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Six Authors on Staying in The Zone

Clockwise from left: Felice Picano, Gillian Bagwell, Greg Herren, Trebor Healey, Tinney Sue Heath

I'm convinced that solitude and silence are the first two ingredients in art. They're essential for getting into and staying in The Zone, that elusive flow where the words spill out and time spins away. So I asked 20 writers how they get there and how they return. Here's the secret sauce from five of them:

 

Trebor Healey

I get in that zone by having an empty day, free from obligations, or at least a few empty hours. It starts with coffee and reading the New York Times, but only a little...headlines, maybe two articles that make me feel my passion, so I curate what I read...and some carefully selected emotional music after that to open my heart if you will...usually '70s soul, like "Me and Mrs. Jones", something like that. Then I open up a story or two and go to work.

If I fall out of zone, a walk is always good...nature...sometimes a swim. The sauna afterwards will also get me inspired...something about the heat...then back to the desk, a few emo songs, and off I go.

 

Tinney Sue Heath

Regarding your first question, I wish I knew - I'm in between projects right now and current events are proving quite distracting.

Re: the second, when I am actively writing, I usually find that rereading the results of my last session or two is enough  Read More 

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What Does Your Writing Mean?

Your story, no matter how short or long, isn't a recounting of a series of events (even a love affair, or a war) but a commentary on the human condition. Your work becomes art when you have something to say* about life, about people.

Let's call it theme: to me, theme is the overall concept of the piece, which then turns a story into art. Here are some tips re: theme: Read More 

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Writing Women into HistFict: How-to Book Has Great Advice

Writing Historical Fiction: a Writers and Artists Companion by Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott, (Bloomsbury) 2014 is an interesting book: part how-to manual, part history of the genre, part fascinating opinions by best-selling and best-known authors of the historical fiction genre, with a reasonable amount of space spent on the unique challenges of writing about women in the past. Here's what struck me about the book:

 

How Women Are Written and How to Correct That

The headless woman (shown from the neck down) "is a visual cliché on the covers of historical novels…" (pg. 50) but the trivialization and downright erasure of women in history goes much further.

 

"Women, especially women not from a ruling class, are the largest group to have been marginalized, or even deleted from the record, in historical terms.  Read More 

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Do You Have the Courage to Write?

I'm about to box up the remnants of the research and outlines for a book that got to 47,000 words and was the most fun I have ever had writing anything. Ever.

 

Unfortunately, a major pivot is required for this piece of work and, after rescuing about 20,000 words, I have to call it quits on the project. I've been moping around about it, in mourning. Adrift.

 

And then I am reminded of something I have been wanting to tell a young writer friend: nothing in writing is ever wastedRead More 

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Segmented Sleep: Great for the Creative Mind

We take pills, potions and vitamins, get special pillows and now have beds that will tell us whether we have achieved that sought-after thing called a good night's sleep – eight uninterrupted hours. It's a multi-billion dollar industry but evidence is mounting that prior to the industrial revolution, we slept in two shifts with a period of activity between them. We can thank our pituitary gland that makes it a hypnotic time, a creative time.

 

In the pre-industrial past, it went like this: the "first" sleep started after dinner and sunset, which was close to 8 p.m. One slept about four hours, woke up at midnight and then spent two or three hours stoking the fire, playing music, making love, checking on food, telling stories, even visiting friends. Then, back to bed for the "second sleep" until dawn. In modern parlance, it's called segmented sleep. Read More 

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Chicken or Egg? Hobby or Character Development?

Where can I learn to be a blacksmith, I muttered to myself last week, as I decided to put a blacksmith in a new book/project. Might be fun to learn, I thought.

The night before I had packed away my (at this point fairly extensive) collection of chocolate molds and tools, having recently sold my new novel, Straight Uphill: A Tale of Love and Chocolate to Fireship Press.

So it made me wonder: which came first, the desire to learn something like confectionary, or the desire to have a character work in a trade that, for the sake of verisimilitude, I need to learn. I don’t necessarily need to master the craft, but I need to know the smell of it, the heat, the feel of the tools in my hand. One can learn the process from a book but there’s so that you have to actually experience.

So, which came first?

I wrote the chocolatiers in Straight Uphill because I was taking on chocolate as a hobby. (I’ve never actually had a hobby. Work, writing, motherhood, relationship, house; that was all I could handle. I had never even asked myself what I might want to do as a hobby, that’s how remote the prospect was.) Chocolates moved from a temporary pastime to a dedicated hobby when I realized that I had just spent hours, transfixed, as I worked with the stuff. The ‘languid quality’ described in the WWII section of the book is how I felt making my first ganache. So, in the case of Straight Uphill, the hobby came first.

I learned to ride a horse for two reasons:  Read More 

New Book Club Discussion Guide for The Mandrake Broom

Book Club Guide for The Mandrake Broom

Description of the book: A historical novel set in Europe 1465 – 1540, The Mandrake Broom dramatizes the courageous fight to save medical knowledge during the witch burning times and answers the question “what if the witches had fought back?” Based on extensive research of historical sources, herbal remedies and the medicines of the time, this novel has been called “is "stunningly good...tremendously involving and impressive." Meet:

Luccia Alimenti, daughter of a medical professor at the University of Salerno, Italy, destined to carry ancient texts and herbal lore into the dangerous and groundbreaking future.

Fiona, her Irish godmother  Read More 

Differences Between Fiction and Non-fiction: More Complex than Just True or Imaginary

I am preparing to teach a new class entitled to “From Daydream to Story: An Introduction to Fiction” – a class specifically designed for nonfiction writers and journalists, or people with story ideas but no experience in fiction. In the process, I have discovered that most explanations for the difference between nonfiction and fiction have to do with the reality of the material in nonfiction. Nonfiction is true and fiction is from the imagination. I would suggest, though, that there are a number of other distinctions:

Fiction is a close-in view of life. Think of going from nonfiction to fiction like the process of Google maps as it zooms in from a position in the stratosphere, zooming down into your backyard. And even closer than your backyard, zoomed in to the exact expression on someone’s face  Read More 

The Writer's Life and the Allure of the Keyboard

How many arggghs are there in arthritis? What a drag – the thing I love to do most in the world is now so painful that every time I think of something to write I ask “is it worth the pain?” Every task around the house is judged according to its impact on my hands. (A friend called it ‘wrist cycles.’) Do I really want to spend my now limited wrist cycles on pulling weeds, untangling that extension cord, chopping  Read More 
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Six Ways That Setting Can Drive Plot

Setting is not simple backdrop, like a green screen on which a film is shot. Setting in fiction plays an important role in plot and characterization. Whether you write sci-fi, historicals, or modern fiction, your setting can make or break your story. So, what are some of the keys to a well-drawn fictional world?

Four Major Mistakes with Setting
Setting is frequently considered the easiest and most fun part of writing. A writer seems happiest when describing rooms, clothing, smells in the air, the look of the lights, the weather. This focus makes sense, since we’ve spent a lot of our lives deciphering objects and their meanings. As fiction writers, we’re focused on the close-in vision of things. Big-concept people write essays. Fiction writers know that it says a lot when the curtains are torn versus curtains festooned with gold thread.
But I’m finding that there are at least four major mistakes with setting. Many writers:
1. Over-do it with too much explanation and description, getting lost in the wallpaper and descriptions of the light < Read More