Lisa Ahn’s Writing and Organizing Methods
I started writing to save my sanity. I was used to having a creative outlet as a graduate student and then as a teacher. As an at-home mom of two kids under the age of four, I needed something more than crayons. I wrote. I wrote sporadically at first, and randomly, with no real faith that my strung-together words would end up someplace real. Nearly three years later, I have a novel, but the “system” that got me here is not much more than a hodgepodge of methods that fit the moment.
Any complex organism – a novel, a life, a nation – depends on interconnected systems. My writing process is a bit of this and a bit of that – scraps and scribbles, jots and jolts – that somehow combine into a greater whole. It’s a little bit like anatomy, the way a human body can only breathe and eat and dance because its systems work together, each one adding to the next.
The nervous system revs up first, those rapid-fire impulses that start a creature buzzing. I write in my head, before I write anywhere else. I write when I’m driving, walking, and doing the dishes. Some of my best ideas have come out of the vacuum cleaner, mostly because my kids are little and still a bit scared of that thing. My stories develop in small, random moments when ideas burst loose – crossing the street, folding laundry, the minutes before I fall asleep. I keep pens all over the house. I vacuum a lot.
Once the ideas are firing, they need muscles and bones to make the story move. The skeleton of my writing is character. For my novel, which is part family saga, I created detailed family trees to explore character relationships and maintain consistency. The bones of the story were set, but they needed muscle, the push and pull of events. I outlined the plot early on, and then kept track of its development through log entries. When it was time to kill off Uncle Matthew, the bones and muscles were in place, ready for the job.
At some point, my novel’s characters began to shake themselves, look around, and speak. They needed cities to live in, jobs, and obsessions. A respiratory system kicked in, bringing fresh air, oxygen, an influx of new ideas. I researched the tangents and the centers, using libraries and websites, old agricultural documents and floor plans of Brooklyn brownstones. Facts and figures were the molecules of air that gave the story life, and I kept my notes in word processing files for easy reference.
Still, even with muscles and bones, synapses and lungs, the novel wouldn’t have moved without a heart. The heart of this novel, of all my writing, is plain old-fashioned bull-headedness. I write every day, for two to three hours in the afternoon, while my kids have “quiet time.” Since my girls are four and six, quiet time isn’t always quiet. I write while I am getting snacks, fixing dress-up costumes, giving hugs, reading out random book pages, pouring glue, and trying not to freak out about the inevitable mess. Children wander in and out of my make-shift office, but my fingers keep tapping. I don’t use a word count or a page count, but I write every day, even when I’d rather take a big family nap. Without the steady pumping of that heart, I wouldn’t have gotten anything done.
Eventually, I finished the book, and sent it to beta readers. That’s where my immune system kicked in, the part of me that initially rejects every bit of substantive criticism. “No,” the macrophages shout, treating each suggestion as a viral infection. Thankfully, I have a digestive system as well, and that’s what fuels my real revision. After some time to reflect, I approach my revisions in a more balanced – less defensive – frame of mind. The other function of the digestive system is, of course, to get rid of all the waste, which is helpful when I need to cut a paragraph that I spent three days writing, a character or arc that simply doesn’t fit.
My novel’s done, and I am getting ready to query. To keep my sanity during that process, I know I’ll need to write something new. A reproductive system helps here – no, not more kids, just more ideas. One idea fuels another, one project quick-starts the next. I already have a new nervous system – those jots and jolts, scraps and scrabbles – all laid out. Now, it’s time to build a new set of bones, breathe through a different pair of lungs, and keep the steady heart beating. In the end, what I create is a life – a novel and its characters, but also me, my life, played out in the act of writing, in the act of staying (relatively) sane.
As for planning,I used the family trees, plot outlines, and the log to look ahead and keep track of things. Other than that, I guess I just do it in my head and through revision. Does that make sense?
~ Lisa Ahn