Starbucks and tears: How Andrew Peterson finishes a book

by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 7/11/14, 02:38 pm

Andrew Peterson was a struggling songwriter with a passion for Rich Mullins music when the Christian band Caedmon’s Call asked him to open for their shows in the late 1990s. That providential turn of events, plus a critically acclaimed first album called Carried Along, put Peterson on the musical map. But music is not all he does. His four-volume young adult fantasy series, the Wingfeather Saga, has won him fans outside the musical world. The fourth and final volume of the Wingfeather books is now out. I sat down with Peterson near his home in Nashville at a Starbucks coffee shop, a place he recommended partly because that’s where he wrote much of the series.

Andrew, you’ve got a new book out. It’s the fourth book in your fantasy series.  Tell me about the series and specifically about this fourth book. I started writing the books after I read the Narnia books to my kids when they were really young. It reminded me how much I loved good stories and how much I wanted to write when I was a kid. I remember having a meeting with my wife and saying, “Are you cool with me not watching Lost with you tonight and going and instead trying to write this book that I've been talking about?” She gave me the thumbs-up. That was a good, solid decade ago. It’s nice to be finally finishing it up.

A lot of folks have an apprenticeship in the fiction writing, maybe short stories, maybe a couple of failed novels in a desk drawer somewhere. Is that your process or not? I think in some ways my apprenticeship was songwriting. No, I was not trained. I went to Bible college so I ended up with a Bible Degree. I had no creative writing practice, other than the Batman novel I tried to write in ninth grade. When I first started writing these books, the first thing that happened was I drew a map. I was surprised as I began, not only with the map, but with sketches for the monsters and the stuff that I was going to be including in the book. I was surprised that my sketches were better than they were when I was in high school, back when I was the art kid at school. I planned to go to art college and planned to be an illustrator before music took over.

You were surprised because, as a guitar player whenever you stop for 20 years your guitar playing normally gets worse, right? Not better? Exactly. To my shock, I was a better illustrator. It really bothered me. I couldn't figure out why. I realized that there are theories that abound about how being a student of different disciplines improves all of them. It was the first time I began to realize that one of the things that I have now that I didn’t have when I young is patience, or at least more than I had when I was in high school. You learn to see better. You learn to think about revision. … The cool thing was that working really hard at a completely different discipline than songwriting, I think, in some ways prepared me not to be a good writer, but at least for the work that it was going to take to finish the book.

Were you surprised how much work it took to write a book? I think that’s the thing. Anybody can write a book. It’s free. You just need a pencil and some paper. The trick is you’ve got to be disciplined enough to sit down and stick. With songwriting, it’s like going fishing. You get your guitar out, which is the equivalent of going and sitting by the pond. You get your pencil and your notebook out, and that’s the equivalent of tossing a line into the water. You do a lot of waiting and a lot of teasing the line and trying to find it. With book writing, it’s a 9 to 5 job. It’s sitting down in the chair, trying to establish a routine where you sit down and you go, “I’m going to write 2,000 words today, and 2,000 words tomorrow, and 2,000 words the next day.” If you break it up like that, it's like raking your yard. If you think of raking the whole yard, you'll never do it. If you rake piles, you're okay. I think, for me, it was about carving out the time to have a routine.

What did your routine look like? For me, a lot of times, it was coming here to this Starbucks. I would sit right over there in the corner in that chair and get my e-mail out of the way, get my Facebook stuff out of the way. Then I have this app called Self Control. It’s this free app that you tell what websites you don’t want to visit for the next however long. For me, it was Facebook, Twitter, my website, the Rabbit Room website. It was the weather website. When you’re trying to write a book, suddenly you’re overcome with the need to know exactly how hot it is outside. All of these distractions start messing with you. A computer is just a minefield for that stuff. I heard somebody say one time that writing a book with internet access is like a carpenter building a house with a TV on the back of his hammer. It’s just impossible. You’ve got to find some way to shut that stuff down. That was the routine for me. It was just like in little pockets of time in between touring and music, I would go, “This week is a writing week,” and I’d sink into it.  

Did you outline, or did you just let it flow? I let it flow for the most part. I think it helps to start with an outline, just enough to get you into it. Then you’ve got to let your hands off the wheel and let the story grow into what it wants to grow into. For me, the fact that I didn’t have an outline, that I didn’t exactly know how the story was going to end, made the process way more enjoyable. I was as surprised as anybody by certain things that happened. Certain serendipitous moments that feel like they were a part of the structure of the story from Book One were complete surprises to me. There were times when the story seemed to suggest itself to me, and I wouldn’t exactly know why. Then, all of a sudden, the light bulb would go on, and I would realize why this had to do with two books ago.I think that’s the best way to write. Songwriting too. It’s the same way. If you have an agenda, it’s like you’re trying to lord your agenda over this really fragile thing, and it’s going to break. You have to allow the thing to grow into what it wants to grow into.

I get all of that, but at what point did you know how the story was going to end? About two days before I wrote the last scene. Really. I was down to the wire. I had written everything but the last scene, which is maybe the last 20 pages of the book. I just stopped because I really didn’t know what was supposed to happen. I spent about the next month maybe re-editing, revising the third draft of the first half of the book just so that I could really pay attention to anything traumatic that was happening so that I would know the best way to land the story. Even then, when I sat down, I came to Starbucks, and I said, “I’m about to write the end of this 10-year project, and I don’t know what’s going to happen.” When I finally ended it, it felt right to me, at least. I cried. I was really tired. To me it was just a continuous exercise of discovery.

Listen to Warren Cole Smith’s full interview with Andrew Peterson, including the story of how Peterson got to record a Rich Mullins song, on Listening In:

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is vice president of mission advancement for The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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