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I get a lot of questions about how I got started writing, where do I get my ideas, how did I think up all this stuff. Since I’m wrestling with the outline for the second Immortal Beloved book, I’m dealing with these issues right now. The “how I got started” part is explained in a couple of places, including the recent interview at BlogCritics. I posted its link on the Blog page because I haven’t figured out how to access the News page. (Oh, yeah–I’m not technical. But then you knew that.) But I can talk about some of the other questions because 1) they’re on my mind, and 2) writing about them means I’m not actually doing them. *One of the first skills a writer has to master is the art of procrastination.*

So . . . where do I get all my ideas? I buy them in bulk from a store, like Costco. No, not really. I wish. Of course there’s no one place or one way I get ideas. Sometimes I wake up with them, or get them when I’m doing housework or raking, sometimes a picture in a magazine or a sentence in a book or a scrap of overheard conversation spurs my thought process, or a painting in a museum or a dead animal my dog brings in or just a random thought that pops into my head and who knows where the heck it came from . . . In truth, a lot of my job involves me just–thinking. Because I’m an overachiever with guilt issues, I usually do something else while I’m thinking, like sweeping the patio or washing the dog bowl. But sometimes I really am just sitting quietly somewhere, thinking, and if someone comes in and talks to me, I don’t even hear them. Ideas, pictures, conversation, emotions just come to me like bits of clay, and then I mash them all together and try to make a pot out of them. And that little writing metaphor explains why I’m not everywhere teaching writing seminars. I don’t know how to teach it, and I can’t even explain it well. I know only how to do it.

I’ve read a lot, taken literature courses, and listened to other writers talk about writing. Every writer has her own method of working. A friend of mine writes out of sequence, coming up with ideas and scenes and then later putting everything into  a normal time frame. That very idea just makes my stomach hurt.

How do I write?

I think about what I would like to read, myself. Or an idea I want to explore. Virtually all of my books are about a female character discovering her inner strength and using it to overcome bad stuff. That’s the general message I want to communicate to my readers: you have inner, untapped personal strength, and you have the ability to overcome whatever bad stuff you’re dealing with. I like that message more than, say, “other girls are your enemies and you should sabotage them so you’ll get the cutest boys and be more popular.” Or “obsess about your weight and appearance in a futile attempt to achieve perfection so that X will finally love you.” Those are not helpful messages, in my opinion.

This is just me, but I don’t think of a story, and then put people in it. I always think of the characters first, and then put them in a story that allows them to reveal their personas in a dramatic way. It’s hard for me to tell a story. It’s not hard for me to find virtually everyone fascinating and want to explore their pysches exhaustively and figure out what makes them do the things they do, make the decisions they make. So I’m usually not struggling to produce a work of a certain length because I’ve run out of plot–I’m usually overwriting because I can sit there and talk about these people forever.

I tend to think in story arcs that are three or four books long–it seems like I just need a lot of space. Because I’ve finally cottoned on to basic plot requirements after almost twenty years of writing, I come up with a story line and make sure it has a beginning, middle, and an end. Plots are not my strong point and tend to be secondary to my characters. Ideally the plot and characters should seem as if they can’t exist without the other. But this is all the technical stuff that makes my eyes glaze over–one learns it in high school and college and perhaps absorbs it. I do know writers, writers I really respect, who are all about structure and turning points and raising the stakes and first denouement and second denouement. But that’s not me. I come up with a character who intrigues me, who I want to know better, and then I put her in an interesting situation that would be fun to write about. I make sure she grows and changes by the end of the book, and that’s one of the most important aspects to truly comprehend: your characters must grow and change throughout the book. They must learn something about themselves. They must go on a journey, either physically or emotionally or psychologically, and that journey must change them. And then you put in subplots that offer interesting parallels or counterpoints to your main plot.

If I could write anything at all, it would probably be a series of romantic setups with tons of longing and emotion and tortured love that finally totally works out in the end and everything is fabulous. If someone would pay me to do that, it would be great. In my experience, they want more story and setting and the whole rest of the plot. That’s what makes it difficult.

