On April 28th, 2011, Squid, writer, wrote:
1- Where do you write? Virginia Woolf famously said it’s important to have a room of one’s own… How do you arrange your supplies, do you write indoors or outdoors? I’d like to know.
2- What supplies do you use? Do you write first drafts longhand, or do you type them? What journals and pens do you use?

And on January 7, 2012, April wrote, I’m curious for more peeks into your life. Perhaps you could divulge a little more in another post? For example, I read the linked post today about writers’ various quirks. What are some of yours? How do your husband, family, and friends react to your quirks, or to your writerly profession in general (both in the past and presently)?


I write anywhere. Well, not in the shower, but in airports, on planes, in doctors’ waiting rooms (routine exams – I’m not sick). Wherever I shlep my computer I write if I have at least fifteen minutes. At home, I write in my office or on my laptop, which lives in the kitchen when it isn’t traveling with me. In the kitchen, it’s on a counter. I could put it on the table, but I once read that it’s not healthy for people to sit for long periods, so when I’m downstairs, I write standing up. The laptop is called Reggie, named after the dog character in The Wish, years before we got our puppy Reggie.

In my office I sit, except when I get up to pace or to stare out the window. The view is lovely no matter the season: stone walls, ancient tall hemlock, antique outhouse (we do have indoor plumbing).

Right now I’m at a poetry retreat waiting for the day’s session to start. I’m in an austere place, a former orphanage on the grounds of a current convent. My room was once an orphan’s bedroom, and it’s small! There’s no desk, only a bed, wooden chair (no cushion), metal gym locker, narrow bed, high dresser, no private bathroom, alas. I’m standing on tiptoes to type on my laptop atop the dresser.

I wonder what my father, who was an orphan and grew up in an orphanage, would think of me being here. Laugh? Roll over in his grave?

The reason I work anywhere is because I trained myself to be able to many years ago after reading Becoming A Writer (middle school and up, I’d guess; the language is old-fashioned but the ideas are modern) by Dorothea Brande. I travel a fair amount, and I don’t want my work to grind to a halt whenever I leave home. People who can  write only when the moon is full and the stars are in a certain alignment don’t finish many books. In an airport, under a giant TV blasting endless headlines, weather, and commercials, I can work. I’m irritated. I wish the thing would shut up, but I work.

I don’t write outdoors much. In winter it’s too cold, obviously. In warm weather there are bugs and beauty. Beauty distracts me!

My desk in my office is a disaster area. I swear when I finish the first draft of used-to-be-called Beloved Elodie, I’m going to clean it up. If I need a pen, I have to feel through the layers to find it. On the desk is a memento of my father, a gift from one of his friends. It looks like a hinged wooden box. On top there’s writing that says, “For the man who has nothing, something to put it in.” The joke is that when you open the box, it turns out to be just a block of wood. There’s no cavity. My father loved the joke.

This is a poem I wrote about my office, imagining it as part of a museum show of offices of kids’ book writers:

My office

stands in for me, part of an exhibition
children wander through. Jason heads
for the wooden skull from Mexico.
Brianna goes, Ew! and Yuck, don’t touch that.
Ella likes the hand-made Christmas-tree ornaments
around my windows: the quilted heart in muted pinks,
edged by brass beads; the striped parrot;
the black paisley angel. Sara picks up the small,
lead Tinker Bell on my desk. Everyone marvels
at my origami swan made from a Tokyo candy wrapper.
Ms. Kramer points out my English usage books.
Outside, somebody calls, Wow!
J.K. Rowling’s office!

        They’re gone. No one paid attention
to my quiescent computer, with a hundred e-mails
locked inside. The children didn’t notice
the hand-hewn, 1790 oak beam or the 1920s
pewter lamp. They glanced past the photograph
of the rosebud with its red petals folding
in on themselves, its shadowy hole, the two
droplets of dew.

When I’m home I don’t listen to music while I work; I prefer silence.

If the writing isn’t going well, I get sleepy, and I have to take frequent breaks, to stretch, answer an email, anything that will wake me up. I like to write while I eat breakfast and lunch and my nightly snack because I can’t sleep and chew at the same time.

I almost always write directly on the computer, but when I use a pen, it’s a cheap gel pen on a steno pad. I don’t like ballpoints because you have to press too hard, and I don’t like Sharpies because the ink bleeds through to the other side of the paper.

I don’t have a big family, but my husband is delightfully proud of my books. When I’m stuck and suffering, David, who is supremely sympathetic, suffers too.

