Students, if you are quoting any of the information below for a book report, make sure you cite properly. The latest version of the MLA style guide no longer requires citations to specify the full web address of website sources, however, your teacher may still want you to do this.

Here is how I would cite a quote from this page:

Cardona, James. "How I Write."


Also be sure to check out my MY STORY page, BIO page and my INTERVIEWS page for more information about me and the stories behind some of my books. And, as always, feel free to contact me with any questions you have. I love to connect with the readers of my books!


It is common to ask how a writer writes as if a writer whose work you admire has some secret formula, an elixir for writer's block, or a balm for inspiration. The question is not only asked by aspiring writers but also the mildly curious. The question is so popular that it appears as one of the default five questions every author is asked on the "Ask The Author" section. In my early writing, it was a question I often asked other writers too. Do you write in silence or with music playing? Do you play it loud? What kind? Do you write inside your home or outdoors? Distractions bother you? How do you deal with writer's block? Do you outline before you write? Do you write from front to back, back to front or individual chapters randomly?

The way people write, I think, is unique to each individaul because the way one person writes is dependent upon the way he or she thinks and, to an extent, who he or she is.

What I have found, through years of experimentation, is a method that works best for me because I have figured out how my brain works and what sort of external environment allows the words to flow most easily. I have found what works well for me. This is something that everyone needs to do individually because all of our brains work differently. To know how to write well and prolifically is to know thyself. So, when a person asks how do you write? in a way, what they are really asking is who are you?

So how do I write? I am a preparation and organization freak. Whether writing, working on a car, building robots, planting a garden, or whatever, I need to feel organized before I begin. When I change the oil on the car, I first lay out all my tools in a straight line. Maybe it's a little OCD, but it helps me to concentrate and that's what works for me. I don't fight it. I work with it, knowing that doing these little preparation steps will actually make my mind more settled and the job go faster.

When I write, I obsessively diagram the various plot-line of the book months before the first word is written. I write character summaries, plot summaries, and synopses from different character's point of views. If the book is fantasy, I describe the various languages or tongues and draw up maps of the landscape. I endlessly research geographic areas, technologies, sciences, and occupations that I am not intimately familiar with. Before the actual writing, I lay out my tools.

I like to get to know my characters as people before I write about them. Since many of my characters are amalgamations of people I know, I tend to call friends, family, and coworkers, ask them oddball questions then promptly hang up. The other day I quizzed my Greek friend about her childhood in a mountainous seaside village. She told me about running barefoot through the cobblestone streets to the white-sand beach, how her family would sit in the dark because they didn't want to spend money on electricity and about taking care of her Yaya who was covered head to toe in black, only her frail and lined face exposed. I wrote it all down.

My mother in law, who is normally very private and reserved, opened up to me once about how she met her husband; the courtship ritual in the 1940's Jordan; how he wooed her, showing up in a finely tailored suit and—can you image—a car. No one had cars back then. I wrote it all down.

My father in law told me about the time he chased an insulting customer down the road with a spatula. He told me about the time one of the local gang leader attempted to intimidate him into a free sandwich—he threw him out. But then A few days later, the gang leader returned, apologetic, saying that the old man earned respect. I wrote it down. My father in law told me about the first moments of his heart attack, his heart barely beating, him driving home, barely alive, barely conscious, the landscape around him fading gray. That too, I wrote down.

When I finally start to write the book that I have exhaustively plotted, planned, and researched, I use a multi-pass method, each pass more finely tuning the previous draft. For the first draft I allow myself to write whatever comes out on the paper or screen, sort of like constrained free-writing. I follow the script, but allow my characters to say or do whatever they like. They're their own people after all.

Once that draft is written, I trim and mold from there. A lot is removed, a little is added. Some writers have commented that it is the revision process, the process of re-visioning, that separates the amateur or beginning writers from the great ones. I'm not sure what exactly makes a writer great, but revision is a huge part of the way I write.

In another draft I add sense detail. In another, I tweak out passive construction. Each pass has a different focus. I average at least sixteen drafts before I send the manuscript to my editor and then there are four or five more drafts after that. Sometimes more. It may sounds tedious, but the rewriting is actually my favorite part of the entire process. It's where I take something that is mediocre or, ahem, much worse, and turn it into something that is, at least to my eyes, beautiful.

I wrote my first three books using an audio recorder, typically reciting my thoughts on my work commute, then typing them whenever the chance would present itself. I used MS Word as my processor. I've gotten away from both of these methods. MS Word is a common, everyman tool but for me it wasn't well suited for long documents.

I've found reciting while I drive can be too distracting and I needed to focus either on driving or on writing, but not both. Additionally, that flow-of-consciousness style tends to lead to wordiness and compounds the editing process. For me, anyway, speaking the story and then trimming the first draft is more time consuming than typing it out.

I prefer to write alone, in a quiet place, surrounded by nature. In the summer, I take my laptop out to my wooded backyard. Since, I am not really moving about much, within a few minutes I am usually surrounded by birds, rabbits and squirrels. On rare occassions, the deer and families of turkey appear. Okay, that sounds like I'm Snow White there, which is not the case. Still, we have a lot of nature in Southern New Jersey, more than one would suspect since it is the most densely populated state in the country. Nature somehow makes me at ease, makes the words flow.

Of course, ideas often pop into my head when I'm away from a computer, so I tend to have scraps of papers covered in notes stuffed into my pockets. A writer needs to put things down whenever the inspiration strikes, otherwise it will disappear into the aether.

My fourth book, Santa Claus vs. The Aliens, was written using Mac Pages, which has really beautiful output to PDF, but makes terrible looking digital books, in my opinion. Since a large portion of my audience uses e-readers, I switched to Sigil for my fifth book. It's free, open source and, to be honest, a little buggy, but I quite liked it. Using it, I wrote in html and css directly and it gives the writer a more powerful control over exactly what the content will look like on an e-reader such as a kindle.

However, the limitations with any of the above three, MS Word, Mac Pages or Sigil, is that they are simply a tool for typing and formatting content. All the organizational material needs to be maintained elsewhere. As an engineer, I tend towards spreadsheets so I used Open Office Calc extensively to map my plot lines, character motivations and themes.

For the last five or so books, I've switched to Scrivener, and it has changed my writing tremendously. As you can see in the screen shot, it allows for color coding of chapters, outlining and index carding. All of my books from Gabriella and the Curse of the Black Spot on were written in Scrivener. I am fairly shocked at how much faster I'm writing using it since everything is all in one place from the outlines, notes, plot summaries, character summaries and even pictures. Once the book is written, I compile the file and export it to epub and edit the HTML and CSS by hand using Sigil.