On Writing
Anna Elliott

Q.   Where do you get your ideas?
A. Since the Trystan and Isolde Trilogy series is a blend of history and legend, obviously a good many of my ideas come from research, both into the actual history of 6th century Britain and into the original Tristan and Isolde and King Arthur cycles. I typically outline the plot of a book and construct the characters while doing the research. The more I know about the world my book is set in, the better grasp I have on the kinds of events that could potentially shape my plot--and the better I can imagine the kinds of people who would inhabit the world, as well.

For the rest, my ideas really come from everywhere. I think most writers would say the same. You're just constantly looking, listening, making connections, daydreaming and being inspired by the world around you. It truly never stops. There's a part of Twilight of Avalon that was inspired by a conversation my midwife and husband were having as I was approaching the transition phase of labor. (Nothing to do with the actual birth scene in the book, oddly enough). I mentally noted it down while dealing with a contraction and then typed it up after my girl was born.
Q.   What are the most significant changes in your writing as the years have progressed?
A. When I wrote my first novel I was 20-21, juggling writing with a heavy senior year course load in college and planning a wedding to my (super amazing wonderful) husband. When my agent sold Twilight of Avalon, I was 28-29, had been married for 8 years, and had become a mom to an (equally super amazing wonderful) baby girl. Twilight of Avalon was my seventh book, and to say that my voice had changed from that first effort back in college is a huge, huge understatement. I think the books we write and the stories we tell are a sum-total of our life experience, and so having grown up, experienced life as adult, as a wife, and especially as a mother has just tremendously informed and altered the place I'm writing from.

I guess, though, if I had to identify the most significant overall change in my writing, I would say that in the beginning I was very shy about writing. I was afraid to really let any emotion spill out from me onto the page, afraid of caring too deeply about the work and the characters. Because, you know, What if someone reads it? I read a quote on writing once, though, that said that the act of writing was in essence letting your soul bleed a little onto the page. And I think that is--has to be--true for the best writing to happen.

As I wrote my (many) "practice" books and essentially figured out the writing craft and my own writing process, I had to really learn to strip away my inhibitions about writing--learn to take chances and risks and be passionate about the work without having an imaginary audience looking over my shoulder and judging the work. Because if I wasn't letting myself be fully involved in and totally passionate about the stories I was telling, no one else--agents, editors, or readers--was going to be, either. In general, I would say that writing a book should stretch your boundaries, push you out of your comfort zone, and--no matter how much you love the process--in some way cost you something to write.
Q.   What have you done to improve your writing?
A. I suppose my answer to that would be 3-fold:
  1. Daily writing. I think the single biggest factor I would credit in having--I hope--improved my writing over the years is simply sitting down at my computer and writing, every single day. Writing is like playing the piano--if you want to learn, you can read books about the piano, you can talk about it, you can listen to music played by other people on the piano. But at some point, if you truly want to play yourself, you're going to have to sit down at the keyboard and, well, start playing the piano. Likewise, you're probably going to have to start with scales and really simple exercises and practice them over and over again before you can start to play anything that anyone else is going to want to listen to!
  2. Reading. I read constantly. Anything from historical novels to contemporary literary fiction, from paranormal romance books to mysteries to children's books and sci-fi. Anything. And I try to read critically, constantly trying to figure out why the author made the storytelling choices they did, what about the book is effective, what I would think about changing if it were mine.
  3. Detachment. I think when you first start out as a writer, it's natural to be pretty thin-skinned about criticism. Even when you give books to other people to read, asking for their opinions and critique, you don't actually want them to suggest changes--what you really want is for them to say, Yes! Brilliant! This is the best book I've ever read! I wouldn't change one single thing! Your books are so much a part of you that hearing anyone criticize them (especially friends and family, who are usually going to be your first readers) is like having your best friend study your face and say, Hmm, nope, the eyebrows just aren't working--and that nose--that has just got to go.

