Tag Archives: author interviews on creative process

daily rituals: the ways artists work by mason currey, review

dailyritualsDaily Rituals is a compendium of brief descriptions taken from interviews, biographers, and the artists themselves, of the nitty gritty of the daily life of an impressive array of creative people.  It’s based on Mason Currey’s blog of the same title, but goes further, and includes more folks.  From Mozart, Flaubert, and de Beauviore, to Matisse, Hemingway, and Freud, people long dead and people still living, painters, composers, and writers of all kinds, all revealed through their oh, so specific routines—routines that help/ed them get through the day, and more importantly, get through their work.

As a writer with a long time interest in creative process (see my author interview series on same), it will come as no surprise that I love this book.  I’ve been listening to the Audible version the last few days and have found it funny but also nourishing and delicious.

Firstly, it’s so wonderful how they are all so different! Early risers, late night owls.  Those who need uppers—lots of coffee in this book!—and those who need downers—lots of liquor, too.  Hedonists, vs those with monk-like lives.  Those surrounded by family and friends, vs. loners.  Work in bed, work in the perfect chair, work in cafes, work in the family room surrounded by chatter, work in isolation in a stone hut in the woods.

Human beings have created things in every conceivable configuration.

Listening to this book soundly dismisses the idea that there is a right way to be an artist.  It also routes the idea that “getting my shit together” is what will help with my writing.  A huge number of these people are neurotic messes, either falling apart, or holding it together through iron precision.  The great masterpieces of the world have not been created because their authors had their shit together!  On the contrary!  Life is a mess, a disaster, and we create along the way as best we can.

This comforts me.

Workaholics and procrastinators, clockwork schedulers and the absence of any structure whatsoever, the rich with servants, the destitute with no resources at all…all interspersed with sometimes bizarre rituals that have been found to support that particular person’s process—Beethoven’s 60 beans of coffee each day come to mind, but there are many, many.  I don’t want to spoil it for you.

How many times, in listening, have thought, “I do that, too!” or, even more frequently, “Maybe I should try that…?”

Small complaint: I wish there were more women.  I’m glad every time a woman is mentioned. I don’t know that this is a failing of Mr. Curry, or, more likely, that the Big Name Creators have been 99% men for the much of human history.  There are more women as the dates become more and more recent, for which I’m glad.  I crave the women’s voices.

Best quote so far: Joyce Carol Oates.  “Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a very dirty peanut across the floor with your nose

I know!!!

The biggest takeaway: there is no right path!  There is no Answer!  There is only doing your work in whatever way you can manage.

Read this book for solace, laughs, insight, and support.  I feel like I’ve just discovered that I’m part of an army of humans who have been struggling with these same questions—how can I work? how can I make it happen in the midst of all the things that block it? (Jobs, family, money concerns, health issues, anxiety, writers block, boredom, depression, business, distraction, ETC, everyone has had their share.)

So many cobbled together solutions have been put into play by so many of the greats.  I love hearing about them all, from the noble to the perverse.

We all do the best we can to muddle through.  Highly recommended.

author interviews: Sandra Tayler…who does it all

Sandra Tayler is an amazing example of a mother/artist/business woman managing to keep a dozen plates spinning in the air with grace and creativity. She’s the publisher and editor of the hugely popular, Hugo-nominated comic Schlock Mercenary, created by her husband, Howard Tayler—and yeah, that means she’s managing to be both wife and business partner, a situation that has felled many a fine marriage and/or business. Plus, she’s the mother of FOUR kids. And she writes children’s books. And essays. She is super nice, and oh, and there’s that award winning blog…. Sheesh, there is just more and more to add to this list.

Basically, she’s up there with other mother/writers I know who seem to do the impossible, women like Martine Leavitt—SEVEN kids! nine award winning novels!—or Donna Jo Napoli—five kids, over fifty novels and picture books….plus she’s a freaking linguist!  I heard Ms. Napoli speak once and she had this great bit where she was introducing herself, listing out everything she does, each accomplishment more impressive as they piled up, and then she finished up with, “And you can eat off my kitchen floor……for a week.  And not go hungry.”

Yeah, I know the feeling.

But seriously, I’m so impressed with these gals.  I aspire to be like them when I grow up!  Although, realistically, I struggle with getting out of my pjs a lot of the time….

So, without further ado, let me welcome Sandra, who is ready to give us the secret to her super busy life.  How DOES she do it??

Hi Sandra!  I am so impressed with the fact that you are this full-on business woman, plus mother of four, plus having your own creative projects like the Kickstarter you are currently running to fund your next picture book.  Can you say anything about how you do it all?

This is Sandra…isn’t she adorable?

The quick answer is “practice” I’ve been parenting for 18 years and running a business for 10, but that answer doesn’t help anyone who is on the front end of trying to figure out how to fit all the things into one life. I’ve actually given presentations and written about it.

The solutions will be different for each person and the solutions will change over time. For example, when my kids were little, it was critical for me to keep all the business work in our house as much as possible so that I could be with the kids while working. Now I find that separating out business tasks from family things is the best way to keep sane. I use the school schedules to give structure to my days, much in the way that I used to use nap time.

Also there are lots of things I don’t do. My kids don’t have many activities outside of school and church. We eat far too much frozen pizza. And my house cleaning would not stand up to inspection.  Also I live in fear that I’m going to fail at all of it, particularly the parenting. I’m always second guessing my priorities and wondering if I should be doing something different.

Oh, yeah, I know that fear.  I bathe in it regularly.  How do you try to balance your personal creative life  with running a full-on business?

One trick is to give the two things different physical spaces in my life. My accounting and design work happens at a desktop machine in my office. My own writing happens upstairs on my laptop computer. The shipping and convention work happens over at the warehouse. The parenting happens everywhere, because parenting is sloppy like that. This way when I sit down with my laptop I can easily access that portion of my brain that has been storing writing thoughts. When I close the laptop, I fold away the writing thoughts so that I can focus on something else.

That’s interesting, using structure, both time and physical space, to draw boundaries around the different tasks.  I’m terrible with this, the kids and I have these totally UNstructured lives which somehow make it super hard to feel like I’m getting anything done.  I can see how structure might help keep everything running.

But I’m often jealous of your unstructured life, Maya. Some of it is the natural effect of parenting younger kids, but your unschooling approach to parenting is fascinating and alluring.

Daww.  Well, I suppose there are pros and cons to every lifestyle….

Okay, so with Howard putting out a daily comic and you running both the business and the household, tell me how do you wedge your own creative life into that already bursting picture? What’s it like to live in a home with two writer/storytellers?

Interesting, fun, and challenging. Because Howard and I are both creative, we understand the needs of creative processes. If I peek into his office and I see that he is writing, I know to shut the door and come back later. If he is drawing, I can walk in and talk. Similarly, he respects my need for creative time.

