Best-selling author, Jamie Ford, wrote the acclaimed novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, that examined the effects of World War II’s Japanese Incarceration upon people’s lives. His book opens with the incredible discovery of the belongings of Japanese families that were left behind when they were rounded up and imprisoned. I asked Jamie to describe how he turned an important event in our history into a compelling story that appealed to all. Thank you, Jamie, for sharing your writing process with us.
Written by Jamie Ford, Special Contributing Author
Hmmm…this post is supposed to be about process so let me begin with my most essential morning ablution: a cup of coffee. Like most addicts, I’m not a snob about my drug of choice. (Today I’m drinking leftover hazelnut Christmas coffee with a splash of chocolate milk).
Also, let me note that I’m wearing Batman pajamas. Not particularly germane to this whole process thing, but comfort is key, I suppose, and one of the benefits of being a full-time writer is being a part-time fashion criminal.
I once heard that my favorite wordsmith, the great Harlan Ellison, used to occasionally write in the nude. I guess my writer’s block has never been that severe.
Okay, enough warming up at the keyboard. Let’s talk process.
Process-wise, it seems as though some authors meticulously outline everything, while others just write extemporaneously—they basically go commando.
I tend to do a little bit of both.
I do start with a few notes that are probably the least amount of words on a page that could possibly be mistaken for an outline–really nothing more than a beginning and an ending, with maybe a few scene ideas in the middle.
But that ending is über important.
And by ending, I mean a real, unambiguous, non-metaphorical ending. I look at storytelling as either banking or spending emotional currency with the reader. Good or bad, happy or sad, the ending is where those emotional debts are paid—if that makes sense? Plus, if I have a clear ending in mind, then the more nails I lay in the path of my characters, the more motivated I am as a writer to help them overcome them.
In the case of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, I wanted to write a noble romantic tragedy, with a bit of redemption. And in writing about the Japanese Incarceration, I couldn’t find that redemption in the ‘40s, so I found my ending in the ‘80s, when there was the redress, reparations were made to the Japanese Americans, and the Sansei (third generation) began to talk about what had often been left unspoken.
And of course along the way I took a lot of spontaneous twists, turns and unexpected detours. And sometimes I missed the exit to Storyland entirely and I stubbornly kept writing in the wrong direction.
Whenever that happens I eventually return to my senses, back up, delete those pages, reorient myself, and start again. (That’s a fancy, literary way of saying that I end up deleting 80 pages and sulking for a week).
In general, I try to get the entire story nailed in one draft, one chapter—one scene at a time. I’ll start my day by cleaning up what I wrote the previous morning and just keep going from there. I try not to slather words on the page with the intent to clean the whole thing up later or fill in the blanks. If I do, my stories tend to suffer a “death of a thousand cuts.” I need cohesion along the way to feel satisfied.
And more coffee.
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