A Creative Mind is Rarely Tidy

By Allison Brennan

I wrote my first ten books rotating between Starbucks, my favorite brewery, and my favorite bar & grill. The need to write outside the house was primarily because my kids were in the house, I had no private office, my desk was in the living room (read: the center of the Brennan Household) and I got little done at home. I can write with noise, no problem. I listen to loud rock music when I write, preferably with my iPod and earbuds. But I can’t write with interruptions. One? Sure. Three hundred an hour? Not so much.

So I took my laptop and hit the caffeine bar, or when Starbucks closed I went to the brewery or BJ’s restaurant. Like Alex, I love writing on planes. I tend to get a lot done, I have no idea why. Unless the person in front of me puts their seat all the way back . . . I don’t like that.

BTW, BJs has the BEST margarita in the world, the “Rita-tini”, which they’ve taken off the menu and replaced with some awful, sweet drink called the “platinum margarita.” But they still make rita-tini’s for me 🙂

But then we moved and I had my own office.


I considered just posting this picture because my office looks so clean! But . . . this was about two days after my bookshelves were built. The barren shelves are all packed with books now.

And here’s the other corner:

That chair is in front of the TV now, and the corner is filled with kids toys. And the books are doubled up. But it looked clean and organized for awhile!


And this used to be my view before they built houses below me:


I don’t have that view anymore (it was brown in this picture–taken in August of 2008–but in winter and spring it’s lovely.) Now I look at a house and their roof and driveway. Fortunately, they’re lower than me and I can still see the covered bridge. Not that I look out my window much.

 I also have a television in my office. (My office is really a pool house/guest house–but we don’t have a pool and there’s no bed in the guest house, so guests usually take one of my kids rooms . . . anyway, it’s nearly 800 square feet. It’s also where we play games, watch movies, and do art projects and homework. It’s not really all mine . . . )

The photo I took tonight of my television didn’t turn out, but this is the entertainment center right after it was built . . . it now has a bigger tv (that I got from my husband for my last birthday) and there are blankets and pillows all over the floor from when the kids last watched a movie . . . 



I am not a neat person. In fact, I’m rather a slob. I’ve always been this way–ask my mom (she might even visit the blog now that I finally set up the computer I gave her for Christmas . . . ) and I’m 40. I’m not going to change. I had some idiotic grandiose idea that I was going to clean up the mess surrounding my desk before I posted this blog . . . but what was I thinking? So my office looks more like this now:

The table that I strategically hid with my chair are all the things (papers, books, etc) I need to find a place for. There are stacks of papers and books and magazines under the table and behind the table. Someday I’ll organize . . .

And my desk area?

(And no, it’s NOT the same Starbuck’s cup from two years ago . . . )

The stack of paper on top of the printer to the left are my finished page proofs for LOVE ME TO DEATH. They’re going out via FedEx Monday morning. The papers sticking up on the right are bills. On the left are more bills, school papers, art projects the kids made me, and assorted stuff.

My process is: sit down and write (on my iMac or MacBook Pro when away, and sometimes on my iPad with wireless keyboard.) I don’t have sticky notes. I don’t have white boards. I don’t have notebooks or scraps of paper or outlines or excel spreadsheets. In the copyedit stage I’ll often make little notes on stickies and put them on the pages of things I want to check on later for consistency, but that’s about it. Everything is in my head, which is scary, becausIe sometimes I forget things. But I’ve tried white board and notebooks and Scrivener and even an excel spreadsheet once. It doesn’t last more than a chapter. The thought of outlining an entire book gives me heart palpitations.

I start with a premise, usually a basic “what if” idea and at least one character I sort of know. I picture the opening scene and start writing. My beginnings–the first 125-150 pages, the first act, whatever you want to call it–take me longer to write than the last 300 pages. Sad, but true. The last book I wrote took me three months to write (and rewrite and rewrite) the first 150 pages +/- . . . and three weeks to write the first draft of the last 400 pages. First draft, I need to repeat, because obviously it was very rough.

