I recently had the pleasure of reading Hollywood Forever by Christopher Herz (which I really enjoyed) and I’m ecstatic that he’s stopped by my blog today to talk about his writing process. I’m going to let Christopher take it from here, but make sure you check out the giveaway for a chance to win a Kindle copy of Hollywood Forever!
By Christopher Herz
First, I wanted to thank Emily for allowing me to write a guest post on her blog. I know her fans are passionate about the characters she creates and the connections she has with her readers.
Rather than just talk about my new book, Hollywood Forever, Emily asked me to talk about my writing process, which I always found fun to do. At least, more fun to talk about than to actually go through it!
Here are 11 things I put myself through when writing a book.
1. Start with a city
My 3 books have been set in New York, San Francisco and now, Los Angeles. I like to think of where the book is going to take place and see that city as a canvas or foundation. Often times, even though I know the city I’m using as a base, I get a map and put it on the wall. Then I can see how characters might move, where they’ve been, and where the can go on the journey. That way, instead of having a character just stand there and observe something, they walk down a certain block or drive over a hill and the reader gets to see the city while listening to dialogue. Give some secrets away to your city – If there is a place that you love eating or a building that always fascinated you, take your characters there and allow the readers to see what the tour busses don’t. I had my two lovers go on a date watching old horror movies on the Hollywood Forever cemetery walls, then grab a late night meal at Astro Burger – and it all made sense because of the proximity of the locations. The realness of the map gives a great base for fiction to unfold. My walls are usually filled with maps and other markings when writing a book.
2. Interview your characters
I do most of my early drafts on an Underwood 316 typewriter. I sit down with the typewriter and pretend I’m a reporter asking my characters questions. Where did you grow up? How did that affect you? What did your first kiss taste like on your tongue? Tell me something nobody else knows. It can go on for days, weeks, even months. By doing this, I’m able not only to create a real character, but also to get the voice of the narrator. Since I write in the first person a bunch, this helps. Though it may not show up on the page, knowing the history of your characters can help them move in the present, and writing down responses to questions you ask them makes it all real. Talking to yourself is a good thing when writing.
I live in New York so I have the opportunity to listen to thousands of people each day. I find that as I start writing and getting to know my characters, they actually start appearing before me. Next to me on the subway, in the grocery store, sitting next to me and making out on a bench in the park - everywhere. I believe fiction is created from the reality around you, so when I start writing a new novel, I open myself to listen to how people talk. Sometimes I’ll have my headphones in without music and listen to the people on the subway next to me just so I can pick up some different pacing for dialogue. I find it helps make my characters all sound different, and also always to hear some amazing stories that make it into my book. I truly do believe that your book starts to present itself in real life as you write it.
4. Food shopping
I’ll spend a few hours walking around the supermarket as each of my characters. I’ll shop as them and make choices they would: Do they like whole or non-fat milk? Would they buy fruit or chips? Do they care if it’s organic or not? Does their laundry detergent have to be scented or unscented? I’ll literally walk around the market and fill up my basket as that character and, when done, I can see exactly what they like and what they don’t. Again, this won’t make it onto the page and the reader won’t see it, but it helps me get to know them. It makes them more real. So, if you see my character drinking an orange soda, you can bet that a few trips to the market went into letting me know that. The food people eat tells a bunch about them, and is a great way to subtly develop a character. Be sure to put everything back though so you can return to the market and keep doing research.
Names are the hardest thing for me – I read that Dorothy Parker used to look in the phone book for names. Me, I often go to the section in the front of magazines and look at the names of the contributors. There’s just something about seeing the name of someone who is real and putting it down. Street signs and half names of musicians always work well. In the end, I like that sound of the name as it rolls around in the head. The rhythm of the name is as important as the name itself – for me at least. I remember reading Lolita and having a light go on when Nabokov was writing about how the name rolled off his tongue. Rhythm.
6. If there is ever a sentence
I really like and think it stands out better than the rest of what’s on the page, I usually hold it up and ask myself if it’s really needed. I don’t think anything should stand out – a book is a cohesive piece and should all flow. If something stands out more than the rest, it’s usually because it doesn’t belong.
7. Throw it all away and start again
Now I wouldn’t recommend this for everyone, but for me, what I turn-out as a first draft doesn’t really have much to do with what ends up being the finished product. For Hollywood Forever, I had a box of notes and hundreds of typewritten pages that I held sacred. They were early drafts of the book that I had taken with me when I moved from Los Angeles to New York, and I kept grinding them out and working them over and over again. As with most novels, those drafts were close, but not right. So, I threw them out after I extracted what I needed from them and started again. It gave me space to find my way and get the story I wanted. I do a lot of Yoga, and there is always room to create the space, then release from that space. I think writing has a lot to do with that. Creating and releasing. The room to grow makes for the magic of the novel.
8. Early birds get the worm
Or, at the very least gets them time to themselves. My favorite time to write is 5:00 A.M. to 7:30 A.M. For those who use the excuse that there’s no time to write, when first starting out, I used these hours before I would go into my job and write. It would set me up for my day and allow my characters to visit me as well. I still love to write in those early hours of the morning because it’s there that I feel a transition between the subconscious states of dreams to the conscious state of reality, which to me is the sweet spot of a novel. I enjoy writing while the world turns from dark to light, and also enjoy all of the energy that is available because most everyone else is asleep. This also means that I’m not writing from any influence of what I’ve seen or read or checked on Facebook or any of that madness.
9. Turn off the Internet when writing
Some people like to use programs that lock you out from the Internet, but I just unplug the connection and try to develop some self-discipline (which is essential for me because sitting still is the hardest part of writing). It’s hard not to switch back and forth as it’s safer and more fun to flip around on the internet, but writing a novel is often times neither safe nor fun – and I feel at least, I need to put my work in without distractions. For what it’s worth, I change my Facebook password each day to some easily forgetful word so I have to request it each time I want to sign-in. This saves me from falling down the rabbit hole of looking at what my friends are doing instead of watching how my characters are acting.
10. Turn over control
This is the best part, for me at least. Usually as I get into the 4th or 5th draft of a book, the characters are pretty alive and defined, and they start letting me know exactly what they want to do and where to go. I realize that, if I’ve done my job and gotten to know them well enough, they’ll tell me if something’s working or if it’s not. If the author has done their job, the book is a believable world without the fingerprints of a real human leaving a trace on the pages.
11. Giant List
Before I send it off to my editor, I do one more read and make a giant list. One of the walls in my office is painted with dry erase paint, so I can literally do this on the wall. I read the book from the start and write down everything that happens in a list form. From where they walk, what they do – everything. When I’m done, I usually have a list of over 100 things and I can see exactly what takes place in the book. This way, you can see where characters come in and out, how long an event takes place, and it’s a great way, for me at least, to create a believable pace. Of course, your editor is going to rip a lot of that apart, but it’s good for you to know what’s happening and see if there’s anywhere you can fill in the gaps.
So, there you have it Emily. Thank you so much for letting me talk to your readers. I hope it helps them gain some insights to what goes into one of these things, and if there are aspiring writers out there, how to come up with their own plan. I think that’s really the key to it all – Find out what works for others and see how you can mold it to work for you.