Ask Us Anything: Elizabeth and I Answer Questions About Writing

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In episode 438 of the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, Elizabeth and I answered listener questions about writing in an “Ask Us Anything.” Here are some highlights:

How does writing a novel differ from writing TV? Is doing one preparation for doing the other, or are they really different?

Elizabeth: They’re very different, very challenging in different ways. Writing a novel right now feels harder, because I haven’t done it as often as I write TV. It’s a lot of fun, but I find it extremely intimidating, because I think it’s hard to keep someone’s attention. It feels like a big responsibility. 

Writing TV is all about using as few words as possible, being brief. In novel writing, you can use a lot of words, and I wonder “How am I going to fill up all these pages?” Then I find myself overwriting, and I have to go back and cut. 

In television, everything has to be in dialogue, whereas in a novel, you can really get into the interior monologue, which I love. 

And also, one thing that’s fun about writing a novel is that you don’t have to think about the cost. Something can explode, you can have five hundred characters, you can travel the world, because it all costs the same amount to print the page. When we’re writing TV, we spend so much time thinking about production. 

Do you sit at your desk at a prescribed writing time even if you don’t have a clear idea of what you’ll write?

Gretchen: Yes, I do. If I don’t know what I’m going to write, I’ll putter around with something. I’ve always got a lot of stuff to write.

Elizabeth: I don’t, but I probably should. When I’m working, I have so many things to do that writing gets fit in wherever I can. That’s part of what I struggle with writing the novel, I don’t have these prescribed times.

How do you restart a project that’s been languishing for a while?

Gretchen: I would say: Get back into it. Set aside some time every day. Use all your habit-formation strategies to make consistent time for it. Read through the whole thing without editing it, and figure out how you want to start engaging. Do you want to pick up and start writing again? Do you want to start at the beginning and edit? 

This could be a situation where “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.” If they can, many writers will put something away for six months, so that when they come back to it, they’ll have a fresh eye. In the end, it might benefit your creative project that you have a bit of distance from it. 

What tips do you have for solo writers who need inspiration, collaboration, accountability, and just plain help to keep going or get through a rough patch?

Gretchen: Both of us are big fans of being in writers’ groups, but this to me sounds like a straight-up accountability problem. Unfurl the list of accountability strategies, use the Happier™ app, the Don’t Break the Chain Habit Trackerthere are lots of tools you can use once you realize you need external accountability. 

Elizabeth: And the ultimate accountability: Take an online writing class where you have to turn stuff in. Most of us want to be good students.

How do you take your work from a single idea into a full fleshed-out piece?

Elizabeth: That’s the million-dollar question. For me, because I work with a partner, it’s a lot of talking. We go from an idea, to notes for a pitch, to a pitch, to an outline. We’ll talk about a scene and go off and write the outline for that scene, taking turns, and then go to script. It’s a long, many-step process, and I think it’s similar for the novel as well.

Gretchen: For me, often I’ll have an idea or a question I want to answer, and I always start with the research. Tons of reading and note-taking, often throwing spaghetti against the wall: anything that appeals to me, anything that strikes my interest, anything that surprises me. I take a lot of notes that never end up paying off, because they represent dead-ends. At a certain point, I’ll know the subject well enough to have a theory—for instance, with with habit-formation.

And there’s the problem of the structure, which is always very difficult to figure out. If you look at any of my books, you might think I just picked the most obvious structure, but every time, it was months of labor–and then I’ll realize I need to do more research. Then there’s often a huge amount of cutting. For my book Life in Five Senses, I cut out probably three times as much finished material as what appears in the book. People often ignore that part when talking about writing: a lot of it is cutting.

How do you approach writing about a personal experience that close friends or family might be offended by?

Elizabeth: One thing I know people do is change more than the name. Change other details—job, gender, where the person lives—so that you really can’t tell who it is. That person, depending on the story, still might recognize themselves. You have to ask yourself, “Am I okay with this?” 

Writers feel very differently about this. Some people feel, “This is my lived experience and I’m going to write what I want to write,” and other people will show someone a chapter of their book and ask if they’re okay with publishing it. It really comes down to your personal philosophy.

More questions I’m often asked:

How do I spark my creativity?

What’s my process for taking notes?

How does a person become a published author?

How do I read so much?



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