The challenge comes because any creative career requires a support structure to form the business side of the equation. Somebody has to keep the books and make sure that there are groceries in the fridge. I end up doing lots of these support things. In part this is because I am more temperamentally suited to them, but also in part because his creative work pays our bills. We can afford to have my writing time interrupted, we can’t afford it if Howard’s is. We are very conscious of the imbalance in creative time and do our best to address it. Sometimes we succeed, others we don’t. I sabotage myself more often than not.

There is that classic image of being the woman behind the more famous husband/artist, the un-sung (or less sung) power behind the throne sort of thing.  The wife/artist trying to do her own thing but it gets pushed aside for practical reasons, mothering, husband’s work etc….can you say anything more about finding yourself in that role, good or bad?

It bothers me sometimes to be the wife/supporter of a more famous husband. I don’t like being so cliche. On the other hand, Howard’s work is brilliant and worthy of support, so I’m not going to abandon it out of my desire to avoid being ordinary.

Also the supportive work I do is why Howard’s creation is able to support us. Without my support, it would fall apart because Howard doesn’t have the time to do all the business things and still create.

Howard and I talk about the creative balance in our marriage and we’re always consciously aware of the times when something of mine gets put on hold. We maneuver and create space for my projects, even when it makes far more financial sense to focus our efforts on the proven intellectual property. Sometimes the kids sacrifice for my projects too. The point of a family is to provide a growth space for all of the people in it. This includes the mother, even though the common narrative about mothers is that they are static, nurturers who just support everyone else.

So you’re on your own on your laptop, getting some of your own work done…can you describe your writing process?  Tell us something about how you write.

It depends greatly on which sort of writing I’m doing.

I guess my process for blogging is to observe my life as I live it and then to think about it out loud and try to frame it in a way that will be useful or interesting to others. I’ve been blogging almost daily for ten years, so the process has become something that I don’t have to think about much. I just do it.

My fiction writing process is somewhat fractured because it is constantly shoved aside for all the other things in my life. I know that I am happier revising than drafting and that I struggle with creating conflict in my plots, probably because I don’t like conflict in my personal life.

The picture book process is almost always because I am seeking an answer to something that my child is struggling with. I know that the child needs a story, so I try to figure out what story might lead that child to a place of empowerment where they can solve their own problems. So far this has always involved a visual metaphor which can be turned into lively pictures by an artist. Once I have the concept I hang it on the 32 page picture book framework. Pages 1-5 to introduce the character and problem. The next few to create complications. More complications for the middle, then things have to come to a climax about five pages from the end so that it can all be resolved. There is lots of refining and trying to figure out how I can tell the story using fewer words. Picture books are boring if they are wordy or preachy.

Has it all ever gotten too hard?  Have you ever thought of giving up writing, or had writer’s block?

Yes.  I gave up writing twice. The first time was long ago before I started my blog. I was mired in the middle of the truly hands-on era of parenting where all my children were small. I was also dealing with some significant health issues. I looked around at everything and decided that I really should let go of the dream of being an author. It was a childhood thing and I was a grown up now. I was done. The next day I had a creative outpouring of words that lasted more than a week. The second time was a similar situation and a similar result. I gave it up and it came back.

Since then I’ve had lots of times where writing felt like one thing too many. There have been times where I consciously put it down, knowing I wouldn’t be back to it for a long time. Writing has always waited for me. Writing is patient when life gets to be too much. And, like riding a bicycle, I don’t forget how.

Okay, tell us what you are working on right now.  I know you’ve got a Kickstarter cooking along….

Yes, the big project right now is running the Kickstarter so that I can fund the printing of my latest picture book The Strength of Wild Horses. Running a Kickstarter is definitely a project in itself, but soon I’ll get to do the layout and design work for Strength of Wild Horses. I love that part, because then the words and pictures start interacting with each other. I’m always able to fine-tune the words so that everything works together. It is a joy because Angela Call, the illustrator for the project, creates such beautiful images.

Of course, I have other projects, four children, for example. Parenting is a huge and ongoing creative project that takes up a lot of my time. In the business, we spent lots of time this past month setting up a warehouse to store and ship the books full of his cartoons. He just opened pre-orders on his annual calendar, so I have the project of tracking all of those orders and shipping things to customers. The holidays are coming and they always become a project unto themselves. I’m always writing my blog, but that hardly feels like a project. It is just part of how I live. Then there are house projects, of course.  My life is always an ongoing mess of interconnected projects.

Isn’t that the truth.  Well, thank you so much, Sandra!  Best of luck to you and your many projects!

Please visit Sandra’s Kickstarter page or stop by her blog for more on her complicated, busy, amazingly productive life.
__________________________
Sandra Tayler is a writer of children’s fiction, speculative fiction, and blog entries. She has sold stories to anthology markets, including DAW. In February 2009 her blog won an AML award for online writing. Sandra spends much of her time as the publication and distribution half of the Schlock Mercenary comic business. Sandra’s publication work and her writing are frequently pre-empted by the needs of her four kids, who alternate between being incredibly helpful and incredibly distracting.

how writers do what they do: John Brown

Hey, look, I’ve got another author interview on creative process for y’all’s edification and enjoyment.  Woo hoo!  Today we have the fascinating John Brown, a man deeply interested in how writing works.  Get ready, get set, get your drink, maybe some nachos, got em? Okay…GO!

Maya: Hi John, let’s jump right in.  Can you describe your writing process?

John: I try to write 1-3 hours per day. I want to average 2 at least. I’m a big believer in the idea that ideas come when you’re on the move. You don’t wait for inspiration to strike. You get to work. The more I work, the more ideas I get.

It’s like two men looking for lightening.  One sits in his house hoping something comes by.  Another one is outside all the time, marching around, long copper rods in hand, watching the skies. I want to be the fool running into the weather.

Except, on second thought, while the fool charging into the rain is dramatic, it makes it seem like you have to wait for some act of God. I’ve found you can’t wait for an act of God with writing.  I can’t.  So maybe it IS the guy inside, in his barn. Maybe he’s there with old horse collars and moonshiner car parts and a chicken, hunkered over a dynamo, cranking it by hand, sweating for a few watts at a time.  And he has those copper rods up on the roof just in case, but he ain’t waiting. Of course, who wants to sweat in a barn with a chicken sidekick? I’ve got to get another metaphor, but I think you get the picture.

On the other hand, if you don’t know what in the crap you’re doing, work isn’t going to do you much good. Goofing around might. Just because it’s fun. But there’s a lot of going nowhere when you don’t know what you’re doing. Thrash harder and longer and you’re still just thrashing about, going nowhere fast. Which, I suppose, is why you’d better be having fun.

I usually reserve the evening hours for family. So I need to organize my schedule to get my writing time in before 6 PM. Because my day job is flexible and because I get up early (most of the time), it isn’t too difficult to get that time scheduled in.

