From Tracie: Writing With Rita Arens

Friday, January 11, 2013

Writing With Rita Arens

Rita Arens
Please welcome Rita Arens to the blog! She is a writer, BlogHer editor, and has been blogging at Surrender, Dorothy since 2004.

Rita is also the author of a new young adult novel coming out in February, The Obvious Game. I am only a few chapters into it, and I'm already hooked.

Today, Rita is sharing a little bit about her writing process.


I've always been suspect of anyone who tells me I have to write every single day. There are few things I do every day save breathe, eat and sleep; why would writing be different?

I wonder if this rule exists for people who have trouble committing to the practice. I have an overdeveloped sense of ambition, so getting my butt in the chair isn't as hard as scheduling my butt in the chair, if that makes sense. I have a more-than-full-time job as an editor at, an eight-year-old daughter, a husband, and a house that isn't going to clean itself -- much like everyone I know. If I tried to get up every day at 5 am to get some writing in, I'd soon grow to hate the one thing in my life that is completely mine and completely endorphin-producing, and I don't want to do that. So my writing process involves a lot more thinking and daydreaming and note-taking than actual writing.

One of my graduate writing professors talked about "couch time." He espoused spending a good amount of time thinking about what you wanted to write before you actually tried to sit down and do it. I find couch time and outlining really helpful. I started THE OBVIOUS GAME without outlining, and I ended up picking up outlining after I hit a rock twenty pages in. Suddenly I wasn't sure what I wanted to happen next, and I needed the outline to help me figure that out.

I revised THE OBVIOUS GAME more than one hundred times over a three-year period, mostly because I didn't know what I was doing. I'm hopeful I won't need quite as many revisions for my next novel, but I'm a lot more tolerant of them now than I was when I started. I now understand the entire first draft is essentially me trying to figure out what this book is about.

I struggled with structure in the earlier drafts of THE OBVIOUS GAME. I had too many characters. My story arcs didn't work together, and I had scenes in the book that didn't contribute to the forward movement of the whole. On one horrible day, I cut ten thousand words in two hours. It had to be done. It was a relief after, but boy, don't get too attached to word count for word count's sake.

When I'm actively working on a book, I make appointments with myself for both thinking and writing. I try to get a three-hour chunk at least once during the week during which I'm writing. Unless there's something huge going on when my husband and daughter will be out of the house on a weekend, it's usually a weeknight from 9-midnight. Prior to that writing, I try to spend twenty minutes a day imagining a scene, a character, whatever. I wear headphones when I'm thinking and writing, because the music sometimes takes me back to a memory or an emotion that I realize I really want to include. I write all the ideas down in a dedicated notebook. Then when I'm ready to write, I take those little nuggets and turn them into scenes. Sometimes they are in the right order, and sometimes they're not. The scene that originally opened THE OBVIOUS GAME is now at the end of the second act of the novel. I'm also a terrible eavesdropper and write down strangers' dialogue if I like it. Sorry, world. I save other people's conversations like some people save shoes, just waiting for the right opportunity.

I'm about twenty thousand words into the first draft of my second novel, and I've been using StoryMill software to lay out the scenes. I like it because I can export a certain scene and just focus on getting that one right, but later I can go back and see if there's a chunk in the book that's too repetitive or isn't moving fast enough. Pacing is a huge problem for me, because I want to go slower than a young adult novel needs to go. Having the software helps me see that, as well as if I've got undeveloped minor characters or other structural problems. I need to read on my Kindle to be able to see the writing problems. For some reason, my brain can gloss over boring sentences in Word but they come screaming out at me in my Kindle, where it presents like a real book. So after every big revision, I email the draft to my Kindle and take notes electronically, then have the Kindle open when I return to my Word document to fix what I found. The best writing advice I've had recently is this: If you find yourself jumping over sentences in your book, cut them. They're boring.

I could probably write books faster if I dedicated an hour a day to it, but I don't know if they would be better books. It takes me a while to see problems, and it seems unlikely I'll be able to quit my day job any time soon to spend that necessary three-hour amount of time each day on my writing. This is what works for me, and I don't feel one bit of guilt about not working on a novel every single day.

I think you have to do what works for you -- everyone's different.


The Obvious Game

The Obvious Game Cover"Everyone trusted me back then. Good old, dependable Diana. Which is why most people didn't notice at first."

"Your shirt is yellow."
"Your eyes are blue."
"You have to stop running away from your problems."
"You're too skinny."

Fifteen-year-old Diana Keller accidentally begins teaching The Obvious Game to new kid Jesse on his sixteenth birthday. As their relationship deepens, Diana avoids Jesse's past with her own secrets -- which she'll protect at any cost.

The Obvious Game will be available in February 2013, and can be preordered now. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Eating Disorder Foundation.


  1. Thanks so much for asking about my process! I've never actually written it out before and I thought I didn't have a process until I wrote this post. :)

  2. Rita, thank you for sharing your writing process! I thought I was the only one who felt too boxed in when I scheduled writing time. If it's bookended between a couple of things, I can't relax enough to think the way I should. Does that make sense?

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading about your process tremendously, and it feels like someone's given me permission to write the way I'm programmed to write, without feeling guilty about it. Thank you!

    Can't wait to read The Obvious Game.

  3. I really enjoyed reading about your writing process. Thank you so much!

  4. They say that the cobbler's daughter wears no shoes. I think it makes sense not to force yourself to write a certain amount at a certain time each day. The pizza guy hates pizza, we don't want you to hate writing.

  5. Don't feel guilty! I think it's more important to do the thinking and writing than when you do it or for how long.

  6. This was really interesting, I love hearing what works and doesn't work for people. And the scheduled thinking time is something I realized I needed to do in many areas of my life.

  7. Thank you for sharing your process. I found it fascinating! And I 100% agree with you that everyday, no matter what, doesn't work! My muse refuses to be scheduled! =)

  8. I loved reading this. Thank you.

  9. Thanks everyone for your comments!

  10. This is such good advice! And it gives me comfort to know another writer who doesn't write systematically (same amount of time each day). I really need to get a kindle, but I know what you mean about glossing over in Word. I'm publishing my memoire on my blog now, a chapter a week, and I can see the flaws in preview that I can't see in word.

    Very inspiring post.

  11. Your story really struck me. My son and I are both writers. We have pulled our talent together to create our first novel. He was 10 at the time we wrote the book.