This is my second interview with a badass bestselling author (my first one was with Larry Brooks of StoryFix.com). As I mentioned in the intro to the first interview, I started doing these interviews when I was planning Badass Writers Bootcamp because I wanted to figure out what these authors were doing that was making them so successful. I wanted to find the one thing that linked them all together.
I figured there had to be something—some golden nugget I hadn’t yet uncovered—that was helping them be these insanely badass writers. Turns out I was wrong (and right).
There isn’t one thing that links them all together, per se, other than the fact that they all do what works for them. Which is why my stance is now: being a badass writer requires you to know yourself, know your processes, and know what food, exercise, lifestyle and creativity habits work for you.
I was thrilled to be able to interview Randy Ingermanson, who’s the bestselling author of Writing Fiction for Dummies. He’s made a huge mark on the fiction writing community with both his book, his free E-zine and his snowflake novel writing method.
Let’s jump right in… my interview with Randy:
1. How do you sustain your creativity/creative flow?
Creative people are creative. They pretty much can’t help themselves. So they’re going to create no matter what. The real question is whether they’ll be applying their creative talents to trivial things that don’t last or to important things that do last.
The trick is to make time every week for the important stuff. I’d like to say “make time every day” but that’s just not possible for everyone. Reality intrudes. You can either beat yourself up over that, or you can shrug your shoulders and work around it.
Most writers have a boss or a day job or some other monster that must be fed with time, energy and money. If you let it, that monster will suck out all your creativity to do things you don’t want to be doing.
So the goal is to figure out how much time you have each week for the things you want to do, and then try to do at least that much.
2. How often do you write? How many words/pages a day do you write?
My writing is completely project-dependent. If I don’t have a project going, then I don’t write. If I do, then I do.
When I’m on deadline for a book with a trad publisher, I might be putting in 20 hours per week on it. Or more (for short bursts). Writing first draft copy, I shoot for 2,000 to 3,000 words per day. I have never in my life been able to count on having more than 3 hours per day to devote to writing, so that means I have to write 1,000 words per hour to hit my quota.
Things are a little more relaxed with the revisions of my out-of-print novels. My coauthor (John Olson) and I made a decision to revise our books to be significantly better than the original. That means we can’t just jam them into an e-book format and upload to Amazon.
We fix everything we felt queasy about in the first edition. This means it takes a lot longer, especially since this kind of writing happens in the cracks in my schedule. But at peak, I might get up to 10 hours per week.
I have a fixed schedule for a couple of writing tasks. I write my blog once a week. It’s usually under 1,000 words and takes under an hour. I also write my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine once a month.
This takes a full working day, 8 hours. I have a boilerplate to fill out for some parts of it, but the original content is generally at least 3,000 words, and my rule is that it has to be new content, not a retread.
3. Do you have a pre-writing ritual? What is it?
When I’m writing first draft copy, I edit whatever I did the day before. That will usually be 8 to 12 pages, and I skim through it and fix all the typos and stupid wording. I’m aiming for speed here—the goal is to get my brain exactly where it was when I stopped writing the day before. No obsessing for an hour on one sentence. I push through.
Ideally, this takes about a minute per page.
Then I pull out my Snowflake document for my novel and look at the one-line summary of the next scene to be written. Unless there is a research question or a gnarly plot point to resolve, there is nothing left to do. I just start writing.
I know that doesn’t sound very sexy, but I had a day job with Big Corporate for many years. I had things arranged so I could go in later than normal and work later. This let me beat the traffic, but it also meant there was no time for messing around. If I was going to get any writing done, I had to hit the ground running in the hour or two (or at most three) that I had for the day.
I have never been one to spend hours staring out the window while I write.
4. What are your daily/weekly meals like?
It’s milk and Cheerios for breakfast, first thing in the morning. Same thing every day. I know this sounds incredibly boring, but I don’t want to waste my piddly decision-making energy on trivial things like food. [Editor's Note: InkyBites is all about proving that food is not trivial, but is actually extremely important and the core source of your creative energy. Randy's statement is the typical opinion most people have about food. I'm working my ass off to change this belief.]
For lunch, my wife makes me a sandwich and I eat a handful of walnuts and almonds. I also drink a glass of milk with protein powder mixed in, and I have some fruit.
For supper, my wife cooks something and I eat it. I’m not a foodie.
For me, food is fuel, but it’s just not in my nature to think much about what it actually is. We’re vegetarians, and my wife tends to cook lots of pasta, lots of veggies and lots of tofu. I augment whatever it is with another big glass of milk with protein powder.
I hardly ever drink soda of any kind. I’ve never had coffee in my life.
For someone like me with a river of natural adrenaline, caffeine would be overkill. I do drink a ton of water. Water is good for you.
