Jamie Ford is the author of the New York Times Bestseller Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a novel that has been translated into 23 languages. Ford actually started out as a commercial illustrator; he has a degree in design and worked as an art director, so his comparison of the writing process and visual art process is interesting. And like any good writer, he recognizes that one of the best ways to rid yourself of writer's block is physical exercise. Read more about Ford's creative process after you listen to him narrate a tour of the Seattle neighborhood where the book takes place:
Probably about 15 years ago. My background is in art; I have a degree in design and I used to work as an art director. People would ask if if went home at night and painted or drew, and I never did. What I began to do, purely for mental health reasons, was write fiction on the side. I started taking it seriously about six years ago when I began using my vacation time at writers' conferences and really dedicating myself to the craft. I started reading fiction with a writer's eye by looking at how things were constructed. It went from being a wistful hobby to something I spent a lot of time doing, whether it was writing or reading.
I've interviewed a lot of writers who started out as illustrators. How do you think being an artist affected your writing process?
Because I don't have an MFA in creative writing, I don't fall in love with the prose. I think more along the lines of the story and the storytelling process rather than the linguistic jujitsu on the page. And I think people who come at it from a visual aspect aren't caught up as much in the language; they are more caught up in the emotional content, mood, and atmosphere, because a lot of those things come out of the visual sense.
Does being an artist give you an advantage as a writer?
I don't there is much of a difference between the writing process and the drawing process, but one small difference is that I am not coming from a traditional literary education that teaches that a certain arrangement of words on the page is good, and another way is bad. I don't ever think of it that way. I don't care if my participles are dangling.
Does coming from your background make you a more disciplined writer?
Commercial art is a deadline business, and it's also one where you need to have thick skin. I was used to having work rejected all the time. And with deadlines, I was used to working weekends and late nights. So in that sense, it prepared me for the rigors of writing a novel.
Talk to me about your writing routine.
I have discipline, but I don't use things like word count to gauge process. I write until I'm happy where I am with the story. And if I don't get there, I feel unsettled until I fix that aspect of the story. I do have kind of a blocked-in process, and that's probably because I have kids. I check email and correspondence in the morning, then turn email off. I then read myself into the story from where I was the day before and write until noon or early afternoon. After lunch, I revise and tweak. But I do try to write seven days a week. If I step away for a day or two, it takes me a day or two to get to the same mental space in the story.
How does having kids affect your process? Many writers say that they get more done once they have kids because they value their time more.
That's so true. My productivity is between when the bus leaves and when the bus returns. I can try to write in the evening, but I always get interrupted. So there a certain amount of urgency to get things done during that time. If I have a good writing day, by 3pm I feel good about stepping away and being a dad.
Are there any quirky parts to your writing process?
I travel so much now, and I hate writing on the road. I am so non-productive. Part of it is that I feel funny when I'm not in my office. I was in Portland recently, and I checked in early one morning and had the whole day free. I had all day to edit, and it was not enjoyable. It felt like writing with my opposite hand, like I was forcing myself to write.
Tell me about your revision process.
Once the manuscript is done, I mark a lot of persnickety changes, places where it feels like I am missing a beat or where the beat went too long, or something just feels funny. I put Post-it notes on those pages; in a 400 to 500 page manuscript, I can end up with 200 Post-it notes. Then I go through it again and just do the line edits. After this is done, I slowly go through those Post-its; they tend to be areas where, on a first reading, something was off. If it's something I can fix on the page fairly quickly, I'll do it. But if it's something that, once fixed, will have ripple aspects throughout the book, I leave it. On the next round, I whittle it down to about 50 Post-it notes, and those become the rewrites. It's kind of like panning for gold; you want to remove the dust and get down to the nuggets, the things that need my attention. One way to look at it is that I work on the easiest stuff first and work my way to the hard stuff.
A friend once told me that writer's block is your subconscious saying that what you have actually sucks. There is some truth to that. When I get stuck, it's usually because I've written a couple of chapters or scenes in the wrong direction. So I stop. Running works great for me. I'll run three or four miles to work out some of that tension. But many times when I'm running I work out a different approach. It really helps. When I come back, I feel better about the creative space I'm in, and the next day I can get over that block almost immediately and see things that I couldn't see the previous day.
How do you know when what you are working on is done?
When I write, I always know the endings. I usually start with a premise and I spend a lot of time on the ending, then I make up the juicy stuff in the middle. So by the time I get to the end, to a stopping point, it's pretty evident. I get to point where I think, "Here I am, I've been banking emotional currency and now we are going to spend it and cross the finish line." Usually when I do that, I am so fatigued from writing that I am afraid the last twenty pages will be like the last shot out of a Roman candle. So I give it to my wife. She reads it and can see that there are spots where I'm being lazy in the end, probably because of the fatigue. So I'll work on those spots. I'll take a few weeks before I look at it again so that when I come back I'm energized.
How much time do you take between revisions? I take a long time because distance from a piece always gives me a fresh perspective on it.
Yeah, I try not to obsess over it. I'm much more concerned about story than exact word selection. I feel that if I read through it too much, I'm constantly going to be chipping and polishing until it's too smooth.
I read on your website that you have started writing a Young Adult book. How is that going?
I got about 80 pages into a project and am still working on it. I read tons of YA, probably more than any other genre.
Was the writing process different for that?
When I signed with my agent, I told her I wanted to write YA at some point. In my novel, one of the main characters is twelve, and since then my agent has been approached by YA editors to gauge my interest in writing a YA book.
When I started this project, I wasn't considering some of the basic things that YA writers consider, like the tendency for young readers to read up. Kids always want to read about people older than them. I was structuring a story and kind of had that reversed; I was writing a book aimed at 16 year-olds, but my characters were too young. Other than that, I don't change my writing style. I am a minimalist anyway, so I think my style fits that genre well. When I workshopped the short story that became Hotel, one of the readers wanted me to make it a YA book.
Is living in Montana conducive to your writing process?
Supremely. I have no distractions, no commute. I moved here from Honolulu, and I remember adding up my commute time, which came out to three weeks a year I was spending in my car. If I could have those hours back, I could get a lot of writing done.
For more on Ford and the book, listen to this interview on NPR.