My sister and his sisters and my brothers-in-law like my work. His sister Amy directs a public library, and I went there to speak. Libraries run in David’s blood; Amy and four cousins are or were librarians (one is retired).

I’m trying to think of a quirky quirk for you. You all know from the blog that I don’t plan my books out ahead of time, that sometimes I wander around in a fog for a ridiculously long time. If I thought it would do any good, I would tie a shoe around my neck, touch Reggie’s nose, stand on my head (if I could) for an hour to make the writing flow. How about this? When I’m describing a facial expression, I’ll do an Google images search for the emotion I want to show,  but I’ll also make faces at myself in the mirror.

When I wrote the Disney fairy books I had to keep scale in mind because the fairies are only five inches tall. I had to ask myself, What’s a five-inch creature in relation to a quart of milk, to a caterpillar, a potato, a cherry? To remind myself I kept a five-inch bottle of hair goop on my desk the whole time.

Here are a few prompts:

∙    One of the exercises we did at the poetry retreat was to write a list poem, which is basically a list. So write a list poem about your writing place. To make it work as a poem, the items should be detailed, can be fantastical. Surprises are nice, and it’s good to end with an item that goes against expectation or packs an emotional wallop.

∙    Sometime before next week’s post, write outside your comfort zone. Write in the living room while the family is watching television. Bring your pad to breakfast and write while you chomp down on your pancakes or your high-fiber cereal. See if you can zone out of the distractions, see if the distractions themselves take you somewhere unexpected.

∙    Again, before next week’s post, write in an unaccustomed mode. If you usually write longhand first, go directly to a computer, or vice versa. See if there’s a change in your writing. Does the new method open you up? (You can then return to your usual way, but sometimes it’s good to shake things up.)

∙    Write a chapter in your future memoir about yourself as a writer, whether or not writing will be your career. What got you started? Write about your real past, but also imagine the future. What has been a turning point or what will be? Describe your greatest past triumph and your greatest upcoming one.

∙    If you like, post your own writing quirks here.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Wow, interesting post! I've always been curious about how professional writers write. At what point in your writing process do you show people your work? Do you show them the outline? When you finished the first chapter? first draft? or only when its completely finished?

  2. I can write short stories in silence, but I make "soundtracks" to go with my novels. Sometimes I'll start singing along (much to my poor husband's chagrin), but when the writing's going well I'll get quiet, and I'll stop consciously hearing the music.

  3. Wow, this is all really interesting! Just wanted to ask a question. You said "used-to-be-called Beloved Elodie", so I was just wondering if you already have a new title for Beloved Elodie or if you haven't chosen another one yet. Thanks for having this great blog!

  4. I'm too embarrassed to write in public. I make faces, noises (grunts, sighs, etc.) and laugh or cry as my characters do. Romantic scenes are the most embarrassing to write in public! I suppose that's a quirk of mine.

    I usually write on the computer though, so I'll try writing longhand this week. 🙂

  5. unsocialized homeschooler–I show my critique buddy my work as I'm writing, from the first few pages on. Unless I'm in terrible trouble I don't show my editor anything until I'm finished and I think the manuscript is in very good shape.

    Mary–No new title yet. I may need blog help again. April, I hope you're reading this.

    carpelibris and April–Good quirks!

  6. I loved this peek into your life!

    I have found that when I start a story I write better in longhand. Writing on the computer seems too permanent somehow, even though it is easy to erase! I get to stuck on writing things just exactly right. Or maybe I can type to fast for my thoughts to form fully in my head. When I transfer my longhand to the computer, I do edit as I go.

    I imagine writing direct to computer would be faster, though, so that's something to aspire to.

  7. Wow, you're talented! I can never write anywhere but my room, although I really should. I make faces, too, and I laugh – laugh at myself, laugh at my story, laugh at random ideas for my story – or, occasionally, groan. I get distracted too easily to do it downstairs, because I have four siblings, three dogs, two parents, and a TV or wii that is always on. The other reason is because I'm too afraid of anyone seeing my writing. It's embarrassing enough to let people see my writing AFTER it's been edited. I think I'd die if any of my family saw it BEFORE. Not that they're mean – I just get nervous about letting my naked imagination run wild.

    I'll have to try writing in longhand. I do that with writing exercises, but not my actual stories.

  8. Gail, ha ha, yes I am! 🙂

    Erin, that's so interesting to me because I feel the opposite. I prefer writing on the computer because it's more forgiving. I can copy/paste a phrase or paragraph to a different spot, go back a few pages and add some more, use the computer dictionary to make sure the word I'm using means what I think it does (this is a simple right-click option for me), and so on. In longhand there's no room to add stuff in, and if I erase something it's gone forever (no "undo"). And I'm always second-guessing my spelling, which is distracting. To each her own! 🙂

    Writeforfun, I love the phrase "naked imagination" that you used. That's such an accurate description of what my first drafts look like, too.