As for location, it’s usually in my office, but it can be while I’m driving or out on a long walk. Or anywhere, really. I wrote a great portion of one novel in a medical clinic waiting area, half the time worrying about the germs I was exposing myself to and the other half of the time with some Disney flick blaring in the background. But even that was not a madhouse of distraction. I have to be able to go into writer land. I developed the beginnings of one story while driving to and then walking around a Lowe’s home improvement store trying to find a bathroom and thinking I might not make it the mile distance from one end of the store to the other. Sometimes I think and invent when I’m out walking. I’ve found it helps to talk to myself. Out loud. I just can’t do it all silently. And I’ll have some paper and a pencil handy, sometimes a notebook or just two sheets stapled together and folded in quarters so it fits in my shirt pocket and is stiff enough to write on. The good thing is that I live in a rural area so nobody but the cows see the crazy guy gesticulating to himself and scribbling on his sheets. Still, most of the time it’s in my office.

[Maya says, I really like this next part…]

I use the sketch/draft method. I’ve found that creativity revolves around (a) asking yourself key questions and generating answers in a variety of ways, (b) feeding your mind, e.g. researching specific things, living life with your eyes open, etc., and (c) following the zing, which means being on the alert for the things that spark your interest and following those leads when they come.

Here’s what I mean. I have a model in my mind of how story works. This prompts me to ask some questions when developing a story. What’s the main problem the character is facing? What would make this character cool? How could I give it a twist? These types of things. And I’ll generate some answers. Some options.

I’m a big fan of lots of options. I’m a big fan of manure. Give me a big of list of crappy options. Thrown them on the garden of my mind, and all that manure will grow flowers. It’s farmer’s faith.

But this is all sketching, all doodling with purpose. And I’ll keep asking and sketching and feeding and following the zing until something bigger starts to emerge. Usually, what I’m building up to is a character or five that I love (odd, funny, evil, whatever) and a problem I find fascinating. I have a few key elements I know I need for the story engine to turn over and come to life. And, yeah, there will be setting stuff too. And I usually need to do setting development before I can get the full picture of the characters and problem. But I can generate cool setting until the cows come home. It’s not until I get the problem and character that the car comes to life and begins to rattle and roar.

When I’ve got character and problem, I usually feel the story like some machine full of power, rocking back and forth, busting to get out. That’s the time to sketch an outline if I haven’t already for the main story and the secondary story arcs. Just bullets. And I’ll probably run out of steam, have a lot of gaps. But that’s the nature of a sketch. It’s a guide. And I’m out running.

And so I might write an exploratory draft. Or I might begin in earnest, trusting I’ll be able to invent the rest of the plot, fill in the details, when I get closer to it. But usually I have a rough idea of my direction. Although, with the last draft of the book I’m writing (this has been something of a maddening journey), I wrote a chapter outline. 32 pages. Took me 25 hours. It’s a very detailed sketch. And so far it’s been paying big dividends, even if it’s still a malleable thing.

Maya: All right, with all that structure in place to support your writing, have you ever had writer’s block.  Or given up writing for a while? How or why did you come back to it?

John: I had writer’s block for five stinking years. I won a first prize in the Writer’s of the Future contest, came home from the workshop, and couldn’t finish a thing. It was this evil presence. This invisible force field. I couldn’t get around it. Like being lost in the wilderness and finding yourself going round and round. Then I went to Scott Card’s boot camp and saw the wizard behind the curtain of writer’s block. A handful of things I was doing and thinking all wrong. Thrashing about and going nowhere. I changed that, and suddenly I was moving forward. Still had a long ways to go, but I was out of the ditch, up on the road, and running.

Maya: You can’t leave us hanging like that.  What were the “handful of things I was doing and thinking all wrong”????  Bullet points, man, I want bullet points!

John:  Most of them had to do with the creative process.

[Maya says, “Here follow John’s Four Magical Writing Insights!  With supplemental materials!  And appendices!  Ignore them at your writerly peril…”]

(1) The first huge insight was time.  My mind is like an old fashioned coal-fed boiler—it takes a while to get warm.  I think most people’s minds are. So if I don’t write consistently, if I’m not keeping my boiler hot with consistent quantities of hours, then all I’m doing is forever warming the thing up, forever getting into the trance only to then stop. I have to have at least 7 hours a week. I do best when I’m at 15 or 20, which can be hard to do when you have a day-time job and family that you want to enjoy. So I wasn’t making time. I was talking a lot about writing, but never really getting around to doing it.

Oh, there was a novel I’d worked on for years. I’d write and get 10k, 15k, 20k words then stop for months. Months! When I came back I had to warm up, but by then it was all cold. I’d changed. What interested me had changed. So I’d start over. Another 10, 15, or 20 k and then I’d stop again. Then I tried dabbling a few hours every other week or so. But it became clear in the boot camp that if I was going to write, I was going to have to make time. Consistently. There was a full time cop in the group who headed up the LA sex crimes division. He found time to write. I’d just listened to Mary Higgins Clark’s autobiography. She was a working single mom when she wrote her first book. She got up 1.5-2 hours earlier in the morning. These people had BUSY lives and figured out how to make time. I decided if these folks could to it, so could I. And I did. I got up early, wrote during lunch, made time. And made sure I preserved family time. Making time was a huge thing. HUGE. Nothing could happen without this.

(2) The second monster insight was what writer’s block actually was.  I used to think it was a bad thing, a dreaded thing. Before the boot camp when I ran into a block, I told myself this meant I didn’t have the writer’s DNA, didn’t have the right personality type, maybe God was set against it J. It’s hard to write when you tell yourself there’s no way you can, when there’s a voice in the back of your mind telling you to give up because you’re a freaking one trick pony fluke anyway. But in the boot camp I finally saw that writer’s block was not a sign of deficiency. Now look, I might indeed be deficient, but this wasn’t the sign. No. Writer’s block was simply me bumping out of the writer’s trance. It often involved me running into issues of belief and clarity or simply running to the end of my invention. Writer’s block was normal, to be expected, happened to EVERY writer.

In fact, I began to see that writer’s block was actually my writer’s Spidey sense telling me when things were wrong. Instead of thinking it was a curse, I realized it was a gift. A super power. Instead of running away from it screaming, I needed to embrace it and listen. After the boot camp, as I repeated my success during the boot camp of actually FINISHING something, I saw more clearly that my Spidey sense would tell me usually one of four things. And the methods for dealing with them were fairly straight forward. I blogged about it them http://johndbrown.com/writers/spiderman-peter-parker-and-the-gift-of-writers-block/ and here http://johndbrown.com/writers/the-writers-trance-the-four-trance-breakers/ .

Card talked about going in and out of the writer’s trance.  The idea that writers went in and out, that it was normal, it was simply how things worked—that was a huge thing for me. And because we had to write a story in the boot camp, I had an opportunity right there to learn it was true. To experience it myself. It was a dicey thing, btw. I almost gave up writing altogether that week.  I blogged about it here http://johndbrown.com/writers/wandering-around-in-the-bushes-for-10-years/. But I learned that when I come to the end of my invention, when things aren’t working, if I just keep generating options, keeping feeding my mind with fodder for ideas, sooner or later I’ll generate that electricity I want. The trance will come back, and I’ll write to the end of my invention and . . . start the process over again. So I began to have that farmer’s faith I talked about before.

