{discover. play. build.} discovering your process

Recently I read:

It’s not the kind of book that I usually read. I think this may have been why I was most surprised to be swept away by the story. It’s a middle grade book and one that makes me want to return to the classroom simply so I could add multiple copies of it to my classroom library and talk it up as much as possible.

Reading a great book is like getting a gift, so I feel like I’ve been completely spoiled because I also had the chance to ask John a few questions. His answers inspire today’s {Discover. Play. Build.} Challenge.

RUTH: Do you keep a notebook to help sort out your ideas? If so, will you share a little about your notebook and how it helps you as a writer? 

JOHN: You’ve been spying on me!  Yes, I go everywhere with a little pocket-sized notebook.  Leaving the house without it is worst than forgetting my cell phone or keys!

Whenever I have a moment in my day—whether I’m in line at the grocery store, walking to the post office, or washing dishes—I let my mind slip into my story.  I jot ideas down in the notebook, not because I’m worried I’ll forget them, but because there’s something about translating thoughts into writing that helps me deepen and develop my ideas.  Sometimes, I’ll just write lists of interesting words (what I’ve dubbed magnetic nouns, because they’re things that particularly fascinate me) or potential book/chapter titles.  I keep track of interesting names I hear, as well as notes on revisions I want to make to earlier chapters of my current work-in-progress. The pocket notebook is an essential part of my creative process as a writer.

RUTH: I’m intrigued by your opening chapter. The scents are powerful and the writing is strong. I’m wondering how this particular beginning came to be. Will you talk a little bit about the craft and the revisions involved in writing the lead to The Prince Who Fell from the Sky?

JOHN: Thank you, Ruth!  I wrote several versions of the first chapter before ultimately deciding on this scene to introduce readers to my central character, the bear Casseomae.  I wanted readers to be thrown head-first into the distinctly non-human perspective of the animals who inhabit this overgrown post-apocalyptic world. 

My number one goal with any opening scene is to give readers a reason to care about my main character.  Even the most action-packed opening can lose readers if they aren’t emotionally invested in the character.  Before I got too deep into writing The Prince Who Fell from the Sky, I spent a lot of time bringing Casseomae to life in my imagination.  I grew to love this compassionate, powerful bear.  Her situation—she longs to be a mother but all her cubs have been stillborn—endeared her to me.  I worked hard to create a scene that could demonstrate her predicament, her longing, and her sadness.  After I had it, I was motivated to create a story that would bring something good to this bear.

RUTH: You’ve published several other books. What was different about writing THE PRINCE WHO FELL FROM THE SKY? How do you balance planning ahead and allowing the story to unfold as you write?

JOHN: By nature, I’m a planner.  I like to have a rough outline of the story before I write.  I consider that outline my first draft.  Creating the outline is mostly a way of getting my head deeply into the world of my book and imagining the characters and their lives.  Most of the initial work writing a story is simply daydreaming.  The outline is a way of organizing my thoughts.  It’s important for me to bring my characters to life in my imagination before they’re turned into words on a page. 

My trilogy The Clockwork Dark is an epic fantasy adventure with lots of characters, story twists and turns, and subplots.  I needed intricate outlining to keep track of everything.  With The Prince Who Fell from the Sky, the focus was much more on a simple narrative arc with a strong emotional underpinning.  I wrote much less from an outline.  I knew my beginning.  I had possibilities for the end.  I had a lot of scenes somewhere in the middle that fascinated me—vultures who predicted the future using the entrails of carrion, a city ruled by escaped zoo animals, the boy getting into various bits of trouble.  I wrote the book allowing new ideas to reveal themselves to me as I went.  Once I finished that draft, I spent a lot of time reorganizing the scenes to create the right arc for my characters.  It was quite a different process writing the Clockwork Dark books and writing The Prince Who Fell from the Sky.
I’ve started a new book, and I’m discovering a completely different way of doing things this time around.  It’s like with each project, I’m asking myself:  How do I write a book?  It seems like that should be frustrating, but I find diving into unknown territory to be exhilarating for my creative process.

These words from John are a gift, aren’t they? His story is too. He inspires me to dig into my notebook. Won’t you join me?

{Discover. Play. Build.} Challenge

This week, snag some inspiration from John Claude Bemis. Read his interview and crack open your notebook Here are some ways you might want to play.
  1. Commit to carrying your notebook everywhere for an entire day. See how often you can jot in it.
  2. Make your number one goal to figure out why others should care about your character. If you’re not writing fiction, twist this a little and figure out why people should care about the story or poem or article you are writing.
  3. Approach your plot a little differently than you usually do. If you normally jot an outline, jump into the story and write a scene in your notebook. If you normally collect scenes, take some time to put a couple ideas down in an outline.
As always, I’d love to hear how these things are influencing you as a writer (or a teacher).

Let's Be Email Pals!

Teaching writers doesn't have to drown us.

Enter your information to receive my free eBook, plus weekly tips and encouragement for teaching writers.

Don't worry, I won't send you spam, and you can unsubscribe any time. (I'd hate to see you go, though.) Powered by ConvertKit


  1. Anne Lamott talks about carrying index cards in your pocket. About a month ago, I found a small notebook that has a coated surface so it won't get too beat up in my pocket and I just started carrying it this week. I will let you know how it goes.

  2. Thanks for a wonderful interview, Ruth! Great questions that I haven't been asked before. I'm honored to be a guest on your illuminating blog. Keep up the great work!

  3. I carry one of those small mole-skin notebooks & lately I've been listening to an audio book that has struck me on two different occasions with ideas for poems. I grab the notebook & jot the words down to keep for the writing time. This is a good interview Ruth. John, thanks for your answers that are exciting because when I talk with students, they will like hearing that there is no exact way to write, that each has a different approach. I just won your book from another blog, so can't wait to receive it & get reading! Thanks Ruth!

  4. Love the challenge to go about one's process In a new way. I have been thinking about writing a character story for fun and mashing personalities and characteristics from several of my current students. Maybe I will try tonight!

  5. What a great interview, Ruth. It's refreshing to hear a published author's tale of how he started the same story several different ways until he felt the reader would care. I'm struggling with that in my current novel right now. Thanks for encouraging me. You've piqued my interest so I'm going to head over to Amazon and read the beginning and download the rest for my Kindle. I hope it's there.