My process is insane, but I’ve tried writing other ways and it does not work for me. I write. Get stuck. Go back to the beginning. Rewrite. Repeat two or three or eight times until something clicks and I know I have “it” (the first act) and then the rest of the book flows much smoother. Then when I’m done, I go back and edit, but it’s usually a clean up edit, fixing typos (there are a lot when I’m writing fast) and big inconsistencies. Then I send that to my editor KNOWING I’ll be doing revisions. I need a fresh set of eyes to read it because by this time I’m sick of the book and can’t see the problems. Writing this first draft (I call it the first draft, but I have edited it) takes 2-4 months. Revisions take 2-4 weeks. And I’ll touch every page, even if my editor loves something, because in revisions not only am I fixing story problems/making the characters deeper/heightening suspense . . . I’m also tightening, making the sentences and words stronger, cutting repetition.

I don’t know how the book is going to end when I start. I DO know that my protagonists will live, and the bad guy will get what’s coming to him, but who the bad guy is or how the protagonists solve the crime or stop the disaster, I don’t know. It wouldn’t be any fun if I did!

My brain is like my desk. Messy, but I know where everything is. 🙂

My last five books I’ve written at home (mostly) but I still go Starbucks or BJs (the brewery has closed) when I am on deadline or when I’m stuck. I find the change of scenery helps my muse. Maybe it’s the feeling that people are watching and if I’m not typing they’ll think I’m a slacker :/ Or more likely there are fewer distractions.

Whatever it is, I’ll be at Starbucks Monday morning because I have a tight deadline and I need my muse to get it into gear.

34 thoughts on “A Creative Mind is Rarely Tidy

  1. Zoë Sharp


    I LOVE your office space – what fabulous bookcases! And 800sqft is bigger than my parents' house…

    Whatever your method, it certainly seems to work for you – after all, how many books a year do you write? I'm in awe.

    I had one question about the pic with the TV/entertainment centre in it. As it's where your kids what movies, is that extra door next to the TV like the ones in 'Monsters Inc'?

  2. Grace

    Thanks for the great post — love the office space, but most of all, loved how you shared your writing process with us. Your output of enjoyable, high quality books is phenomenal hence my curisoity and pleasure at having the opp to read about your method – certainly works for you!!

  3. Barbara_NY

    Synchronistic Side Note:

    In yesterday's post, second to last paragraph, Alex said "…how we get that door to that alternate universe to open up inside us …" Today, Allison provides a picture or the door, and Zoë spots it, as referenced in her comment above, "…that extra door next to the TV…"

    Just love the contemporal (coincidences of the temporal kind) connection between Rati writers. 🙂

  4. Jude Hardin

    My process is closer to yours than to Alex's, Allison. She thought I was joking about opening a blank file and typing Chapter One, but I wasn't. 🙂 I do admire her process, though, I think it's great, and I'm planning on incorporating some of her screenwriting tricks after the first draft of my WIP is finished.

    You space is marvelous. I need to find someone to do some of that custom shelving at my place. Really beautiful.

  5. toni mcgee causey

    Love the office and the shelving. Not sure I'd be sane with 5 kids in and out. 🙂 But obviously, this works really well for you!

    I am really enjoying seeing everyone's process and spaces! Amazing how many roads to Oz there are.

    [Don't forget, 'Rati — all of you are invited to join us by sending me a photo or two of your workspace. We've got some great ones, including a bookstore and a public office, from a couple of beds to an entire apartment, so don't think your space isn't right for this! We'd love to have you. Mail your photo and a brief (1 or 2 sentence) description of something about it or your process to toni [at] tonimcgeecausey [dot] com by Friday, the 17th, and I'll include them in the big (and I mean *big*–we have about 30) round-up of fabulous workspace photos.]

  6. judy wirzberger

    Thank you all for sharies your messes I mean messages. I'm beginning to feel normal. Next week I'm attending the Writer's Police Academy and am hiring someone to watch my cat and organize my closets and cupboards. Out with the crap. A place for everything and… Minimalists are marvelous. I do think I will go out and buy a door, though.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    AB, that's such a beautiful office. And I understand completely why you don't write in it. I've had two offices at a time in every house I've ever lived in and almost never worked in them at all. It's maddening, but what are you going to do?

