Creative Living 6 — Laura Joh Rowland

February 7th, 2009

Rowland has a painter’s eye for the minutiae of court life, as well as a politician’s ear for intrigue.” That’s the New York Times talking about Laura Joh, Rowland, the author of the absolutely wonderful Sano Ichirō series (twelve books so far, most recently The Fire Kimono) and – in a complete departure from Sano’s seventeenth-century Japan – a dazzling Victorian mystery built around one of the most intriguing novelists of the period, The Secret of Charlotte Bronte. Laura Joh Rowland is a USA Today best-seller, and deserves to be. By the way, if there’s a series in the world that should be read in order, it’s the Sano Ichirō books. I picked up a couple at random and realized I was going about it wrong, so I bought all of them, backed up, and started over. Sano’s wife, Lady Reiko, is worth the price of admission all by herself. Rowland was kind enough to find time to write this in the middle of moving from New Orleans to New York.

During my career as a writer, I’ve become well acquainted with my creative spirit. It’s a renegade, happiest when it feels like it’s getting away with something. Many of my most productive, enjoyable writing sessions have happened at times when I should have been working on something else, such as my income taxes. Fine, you might say, but how do you get your taxes done? Answer: I work on them when I’m supposed to be fixing up the house. Q: When do you fix up the house? A: When I ought to be out promoting my new book. I constantly borrow time from one project to give to another. It’s like a Ponzi scheme. Does it ever catch up with me? It hasn’t yet. Usually, by the time what goes around comes around and I need to steal time from writing in order to finish another task, the book is finished.

How do I spot winning ideas? I listen to my body. If I get an idea and my heart beats faster and I feel like a dog wagging its tail, then the idea is a winner.

How do I know when my book is finished? I watch what my body does. When my hands stop deleting, rearranging, and rewriting huge chunks of my manuscript and start tinkering with the small stuff, such as minor word choices, punctuation, and formatting, then the book is finished.

How do I know if a project is beyond rescue? I pay attention to what my body feels. If my heart sinks and an abyss opens up in my stomach, the project is a goner. The body is wise. It knows things even when the mind doesn’t.

11 Responses to “Creative Living 6 — Laura Joh Rowland”

  1. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Ooooh! Another juicy morsel! Thank you!!!

    This piece really hit home. I love the feeling of being locked in and the work is flowing beautifully, and all of a sudden….my inner ear is buzzing with the sound of what I’m about to type. I know that if I stop to enjoy that buzz, it just may fizzle out and I know I’ve got to keep typing, just keep up, and not choke the flow by thinking and analyzing.

    Sometimes, I just close my eyes and keep typing, placing an imaginary bookmark at the point in the story and making an internal promise to read it and enjoy it later while I just keep skimming along with the flow and another tingle as another gem glints on the edge and ….

    Yeah…what she said. :*D

  2. fairyhedgehog Says:

    That sounds like something I could do: the benign circle of procrastination. I like the “listening to the body” idea too.

  3. Sphinx Ink Says:

    Great advice: succinct, powerful, on-target. I was a little surprised to find that Laura’s process is so instinctive. Over the years I’ve known her, I’ve come to think of her as a cerebral and logic-structured writer, because she carefully plans everything in her books in advance of actually writing. It’s interesting to discover she relies so much on gut-feeling. It’s reassuring, too, because that’s what I rely on. When I finish writing something, and I “just don’t feel right,” I know I need to go back and rework it.

  4. Sylvia Says:

    “It’s like a Ponzi scheme.” Hahaha, this is classic. I also do this (I set myself writing deadlines because it’s the only way I’ll ever get my filing done!) but I’ve never thought about it in such an organised manner. This is wonderful.

    Recently I’ve been working on a project that leaves me frightened and breathless when I think about it too hard. I think that means I’m pushing limits.

  5. usman Says:

    Well, I am in a Ponzi scheme of my own. Traveling, working and reading blogs.

    Thomas a msg for you at Tim’s lost post.

  6. usman Says:

    sorry last ….not lost; though it might be for some.

  7. Thomas Says:

    Ms. Rowland,

    Writing as an organic process? Why not? In fact, I think you’re putting your finger on what distinguishes a great writer from an ok writer. That is, the ability to tell when something works and when it doesn’t. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I picture novel writing as two parallel processes taking place. One is the nuts and bolts part; the technique, the stamina, the discipline. The other is that fingertip feel that some people have, the built-in compass that always points toward good taste. The former process is worldly and easily put into words. The latter process is the organic one, the delicate photosynthesis that can be molded and honed but never fully mastered. I believe the latter process is what separates the great from the merely good.

    One of the month’s flavors is Malcolm Gladwell and his excellent Outliers book, in which he talks about the 10,000 hour rule. He argues, and convincingly so, that that is how long it takes anyone to become an expert at anything. I think it can be concluded that most of the writers we hold dear have put in much more time than that. But what about the vast number of scribblers out there who have put in equal amounts of time but never get any mass recognition? They are likely also experts at their craft. But, could it be that their bodies are not the “finely tuned” instruments that many of their more noteworthy colleagues possess?

    I recently stopped reading a novel after about 15 pages, as the author insisted on having a 6-year-old character use language I felt a need to look up in a dictionary. As I read I kept thinking, what 6-year-old talks like that? The book had to go because it just didn’t work. The writer’s body was evidently not that fine tuned instrument that could have made the story great. A text either speaks to me or it doesn’t. Simple as that. The comedy-part of it all is that this is how I, the unpublished, happy, amateur word-mangler, does it too. I write until something feels right. If it doesn’t, I hit delete! Simple as that.

    Oh my, look at me rambling on… I will be quiet now. Ms. Rowland, please note my appreciation for putting into words what I feel a great writer must have. I’m ready to start reading your books now.


  8. Thomas Says:


    I got your message and left one for you (and Tim).


  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hello, everybody, and forgive me for sitting it out for so long. I leave for Asia in a few days, and it’s sort of making me crazy.

    I love Laura’s piece. I didn’t know what Sphinxy says — that Rowland outlines everything in advance, although God knows her plots are complex and rich. I do recommend her heartily to everybody who (a) likes a good classic mystery, fairly played by the writer and with terrific twists and turns, and (b) wants to be immersed in a different world. Her Japan is so real I can smell it when I read her.

    She’s just moved to New York, which is a trauma for anyone, so I don’t know whether she’ll be dropping by, but I’m delighted she wrote the piece for us.

  10. Laura Joh Rowland Says:

    Thank you, everyone for your comments. Thank you, Tim, for inviting me to join a discussion on one of my favorite topics. This has been a stimulating and enjoyable experience.

    Laura Joh Rowland

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thank you, Laura. It was a wonderful piece. (And it’ll stay up for a long time.)

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