So, How The Hell Do You Write A Book? An Interview With Dave Oppegaard

Meet Dave Oppegaard!

5/16/2011

So, throughout my life, I’ve often been most fascinated by how people engage in a creative endeavor. When I was 18 and fully entrenched in my acoustic guitar and coffee shop phase, I remember congratulating locally famous folk musicians after shows, and then bombarding them with questions about how they got signed. Play out lots? Have a press kit? Manager? Songs copyrighted with the Library of Congress? How do I get to be where you are? Mostly, I was met with shrugs and indifferent wafts of cigarette smoke by guys with sloughing hemp beanies. “I don’t know. Just, you know, do it.”

After a few years in bands and various other creative endeavors, I’ve now seen that, indeed, the shrugging, smokey folkies were correct. You kind of do have to just get out there and do it. You practice, you play, you get your name out there, you get some fans, and things fall into place. But if I found the answer to the question one way, it cropped back up in my mind in a different form: Okay, so now I know how you get your finished product out there. But then, how exactly does the artist finish the product? As you can see, I’m a cart before the horse kind of guy.

In my undergraduate and graduate level writing classes, we did a lot of analysis on what makes a good or bad story, and we studied different forms, approaches, and mechanics of each story. But the actual specifics of how one writes are kind of glossed over. You get a lot of general suggestions, like brainstorming on a giant sheet of paper, graphing out character arcs and plot lines, keeping a writer’s diary (ugh). But mostly, we’re told, the creative endeavor is a highly subjective one. You’re supposed to do what works best for you, and stick to a few guidelines as far as the actual product is concerned. Then, once you learn all the rules, you break them. Then, a short while later, you’ve got an engaging final draft, and you can go ahead and submit your novel and make your first million.

But it’s that highly subjective writing process that’s always intrigued me. Maybe there are some habits that successful writers stick to: What time of day do they write? What’s their routine? Do they meticulously outline everything, or just fly by the seat of their pants? Do they jam major tunage whilst writing? Do they need absolute silence? Is the actual writing process all that different from writer to writer? Basically, how do other writers work? With those questions in mind, I decided to do a series of e-mail interviews with writers I know, hoping to nail down exactly what makes writers’ writings tick.

So, here goes. In my first installment, I cornered friend Dave Oppegaard, via e-mail. Dave’s a great writer, and one of the more prolific writers I’ve met. From his official bio:

David Oppegaard is the author of the Bram Stoker-nominated The Suicide Collectors and the recently released Wormwood, Nevada.  David’s work is a blend of science fiction, literary fiction, and dark fantasy.  He holds an M.F.A. in Writing from Hamline University and a B.A. in English from St. Olaf College.  His essay “The Amnesia of the Desert” was published in the spring 2010 edition of The Nevada Review.  David lives in St. Paul, MN.

Please visit his website at www.davidoppegaard.com

On Fri, Apr 15, 2011 at 7:55 AM, Jeff Smieding wrote:

Hey Dave!  I was working on a new project the other day, and experimenting with a new writing process.  And my mind started to wander, and I wondered as I wandered:

What the hell does everybody else do when they write?  Like, how do my writer friends plot a novel?  Do they plot chapters?  Do they do in depth character bios?  I started to think that maybe there are some helpful tricks of the trade out there that I don’t know yet.  And then, I thought, well, hey – maybe I could do some writing process interviews with my writerly friends, and post them up on my site, for fun.

Would you be interested in something like that?  We could even do it back and forth in this e-mail chain, ala a 21st century Bill Moyers/Joseph Campbell format, and then I could just slap the whole thing up online.  Might be kind of fun.  Let me know what you think.

P.S.  Sorry to hear about your car, and more importantly, the loss of your baseball glove and backpack.  I agree with Mark’s comments online.  You can steal a car, and you can steal a wallet.  But a broken-in baseball glove?  Somebody’s going to hell for that one.

Jeff

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Date: Fri, 15 Apr 2011 17:42:39 -0500
Subject: Re: Interested in a guest appearance on my site?
From: Dave
Oppegaard

I know, right?  But at least I was able to use the glove one last time at a real softball practice before it was stolen-first goddamn practice of the year, and my first in what, 13 years?  This whole time I’ve been playing some catch, though, keeping the skills intact.  Ha.

Sure, man, I’d love to be a part of your mad scientist scheme.  E-mail chain as in one question at a time?  That works for me, or however.

Happy Friday!  Time for a nap before I get drunk and watch Trailer Park Boys on netflix.

