I’m not going to tell you the process I use to write a book, but the holistic approach I have to the creative lifestyle. I like to think of the process of writing a book like a recipe, and what I’m sharing here is more than that. It’s how I plan meals, cook, clean, and deal with what’s left. And head’s up, since I’m an illustrator as well as artist, my process involves sketching and doodling, which I hope will be illuminating for you as well.
Before you make up your own recipes, you have to prepare some that other people have made. That’s when you learn about story structure, giving characters distinct voices, etc. The stuff that becomes second nature so you know how to preheat the oven to the right temperature, at the right time, because you know how that food is going to cook, whether you add saffron, dill, or fantasy-adventure for flavour.
When you know the basics, you start researching the specifics of your story. I do that with drawing. I look up pictures, or go to places where I can draw things I don’t know how to draw. This is a useful thing to do, even when I don’t have a project in mind. I sketch people at the cafe. Bone up on architecture for half an hour a day until I’ve added flying buttresses to my visual vocabulary.
Do writers do this? When you sit on the subway do you try to capture someone with a phrase “She huddled over her book like gargoyle trying to scare the main character away from danger”? Artists often start with quick gestures, move to 5-10 minute poses, and then have a three hour sitting to see all the details from a model’s pose or still life. I wonder if writing classes do the same, trying to catch those thousand words a picture is worth. Does describing a diner help you write a space ship’s mess hall? Maybe it’s worth a shot?
So that’s the first type of prep drawing I do: sketching. The second kind of prep drawing is doodling. That’s where I draw things I already know how to draw. I’m either refining them to where I like the shapes and lines I’m using, or combining images in new ways. Is it funny to draw a centaur that doesn’t have a human torso, but another horse torso on top? What could is mean? Would it fit in to any of the dishes I’m working on? My sketchbook is full of these weird experiments, which help me find my voice.
I do this with words too. When I’m trying to crack a punchline, or build a plot for one of my shorter comics, I write down a topic, and then brainstorm related words (or images) in different categories (living things, things, places, phrases and actions). Then I look for opposites (as that’s where the humour often lies, like a gorgon with Mongooses for hair). I have a doc file full of lists of things that might help me if I need a list of sports, monsters, or character motivations. These are great when I’m hitting a mental roadblock and there’s a deadline. I’ve written the same characters for Owl Magazine, every month for over a decade. This method gives me the power to come up with a new take on spring break, Halloween, or whatever.
I doodle with words in quiet moments, like when I’m waking up, or walking to pick up my kids from school. When I was lying quietly with my toddlers, trying to get them to settle into a nap. When I’m riding public transit. I doodle with pictures while watching TV without compelling visuals, like Daily Show or Jeopardy! These are the moments to daydream or rework loose ends. That way, when I get back to the computer, or the drawing tablet, I’m ready to go.
The exception to that rule, for me, is at bedtime. I don’t want to think about my life, or my work, because it will keep me up. I won’t get to sleep, and my writing and drawing will be off the next day. When I’m going to sleep I try to visualize things that are far removed from my daily routine. I think about video games I played 20 years ago. I think about walking through a forest I visited once every year in my twenties. Thinking about my work is a recipe for disaster.
Right before bed is actually a great time to read. It helps settle the mind before bed, in a way that screen time doesn’t. It’s good to be reading for fun, or to be low-stress researching for your next possible book (assuming your book isn’t about grizzly unsolved murders or something unsettling). It’s a great time to catch up with my peers’ efforts and know why I want to recommend their books.
Into the Kitchen
Because I’m thinking about my work while I’m doing other things, when I sit down to work, I know where to start, without procrastinating. The new recipe is coming together. It might be revisiting a tough chapter that I had an epiphany about. Or starting off from the last sentence/brush stroke. Or it might be a whole new project I’m getting down on screen, to get it recorded. Like food, I have to keep deadlines in mind. I can be working on baking a cake for the big party on the weekend, but I still need to make dinner tonight. Sure I want to work on my book, but I need to hit my monthly magazine deadline first. You have to keep yourself fed.
I work from home, and am basically a stay-at-home dad and husband. So I have nice breaks throughout the day. I have my moments of flow, but when the writing hits a wall, I can take that time to sweep, or throw on a load of laundry. Taking a few moments away from my work gives my brain a chance to regrapple the problem, while I get something else done. Then I come back to flow. Later, when the laundry goes off, it reminds me it’s been an hour, and I should at least be getting out of the chair. Then right back to where my mind left off.
To the Table
Once a story is done, like a good meal, it’s good to let it digest. So I let it sit for a while, before I think about sharing it with someone. There’s an artist’s trick where you hold a mirror up to your drawing to see with new eyes, to see where your proportions are off. It’s the same way writers read sentences backwards to catch mistakes. Time preforms the same function for me with stories. While that meal is digesting, I’m already working on the next meal though. It might be a light breakfast, like a short story, blog post, series of one-panel gags, etc, or it might be an ambitious 6-course dinner. I think each person has their own metabolism. Some people will do a new webcomic every day. Some will hole up and write an epic novel over years. And then do it again. Some mix it up. I don’t think there’s a writing diet that’s healthy for everyone to follow. Personally, I find I need to mix it up a bit.
In fact I’m usually working on several pieces at the same time. I’m writing my monthly comic. I’m sketching out some submissions for The New Yorker or the Nib. I’m working on my book project for my agent or publisher. I’m tweaking my power point after my last school presentation. Having my fingers in lots of pots helps keep the money coming in, the brain active, my name out there, and allows me to leave a momentary writer’s block to do something else worthwhile.
Speaking of school visits, they’re a great way to try your recipes out on some eager eaters. Tease a story idea, or a drawing and see if people salivate. Find out what books others are reading so you know how to compare your meal when its ready. Get out and meet your potential fans and cheerleaders, while you are giving them the tools to become the next generation of creators. It’s wonderful to pass your knowledge along to the hungry.
When I don’t have a deadline anymore, sometimes I take a day just for myself. Get a massage. Play a video game. It feels a bit like cheating to me, but I can enjoy it when I know there’s nothing super important on my plate anymore.
Sometimes when a story is done, either published, or definitively passed on, I can reuse the scraps for the start of the next meal. Or maybe not the start, but as a flavour, like using the duck fat for some fries. Some of these ideas need to be like stock, boiled down to what’s the key element that you want to work with. I think about why an idea struck me, and why I want to reuse it, and how I can. What about it is good? What was problematic? Is there a kernel of a story in there? It’s easier to reuse if you’re writing in the same genre, but you might be able to fit a French bread into a Mexican dish.
In our home, I get breakfast and lunch ready for the kids. I make most of our dinners. But some meals I eat are just for me. And the same is true with my writing. Sometimes it’s because I plan it that way. Sometimes it’s because it got burnt and we have to order in pizza. Not all the stories you’ve put your heart into will be shared with others. Their sales may flop. They may never be published. That’s okay. Some endeavours are just for you, and keep you healthy, sustain you. I try not to worry about rejections from agents, publishers, or the public. Famous and fantastic authors have had their books in the bargain bin, or their desk drawer, and so will you. The real end result of cooking is making poop, and you have to be ready for that outcome as well.
BRIAN MCLACHLAN is a cartoonist who writes the “Alex and Charlie” strip for Owl Magazine. He’s also done cartoons for Nickelodeon, The Nib, Dragon, and The New Yorker Magazine. His book Draw Out The Story: 10 Secrets to Creating Your Own Comics, received an ILA Nonfiction Award, a JLG Gold Medal, and was a Silver Birch finalist.