    Z and Barbara, that's hilarious about the door. I love it.

  8. JT Ellison

    Did you hear the moan of longing a few moments ago? That was me seeing those bookcases. So, so yummy. And wow is it helpful to hear the process – I'm so similar – that first section takes forever and get rewritten a million times, and the last half goes in a few weeks. Phew. I thought I was doing it wrong.

  9. Debbie

    Welcome to forty! Habits are difficult to change, the body, it adapts in all the wrong ways, thank you very much! (Chocolate goes straight to the hips and exercise and all those established good habits…bye bye, just like the arms.

    I can relate to your writing style. First book, blank document and only a vivid dream with characters demanding to be let out. They supplied the ending and I didn't even know I was there until they said, 'that's it…go read it.' Second book, had a beginning and end, used a little ploting for the middle (thanks Alex). Third, got the beginning and end and no sweet clue about the middle, the conflict, genre expectations…. Yeah, I'm screwed on this one. Back burner, a book involving in-the-field research that I'm terrified to do so I can't even cheat on book three-despite knowing the protag and conflict (not to mention chpt. one came out in first person).

    And oh, I can so relate to the 300 interruptions but schools back in, so we've got till June!

  10. Allison Brennan

    LOL Zoe that would be a great decorating idea about MONSTERS (I love that movie. But I'm a HUGE Pixar fan, for the most part.) The door was actually from the closet that was originally in the office, but I had the guy who built the cabinets take out the closet and make a storage cabinet.

  11. Allison Brennan

    Thanks Grace! My process is very unusual, I think. I often send my editor the first 100-150 pages if I think something is wrong but don't know what it is. I sent her the first 150 on LMTD and she identified a problem (I started in the wrong place, hence I deleted the first 70 pages . . . ) and while I thought KMKM was working well, I sent her the first 150 pages anyway and she concurred (whew!) But that's the benefit of working with the same editor for 16 books. I wouldn't do that with someone new.

    Barbara, Alex always seems to have a spy in my mind, I don't know what that is, sometimes I think it's totally cool, other times I think it's truly creepy (cue Twilight Zone music . . .)

    Rob, I'll admit I was surprised when I realized that LMTD is book number 15 and it's being released on the fifth anniversary of my debut novel, THE PREY.

    Jude, I love my shelves but wish I'd had more shelves and less cabinets on the bottom, because I'm running out of space. When I get the shelves organized (ha!) I'll probably have two empty shelves. Those will be filled quickly. I've learned so much about my fellow bloggers this week, but I'll admit the only one process thing I've considered incorporating is Brett's giant post-its. Don't know why, but those felt right to me. I think I'm going to get the table top kind.

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    So sorry about that earthquake you experienced in your office…what, that's not…? Oh…well, pardon me, then. But that's exactly how my office would look if I in fact had an office. The good thing about writing in cafes is that someone comes in and throws everything away when you leave.
    I'm glad you have your own space. It's great that you wrote ten books outside of the home…just shows your determination to succeed, to find time to do what you had to do as a writer.
    I'm taking such a different approach than you on my next novel. I'm really planning every scene, every action, from page one to the end. I actually enjoy that – it really reduces the amount of times I have to rewrite, because I do all that rewriting in the outline and treatment phases. I like to research, research, research, then plan, plan, plan…holding myself back, keeping myself from starting the fun part, the actual writing, until I just can't stand it anymore, and then I let myself loose. I just tear into the piece, knowing that the story will work and I can focus on writing dialogue and searching for creative ways to write a sentence.

  13. Allison Brennan

    Judy, I'm so jealous! I'd love to go to that writer's academy. But . . . you can really hire someone to do that??? To organize your office and cabinets and closets???? Oh, wow. That is so cool.

  14. Allison Brennan

    Yeah, Alex, I always write faster and stronger when I'm not in my office. I'm getting better–I've written about 70% of the last five books in my office. But I still go out when I need to focus completely.