Dave

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On Sat, Apr 16, 2011 at 11:49 AM, Jeff Smieding wrote:

Sweet!  Well, let’s dive right in.  I don’t really have any specific timeframe in mind for this, so take your time.  You can expound as little or as much as you want.  I’ll try to set ’em up so you can knock ’em down:

You’ve written a number of books, and published two. Your first published work, Suicide Collectors, was an apocalyptic horror novel, set in the near future, that trekked across the remnants of the United States. Your second publication, Wormwood, Nevada, was a much quieter book, and focused exclusively on a contemporary middle-of-nowhere town, and its strange obsession with aliens. Rumor has it that one of your newer projects is a YA sword and sorcery book. So, quite a wide variety of subjects and styles.

Obviously, when it comes to turning an idea into a full length novel, you’re no newb. Which makes me curious: when you get that first little nugget of an idea, and you’ve mulled it over, and you’ve decided this is it, this is your next book – what’s the first thing you do when you start working on it? Do you have a standard approach, or do you switch it up from project to project?

Thanks, Dave!  I’ll owe you a couple drinks sometime.

Jeff

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Date: Sat, 16 Apr 2011 12:29:11 -0500
Subject: Re: Interested in a guest appearance on my site?
From: Dave Oppegaard

First off, I’m not one of those writers who has a ton of story ideas, in general.  I know this isn’t a standard confession for writers to make, writers who are always “bursting with stories to tell” and stuff like that, and especially writers who are working on their twelfth novel, as I am right now.  Each year, I have maybe seven or eight decent story ideas in general, and maybe three or four of them are worth looking closely at, and one or two of those ends up becoming a novel.  Back in high school and college, when I was writing  a lot more short stories, I seemed to have a lot more story ideas, but for whatever reason I’ve really settled into the mindset of coming up with one solid idea and mining it as much as I can in the novel format.  I’ve been playing hit-and-miss for about seventeen years now, and I suppose I’ve just gotten to know myself and my writing voice well enough to know what I’m going for in whatever novel is next.

When I finally am lucky enough to hit on an idea for a book, the first thing I do is turn the idea over in my mind and kick the tires. I ask myself if the idea is compelling enough to sustain an entire novel, will the characters provide enough meat to fill out the novel, and if this will be a world I’ll be happy playing in for a year or more of work. I start plotting the novel in my head, vaguely, and try to envision how the idea will spread out and form a larger web from this one first strand.  I spend several days mulling the idea over, letting it grow on its own, letting it grow when I’m not picking at it directly.  Finally, if the story idea seems to have novel legs and I’m still interested in investing in it, I pull out a small, journal type book and start writing out a general plot.  This part is usually fast and furious (I once plotted out an entire novel while my girlfriend was taking a shower) and sometimes involves a little booze to help grease the wheels and let me brainstorm a little more freely.

And then, if I can come up with a respectable plot, I create a new Word document on my computer and start writing.  This is a process I’ve refined over time and is usually the most exciting part of writing a book in general.  By the time the rough draft is finished, the book is usually in a much different place, at least plot wise, and I’m too exhausted from it to feel that same level of beginning excitement.

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On Mon, Apr 18, 2011 at 9:43 AM, Jeff Smieding wrote:

Excellent!  I’m glad you talked about plotting.  I used to believe in a more organic nature of the story, almost to the point of seeing myself as a medium of the Muse (almost). I’d munch on my granola raisin trail mix and light a patchouli stick, pop in some Dead Can Dance, and let the writing just, you know, flow, man.  Now, I’m a bit more clinical, and it’s a bit of personal validation to hear you talk about pre-writing.  It’s good to hear that plotting it out is helpful, if not essential, in writing a book.

But I’m curious – when you say that your preliminary outline doesn’t end up being all that close to the finished story – is that a product of revising, or is that an aspect of maybe a more organic approach during the actual writing phase itself?  Do you plot chapters before you write them?  Or do you just eyeball your original outline and go from there?  Do you light a patchouli stick before you start?

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Date: Tue, 19 Apr 2011 22:04:18 -0500
Subject: Re: Interested in a guest appearance on my site?
From: Dave Oppegaard
To: Jeff Smieding

I’m curious – when you say that your preliminary outline doesn’t end up being all that close to the finished story – is that a product of revising, or is that an aspect of maybe a more organic approach during the actual writing phase itself?

It’s hard to pin the wandering of my outlines on one culprit.  Plot wandering is naturally an organic aspect of writing any novel, even a rigidly designed one, though I’m not as surprised by my characters themselves as surprised in the situations they find themselves in.  Then, in the process of revising, I try to focus on bridging the gap between my characters and the plot itself—I constantly ask myself, “Would she really do that?” and “Could that actually happen?”  I hate it in movies when characters do stupid, unbelievable shit and you want to shout at the screen: “Don’t go in there, idiot!”  Of course, I still manage to go in there myself every once in a while.