I usually write for anywhere from an hour or two to maybe five or six hours a day. But it takes all day to do that. I’m usually at my desk most of every day. I’ll take little breaks and throw in a load of laundry or something. I do a lot of research online. I read other writers’ blogs. There are certain writers I read who, by their work, show me different patterns of conversation or humor, different ways of getting a person in and out of a room. A book will have a certain tone, a certain voice, and I’ll read it and figure out why it works, and if I can do something similar. I let the dogs out. And then in. And then out. And then in. Maybe a thousand times a day. That takes time. But the actual writing, the tapping of keys–I usually don’t do that for more than about six hours total, because after that my head feels like it’s going to explode and my eyes will bleed. And I try to be out of my bathrobe before my husband or I get the kids from school.

I do work from an outline. The outline is roughly chapter by chapter, but it can be fluid–I don’t strictly have to adhere to what I plotted out. Some people write really detailed outlines, 50 pages long, and some people work with no outline at all, which freaks me out. My outline is pretty much what needs to happen, sticking in things that are important, and it’s usually around 15-20 pages. I’ll put in bits of dialogue or specific details that crop up while I’m writing it. Sometimes it’s kind of in shorthand: They meet at the place, he does the thing, she gets mad, they run into X. From that I could write a twelve-page chapter. But I get as detailed as I need to.

So I sit down with my outline and something to drink, and I write until I need to stop. The next day I reread everything and clean it up. Sometimes I’ll think it’s no good and I’ll delete pages. Which is hard. Or I’ll have a certain bit I really love, but it actually doesn’t fit with the story, or it’s out of character, and it has to go. Also hard. And so on and so forth, for anywhere from 200 to 400 pages. The Sweep and Balefire titles were pretty short, but they came out several books a year. Immortal Beloved is about 400 pages, and it will come out once a year. I try to write at least six double-spaced pages a day. Sometimes I’m lucky to get three. If I’m way behind schedule or am writing something I’m really into and excited by, I can write twelve or fifteen pages. Usually it’s about six.

The story changes from the original outline. It goes in directions that I didn’t expect. The characters do things that surprise me and change what happens next. Or I’ll simply come up with a different idea that seems better than what I had before. It’s organic and it grows and changes. Every once in a while, it’s significantly different from what the editor was expecting, but that usually isn’t a problem, as long as it’s good.

I can’t tell you how to write–and it sounds like many of you are writers or want to be writers. I can only tell you how I do it, which is not how anyone else does it. But the one universal place that every writer comes from is: writing is communication. What are you trying to say? Who are you trying to say it to? Why do you need to say it? Figuring out those questions is usually the hardest part, and the step many people skip.

The more you know yourself, the more you’ll know and understand your characters.

Read other people’s writing. A lot.

Chocolate seems to be a crucial part of the process.

Don’t spill anything on your computer.

And now I have to go do it myself.


9 Responses to “Wriiiitttiiiinnng”

  1. Clare says:

    Loved reading this blog, it’s made me think alot about what I want to do. Good luck with the rest of your work :)

  2. HammyUK says:

    I love the amount of thought that goes into everything you do. It’s truly amazing. If I thought that much, I think my brain would explode!

  3. sk8's says:

    I loved this blog it made me think about what I am writing about in my stories.

  4. sk8's says:

    O and I really think chocolate is crucial part of my process too!

  5. sk8's says:

    I just heard that they might be making a new movie of sweep I really hope they do!!!!

  6. Elana says:

    Arnt you glad i told you Sk8’s!! 😉 Im soo exited! I look them. And read them severl of times.

  7. Ashlee-Rose says:

    This is a really interesting blog, Cate! It is really helpful, and gives a cool insight into the mind of a writer. I wish I was as good an author as you! You and J.K Rowling are my author inspiration. =)

  8. Shelly says:

    Chocolate, definite yes. Wine, tends to lead to the spilling. Thanks for your words of advice Cate.

  9. lanaya smith says:


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