    JT, is there's a right way to write? I don't think so . . . I can wish until the cows come home for something easier, but we have to go with the way our mind works. Obviously, our minds are messy. 🙂

    Debbie, those interruptions can kill me sometimes. My kids have learned when they can interrupt and I'm only mildly irritated, and when I'm going to ground them for eternity. 😉

  15. Perry Wilson

    Hi, I've loved seeing all the work spaces people have. I write at my desk, or on the couch with the the TV on – not so much watching the TV but having it as company I don't have to pay attention to.
    I find I need to have everything at my finger tips, but don't like writing where it's messy. Mess = distractions for me.
    Like most writers, I do write in coffee shops – the buzz seems to add a level of creativity to my work. The only problem is that I usually end up having to go to the facilities which means I have to shut down everything. So, coffee shops = about 2 hours of good writing time.

    Thanks again for sharing your space.

  16. Allison Brennan

    KC my mom has always been a huge reader and always had bookshelves, I can't imagine NOT having them.

    Hi Stephen! Yep, earthquake. Seriously. We live in California, right? 🙂 . . . I've known plotters. People who painstakingly outline and plan their novel, and the writing then goes smooth — Suzanne Brockmann is one. Her outlines are detailed and over 100 pages! She said it took her longer to write the outline than to write the book, and she never has to do major revisions or rewrites. But . . . that works for her. I've written pretty detailed (for me) synopses and the story NEVER turns out the same way. Writing is discovery for me. So my first draft is my discovery draft. We can CALL it a 80,000 word outline (because my final books end up between 110-120K so I AM fleshing out) but it's truly a completely story. I've always felt that writers need to find what feels right to them. I know, that sounds very touchy-feely–but it's not logical. I just know when something's wrong, even if I can't figure out what, and I know when it's working even if I can't articulate why it's working. Writing organically works for me because it feels comfortable. I'm thrilled you enjoy the planning process so much! However, I think we both LOVE the research part of writing the same 🙂

  17. Terry Odell

    Since we recently moved and did a lot of upgrading, I got to create an office that's just for me. We didn't do any wall moving or mess with existing structure–it used to be a bedroom–but I did have the closet system people come in and build in some nice shelving and file cabinets. Then I bought a real desk, and more file cabinets, and more bookshelves. And a comfy reading chair. It looked neat for a while!

    There's not really any nearby 'out of the house' place to write since we're in a very rural area, but I don't have any kids left at home to disturb me, either.

    I still grab the laptop and sit in another room to write from time to time, though. It seems to shift the neural pathways. I got 2000+ words written yesterday with the US Open playing in the background.

    <a href="http://terryodell.blogspot.com">Terry's Place</a>
    <a href="http://www.terryodell.com">Romance with a Twist–of Mystery</a>

  18. Allison Brennan

    Hi Pari! Maybe you're right–we both live in the west. 🙂 I love to write, therefore I write. I hate to clean, therefore I don't. 😉

    Perry, perhaps I'm too trusting . . . I never shut down. Just post a copy to my me.com account in case anyone steals my laptop, and grab my purse . . . I've spent up to 8 hours at Starbucks. Usually I spend 4-6 hours.

    I forgot to mention in my writing process that I write best in four hour chunks. I write 4-5 hours in the morning/afternoon (ideally, my BEST writing time is 1-5 pm but that doesn't always work out.) And then I write 4 hours at night (about 9-1 am) After 5 hours my brain shuts down, but I usually can get 8-10 hours a day–when I'm not procrastinating, which is a huge problem for me when I'm on the first half of the book.

  19. Dudley Forster

    I too am suffering from shelf envy. I had 33’ of floor to ceiling bookcases and overflow. When circumstances forced a rearrangement of the house three quarters of my darlings went into storage. And look at all that space for dry erase boards and giant post it notes. <g> Forty, I wish I was still forty . As for a professional organizer, I saw a show, I think it was on TLC, about a woman that was very OCD, we're talking P-Touch OCD. Her friends wanted her to organize their homes and a business was born. The door reminds me of a story. A guy asks, "Where does that door go?" His friend says, "Nowhere, I think it stays right where it is."

