This piece is not written by me, it’s written by Sarah Breimer (Saar) who – amongst a few others – helps me writing
my book . Skyping with Sarah gives me a deadline, a reason to focus and she helps me further in my process. Apart from this, she is a fun and bubbly person and great to talk with. Oh, we never Skype with video btw as your own head is very distracting.
The writing process
When Eva and I ‘met’ online and started talking about the book she was about to write, she immediately impressed me with her energy and her open mind towards my role in the process. As a writer, it can be hard to take a step back and look at your own work. It is almost impossible, but, especially with non-fiction, it is very important that you do. It can be useful to see if you are still doing what you set out to do. And if you are not, if that change is for the better or should you refocus?
Eva asked me to be her first reader. This basically means that every once in a while I read along with her and together we discuss the challenges she faces in this process. She decides when she needs us to meet for a next round. We pick a day, she sends me her work and I read it.
While reading, I always have a few questions at the back of my mind. Is this still the story Eva intends to write or is she drifting in other directions? Is it evocative enough, does it have the right tone, does it tickle my mind as a reader or am I slowly falling asleep? Afterwards, when we meet for our Tuesday morning/evening Skype meet-up, we talk endlessly. Is this the right track? Why is there so much information on this and so little focus on that? Where is this all leading to, why did you decide to add this element or leave out something else?
Not all of those questions need immediate answers. They merely function as pointers for Eva to think about and to take on as she goes along in the process. Most of the time it already helps to talk about the story to clear your writers’ mind or to remember what you had set out to do originally.
As a writer, I know how challenging it is to talk about the story you have been working on so intensely. It takes a strong and open mind to be able to talk about your own writing without feeling criticized or doubted. Eva has that mind and that is sheer pleasure for an editor. I have grown to love our Tuesday morning/evening meetings, as for me they are so full of inspiration, recognition and good talk. I can’t wait for Eva to finish her book and be extremely proud of herself. I know I already am.
After that first conversation when you get to know each other you’re on to the real thing. You have to pick a subject from your ‘table of contents’ (see previous blog) and start preparing if you want to move beyond the level of ‘chitchat’. I wanted to start with the historical part, which was all about China and Hong Kong. Where should I start?
1. Collect background information
Honestly? It wasn’t me who started preparing. Based on the conversations I had with Maggie and Lillian, I figured it would be great if they would create a timeline and a family tree. Maggie would create the family tree to give an overview of her and her husband’s family within a frame of Chinese and Hong Kongese history. It would give meaning to the choices the families had made within a historical context. Lillian created a timeline to highlight the big events in her life.
Both Maggie and Lillian worked on their ‘assignments’ and it turned out great. Now I had a few key elements that I could use for my own preparation.
– This is especially a great tool if you’re writing an autobiography, although you could argue that a fictional book character needs some background to be as real as possible too, so it might work anyway. –
2. Brainstorm questions and ideas
I knew I had to focus. When I just started blogging, I easily wrote about 48 different subjects in one blog. When I started writing for a magazine the editor politely asked me if I could stick to one single subject per column? Right. How to do that?
A writer-friend handed me a brainstorm technique: Think of a dish, such as salmon, and think of 20 different ways to serve salmon. It’s all about being creative with that one single subject. If you can do that, you can apply it to your blog, column and interview questions.
Okay! I, for example, wanted to get more information about how Maggie lived and under what circumstances. I asked myself what the reader would like to know and what I would do if I were her? I would think of a possible answer Maggie would give me and thought of a fictive next question. I grouped those questions and thought of 10 more questions per subject. It resulted in endless white sheets with post-its with a lot of questions that I later categorized and translated to the actual questions.
To sum it up:
Subject -> write down as many questions as possible -> categorize the questions – > think of 10 more questions -> ask ONLY the relevant ones during the actual interview.
It works for me and it makes it easier to relax during the interview and chat as if I didn’t prepare. I use it when writing columns and articles as well.
3. Fail to prepare? Prepare to fail.
If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail. That’s a fact. You might have a nice, short conversation if you don’t prepare. If anything, the information gathered is probably not very useful. Yes, of course you can fill in blanks later and ask questions to clarify things you’ve written down. BUT you don’t want to waste your time or worse, waste the time of the people you’re interviewing. Besides that, you want to be relaxed and being prepared takes away half of your stress upfront.
The interview went well, I’ve had a few more and started wondering what my next step would be? I thought this would be the right time to have another chat with Sarah who guides me in my writing process. Was I doing the right things?