I just fell in love. I realized I had it in me to create whole worlds. But I didn’t know if this could actually be my job until I was working at the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y and met people like Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth and José Saramago and Saul Bellow, and saw a more direct connection between the books I loved and the people who made them. While I was at the Y, I wrote The Effects of Light, which was to become my first published novel; got an agent; and then revised it for her for a year before we sold it.
What’s the best piece of advice you have received?
My parents were great believers in my sister and me pursuing creative fields. What they gave us wasn’t advice as much as it was philosophy. In my sister’s forthcoming documentary, my mom says “You know who you are by what you make,” and this idea still very much drives who I am. I’ve learned that I’m a lot happier when I’m working on a novel than when I’m not, mainly because when I’m writing a novel, I’m my most “me”—I recognize myself. I see this in my six-year-old too; he’s a lot happier when he’s engaged in a big, sweeping art project. Maybe that’s just him/us? Maybe that’s a trait many of us have as children, and we’re taught not to value it (because it’s not quantifiable or easily applied to a business model), so when we grow up, we leave it behind?
A few months ago I was with my family up in the cabin in Vermont that inspired Bittersweet, and I looked around the main room: my father was transcribing his field notes from West Africa for use in the book he’s writing; my mother was working on her book series; my sister was working on her screenplay; my son was meticulously decorating a tall stack of valentines; and I was writing June. I often meet fellow parents who tell me they’re concerned because their child wants to become a writer or an artist. Yes, it can be a bumpy path, but it’s incredibly rewarding in some pretty fundamental ways that we don’t always honor culturally. I wish for the children of those parents to get to be given the gift I was, of belief and support. For all its hardship, I wouldn’t give up my career for anything!
Read more about Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s book, Bittersweet.