(3) The third insight was Card’s three-grunt lens. Card had us read and give feedback with a specific lens of clarity, belief, interest–where was the story not clear, not believable, or boring? Huh? Oh yeah? So what? Those are “grunts” a reader will make while reading (he explains it in his book CHARACTERS & VIEWPOINTS). Furthermore, many times a story might be boring because I wasn’t in the audience, not because it wasn’t good. After reading 19 stories with that lens over just a few days, many things simplified for me. I saw that rules didn’t matter much. In fact, I think a lot of new writers get a bad case of rule-itis and it hampers them. It was the results that mattered–clarity, belief, interest. That has become my measuring stick.

(4) The fourth important insight was the use of plot patterns. Setting and characters are easy for me to invent. But that’s only half of what a story needs. For me story is made up of character, setting, problem, and plot. You need all four. And problem and plot are the engines that make story go. I didn’t quite understand that at the time. The story that won the WOTF prize, I wrote it after reading Jack Bickham’s book SCENE & STRUCTURE and trying to apply what I found there. But I hadn’t really learned those lessons. At the moment of despair in the boot camp—I had all this great material for setting and characters along with even the idea of a main story problem, but no plot which meant the story didn’t have an engine—I accidentally stumbled upon the idea of  trying a plot pattern on for size. The one little plot pattern I knew for the type of story I was writing. And BOOM! The story rolled out in front of me, the music started playing, and I ran back to my hotel to write, write, write. That story went on to sell multiple times. But the key enabler for me was a plot pattern.

I think those were the four main insights. Of course, it still took a lot of practice and work to develop those insights into the model of story I have now. I’m still learning. But it was a week of illumination. As I said, it popped me up out of the ditch and onto the road, and I was running. Five years before the boot camp I had finished nothing. The year after, I finished a novelette, a short story, another novelette, and a novel. And it just kept going.

Maya: Wow, that’s terrific stuff, John.  Thank so much for coming by mayaland and giving us all your trade secrets sharing your insights into writing. You rock!

John Brown is the author of Servant of a Dark God and the upcoming Curse of the the Dark God (no release date yet, but it’s in the works).  In Servant, one of the mysterious Divines, godlike rulers capable of harvesting a person’s life force, has vanished. Young Talen’s relatively idyllic life is turned upside down when his family is accused of being soul-eaters who worship a twisted god. Pursued by fearful clansmen and a nightmarish earthen monstrosity known only as Hunger, Talen begins to investigate his latent world-changing abilities. Soon he learns of his family’s extensive role in the enigmatic Order, whose mission is to break the yoke of the Divines, and the nature of the dark power that hunts them.

——-

Whew!  I think I need to go lie down.

how writers do what they do: James Maxey

I just got several more of these interviews in, I should probably spread them out over time, but I’m never any good at doing what I should do.  Ha!  My mother can attest to this.  But today I’m delighted to bring to you the amusing James Maxey, author of several cool dragon books, Bitterwood, Dragonseed, and Dragonforge, a super-hero novel, Nobody Gets the Girl, and a new one on the horizon, Greatshadow, plus a new short story collection, There Is No Wheel. I first met James ten years ago (!!!) at Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp course.  I really, really can’t believe that was 10 years ago.

Maya: Hi, James!  So, this is all about creative process.  Can you tell us something about how you write?

James: My writing process is the least efficient, least effective method any author could possibly come up with, I fear, at least with regards to first drafts. I set aside windows of time to write, then spend the vast bulk of those windows of time doing everything I possibly can to distract myself from writing fiction. I read, watch TV shows on the internet, catch up on emails, blog posts, interviews, etc., then maybe, if I’m lucky, squeeze out 250 to 500 words before I get the cycle of distraction going again. Sometimes, in great fits of panic or guilt, I’ll manage to bang out 1000 or even 2000 words between distraction cycles. It’s a jerky, messy, troubled affair that terrifies me as I’m trapped inside it. Have I no discipline at all? Was I always this useless?

And yet, little by little, the words accrete. It’s like frost building up in an old refrigerator. At any given hour, the build up is imperceptible. Yet, after three or four months, there’s a giant lump of stinky ice that’s filled all the available space. And that’s what my first’s drafts resemble, giant lumps of stinky ice. So for my second draft I go after this with a serrated knife and a hammer and try to pound the ice free so I can carve it into something a bit less lumpy.

So, 90% of the first draft process for me involves feeling bad about my so-called talent and a more diffuse worry that I’ve rendered my brain useless for more respectable lines of work by spending all my college years, when I could have been learning actual job skills, playing Dungeons and Dragons and trying to get laid and utterly failing to notice how the first activity cancelled out the second. The remaining 10% of the first draft process involves me feeling like Jehovah God himself, Father of Worlds, Creator of Men, High King President of Dragons, and Grand Poobah of Imaginationland. This happens when some character I created as an afterthought has just said something clever, and I know with clarity that I really am a genius. Then I have to write the next sentence and the bottom drops out from under me and I tumble into despair.

I sometimes worry about my mood swings.

Maya: Tell me about it.  I know that roller-coaster too well.  So what are you inefficiently working on right now?

James: Currently, I’m under contract to turn in two books I’ve not yet written, one this November, one next July. Contracts have a wonderful way of clearing all the clutter from one’s mind. I know what I’m supposed to be working on! Alas, part of the clutter that got blasted away when I signed the contracts were things like characters, plots, etc. And yet, I’ve never failed to meet a deadline. It turns out that, when panic really sets in, I get kind of good at making up stuff. And, for this project, I do have something of a grand master plan in mind, a very rough, very loose outline for six to eight books that pit human protagonists against big freakin’ dragons. I don’t really have a roadmap, but knowing my final destination gives me something like a polestar. As long as I can look up and still see I’m headed for that star, I know I’m on the right track.

Maya: Have you ever had writer’s block, or given up writing for a while?

James: I’m in the grip of it right now! Since I’m writing Hush, the second book in my Dragon Apocalypse series, I have complete writer’s block on the dozen other novels that I’d also like very much to write. I’d love to one day be a writer who can work on more than one project at a time, but so far I haven’t mastered the skill.

As for giving up writing for a while, sure. I have long gaps in my writing resume, months at a time when I didn’t crank out anything new. After I finished Greatshadow, I basically went almost 8 months without producing anything while I tried to sell the book. I didn’t want to write the next book in the series if I didn’t sell the first book. And, I worried about starting up something new and unrelated, only to have to abandon it if I did sell Greatshadow and suddenly had deadlines to meet.

In a perfect world, I would have used thos

e 8 months to either work on Hush or finish a completely new novel. I was paralyzed both by my confidence that Greatshadow would sell, and my uncertainty of what the timing would be. Confidence and uncertainty can induce writer’s block in me like nothing else. I either have to blast away the uncertainty (in this case, by making a sale) or blast away the confidence and convince myself that my last novel was no good and it’s time to trunk it and move on.

Wow, I seriously need therapy. These cannot be the thought processes of a well man.