5. How often do you exercise? What kind do you do?
We work out with kettlebells three times a week. I learned about them from Tim Ferriss’s book THE FOUR HOUR BODY, which is an absurd title if I ever heard one, but it’s a very inspiring book.
When I started with kettlebells, I wasn’t really getting enough protein. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I needed more. So I upped my consumption of milk and protein powder.
I should say a quick word about kettlebells. I love the things. When I started with them, I was just doing the amount of exercise I thought was about right, and I wasn’t getting much results. Just as every writer needs an editor, I think every exerciser needs a trainer.
I started using Ryan Shanahan’s “KettleWorx” DVD series. It looks hokey and glossy and very Hollywood, but it has worked out very well for me. And my wife got jealous and started working out with me. So we do it together now, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It takes about 40 minutes, including warmups and cool down.
6. What creativity exercises/activities do you participate in?
I suppose I should be embarrassed about this, but I do absolutely nothing along those lines. I’m not even sure I’m very creative. I always feel pretty uncreative when I’m working. And yet at the end of the day, it’s clear that something got created.
I don’t understand how.
So maybe Edison had something when he said it’s 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration. I guess I just don’t try to overthink the act of creation. There’s a job to do. I go do it.
Either it comes out well or it’s a piece of crap. If it’s crap, then I throw it away and try again.
7. How do you capture/organize your ideas?
I have a special file in my filing cabinet for book ideas. Every time I get an idea for a novel, I take a clean new pad of paper and write down whatever I’ve got on the pad and then stuff it in the file. A few months later, I might get more ideas, so I’ll pull out the pad and write down a few more things.
When the pad has five or ten pages, it’s ready for me to get serious about it.
Of course, I also need to have a hole in my schedule. Usually, what happens is that I decide it’s time to write another book and I go to my file and look through the list. There’s usually one that shouts out, “Write me!”
When it’s time to get organized, I use my wildly popular “Snowflake Method” to flesh out the ideas into a real story plan. People all over the world use the Snowflake to start with a simple idea and expand it out in stages to something beautiful.
I eat my own dog food here. The Snowflake method is the way my brain is designed to think, so I use it pretty religiously to get myself geared up to write.
It can take me a month or two of solid effort to create a Snowflake document spelling out the game plan for the next book. Then it only takes another month or two to write the first draft.
Obviously this method is not right for everybody, but it’s amazing how many people find this process a liberating one. Whatever works is fine. The Snowflake works for me.
8. What’s your writing process like?
Once I’ve Snowflaked up my novel, I just start with chapter 1, scene 1 and start typing. I try to write two or three scenes per day. If there’s a research question to be tackled, I may take a break to do that.
I usually write with music on. I can’t prove it, but I believe that I’m more productive when I work with music playing. I work half time as director of software engineering at a biotech company in San Diego. When I’m programming, I seem to work best with European heavy metal music playing—the best groups for me are Nightwish, Hammerfall, Dreamtale and Dragonforce.
However, when I’m doing analytical work, I have to turn off the music. My theory is that the music engages my inner analyst and keeps it distracted, which liberates my creative side to come out and play.
I think it’s imperative to track the time I spend writing. When I start any big project, I create a spreadsheet and start filling it in every day. There’s a column for the date, a column to summarize what I did, a column for the word count I generated and a column for the time I spent.
At the end of the project, I know how much time it took. I try to track most of the big parts of the process—the planning, the first-drafting, the revisions, final polishing, marketing.
The value of this comes when it’s time for a new project. I can pretty accurately plan how much time a new book will take. If it’s a book from a trad publisher, then it comes with an advance, so I immediately know what my return on investment is going to be in dollars per hour.
That’s valuable when it comes time to decide what kinds of projects to take on.
9. Anything else you’d like to add that I didn’t ask about?
I think a lot of writers try to make the writing game more complicated that it actually is. If you want to get good at writing, there are three things that will help you:
- Getting your writing critiqued
- Studying the craft of writing
Talking to your friends about how neat it is to be a writer is not on the menu. Neither is hanging out with writers (much as I love them—writers are the coolest people on the planet and I’d spend all my time with them if I could).
Reading blogs may be helpful, as long as it fits in with Door #3 above—studying the craft of writing. My own blog is targeted to helping writers learn the craft of writing (or else organizing or marketing). I don’t blog on much of anything else. I don’t read blogs about anything else.
There is one rule that I think that trumps everything else: Writing is supposed to be fun.
I sympathize with those of my writer friends who talk about the terrible burden of angsting over every word. That sounds horrible.
To me, that isn’t fun and I refuse to do it. Maybe that makes me a bad person, on the same moral level as kidnapers and congressmen, but I don’t really care.
For me, writing has to be fun or I’d rather be writing software or reading or playing checkers with the cat. If writing weren’t fun, I’d quit.
Work hard at your writing, yes. Put in the time at your writing, yes. But have fun at your writing.
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