Wednesday, January 13, 2016

1 The Denim Skirt Theory of Writing by Nancy Ohlin

Methods of writing are such individualistic things, and yet often us writers can't help but get excited at a peek inside someone else's writing practice - especially when that someone is as accomplished a writer as Nancy Ohlin. Which is why we're thrilled that she's sharing her own personal theory of writing on the blog today!

The Denim Skirt Theory of Writing by Nancy Ohlin

I have two polar-opposite pieces of advice when it comes to writing. But let me back up by describing my life as a writer.

Actually, let me back up even more by describing a denim skirt I had to make for a class in junior high school.

I had a Simplicity-brand pattern to work off of. I knew enough to pin the tissuey pattern pieces to the denim and cut the cloth accordingly.

The thing about me is, I don’t like to follow orders or read instruction manuals. I like to hit the ground running and kind of make it up as I go along.

So the Simplicity pattern was the extent of my master plan. Using the neatly trimmed denim segments, I proceeded to improvise on a sewing machine (note: one can’t improvise on a sewing machine), fill in the gaps with some careless hand stitching, and in general wing it all over the place.

The result was a denim skirt that looked okay—even pretty—on the outside. But turned inside out, it was a hot mess: nests of tangled thread, lumps of excess fabric, nothing neat or straight or finished.
Still, it was a skirt—a wearable skirt that I had made from scratch.

Okay, so back to the writing stuff. I’ve been a full-time freelance writer for several decades now. I got my first big break ghostwriting for a teen mystery series; I was lucky because the editor was a friend who was willing to take a chance on me as a newbie freelancer. That led to more ghostwriting gigs and, eventually, original fiction and nonfiction. To date, I’ve written, ghostwritten, or collaborated on over one hundred books.

I’m usually juggling multiple projects. This year, I’ll be collaborating on an early-grade fiction series plus a YA novel; writing two early-grade nonfiction books; finishing up a proposal for an original MG novel; and continuing to write and talk about CONSENT. This means I have to be extremely organized …

… and also extremely disorganized. Which brings me back to those two polar-opposite pieces of writing advice:

1. Be super-organized. I write every day, usually in the mornings and late afternoons. I’m fastidious with my calendar; I not only plug in appointments and to-do lists and deadlines, but I flag weeks when I won’t have much time to write so I can compensate during the other weeks and also be quick to respond about dates when I’m emailing with my agent or an editor. Whenever I start a new project, I create a detailed schedule so I can make my deadline. I give myself specific daily assignments, like: “Monday, draft Chapter 4” … “Tuesday, edit Chapter 4 and follow up on Sanchez interview” … and so on.

2. Throw organization out the window. Once I have the above structures in place, I’m free to go off-road. Which I do, big-time.

My creative process—my actual creative process—is total anarchy. For example: several years ago, I had to come up with a complicated YA plot from scratch and write up a detailed synopsis. To do this, I set up my “office” on the dining room table and worked there all day long. I would wake up, go straight to the table, and write for hours in my PJs. I had books (for research), a zillion open tabs on my laptop (for more research), and random pieces of paper everywhere. Whenever I got an idea, I grabbed a piece of paper (even if it had my grocery list on it) and the nearest writing implement (usually one of my daughter’s crayons or markers) and scribbled away like a maniac. I scrawled illegible notes. I drew pictures. I constructed diagrams that made sense in the heat of the moment but looked like psychotic graffiti later on, with arrows pointing every which way.

I couldn’t bother with meals. I ate peanut butter out of a jar and jump-started my brain with re-heated Starbucks. I remembered to drink water only when I realized that my throat was parched and my head was throbbing.

This went on for weeks. I was a crazy person holed up in a chaotic mind palace of disparate facts, inspirations, and ideas. At the end of each day, when panic rose to the surface and told me that I would never come up with that killer plot, I closed my laptop and forced myself to go to a hot yoga class—my only healthy habit during that time—to wring myself out. I told myself that I would start fresh in the morning. I told myself to have faith in the process, in myself.

Then one day as my deadline approached, I sat down at the table, holed up in my mind palace, wrote for six hours straight and … bam! There was my killer plot. Everything had manically, magically fallen into place.

And so there you have it, in a nutshell. For me, writing has to be both orderly and chaotic. At the same time. It’s a denim skirt that starts with a Simplicity pattern, loses its way, self-destructs, then somehow comes together. The result may not be perfect, but it’s good enough.

Happy writing!


In this sexy and intriguing novel, an intense—and passionate—bond between a high school senior and her music teacher becomes a public scandal that threatens the reputation of both.

Bea has a secret.

Actually, she has more than one. There’s her dream for the future that she can’t tell anyone—not her father and not even her best friend, Plum.

And now there’s Dane Rossi. Dane is hot, he shares Bea’s love of piano, and he believes in her.

He’s also Bea’s teacher.

When their passion for music crosses into passion for each other, Bea finds herself falling completely for Dane. She’s never felt so wanted, so understood, so known to her core. But the risk of discovery carries unexpected surprises that could shake Bea entirely. Bea must piece together what is and isn’t true about Dane, herself, and the most intense relationship she’s ever experienced in this absorbing novel from Nancy Ohlin, the author of Beauty.

Amazon | IndieBound | Goodreads


Nancy Ohlin is the author of Consent, forthcoming from Simon Pulse on November 10, 2015, as well as Always, Forever, a YA retelling of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, and Beauty, a YA retelling of the Snow White tale.

She has also contributed to several celebrity novels, including a New York Times-bestselling YA trilogy.

Her favorite cures for writers' block are long walks, long showers, popcorn, chocolate, and really expensive coffee. She talks to herself a lot while she writes (you know, to make sure the dialogue zings).

1 comment:

  1. I love your denim skirt analogy! I happened to have made a similar--although somewhat tubular one--at Boynton Junior High School in Ithaca, NY (!!) back in the late 1960's! I enjoyed reading your article and I can totally relate to your mixed creative process!I look forward to reading your book!


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