Maya: *laughing*  Maybe there is a middle path?  But nothing about writing is moderate, if you ask me, so maybe go with your neurosis!  Go deep!  That’s where the good stories are!  But tell me about the one you’re working on now, the sequel to Greatshadow, right?

James:  It’s called Hush. It’s set in a world where dragons were dominant before the age of man, but as mankind grew in power, the dragons that survived increasingly found themselves relying on elemental magic to survive, to the point that they became living embodiments of these elements. Known as primal dragons, these creatures are essentially forces of nature… there’s a primal dragon of fire, another of storms, a dragon of the seas, etc. The primal dragon of fire has a small part his spirit in every flame, so that each flickering candle is an eye through which he gazes out upon mankind, ready to pounce and devour anyone careless with fire. Each book finds a protagonist in conflict with one of these primal dragons.

In the novel, a woman named Purity who worships Hush like a goddess has decided that it’s time to speed up the day when the sun shall shine no more. The icy fragments of Hush’s broken heart have been shaped into weapons, and she intends to use these to enter abstract realms where she will hunt down Helios as he travels across the heavens and kill him, bringing permanent winter to the earth.

Standing in her way are a pregnant warrior princess named Infidel, a ghost named Stagger who’s animating a driftwood golem, and a witch named Sorrow.

Hush is my most ambitious novel to date, and I say that having just written Greatshadow, my most ambitious novel to date. With my Bitterwood novels, I took great delight in grounding everything in the material world. Everything that transpired had to make sense in terms of the laws of physics and biology as we know them. They were essentially science fiction in fantasy drag. Having written three books where I systematically removed all traces of actual magic from dragons, I’m now rushing in the complete opposite direction, delving deeply into myth and symbolism. After spending most of my career trying to ground my work in gritty realism, I’m writing these books with frequent excursions into the abstract realms that border the material world, places where ordinary senses can’t be trusted and the laws of time and space play second fiddle to the logic of dreams.

There is the very real possibility of failure when one attempts something like this. In Bitterwood, I don’t think I was asking that much of a reader to have him accept that my hero was shooting down dragons using only a bow and arrow. In Hush, I’ll reach a point in the story where a naked shape-shifting woman in a walrus-hide boat sailing on an ocean of stars is about to murder the sun with a harpoon carved out of the broken heart of winter. That sounds so obviously plausible when I say it. I don’t know what I’m worried about.

Sweet merciful Jesus, I’ve never been so terrified of a book in my life.

Maya: That’s the best sign that you’re on the right track, I think.

For more information about James and his books, visit his site.  For more in this author interview series, click “author interviews” in the tag cloud.  More to come…

how writers do what they do: Leah Cypess

For the next installment in my series on creative process, we have the lovely Leah Cypess, author of Mistwood, and upcoming Nightspell.  I think soon I want to do a “what I’ve learned so far” from these interviews.  There have been some definite themes.  But anyway, let’s jump right in….

Maya: Hello, Leah!  Can you describe your writing process for us?

Leah: My writing process has always been dictated by practicality – I carry a notebook and pen with me everywhere and write every chance I get. I always write first drafts by hand, and then type them into my laptop afterward. Nowadays, I have two kids who wake up way earlier than I would ever want to, and by the time they go to bed I’m pretty wiped… so I try to fit in writing while they’re awake. I tend to do my best writing at playgrounds, actually. And when I’m on deadline and need to put in more time, I make the local babysitters very rich.

Maya: God, that’s amazing, writing in long-hand at playgrounds.  I totally can’t focus at places like that.  I go too far away when I write—I fear I would be in some scene and someone evil would steal my children and sell them into slavery before I noticed.  Can you say more about how do you do that, dipping in and out of Mom-mind and Writer-mind?  I get so annoyed when I try.

I have to admit I also fear that someone evil will steal my children before I look up from my scene. Basically, I try to look up a LOT. It has happened that I’ve had a minute or two where I’ve had to look around for my older daughter (who is FAST!), but it seems to happen just as often when I take a phone call and/or talk to other moms as when I write. It’s an ongoing balance.

I’m able to do it without getting annoyed, which is both fortunate and crucial, because I’m a multi-tasker by nature. It also helps that my kids are inclined to be independent , and I encourage that. We have rules — for example, if someone wants to go on the swings, I’ll push for 10 minutes and after that they have to manage on their own. Or if they want me to hold them while they hand-walk across the bars, I’ll do it twice and then it’s time to do something else (that rule is for my back as well as my writing productivity!)

Maya: Have you ever had writer’s block, or given up writing for a while?

Leah: Before I got published, I never had writer’s block, because I never felt compelled to work on one project at a time. When I couldn’t think of what should come next in a book I was writing, I would just switch over to another book (or short story) and work on that for a while. Weeks or months later, the answer would come to me – usually as a result of something entirely different – and I’d go back.

Once I’d signed a contract saying that I was going to publish a specific book, though, I didn’t have that option – and I experienced writer’s block for the first time, in the sense that I couldn’t think of how to solve particular plot problems but couldn’t put the manuscript away because it was due in a week. I did not enjoy the experience.

Maya: How did you get out of it?

Leah: I don’t have any good answer. I walked around obsessing about it all the time, being terrified that I couldn’t fix it, whining a lot, and basically being under a lot of stress. At one point, writing Mistwood, I actually had a dream in which I was revising — and I thought up the answer in my dream. I still have a fear that some day I won’t be able to pull it all together in time.

Maya:  Are you writing something now under contract?  How are you dealing with the stress of that this time?

Leah: Yes, I’m writing a new book now, and though I know my publisher will make an offer for it, I asked my agent not to pursue a formal contract until I had at least three-quarters of the first draft written — which, as of last week, I finally do. It seems crazy to delay a contract, especially since I don’t get paid any part of my advance until the contract is signed, but I want to do everything I can to stave off that deadline-related stress.

Maya: Writing itself is hard enough, right?  But, tell me about your books, one already out, one coming out this spring….

Leah: MISTWOOD (out now) is the story of an ancient shapeshifter bound by a spell to protect the kings of a certain dynasty. And of a confused girl found in a forest who is told she is that ancient shapeshifter, even though she can’t remember anything about her past. Possibly they’re the same story… possibly not. She’ll have to figure it out while protecting the current prince, navigating his intrigue-filled court, and making sure nobody finds out that she has lost both her memory and her powers.

NIGHTSPELL, which will be published in May, is set in a kingdom where an ancient spell forces murder victims to come back as ghosts and seek vengeance on their killers. Centuries later, this has resulted in a society where the living and the dead co-exist uneasily. When a warrior princess rides into this kingdom on a quest to save her sister, she will be forced to reexamine beliefs she has never before questioned – and untangle a conspiracy that threatens the balance of power between the living and the dead.

Thank you Leah!

For more information about Leah and her books, please visit her site.

I hope to get a few more of these interviews…if you haven’t seen the others in this series, click on the ‘author interview’ tag (click ‘comments’ to see the tag list if you don’t already).

how writers do what they do: Elaine Isaak

Today we have the fifth in my author interview series on creative process.  Welcome Elaine Isaak!  I’m just going to dive right i here….

