This is how I write: Justine Musk

I can’t remember how I came across Justine Musk’s work but I do know it stays with me long after I’ve read her words (I often link to her posts in my Friday round-ups). The author of three dark fantasy novels, mama to five boys and a prolific blogger, Justine’s got the kind of edgy style I love, so I was thrilled when she agreed to do the interview. Hot pink notebooks, candles and badass creativity? Bring it ON.

Ladies & gentlemen, please welcome Ms Justine Musk…

SC: What do you use for writing a) notes/ideas/brainstorming and b) your books?

JM: I love big eco-friendly notebooks with hard covers (hot pink when I can get it) and blank pages. Never lined. I need all that gorgeous empty space for scrawling and mind-mapping and random jottings. I do my actual writing on my laptop, but there’s something about the hand-to-paper connection, the physical motion of writing, that helps me think things out.

I switched from Microsoft Word to Open Office because it runs on the open-source Linux platform and you can download it for free. I’m a big fan of Dropbox, which allows you to access your files from any computer anywhere. I just joined Pinterest with the intention to create an online visionboard for the novel I’m working on now.  I want to access that visual, holistic, intuitive side of my brain when developing a storyworld, so I will try to get away from words and think in terms of images. You can make new associations that way, flash on insights, open up new ideas.

How do you begin?

It starts with snippets and fragments of things that live in my head for a while – a half-formed idea, or a sense of a character, or a setting I want to use, or an image that keeps nagging at me, or even just a feeling.  Then those fragments start joining up with each other in a way that begins to feel like a story. There’s always one aspect I find really compelling, that drives me onward, and the rest coalesces around that, or grows organically out of it.

This part of the process rarely if ever happens at my desk.  A lot of it happens when I’m driving.  I’ll be rocking out in my car and have that Eureka moment, when different ideas click together and boom.  You know it’s a book.  The question is whether or not you need to write it.

Describe your writing process (edit as you go? Shitty first draft? Daily word count goal?)

The daily word count thing has never worked for me.  Time tends to move differently according to which part of the novel you’re working on.  You might have a day where all you get is two paragraphs, but those could be difficult paragraphs that blast you through a vexing plot problem. So it’s still a total win.

I’ve also learned that if I hit a block, it’s a sign that something isn’t working and I need to back up and take another look at how the story is evolving.  If I ignore it and press on to meet some arbitrary word count, I tend to zig when I should zag and end up trashing those pages anyway.

The important thing is to stay in daily contact with the novel, even when all you can do is dream it out a little more in your mind.

I’ll do some line-by-line editing as I go, but I leave the heavy lifting of deep, structural revision until I’m working with a complete manuscript.  I need to see how all the parts relate to each other.

And I totally believe in the power of the shitty first draft.

What do you do when the words aren’t coming?

I’ve learned to work it hard, then release and surrender.  You can get trapped in ruts of thinking where your mind doesn’t go anywhere new, just repeats the same old patterns.  So you sever those patterns by switching your attention to something completely different.  Or even just zoning out.  That frees up your undermind to mull things over for a while, do its own thing, so when you return to the project you can see your way forward again.

So I’ll work out, or take a nap, or meditate, or find an excuse to drive somewhere.  I will drive just to drive, because something about it frees up my thinking.  And I’ll stay open and receptive to whatever comes to me.

And I’ll read. There’s something about reading fiction that primes my brain and makes me eager to get back to writing.

I’ll also meet up with my writing coach (Rachel Resnick), who will offer up some brilliant nugget that inspires me.

Please describe any writing rituals you have (I’m assuming you have some as all writers I know have some, including me)

I clear my desk, except for a few talismanic objects I’ve chosen to represent the novel in some way and which help trigger the right mindset.  I’ll take a few minutes to meditate and downshift into the creative brain waves.  I put on music – I make a kind of soundtrack for each novel.  Sometimes I’ll light a candle, supposedly to signify that I’ve crossed over into this creative space, but mostly because I just like candles.

What’s your favourite part of the writing process/madness?

I love to revise. I love the feeling you get when you re/vision something and understand how to make it better.  The story moves in your hands and takes on its final form.

Justine Musk blogs about badass creativity: how to channel your signature voice and express it in the world with purpose and impact. She’s the author of three dark fantasy novels published by Penguin and Simon + Schuster, and is at work on a psychological thriller called THE DECADENTS.  She lives in Los Angeles with her five sons.

Cartoon portrait of Justine by Mars Dorian

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Thank you so much, Justine!

You might like this, too: This is how I write: Danielle LaPorte

4 responses
  1. C.D. Beatrice Clay

    Love this! I am a pinterest junky but I never thought of it as a place to visually piece together my novel (currently stalled…or at least that is what i tell myself). I also love the idea of being in daily contact with your novel, no random wordor page goals just “contact”. Two gold nuggets to which to cling and execute. O, and a new blog to read. THANKS for sharing!

  2. Marianne

    Fabulous interview – thanks Susannah and Justine. I especially love the part about using a soundtrack for the story – which I do, and the idea of using Pinterest for a visual story board online.

  3. Angie

    I love your interviews! It’s always fascinating to hear about other peoples creative processes and this has probably summed up as much as you might find in a huge reference book on the subject!

    I’m off to check out Justine’s work – I’m in the market for a new genre of escapist fiction and this could be just the thing I’m after!

  4. michelle gd

    great interview!
    especially love the nugget about daily contact with the current project.
    yes, yes, yes!

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