The same way you’d get to know a friend. Hang out with them: plop them into an intriguing scenarioand see what happens. Or just listen to them talk: freewrite in their voice or from their point of view, and odds are, you’ll find them sharing their opinions, voicing their dreams, and confessing their secrets. None of it may make it into your project, but it will help you get to know your characters and understand their personalities—and the stories they have to tell.
After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write?
I try to get the first line down—that sets the voice, tone, and scope of the story. Nine times out of ten, the first line I start with is the first line of the final piece. I also have an ending line in mind, so I have something to write towards—that sometimes shifts as the story develops, but I’m surprised how early that falls into place, too. Filling in the middle is the hard part.
Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?
My magic formula changes: for a while, I needed Cherry Coke and Swedish Fish to get started; in another period, a cup of Earl Grey seemed to be the key. The most foolproof thing I’ve found—so far—is that when I’m having trouble writing, I turn to my favorite cafes—Darwin’s in Harvard Square or Café Zing, inside my local indie bookstore, Porter Square Books. Something about being in a new space, and the coffee shop noise, gets me working.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you have received?
Something Ann Patchett said in her keynote address at the Muse and the Marketplace conference in Boston a few years ago: “The muse is bullshit. Get your work done.” It’s a typically Patchettian, no-nonsense reminder to stop being precious about being inspired, or having the right pen or view or snack (see above)—sometimes, you just need to sit down and write.
What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself?
My characters always seem to be standing in doorways, holding cups of coffee, and feeling things in their chests or throats at moments of strong emotion. And in my (almost) final draft, my agent pointed out that I started a lot of sentences with “But”—two or three times per page! Those are my nervous tics, and it’s a constant struggle to edit them out. Your bad habits will be individual to you—that’s part of developing your own voice—so figure out what words, phrases, and gestures you overuse, and practice weeding them out.
Everything I Never Told You is on sale Thursday, June 26th.