  9. From the website:

    Hi Gail, hope you are well. I wanted to comment on "Quirks", but for some reason I couldn't. I just wanted to say great post! I thought it was so cool. One of my quirks is that I'm usually okay with other people reading my stories, but I have an inner freak out whenever someone is reading my poetry. I can hardly bear to be in the room and know they're reading it; I have to get out! Thanks for being such an inspiration and for writing such a helpful blog!

  10. Nora – that's funny, I'm the exact opposite. I don't mind too much when someone reads my poetry, but, boy, do I ever get nervous if someone reads one of my stories! And if they read it BEFORE it's finished…yeah, I know exactly what you mean by the "inner freak out moment." Hopefully we'll both get over it someday:)

  11. Fun post!
    I write mostly on the computer, but I'll write long hand a bunch too. My quirk, I suppose: I hate when people ask what my novel or story or whatever if about, esppecially if it is not finished yet. I guess I just feel nervous? 🙂

  12. writeforfun, of course not! I've been writing since I was a kid and I'm still waaaay too embarrassed to show anyone my first draft. Once I self-edit it a few times I'll let just a couple of trusted friends see it, then more editing, and so on.

    carpelibris, I agree, I think it's normal.

  13. April – "copy/paste a phrase or paragraph to a different spot, go back a few pages and add some more, use the computer dictionary to make sure the word I'm using means what I think it does" – that is exactly my problem. I spend so much time trying to get it *right* that I don't move on in the story. 🙂

  14. So this is a really random question but I decided to post it here anyways. Say I ended up becoming a published author and have already retold some fairytales–for example, Sleeping Beauty. What if I then have an idea for another retelling of sleeping beauty that's extremely different that the one I already wrote? Should I not write that one, because I've already written one retelling of the story? And would it be different if one of the stories was a stand alone novel and the other was part of a series? I'd love to hear what people think about this, because I've considered it many times before myself.

  15. For what it's worth, I've published 2 different takes on Snow White and have started on a novel version. I think as long as they're distinct stories, it's fine.
    Oh! Better example. Robin McKinley has done Beauty and the Beast more than once. If she can do it, I KNOW it's ok.

  16. From the website:

    I'm having a problem posting on the blog. I just wanted to say that I think it's fine to different re-tellings of the same fable. My friend and I are doing a retelling together,("Cinderella") but or ideas differ so much, that we're considering doing two different books. She wants to write a emotional and dramatic story, I want to make a comedy-filled tale.
    Personally, I just hope we finish it; and if we do, we probably can't get it published. We are SERIOUSLY amateur.
    But I'll try to remain optimistic. 🙂
    ~ Gracegirl

  17. Hi again,
    Another comment/question for the blog: this is very random, but I'm having a problem with my MC. She's not very articulate, and has horrible grammar. My problem is that the story is from her POV, so I don't know if it's okay for a lot of bad grammar to be shown. It would be out of character for her to suddenly have perfect grammar, but I don't know how to make her sound like her without an "ain't" in every other paragraph.
    Sorry it's so off topic!
    ~ Gracegirl

  18. I think that words like "ain't" are fine, because people understand what that means. I think if it's easy for the reader to understand what you're trying to say, then it should be fine to write it that way.

  19. I think "bad" grammar is fine, if that's the way your character talks. It can be overdone, though. I remember reading a story by Louisa May Alcott (Whose work I usually love. Sorry, I can't remember the title) about 4 Civil War soldiers from different parts of the country. She spelled out every nonstandard word of each soldier's dialect, almost phonetically. I couldn't finish the story. It was just too hard to follow.

    I think dialect is like hot pepper. A little spices up the story. A lot is overwhelming. I like it better when an author implies a language pattern, rather than spelling it out.

  20. I've loved your books since I was a little girl and have read them over and over again. Now, as a senior in college, my professor has assigned each student to give a 6-7 minute presentation on an author. I picked you. I'm wondering if you could give me any more specific information on why you wrote "Ella Enchanted," "Fairest," and "The Wish."
    Thanks so much, I love reading your stories.

  21. I have no idea why I am still subscribed to these comments over a year later 🙂 but seeing your comment compelled me to hop over… That sounds like a very affirming exercise that would be beneficial to many writers to silence the inner critic!

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