I think two of the biggest struggles for every writer are finding (a) their writing style and (b) their writing process. It involves a lot of trial and error, writing hundreds of thousands of words, and studying writers we admire.
Kerri Turner joins me in the attic today to talk about how she found her writing process and how physical movement and visualising her story helps her write. She talks about how the book, Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon, transformed her approach to writing (and made me immediately purchase a copy myself).
I hope you find this post as inspiring as I did—lots of wisdom for writers at every stage of their writing careers.
Kerri Turner is a historical fiction author who lives in Sydney, Australia, with her husband and miniature schnauzer. She trained from a young age to become a ballerina, but life had other ideas for her. After gaining an Associate Degree (Dance) and Diploma of Publishing (Editing, Proofreading and Publishing), she combined her love of ballet, history and books to discover a passion for writing which far outweighed anything she’d done before.
Kerri still dances, passing on the joy of ballet and tap dancing to those who never got the chance to experience it—or thought their dancing years were behind them—by teaching adults-only and over-55’s classes.
Getting Physical With Your Book
In the early days of my journey as a writer, I was searching for my elusive ‘process’. It was something spoken about in a sort of reverential tone by authors I admired, implying a connection between writer and muse that would bring forth my unique voice and give life to the story that, up until that point, lived only in my head. It sounded to me a bit like the writer’s version of the key to Narnia.
I read every book on writing I could get my hands on, scoured websites for tricks and tips, tried what worked for endless authors before me, in an attempt to unlock the door that would reveal to me not Kerri Turner the regular person, but Kerri Turner the author.
I wasn’t searching for my process, but browsing the gift shop at MONA in Tasmania while on holiday, when my process found me. I spotted a book with the catchy title Steal Like an Artist, written by Austin Kleon. I’ve always loved the kinds of niche books found in museum gift stores and picked this one up immediately. Inside, I found a chapter titled ‘Use Your Hands’, in which Kleon talked about computers robbing us of the sense that we’re creating something. He suggested that bringing your body into your work could open up new creative pathways.
Maybe it’s because I have a background in dance, but the idea of physically connecting with my work appealed to me. Up until then, the process of writing had always been static. I sat at a keyboard and typed. But writing itself isn’t static. Words ebb and flow, ideas generate, blossom, sometimes die, other times take on new forms.
The seemingly endless plotter vs pantser debate gave me a little trepidation. Some of those books and websites I’d devoured said plotters (those who plan their novels before writing them) were cheating themselves out of a true creative process. And what was this physical process if not more planning?
Nevertheless, I started experimenting with the idea of movement and physical connection. I pulled out physical tools: paper, scissors, post-its, pens, stapler and staple remover (can’t have one without the other, I’ve learned), highlighters, pencils, paperclips. I printed out a bullet point outline of my manuscript and cut it up so each bullet point was separate. I used a blue pen to number their order, then laid them out (being careful of nearby pets or breezes from open windows).
I was now seeing my entire story in a single glance, something my computer never really allowed me to do. Reaching out and touching one piece of paper suddenly felt like reaching into the book itself. Shuffling the papers around, I saw ways the story could be more impactful by changing the order of events. I used my highlighters and assigned one colour to each important theme, character, or plotline. If one colour suddenly disappeared, I had to ask myself: was it deliberate? Was it forgotten about? Was it not necessary to the book in the first place?
Some pieces of paper got cut into half and split. Some were stapled together to create a new, more detailed chapter. Others ended with a post-it stuck to them with thoughts on how to further develop that scene. My creativity wasn’t stifled by all this planning; instead, it blossomed. In Steal Like an Artist Austin Kleon says that when working on the computer, ‘There are too many opportunities to hit the delete key’. Working physically, there was no delete key. I couldn’t kill an idea before I’d allowed it room to develop and see where it could go. And if it ended up going nowhere, it didn’t matter – those original blue numbers were still there, so I could take it back to the beginning and try again. Knowing this allowed me room to be fearless. My manuscript developed before me into a glorious, colourful mess of ideas, developments, and stationery.
And in that mess, I gained clarity. I mentioned before that my background is in dance. I’ve always been able to appreciate a beautiful or moving or fun piece of music. But when I dance to music – THAT is when I really understand it. I feel every cadence; hear every word; feel instinctively when to push forward in a big and bold manner, and when to pull back with a soft touch that can be just as impactful. The physical connection of dance makes me a part of the music. And when it comes to writing, my stories are my music, and chopping them up and playing around with them is my dance.
So now I have my process. And in the end it wasn’t a portal to some untapped Narnia. It was still work, and work that relied on me putting in the effort, thinking critically as well as creatively, and committing both my time and resources.
And the results weren’t magic, but two books in which I can be proud in the knowledge that I stayed true to myself and the stories that resonate within me, and that I have given the reader the best experience I was able to. Something that I hope to continue with every future book that I dance with.
Kerri has kindly donated signed copies of both of her books to giveaway:
The Daughter of Victory Lights
The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers
To enter, just comment on any of the blog or social media posts. Your comment can be about anything—why you’d love to win a copy of Kerri’s books, about your own writing process or about anything this post has brought to mind.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) this Thursday, 25th June, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but I can only post to an Australian address.