Do you plot chapters before you write them?  Or do you just eyeball your original outline and go from there?

I eyeball the outline and take a vague mental map of the terrain to come.  Most of the time I know where I want the chapter to end, anyhow, though sometimes the end pops up abruptly, before I even expect it.

Do you light a patchouli stick before you start?

Sometimes I burn incense, a variety pack from that gift shop near the Coffee News Café on Grand Ave.  I almost always write with Pandora playing, or my old Denon five-disc changer.  I’ve hooked the disc changer up to my computer and it actually sounds pretty good running through Boston Acoustic speakers, speakers so old they came with my first computer in 1998, a Gateway. I like to stimulate the old senses, you know?

If all else fails, I lie down for ten minutes on my bed and wait for enough self-loathing to surge through me and send me to my desk.

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On Wed, Apr 20, 2011 at 3:00 PM, Jeff Smieding wrote:

I remember specifically getting that old “don’t go in there” feelings when reading Suicide Collectors, when Norman and company are investigating the twins’ house, and the area is ravaged by the feral children.  Funny, because I think that ended up being one of the more touching chapters near the end.

When you talk about your own process, it reminds me of a kind of eye opening thing I read on Amanda Hocking’s blog.  She says, more or less, that she’s churned out a first draft of a novel in as little as a week, writing for sometimes more than 9 hours at a stretch.  I’ve also read poets who claim to be happy writing a single line a day.  And on Twitter, I frequently see people thumbing their overalls and calling it a day after 1,500 words of toiling.  Myself, I’m at the mercy of family life, but I generally tend to shoot for an hour a day, whenever I can sneak it.

I know that earlier, you said that you plan on engrossing yourself in the world of your book for a year.  Is that about how long it takes you, generally, to complete a novel from start to finish?  Do you have a set writing schedule?

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Date: Wed, 20 Apr 2011 20:21:16 -0500
Subject: Re: Interested in a guest appearance on my site?
From: Dave Oppegaard
To: Jeff Smieding

It usually takes me about six months to get a novel in decent shape, more or less, but six more months of revising with feedback from my agent and a couple of friends before the novel is ready to go out into the world and get smacked around.  My writing schedule depends heavily on if I’m working a temp gig or not, but if I’m not working my routine is about 1,200-1,500 words a day.  If I am working, I’ll take anything I can get.  I like to write in the mid-to-late afternoon, after I’ve gone out into the city briefly to run errands and read at a coffee shop.  I like how the afternoon light filters into my apartment and stuff.  So far, I haven’t felt as drawn to raising a family as I have to writing novels.  Maybe that’ll change someday and my brood and I will travel in a van together, singing Woody Guthrie songs and looking for work in California.

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On Mon, Apr 25, 2011 at 10:13 PM, Jeff Smieding wrote:

Sorry for the delay – got caught up in the Easter weekend.

I wholeheartedly agree with families traveling in a van, singing songs, and road tripping to California.  Though (and this comes from a former folkie) I’d probably suggest the family sings KISS songs, or Star Wars theme songs instead.  It’ll get your kids less beat up in school.

Mid to late afternoon, eh?  Would you say that’s your most productive time?  I used to live with a guy who’d sit down to write as I was going to bed, and would emerge from the writing room (i.e. converted laundry closet) with big red glassy eyes as I was getting up for work.  I’ve always wondered at what exactly one can get done while writing the night shift.

So, one last barrage of questions: from what you’ve hinted at in a separate e-mail or two, your new project seems like quite a departure from what you’ve published in the past.  Is it a fantasy novel?  Was there anything specific you did to gear up for writing it?  Was it a conscious decision to try and tap into a specific YA market, or was it more of a thing that hit you, and you wanted to roll with it?

Thanks, Dave!

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Date: Thu, 28 Apr 2011 17:52:10 -0500
Subject: Re: Interested in a guest appearance on my site?
From: Dave Oppegaard
To: Jeff Smieding

I used to write late into the night, but after a while I discovered the wee hours are best used by reading or drinking or both!

I believe you’re asking about The Ragged Mountains.  Indeed, it is my first effort at a YA fantasy novel-a teenage girl is abducted from her rural village, taken to a strange and unknown mountain range, and the novel deals with the rescue attempt of her boyfriend, brother, and little sister, as well as its aftermath.  Ragged was part conscious marketing decision, part me getting the idea for a novel that read like a cross between Little House on the Prairie and The Odyssey, with some dark magic sprinkled in.  It’s currently making the long publishing rounds and I can only hope for the best at this point.  I enjoyed writing it very much but found the process of world building pretty exhausting.

Thanks for the questions, Jeff!