A Peek at the Creative Space of Dan Gemeinhart
Joining us today for Creative Spaces is Dan Gemeinhart. Dan’s debut middle grade novel, The Honest Truth, publishes today from Scholastic Press. The Honest Truth is a moving, fast-paced story about a boy, his dog, and the adventure of a lifetime:
In all the ways that matter, Mark is a normal kid. He’s got a dog named Beau and a best friend, Jessie. He likes to take photos and write haiku poems in his notebook. He dreams of climbing a mountain one day.
But in one important way, Mark is not like other kids at all. Mark is sick. The kind of sick that means hospitals. And treatments. The kind of sick some people never get better from.
So Mark runs away. He leaves home with his camera, his notebook, his dog, and a plan. A plan to reach the top of Mount Rainier. Even if it’s the last thing he ever does.
My workspace is a big, brown couch. It’s a ratty couch, scuffed and threadbare in places, but it’s soft and and comfortable and it reclines with a footrest and it never complains when I spill things on it (which is often). It’s in our living room, facing a big picture window that looks out on the street. There’s an end table within reach and our computer (which serves as our stereo) within remote range, so I can turn the music on, off, up or down as my feverish brain requires. There are no overhead lights but there are numerous lamps around the room’s perimeter, so I can adjust the lighting anywhere from sunlit meadow to burial cave, depending on mood (I write almost exclusively at night).
Describe a typical workday.
A typical writing workday (I also have a day job) begins at about 9:30 pm. The kids are in bed, as is my wife. I’ve made a hot cup of tea which sits on the end table beside me. There’s a decent chance I’ve also got a glass of red wine and a chunk of really dark chocolate. I’m sitting on the couch, my laptop sitting on a pillow that’s sitting on my lap. When I’ve got everything situated just right and everything I need within reach (an up-and-down, oops-I-forgot-something process that can take 15 minutes), I start writing. Depending on how the story is flowing and how early I have to get up the next day, my end time can vary from 10:30 to 2:00 am.
List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
Since I don’t have a dedicated “office workspace” and have to use a shared family space, I don’t really have personal, meaningful objects around me when I write. My objects are functional, but they’re important:
1. The couch. I’ve got to be comfortable to write. I can’t do it sitting upright in some stiff chair. I sink into that couch with my feet up and get everything set just right and I can just go.
2. The desktop computer over in the corner, which gives me the exact music I need (see below).
3. The end table. Sounds silly, but it’s like a little workstation. I keep my drink and snacks there, right within reach, and sometimes also notes, books, notebooks, outlines, etc. I’m always reaching over there for something and would be lost without it.
Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.
For me it’s just the tea and the couch arrangement. I put one pillow behind my head to stave off a sore neck, put another under my laptop to bring it closer to eye level, prop my feet up to the perfect elevation, and cover my legs with a blanket if it’s chilly. My little nest has to be just right – it’s kind of pathetic, I suppose. I’m like a little old lady watching her shows, with my warm tea and blanket thrown over my legs. But, hey, it works. My brain is very easily distracted and looks for any excuse to get off-task, so getting that environment just right matters. I’m a cozy worker.
What do you listen to while you work?
It depends. Sometimes I need silence, sometimes I need just the right mood music. I’ve got several different playlists for different vibes . . . a pensive, gloomy list, a fast-paced tension list, etc. Sometimes the right music absolutely helps me get into a scene and capture the right kind of energy and mood. It has to be instrumental, though. . . music with words will definitely not work for me. So it’s mostly classical or kind of dark, acoustic instrumental Americana. For the last book I wrote I found one song that completely embodied the tone, mood, and identity of the story I was writing; it was “Ashokan Farewell” by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, and many a night I sat there writing with that song on repeat.
What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
Tea! Green tea mostly, black tea occasionally in the morning, herbal tea later at night. I use it as a motivator, too . . . as I finish off one cup of tea I’ll set a word count mark, and I don’t get to make another cup of tea until I hit it. I don’t snack too much, but if I do it’s probably gonna be dark chocolate.
What keeps you focused while you’re working?
I totally struggle with focus, so it’s really just a matter of self-discipline. I’ve got to stay on myself and be mindful of when I’m just sitting there, daydreaming. Keeping an eye on measurable productivity really helps, too (“how many words have I written so far this hour?”). This is one reason I cannot–really, truly cannot–write in coffee shops. Way too many distractions. If I spend an hour in a coffee shop I’ll be lucky to get five minutes of writing in.
Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?
Computer. I like the romantic image of scratching away at a paper notepad with a trusty pen, but rough draft writing for me has to be a computer. The story comes in quick, urgent bursts, and when I get on a tear there’s no way I could keep up with a pen. Editing and revising I always do on a hardcopy, though, with a pen. I’ve got to be able to physically circle, cross out, underline.
How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?
A bit of both! When I start writing a book I tend to know most of the first third of the story, and most of the last third. There are holes here and there, and the entire middle is kind of a mystery, but as I write through that first third it starts to kind of gel and develop some gravity and momentum and then it fills in as I go. There are surprises every time, though. As much as I’d like to and as hard as I try, I just really struggle to do much pre-outlining. I just stare at the paper and my brain says, “How the hell should I know what happens next? I haven’t started writing the story yet!” I wish I could outline, because I think it’s better practice; I think I’d have to do less revising if I could do more planning ahead on the rough draft.
If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
Someone incredibly dull and quiet. Not my wife or my friends, because I’d always want to talk to them. As hard as I would find it to work with someone else in the room, though, there’s no doubt that break time would be fun if I was sharing my space with another writer. It would be awesome to commiserate, bounce ideas off each other, feed off each other’s energy. Writing is such a solitary pursuit, it’d be nice to have someone there in the trenches with you.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?
It’s the simplest, the most often repeated, the most basic, and the most important: write. That’s it. You’ve got to get your butt in that chair (or ratty old couch) and write. Write, write, write. Then revise, revise, revise (I learned much more about writing from revising my first book than I did from writing it). You should read tons, yes; and you should elicit (and listen to) honest feedback, yes; I’m a big believer in attending writing conferences, absolutely; but at the end of the day the single most important thing is to sit down and do it. Write.