    When I first started writing, that was a lot how I felt. Criticism pretty much made me want to cry or curl up in bed and pull the covers over my head. But then I started to realize that my first loyalty had to be not to myself but to the story I was trying to tell. My first priority had to be not protecting my feelings, but making that story the absolute best it could be. Every reader brings something different to the table when they start a story, so every reader is going to have a different response—and I would argue that these responses are just as valid as the author's own response to the book. As a writer, the more feedback on your story and your characters you can get, the more insights into that story and those characters you'll have, the better your book is going to be.
Q.   Do I need to go to writer's conferences?
A. I never did. But I do know of aspiring writers who have found them helpful.
Q.   Are there books to help me write better?
A. There are many, many books on writing out there with excellent writing advice. The three I personally found most helpful:
  1. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. By turns hopeful, tender, insightful, and hilariously funny, this was the first book on writing I ever read (in high school) and remains one of my absolute favorites.
  2. The Plot Thickens, by Noah Lukeman. Wonderful for character development.
  3. Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass. Offers keen plotting advice, as well as a look at some of the behind the scenes forces that shape the publishing world.
Q.   Do you edit as you go along?
A. I do. I edit and revise constantly as I go along. I know many authors who don't--who move straight ahead, never looking back until they've finished a first draft of a book, only then starting the rewriting and revisions process. And I know many times aspiring authors are given the advice to work that way because it's so easy to get bogged down in polishing and revising that you never actually finish your book. And that's certainly in many ways good advice and a perfectly valid way to write. I suppose it's like the question of whether or not to write from an outline. No one can say that either choice is right or wrong. It really just comes down to a personal choice and discovering what works best for you in terms of your own writing process.

I did try writing my first book without looking back, and discovered that I really just couldn't work that way. Almost every scene, every chapter I write teaches me something new about the characters and the journey they're on, shows me something in a previous chapter that I've done wrong and will have to be changed. And I just . . . can't move forward with the book until those changes are made. Knowing that there are revisions waiting for me is too distracting--like having a horrible itch that I just have to scratch. So I edit, revise, then take the story forward another few chapters--chapters that in turn show me what I'm going to have to edit and revise all over again.
Q.   How do you write when you have a million other things in your life going on all at once?
A. This is probably the question I hear the most--because we all of us lead busy lives, and without question finding the time and the mental space to write is hard. My own personal strategies and thoughts:
  1. Set (manageable) daily goals and stick to them. And these goals can be tiny--really, really small. The important thing is just that you are committed to writing and making progress on your story every day. Now I'm very lucky in that writing is my only job--apart from that other full-time job of being a mom, of course. But when I was in college, struggling to write while keeping my head above water in the midst of a very heavy course load, my daily goal was to simply write one page. That's all. Just a page, every day. So every morning I would get up and no matter what else I had on my plate, I would write that one page. Every single day. Now, the book I finished while still a student wasn't exactly a masterpiece. But by the end of the year, I had finished it--an entire novel. And it was a beginning to build on.
  2. Learn to clear your head. This is a tough one, because there are always so many voices in your head--or at least there are in mine--all the time. Voices reminding me about loads of laundry to be done, grocery lists, e-mails to be written, books to be read. But when I sit down to write, I actively try to push all the clamor out of my head and only think about the book. Even if it's only for 20 or 30 minutes--30 minutes can be incredibly productive if you're truly giving your total, undivided attention to the task at hand.
  3. Prioritize. I talked about this a bit in my section on writing and mothering, also, but I think it's worth mentioning again here. I try to figure out what absolutely needs to be done and what I can let slide. Basically I try to put my family first, writing second, and then just do my best with everything else--and feel peaceful about the fact that the "everything else" just isn't always going to get done.
  4. "Love the writing, love the writing, love the writing... the rest will follow." That's a quote from Jane Yolen, one of my favorite authors. And I think (although this wasn't necessarily her intention) it does speak to the issue of, where do I find the time to write? Writing books is hard, no question. It's not always going to go smoothly or well, and there will be times when you feel like what you're working on is going to be the worst book in the entire world. But try to think of the book in the same way you would your baby, whom you love just as much when she's smearing peanut butter in her hair (not that I am speaking from experience or anything) as you do when she gives you kisses. Let yourself be passionately in love with your story and your characters, and you'll find yourself drawn irresistibly to your computer keyboard, discovering time during your day that you never knew you had.





Anna Elliott Portrait

"...unique and delightful...filled with passion, courage, and timeless magic."
— Jane Henriksen Baird, Library Journal


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