Maya: Hi, Elaine!  Can you describe your writing process for us?

Elaine: It works best when I can write every day–and when I’m in the goove for a book, that means a chapter a day.  I think my most creative time is mornings, but that’s also when the kids have to get to school, breakfast, dog walking, etc.  I’m trying to shift around my internet time so that I write earlier and poke around on email or the web later on.  I’m not a big outliner, but I am working from an outline for the new series.  Thankfully, the research I’m doing is giving me new ideas for sparking up the outline instead of slavishly expanding it.

Maya: Have you ever had writer’s block, or given up writing for a while?  How or why did you come back to it?

Elaine: I grew despondent about writing after the finish of my first publishing contract. I had to fire my agent around the same time, so I was very concerned about whether I would be published again and what had become of my lovely dream of writing.  I transformed some of this experience into an article and presentation called “Ten Mistakes I Made in my Writing Career so that You Don’t Have to!”

And the final note on that list is that I forgot to write because I love it.  Reminding myself of that gave me the courage and enthusiasm to get writing again.  I found a publisher for the third book in that series, and got back to work on marketing the new series, as well as drafting new work.   When I had difficulty getting invested in a new novel-length project, I decided to write short stories for a while.  I did a story-a-week challenge for a few months to get the words and ideas flowing again.  I would just sit down, spend a few minutes looking for inspiration, often from a call for submissions or an old notebook, and let myself bang away at the idea until I reached an ending.

Maya: That’s interesting.  Did you like those stories or publish any of them? Or was it more of a gauntlet you just had to get through in order to get your writing motor running again? You call it ‘banging away’ which brings to mind a pushing-through sort of energy, getting to the end no matter what. So after six stories you felt the treatment had worked and you were back in the saddle? How did you noticed the shift?

At first, I tried this tactic as a way to simply get writing every day. Hence “banging away.”  Because I think being a writer is less about being inspired all the time than it is about doing the work.  Beginning, middle, end, over and over–even if you feel uncertain about the results.  It’s a way of “acting as if.”  “Look, I really am a writer!”  Part of that was my frustration with people who claim to be writers, but never actually write.  I realized I was in danger of becoming one of those people.  So I pushed.
I produced at least three stories I really like, one of which has now been published in the local anthology ‘Live Free or Undead”.  The other two are flash pieces both read to good response at conventions.  One of them is an entry point into another world I want to write novels in.  A couple of others I think are pretty good and have gotten some rejections on.
I noticed the shift in perspective from mere discipline to being in the flow because I started to find ideas all around me, the way that I used to, as if forcing myself to write from external impetus (like theme anthology guidelines) had primed the pump of ideas in general.  I started to put notions together, to think about writing all the time, not as something I wasn’t doing (and thus, felt guilty about), but as something I was eager to return to when I had the chance.

Maya:  I like that, that you started finding ideas everywhere again.  A writer’s healing.

In addition to your previous novels, you have a recently released title, The Bastard Queen. Can you tell us about it?

Elaine: Beloved bastard of an unloved king, Fiona will do anything to please her father, even studying magic though she never shows more than a spark of talent.  But the plague that grips their city sends her to work with the dying, as enmity builds between the two peoples her father has brought together.

Struggling to find a cure for the plague, Fiona discovers that its emergence is no coincidence—and that her scorned suitor may be leading a conspiracy that will end in genocide.  Even her father wears a false face, and every new tragedy reveals another secret set to shatter her life and her kingdom.

You can find out more about Elaine at her website.

See the author interviews tag (click “Comments” to see it) for more of these.  More to come…

how writers do what they do: Alethea Kontis

Today we have the fourth in my author interviews on creative process.  Alethea Kontis has published in a variety of venues such as poetry, children’s picture books, essays, the editing of a short story compilation, and, coming soon, her first novel, Sunday.  I’ve pretty much only written novels, with only a few side trips into short stories.  Oh, and a blog.  So I’m intrigued by this gal who is churning out words in all manner of forms.

Maya: Alethea, can you describe your writing process?

Alethea: I’m one of those people who’s always writing. I’ve been writing since I was eight. I’ll write on anything, anywhere, at any time. I try to keep a pen and paper on me at all times, but sometimes you’re just stuck on a train in the middle of Europe with nothing and THEN what do you do? No receipt, flyer, bookmark, pamphlet, manuscript, comic book, or magazine lap-flap is safe around me if there’s any amount of blank space on it at all. Post Its are a godsend.

Amusingly, since I quit my dayjob and now have a block of time to sit each day while the fairy goddaughters are at school and the fairy godboyfriend is at work, I’ve found it very difficult to focus and write on command. Every day is a learning curve, and every day I resist the urge to book a Eurail ticket and leave with nothing in my pockets but a green crayon and a stack of blank postcards.

Maya: With so many possible projects cooking, how do you decide what you are going to work on next?
Alethea: I like to have a plan. The main goal is always having enough contracts in the queue to qualify as a dayjob. But I still like having other crazy projects on the side I can work on when the mood strikes…like podcasting fairy tales or painting or video blogging. Neil Gaiman once said to me, “The next thing I do will be the next thing I do.” Words to live by. Just never stop “doing.”
Maya: Have you ever had writer’s block, or given up writing for a while?  How or why did you come back to it?

Alethea: I tell people that I don’t believe in writer’s block, because so many use it as an excuse for being lazy. But yeah, I’ve had it. When I was nineteen, I started taking this horrid birth control shot called Depo Provera. (It’s not horrid for everyone, but they use it in prisons to sterilize people, so what does that tell you?) I swear I didn’t feel anything during that time. I was just…numb. Subsequently, I didn’t write anything but gibberish for about six years. I finally wised up and got off the medication, hoping I hadn’t damaged my brain beyond repair. Slowly, happily, my creativity came back.
About six months later I attended Orson Scott Card’s literary bootcamp. Scott said some exceptionally flattering things about my abilities. It stunned me, woke me up, and got me serious. I realized the only thing standing between me and publication was simply putting my butt in the chair and working. So here I am. But I still wish I had that six years back.

Maya: That’s interesting.  I experienced some radical writing and personality changes throughout pregnancy and nursing, very hormonal events.  We don’t like to think of our hormonal balance as having so much to do with our creativity or our personalities, but it really does.
But tell us about your upcoming novel, it sounds great.

Alethea: Sunday, my very first novel, will be released next spring by Harcourt Children’s books. Sunday Woodcutter is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter (her mother’s name is Seven; can you guess who her sisters are?) and the stories she writes in her journal come true. Sunday meets an enchanted frog in the woods one day. She shares her stories, and they becomes friends. But then Sunday’s Aunt Joy comes to train her in magic, and the frog turns up missing, and the elusive Prince Rumbold returns to Arilland and decides to host three balls for all the eligible ladies in the land…
It’s too early to have cover art yet, but “Sunday” was originally published as a novelette in Realms of Fantasy in 2006. The artist they paired me with was Scott Grimando. I literally cried when I saw what he’d done. It’s still one of my favorite pieces of all time. I suggested they use it for the book’s cover. We’ll see how that goes.

