This interview came about because I was eating breakfast at Wiscon, and I saw Ellen Klages writing in a notebook. From there we had a conversation about how she uses her notebook, and then she was gracious enough to agree to a process interview. This one is very different from any interview we’ve had so far, because Ellen composes largely on paper.
Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book? (If it varies, please keep one project in mind as you answer these questions.)
Ellen: It varies, but the basics are the same. I doodle in a sketch book, just bits and pieces of ideas, fragments of characters. Then I do some research and begin to tie the bits together. When I have a rough idea of what the story shape is, I begin to write. I start, usually, by getting the whole thing down, from beginning to end, in a sort of free-form poem. Just images and descriptions. From there I begin to craft prose.
All of this is in long hand, pen on paper.
As is my first draft, which is messy and scrawled and generally not as linear as I’d like.
Then I transfer it to the keyboard, editing and refining and reducing, cutting and pasting and revising. For a long story, I print out, edit by hand, type again, and repeat until the story is all there, and then I winnow electronically, and run through the file many times, word-by-word, until I’m satisfied.
When I think it’s finished, I read it aloud.
Then I fix the parts that clunked, run spell check, and send it out.
Tamago: I know that you begin your writing process by writing longhand. Discuss that choice, and why it works for you. There are many theories relating to brain hemispheres and creativity, and I understand that sometimes you make ambidextrous writing choices. What is the difference you see in writing with your left hand versus writing with your right?
Ellen: I’ll combine these two questions.
A keyboard is very linear, and the beginning of my writing process is not. The idea stage (and the first-draft brain-dump) is messy — pages full of scribbles and Xs out and lines connecting potential ideas — and for that I like paper and pens.
It may be a right-brain, left-brain thing. When I write with a pen, I’m only using my right hand, and when I type, I’m using both hands.
I am seriously right-handed. But when I really, really get stuck, I will write with my left hand, which is painstaking, but accesses a different and interesting part of my brain. My left hand cannot spell, which I find amusing.
Tamago: Which part of writing–drafting, revising, critique from others–do you enjoy the most? Why? The least? Why?
Ellen: I find drafting daunting and slow. First drafts always suck, and I am very happy when I have the bones of a story down and can concentrate on the revising and editing. I love the nuance of tiny word choices, and love smoothing the prose until I can find nothing else I want to change.
Most of all, I love having written.
Tamago: In your acceptance speech for the Scott O’Dell award for The Green Glass Sea, you compare a book like this to time travel. Could you talk about what you meant by that, and how this conceptualization influenced the research you did for the book?
Ellen: Historical fiction ought to be time travel for the reader, a chance to feel like they’re actually experiencing life in another time and place.
As a writer, my time travel is in the research. Since my time machine is on the fritz and I can’t go back to the past and walk around, browse and shop and ask questions, I rely on contemporary sources — old magazines, objects from the 40s or 50s, photographs — and build up as much of that world as I can for myself. I listen to music of the era, watch newsreels, sometimes even make recipes.
It’s all about the details — what’s different between the past and the present? What’s the same? How do people talk? How do they dress? How do they travel from place to place?
Once I can really *feel* the past — taste it, touch it, hear it, see it, smell it — I can try and recreate that on the page for the reader.
Tamago: What is the longest time it’s taken you to complete a project? The shortest time?
Ellen: The Green Glass Sea took me about two and a half years to research and write. My short story, “Guys Day Out” is at the other end of the spectrum. I wrote it in about 36 hours.
Tamago: Do you work alone, or do you participate in a critique group? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages to your approach?
Ellen: I have been a part of critique groups in the past, and have found them very useful for short fiction, for isolating the parts of the story that don’t quite work, and why.
Right now I work alone, but I have a couple of first readers who are generous enough to critique stories before I send them out.
I think it’s useful to have at least one other pair of eyes, seeing the story from a fresh perspective, but it’s the last step for me. I don’t show my work to anyone until I think it’s finished. My process is too messy for anyone to make sense of it in mid-stream; a critique at that stage would be like someone tasting batter and telling me my cake was too runny.
Tamago: How many drafts of a project will you write? What do you do in each draft?
Ellen: Of the whole story? Generally one. But each of the pieces is built up layer by layer by layer. (See above answers for more details.)
Tamago: Besides the big firsts (getting an agent, publishing your first novel), what moments have you had that made you think, “hey, I’m actually a writer?”
Ellen: It happens each time a story finally gels. When the pieces fall into place and I can — metaphorically — run my hands over it and not get any splinters.
At the beginning of every project, I have days (sometimes weeks or months) of feeling like I can’t do it any more, that whatever skills and imagination and craft I once had are gone. Then there’s a turning point, and the work begins to crawl out of my primordial ooze and take shape.
And at sometime, usually toward the end of the process, I realize, “hey, I can still do this!”
It’s a good feeling.
Tamago: What has been your favorite project to date?
Ellen: Aw, that’s like asking a mom who her favorite kid is. The new baby is always special, but that doesn’t mean the older kids get down-graded. I like everything I’ve written (or at least everything I’ve published). I like what I’m working on right now (although I’ll like it more when it’s finished).
I like to think that I learn a little with every project, and so my most recent work is my best so far.
Right now, that’s “The Education of a Witch,” which is in the anthology Under My Hat (edited by Jonathan Strahan), and is available to read for free online.