This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen is the author of Pastors’ Wives, a new novel from Penguin/Plume, and The Ordained, a 2013 CBS drama pilot. Previously, she was a staff writer for Time magazine.
I’m a mom, so I write between school drop-off and pick-up! By which I mean I check e-mail, scroll through Facebook and Twitter, snort-laugh at pictures of grumpy cats, take a yoga class, eat lunch—then, with forty-five minutes to go, write like mad with sweat streaming down my face.
When you are writing, do you use any famous people or people you know as inspiration?
Like many writers, I’m obsessed with other writers’ processes. How do they do it? How do they churn out 3,000 words a day? How do they wake up at 5 a.m. and go till the Colbert Report? Invariably, the answer is that they don’t have children. Or, if they do, they also have a wife. So when I find word of an author who manages to deliver lovely prose while parenting—Jennifer Egan (“A Visit From the Goon Squad”) and Maria Semple (“Where’d You Go Bernadette”), for example—I’m filled with gratitude and admiration.
What is your favourite Women’s Fiction book of all time and why?
A.S. Byatt’s “Possession.” It’s on the literary side, but at its heart it’s a gorgeous love story. Also: “The Piano Teacher” by Janice Y.K. Lee: also literary, but a heart-wrenching love story set in war-torn Hong Kong. I just re-read “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and laughed so hard I cried. I resisted reading Emily Giffin’s “Something Borrowed” for ages because it was so popular, but I nearly ripped the pages off flying through it. Same for Jennifer Weiner’s “Good in Bed.” Oh, my, that lady’s funny.
What is your writing process? Do you plan first or dive in? How many drafts do you do?
As a longtime journalist, I am an obsessive reporter and outliner. Before I write word one, I have to map out my plan in great detail. This is because making stuff up is really, really hard, and I find myself relying on my journalism tools so I don’t break down in despair.
The truth is I don’t know how many drafts I do, because I edit compulsively while I’m writing, and I only create new Word documents when I have a new set of notes from my agent or editor. But suffice it to say A LOT.
What was your journey to being a published author?
My first book, “Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death,” was about weird and wonderful funerals and burials. I traveled around the United States to see how cremated remains are made into diamonds; learn how bodies are buried au naturel in an environmentally friendly cemetery; and attend countless colorful funerals to which I was not necessarily invited. It came about because I wrote an article on the topic in Time magazine, where I was a staff writer for many years.
My second book is also my first novel, “Pastors’ Wives.” It’s set in an evangelical megachurch in the American South. A megachurch, for those who haven’t experienced one or seen one on TV, looks like a stadium hosting thousands of worshipers, and holds services that resemble rock concerts with smoke machines and Jumbotrons. I got to know megachurches and pastors’ wives for an article I wrote about them in Time. Growing up Catholic, I had never given pastors’ wives much thought before. But the women I met were complicated, poignant and fascinating. The question popped into my head: What’s it like when the man you married is married to God?
What do you think is the biggest myth about being a novelist?
That we do it because we love to write! I think a lot of people romanticize the writing process. These are the people who say, “Oh, I love to write. You’re so lucky you get to make a living doing it!” They are so right: I am lucky, and I thank my stars for that. But to me, it’s work. It’s labor. And I do mean labor, like giving birth. Remember that feeling? That mess? Yeah. Not to be gross, but that’s me, on my productive days.
The only reason to write a novel is because you have a story you can’t not tell. I mean a story that lives in your heart and takes over your brain so that its characters talk to you while you’re chopping up the onions and plot twists come to you as you’re sitting at the stop light and you come to only when the cars behind you start to honk. For no other reason should you embark upon this bloody, painful business.
What advice can you give to our readers who want to write a novel of their own?
Know your story before you start to write; research the snot out of it; and outline, outline, outline! Recently, at an author event, a young lady came up to me and told me she disagreed with this advice—that if she thought too much about plot or where she’d end up, she’d just constrain her inner voice. Everybody’s different; maybe that works for her. Just because she hasn’t yet published doesn’t mean she never will.
But it’s my belief that if you write, you should write to publish. And if you want to publish, you must first pitch. Even in this enlightened age of self-publishing, most new authors benefit from the help of an agent and/or publisher, and to acquire that, you must first hook them with an intriguing set-up, fascinating characters and a fabulous plot.
So my advice is to spend as much time, if not more, thinking about your story as writing it.
What are you working on at the moment?
I write TV pilots as well as novels. CBS recently produced my drama pilot, “The Ordained,” about an ex-priest who becomes a lawyer to protect his New York political family from a deadly plot. It starred Charlie Cox, Sam Neill, Hope Davis, Audra McDonald, and Jorge Garcia. It was very exciting (and very, very cold!) to film the pilot in New York City; our locations included the Waldorf Hotel, the State Supreme Court and outside Yankee Stadium. But alas, CBS didn’t include it on the fall line-up. So right now I’m gearing up for my next season of pilot pitching.
My third book and next novel is once again inspired by an article I wrote while I was a Tokyo correspondent for Time magazine. It’s called “Okinawa Nights,” and it’s a murder mystery set on a tropical island in the south of Japan, the site of a huge sprawl of American military bases ever since World War II. It’s about a young reporter (hmm, sounds familiar) working for a New York-based news magazine (hmm, also familiar) who investigates a rape and murder of a local Okinawa girl for which an American serviceman has been accused. I hope you’ll check it out!Thanks, Lisa!