You can find this piece (It’s called “The Frog Prince”) and other fabulous work on Scott’s site.
You can find out more about Alethea at her website.  And don’t miss her fairytale theater podcast, very fun.

how writers do what they do: Will McIntosh

All righty, today we have interview #3 in my on-going series on how writers write.  I am so pleased to interview Will McIntosh because he just (ok, it was last September, but to me it feels like about ten minutes ago, what is up with this rocketing ahead time thing?) because Will just WON THE HUGO AWARD for his terrific short story, “Bridesicle”!  Holy cow!

Maya: So, Will, you won the freaking Hugo!  How cool is that???!??!?

Will:  It was a shock, to say the least.  I love writing, but I just never thought of myself as someone who would write something that readers would think belongs on the Hugo ballot, let alone win.  When I got the email saying I had been nominated, I was literally speechless.  I could only point at the message and have my wife had to read it herself.   I flew to Australia for Aussicon and the awards ceremony; I was unbelievably sleep-deprived from a combination of jet-lag and excitement.  I couldn’t believe it when Cory Doctorow opened the envelope and said “Bridesicle.”

Maya:  Wow, I can imagine!  That’s amazing.  But okay, so the theme of these interviews is creative process, that is, all the different ways writers write.  Can you describe for us something about your creative process?

Will:  I write whenever I have free time.  I have twin two year olds and a day job, so to stay productive I use nearly all of my free time to write and let clothes pile up on top of dressers until they form a pyramid because I can’t afford to use my free time putting away clothes.  I used to have tons of free time, and I’d work on four or five stories at once until one of them seemed like it was going somewhere.  Now I choose projects carefully, poring over my file of ideas, second-guessing myself once I choose one to work on.

Maya: That’s interesting, as though some stories might be the “wrong” stories to work on.  Can you say more about that?

Will: Sometimes what I want to write a story about isn’t something that makes a great story.  I have to resist some ideas that call to me.  I’ve started quite a few stories only to realize it just wasn’t working.  My hard drive is littered with the corpses of stories that weren’t meant to be.  I haven’t asked many other writers if that’s the case for them, though I do recall at Clarion Howard Waldrop said that he has twenty year old stories he still may finish if he can figure out where to take them, and that many of his collaborations were stories that he discontinued, only to have a writing friend say, “Hey, I can finish that, let me take a crack at it!”  Maybe that’s what I should do, post all those aborted stories on my website and see if someone else can make them into something.

Maya:  A story graveyard.  Where unfinished stories go to die—or maybe be reborn!  Okay, so, once you choose an idea, how do you go about writing it?

Will: I’m not an outliner.  With short stories, sometimes I only know what’s going to happen in the first paragraph.  For novels I try to have a better idea of where it’s going, but typically I start with a handful of notes.  Usually my first draft is very thin, lots of dialogue and action without much detail, then I go back and begin filling in the scenes , making four or five passes before it’s filled out.  I tend not to think in terms of theme, of trying to say something.  I begin with a premise that interests me and think in terms of what will happen to the characters and let theme and meaning emerge (if it’s going to).

When I finish something I ask a few other writers to critique it, and based on their responses put it into one of three categories: 1) The reactions were mostly positive, so I’ll revise and submit it somewhere.  2) It sounds like it’s broken, or at least needs a lot of work, so I’ll set it aside and wait for inspiration.  3) It sounds like it sucks, so I’ll never let anyone see it ever again.  Often I think a story is pretty good and discover from other writers I respect that it sucks, or think it sucks and find out it’s pretty good.  I don’t have much of a sense of the quality of what I’m writing, so I rely heavily on critiques.  I also have thick skin; I’m eager to hear criticism, because I know criticism will help me improve more than praise.

When I finish something, normally I’ve got something at the top of my idea file waiting.   Especially since I began focusing more on novels, I have a backlog of ideas and typically there’s one I’m eager to get started on.

Maya: I have that same feeling about being crap about telling if my own stuff is any good.  I go from thinking something is great to thinking it is utter shite in this regularly oscillating interval.  Absurd, really, as it makes me crazy.  Which kind of brings us to my second process question, have you ever had writer’s block, or given up writing?  If so, how did you come back to it?

Will: I don’t think I’ve ever had true writer’s block.  Over the past year I suffered from a strange sort of block where I couldn’t write short stories, or at least one’s that didn’t totally stink, but I had no issues working on a novel.  I got to the point where I had seven or eight half-finished short stories that I had abandoned, but recently I finished two (one of them sold to Lightspeed), so I think I’m over it.

I did give up writing once, early on, under a blizzard of rejections.  I’d never sold a story and decided maybe I was wasting my time.  After a few months I realized I really missed writing, and decided I would keep writing, if only for the pure pleasure I got from the process.

Maya: And it’s a good thing you did because now, look, you have a new novel coming out, your first.  Can you tell us about it?

Will: Soft Apocalypse is about a group of friends living through the slow collapse of civilization.  I wanted to write about regular people suffering through an apocalypse.  Often apocalyptic fiction focuses on people who know a lot about guns and surviving; I wanted to write about people I might know, and how they would react.  In fact, a few of the characters actually are people I know–I included them as characters with their permission.   Terrible things happen to a few of them.  That was an aspect to writing I’d never dealt with before – having to break it to a character that he or she died horribly in Chapter seven.

Maya: It sounds interesting, character-centered fiction where the characters are in terrible circumstances.  Good luck with it.  And thank you so much for your interview—and congratulations again on the Hugo!

You can find more about Will McIntosh at his website.

More author interviews on the way.  You can click on the “author interviews on creative process” tag (click on “comments” if you can’t see the tags for this post) for other interviews in the series.

how writers do what they do: Gareth Powell

Today we have the second installment in my author interview series, woo hoo! If you missed the first installment you can click here to read Nancy Fulda tell us about how she works. But today we have Gareth Powell, science fiction author of The Last Reef, Silversands, and the upcoming Recollection, talking about how he does what he does.

Maya: So, Gareth, can you describe your writing process?

Gareth: As well as writing, I work part-time for a disabled children’s charity, freelance as a copywriter, and have two young daughters to bring up, so I have to juggle my time carefully and fit the fiction in where I can. This often means I do most of my writing in the evening instead of watching TV, and I tend to go to bed later than I should, which means I’m usually tired during the day. Sacrificing sleep for productivity probably isn’t a wise and sustainable strategy, but it’s been working for me for the last few years, and having a patient and understanding spouse is certainly a big help.

Maya: Have you ever had writer’s block, or given up writing for a while?

I don’t think I’ve ever had writer’s block. In fact, I don’t really believe it exists. I think it’s a self-inflicted condition. I have had periods where I’ve not known what to write about; but I’ve found that constantly tinkering away with notes and ideas keeps the process fresh and alive in my head, so that even when I’m doing something else, part of my brain stays in writing mode.