    Here’s my summary of how to write a novel from the posts so far. You sit in a chair, writing alone without noise while in a café listening to music and lying down on a sofa. After having meticulously outlined the book using note cards and post its you start writing with only a “what if” idea, a general picture of a character, and no idea how the book will end. Yep, very helpful this.

  20. Allison Brennan

    Yeah you on the work count Terry! I think having a space–whether in the house or outside the home–is important to writers. Sometimes it's not the space, but the environment, like the music you listen to or the view or the temperature or something physical and tactile. Sometimes it's you can only write on a specific computer or handwrite your book, or sometimes it's the time of day. We all need to find our own muse-inspiring method.

  21. Debbie

    Judy, not to be daft or anything but…how the hell do you find things when they're organized??? 😀 Seriously though, does the organizer (person who organizes) explain where it (the stuff) all went? Are they magic? …I've always wanted to meet someone magic!

  22. Cornelia Read

    "Everything is in my head, which is scary, becausIe sometimes I forget things. …The thought of outlining an entire book gives me heart palpitations."

    Amen, sister!

    This is a wonderful post, and I love your office. And now I want a Rita-tini!

  23. Allison Brennan

    Debbie, I always wanted to be Samantha from Bewitched–wiggle my nose and have the house cleaned!

    Cornelia, if you're ever in Sacramento . . . let me know! Rita-tini on me!

  24. Catherine

    The one consistent message I heard at a writer's festival earlier this month was, whatever works. This past week I've had illustrations to that. A picture really does add another layer to my understanding of no rules.

    I too have shelf envy. Wow Allison they look great. I wonder though was it a case of build it and they will come ?

    I've had times where I'm sure books and papers are breeding in corners. Sometimes when I've been sleep deprived because of some project that is due I find the clutter nest comforting.

    Lately I've been more concerned that I'll forget a writing solution if I don't get it down straight away. I've been trying to live the lifestyle of a tidy person the last few months to see if my life runs a bit smoother. So far so good. I can find my notebooks and then transcribe them to a doc, then memory stick. I'm about to go hard copy with an expanding folder too. I'm telling myself ( and I sort of believe it at this point) that the variety of work environments, and notebooks, diagrams and laptop is shaking things loose.

    If all else fails Allison does this recipe look like your Rita-tini?

    1 1/4 oz Absolut® vodka
    1/4 oz Cointreau® orange liqueur
    1/4 oz Grand Marnier® orange liqueur
    1 splash Rose's® lime juice
    1 splash sweet and sour mix

  25. Chris

    "The one consistent message I heard at a writer's festival earlier this month was, whatever works."

    Too funny that one Catherine, as I too just read last week on someone's blog "you need to find two things to be successful as a writer, your voice and your process! so whatever works, is where I'm headed .

    you made my day! — I am a pantser who was desperately trying to be a plotter, and I could not write that way — every time I tried to force an outline, my plot points would say things like "something happens" and my work would come to a grinding halt from forcing myself.

    anyway, after resigning myself to the only method that works for me, I found out that Lisa Scottline and Lee Child are pantsers also…and now you as well.

    I'm in great company and feeling so much better as clearly, it be a very successful method. (wow, 15 books!)

    I'm absolutely loving seeing everyone's spaces and processes. It's both amazing and enlightening — thank you all for this!


    PS I too sorta liked those giant post-its 🙂

  26. Allison Brennan

    Catherine, the rita-tini is made with tequila. I don't drink vodka — I like wine and margaritas, and sometimes rum and diet coke, and sometimes a good micro-brew beer, or Guinness if it's on tap.

    I think the rita-tini is made with silver patron tequila . . . lime . . . cointreau (not sure on that) and something else–maybe a splash of their mix. It's shaken with ice, then strained into a salt-rimmed martini glass.

    Chris, glad I made your day! And I agree with whoever you listened to. No one can tell you what your process is, and sometimes it takes time and trying new things to figure out what works best for you.

  27. Catherine

    Thanks for clarifying Allison. When I saw that recipe that was the first thing that looked a bit wha to me, the lack of tequila.

    I do like that you have a working environment with drinks made specially for you.

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