To get only the ‘right’ words on paper, that’s the struggle: Janet Benton

As a followup to my 2018 podcast The Writing Process, I’m sharing occasional interviews with other celebrated authors, storytellers and other writers to gather their own writing advice.

Below, hear from Janet Benton, whose historical fiction novel Lilli de Jong came out in paperback last year. (Follow her on Twitter here) When her debut novel launched, Bustle called it striking and NPR listed it as one of its books of the year.

The book, known as a poignant look at feminism and motherhood, set in 1883 Philadelphia, is readily available as a hardcover, paperback, large-print edition, audio book and ebook through most booksellers and online.

The Interview

Interview edited ever so lightly for length, style and clarity.

When you imagine yourself writing, what does this look like?

Usually I write at home, whether in my home office at a desk computer, in a cozy chair in the living room with a laptop or paper (at night or on weekends, often with my husband reading or writing in the next
chair over), or at the dining-room table, if I’ve got a pile of pages to edit.

Away from home, I’ll write anywhere—in the quiet zone of a library near my house, in the car, while a passenger on any sort of a conveyance, in a rental property for a writing retreat, at the home of a writer friend (if we’ve made time to write in the same space), in a doctor’s waiting room. If I’m in the thick of writing something, I can write anywhere.

All of this has changed many times. The two biggest drivers of change were having a child and becoming self-employed. Each of these made it necessary for both work and writing to spill over into any available time. In order to add writing, doing book events, and managing a career as an author to the existing work of running an editorial business, I work days, nights, weekends and most holidays.

To get time for writing, I plan it months ahead on my calendar. I’ve learned to block out great amounts of writing time in my calendar, because a good portion of it will get replaced by myriad other things—paying work, an illness, family matters, a professional opportunity and vital things like
friendships and exercise! And then I’ll still have some writing time left.

Scheduled or not, words rush in, often when I’m falling asleep, waking, or driving (I only write them down at stoplights!). Now and then I get to go away for several days to write, and then I do very little besides write. Those
times are hard on my body, but I love them madly, because I get to dive deep and stay there a while without interruption, feeling almost hypnotized by the work in process.

When and how did you first determine that you were good at writing?

Ever since I was being read to as a toddler, I’ve found interest, solace and company in written words. Writing has always come fairly easily to me. Not that I don’t create messes and then revise like a fiend, but I don’t find it a struggle to get words on paper. To get only the right words on paper—that’s the struggle.

It wasn’t being good at writing that made me pursue it. I write because words come to me. Writing has always brought me relief and, sometimes, a feeling that I’ve gotten on the page something vital. I started the literary magazine in my high school with the support of a teacher there, and that gave me an invaluable community. In college, words continued to come into my head and want to be written down.

So when it came time to pursue a career, I figured I’d work at a publication. I wasn’t driven to work for, say, a magazine or a newspaper, but those are the kinds of publications I worked at in my last year of college and after graduation, because that was a way to get paid. (I didn’t realize until I began getting paid after college just how poorly I would be paid, or how many of my compatriots would, therefore, choose this work only because they already had ample funds.)

What drives me is the need to pursue my ideas in writing. It has felt natural to be involved with words and stories and, in time, to edit and teach and mentor other writers.

How do you distinguish the writing and the editing/revision process of your writing? Do you do this in physically different places?

I set out sometimes to write new material and sometimes to make more sense of what I’ve already got. Often, new stuff comes unscheduled, in outpourings, especially late at night, sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes in the mornings. Some of these things are related to a novel in process; Others are essay ideas, observations, realizations, things that make me angry, things that are touching or beautiful.

I collect the scraps, sometimes assembling some of them into a whole, often tucking them into an ongoing novel. I love having a novel to put these brainstorms into. Sometimes I know a certain scene needs to be written, so I’ll set that as my goal during writing time.

Often the work spills beyond the allotted time and becomes an obsession, but since I have lots of clients and a family and other responsibilities, I have to put things aside before they reach an end point, whether permanently or temporarily. When possible, I do a great deal of shaping of the bits that come to me—smoothing them out, finding a place for them, filling in the gaps, turning ideas into scenes.

It may not be the most efficient way to work. I hope, sooner rather than later, to have the chance to write more continuously, with fewer time-consuming stops and starts.

When revising, I tend to set myself up at a desk or table without a computer. I much prefer to revise on paper, then to enter revisions into an electronic file and make changes while doing so. It’s a cycle that
goes on and on and on.

“Often the work spills beyond the allotted time and becomes an obsession”

Do you have a good example (a sentence or two, say) from your book that changed dramatically from its earliest version to the published form? What happened along the way? As specifically as possible: why is the later version better than the first in your own words?

In Lilli de Jong, I can’t think of a particular sentence or two that changed dramatically. I wrote innumerable drafts, expanding, trimming, expanding, trimming. What seems more remarkable are the sentences that came through virtually unchanged, such as the opening two sentences (though I didn’t always know they’d be the opening sentences).

The first version was, “Some moments set my heart on fire, and that’s when language seems the smallest. Yet it’s precisely these bursts of feeling that make me long to write.”

I took out two words from the second sentence, making it “Yet precisely these bursts of feeling make me long to write.” I aim to remove unnecessary words, and usually constructions like “it is/that” are extraneous. I might have kept them if the rhythm was better with them, but I felt it was better without.

What is one specific and actionable piece of advice you have for other writers to improve their process, output or other common goal?

Find the stories you’re most passionate about telling. What would you be devastated not to write before you die? In service to something this important to you, you can figure out the rest.

Only you can free your voice and provide the time to tell the stories you need to tell. And no one else can tell those stories as you will. So find your crucial stories and get started. If you’ve already begun, know there’s no way to finish except through showing up and working, over and over and over.

What would you like to shift in your writing process?

I just read a book recommended to me by a woman on a train: How to Write A Lot by Paul J. Silvia. Though aimed at an academic audience, its guidance applies to anyone who wants to write more. The author, despite being a psychologist, could not be less interested in exploring reasons one might not be writing enough; His approach is utterly pragmatic, which suits me well.

He explains, partly based on research, that planning regular writing times, writing at these regular times and in the same non-distracting place, setting goals, tracking progress, giving rewards and being accountable to someone will substantially increase writing output.

For many years I’ve scheduled writing time and had deadlines. I often have a writing buddy or buddies with whom I exchange pages. But I’m interested in setting clearer aims for each writing span. I’ll even take Silvia’s advice and give myself a reward (a cup of tea! a walk around the block! a break to call a friend!). Maybe some of these ideas will help those reading this. I hope so.

Find Janet on Twitter here, Facebook here and Instagram here. Find the first season of The Writing Process podcast here. Below, watch an interview with Janet.