Maya: Can you tell me more about this tinkering? I like that image, very hands-on.

Tinkering involves scribbling short outlines of forthcoming scenes or chapters, fiddling with the overall synopsis, and jotting down things to remember for later in the story. By doing it, I’ve always managed to get back on track relatively swiftly.

I think that if you are determined and motivated, and if your writing is constantly in the back of your thoughts, whatever you are doing, then writer’s block won’t be an issue. Instead of sitting staring at a blank screen, you need to know what you’re going to write before you sit down at the keyboard, and so you need to train your brain to think about your story during the day. If you’re subconsciously mulling over the plot of your story while washing the dishes, walking the dog, or doing the shopping, you’ll find yourself coming up with all sorts of connections and ideas that you just can’t wait to get down on paper. Some of my best story ideas have come while I was in the shower, driving long distance, or walking to the pub. If you make sure you always keep a notebook handy, you can jot down notes that will have you ready and raring to go when the time finally comes for you to write.

Maya: I have found this to be true for me, too. Keeping the story stew pot simmering keeps the story hot, so when I sit down to actually write, it’s ready to go. But hey, tell us about your new book.

Gareth:The Recollection will be released in the UK and USA at the end of August this year. It’s the story of a perfectly ordinary bloke who tries to rescue his brother and gets whisked into a future world of cosmic wonder and unimaginable horror; and the story of a girl trying to redeem herself in the eyes of her estranged family. It contains love triangles, space battles, and ancient evils. It is a fast-moving mix of contemporary, character-based fiction and wide-screen space opera. I had a lot of fun writing it.

Maya: Thank you, Gareth. Good luck with The Recollection!

You can get more info about Gareth and his books at his site.

And I’ve got a half dozen more interviews in the can so far for you—well, they’re for me, really, because I love hearing about how other writers write. But hopefully y’all are enjoying these, too. Anyway, more to come!

how writers do what they do: Nancy Fulda

One of my favorite parts of grad school (MFA in writing) was hearing guest writers talk. Inevitably in the Q & A someone would ask the “process” question. “Do you have a creative process? How do you write?” I loved that part. Every answer was so different.

I don’t get to hear writers talk very often any more—I’ve decided to remedy that here on my blog. Welcome to the first in a series of brief writer interviews on creative process! I’m interviewing a bunch of published writers from the Codex writers group on how they do what they do. I’m selfishly hoping, of course, to pick up some tricks I hadn’t thought of. It’s like industrial espionage, only all out in the open. How cool is that?

So, up first we have Nancy Fulda, short story writer and author of Dead Men Don’t Cry. It’s great timing because Nancy just found out she has won the Grand Prize in this year’s Jim Baen Memorial Contest for her story, “That Undiscovered Country.” Congratulations, Nancy!

Here we go…

Maya: Can you describe your writing process? For example, do you write every day, at a certain time, wearing a certain hat, sporadically binge write, highly caffeinated, when the kids are asleep, early morning, late night, in crowded cafes, alone in your bunker, seat of the pants, obsessive outline, sweating blood, taking holy dictation, etc?

Nancy: I’ve got three kids at home, one with strong autistic tendencies, so my writing time is anything but structured. I usually manage to write for an hour while the toddler’s playing and the older two are off at school/kindergarten. If I’m lucky, I’ll squeeze another hour in after lunch — if my nerves are up to the challenge of concentrating while my kids charge around the house with their friends who live down the street. Obviously, these are not uninterrupted hours, and in reality my writing time comes in ten- and fifteen-minute bursts interspersed with requests for glasses of water, conflict mediation, and the all-important application of band-aids.

Interestingly, the interruptions are one of the most productive aspects of my writing process. I seldom get stuck for long, because sooner or later a kid will come along and need something. The act of getting up and moving around jolts my brain cells out of gridlock, and by the time I sit back down I usually know what I need to do next.

Maya: I’m totally impressed with your ability to write and be interrupted. I haven’t found a way to do that without getting irritated at them (the kids), so I have to find time to write when they are asleep. How do you go to the far-away-in-your-head place to write, and still manage to return quickly, then go back, repeatedly, without getting irritated (it’s like a physical response for me, this irritation, like having some poke me with a stick)?

Nancy: I think I know what you mean about the irritation reflex because I have the same response sometimes. Some cute kid comes up to show me her drawing and I don’t even want to take my eyes off the screen to look at it because I’m deep in writer-trance-mode. It was worse when I was still pushing towards my first few sales. I was trying desperately to excel at writing and parenting, and felt like I was failing at both of them.

I got around that, mostly, by establishing a personal family-first priority. I decided that I was allowed to write only when nobody else needed me. This meant that I never even made it to the computer some mornings, but it also had the psychological benefit of freeing me from the irritation response. In my mind, I had given the kids the right to interrupt my work, and so I no longer felt irritated when they did so. (Or rather, if I felt irritated, it was the irritation of a woman who opens the door to discover it’s raining rather than the irritation of a woman whose upstairs neighbors have started renovating at 3:00 AM.)

I also got very good at leaping in and out of my own thought process. Before my first child was born, I habitually spent the first twenty minutes of each writing session reading back through my work from the day before, picking up my train of thought, and settling into the writer’s trance. After baby came along that didn’t work so well. I was lucky if I could slip to the keyboard for ten minutes at a stretch. Eventually I discovered that those twenty minutes of “warm-up” were a crutch. I thought I needed them, but I didn’t really.

Honestly, while I like to pretend to myself that I never grouch at the kids anymore, the simple truth is that some days are just better than others. I’ve gotten pretty good at judging my own internal state, though. If I’m too crabby to juggle kids + writing, I generally try to stay off the computer altogether. Which impacts my productivity but, well… life’s a game of trade-offs.

Maya: Have you ever had writer’s block, or given up writing for a while? How or why did you come back to it?

Nancy: I don’t think I’ve ever stopped writing completely, at least not since I made my first sale. My productivity goes WAY down whenever I’m pregnant, though. I just can’t manage to chug through the brain fog. Once the baby’s there, things get better. Typing one-handed is slow, but I find it far easier than typing with only half my brain cells.

Maya: Tell us about your recently released book!


Nancy: Dead Men Don’t Cry
is a collection of my published writing over the last ten years. It includes stories that first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Jim Baen’s Universe, and Apex Digest, as well as my Phobos Award Winning Story “The Man Who Murdered Himself”. I debated long and hard about putting this collection together, because we all know collections don’t sell well. But so many people have asked where they can find more of my work that it seemed easier to assemble one than to send out a smorgaspord of links.

And — I love these stories. They were written with the heart, and they still speak to me. I can’t bear to let them languish in obscurity merely because their initial publication run has expired.

Maya: Thank you Nancy!

Dead Men Don’t Cry can be found at amazon, Smashwords, and at Nancy’s own site and cool service, the Anthology Builder.

Look for more author interviews on creative process in the next few days….