Creating Through the Clamour


Lena Coakley: Carve Out Space for Your Creative Work

Creating Through the Clamour: Instalment 8

Feel like there’s not enough time in your busy life to be creative? How do authors or illustrators continue to create while tackling everything else in their lives? About once a month as I’ll ask a writer or illustrator how they do it. Because I want to know. (I need all the help I can get in this department.)

The Creator
name: Lena Coakley
resides: Near the distillery district in Toronto
creates: Right now I’m writing young adult fantasy novels, but I’ve also published two children’s picture books and short stories for both teens and adults.

The Creations

Witchlanders (YA novel), Atheneum/Simon & Schuster
Mrs. Goodhearth and the Gargoyle (picture book), Orca Book Publishers
On the Night of the Comet (picture book), Orca Book Publishers
The Clamour
Doubt: I’m lucky enough to be able to write full time right now, but sometimes I can be my own worst enemy when it comes to procrastination and self doubt.
Volunteer Work: Although I’m no longer the administrative director at CANSCAIP (the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers), I still keep my hand in by designing the newsletter and organizing the Pitch Perfect critique sessions at their Packaging Your Imagination Conference.
Research: I’m writing my first historical novel right now. I love the research, but I’m not sure I’ve learned when to stop!
Crazy Interruptions: I’ve had a strange start to 2012 with everything from bedbugs to minor surgery to family crises to unexpected houseguests all taking me away from my writing. It’s been a great lesson, though: Life intervenes as it always will, but we still have to carve out that space for our creative work.
Wow, those are some crazy interruptions! How did you get started in this field?
I think I got started in this field the day my mother read me my first picture book. I have loved books ever since I can remember, and I think I started making up stories of my own at a very early age. When I first came to Toronto, the best thing I did was to enroll in Peter Carver’s course in writing for children, a class he taught for over 20 years at Mabel’s Fables bookstore in Toronto. I had always liked the idea of being a writer, but Peter started me on that long (never-ending!) path of honing my skills. It took me over 10 years from the time I enrolled in that course to the time I published my first picture book, but those workshops were where I first began to develop my own distinctive voice.
What are you working on these days?
I’m working on a historical fantasy novel that takes place in 1834 and features the four Brontë siblings, Anne, Charlotte, Branwell and Emily as characters. It’s quite a daunting task! Last weekend I went to tea with the Toronto members of the Brontë Society and I can tell you, there are some huge Brontë fans out there! I feel an enormous sense of pressure to do justice to these extraordinary siblings and to get the details right.
How do you minimize your distractions while you’re working? Any tips for others? 
Decide in advance how you are going to deal with social media and stick to your plan. Some people can have a quick look at Twitter and Facebook before they start to write, but I find that I can get sucked into social media and that it can drain my creative energy. I try not to look at either until lunchtime and then just for a set amount of time. Because I need to do so much research for this book, I’ve also decided to only watch television on the weekends for the next little while.
The important thing is not to let one distraction ruin your whole day. The writing flow sometimes gets interrupted—it happens—but it’s important to learn how to get back into it.
How do you cope with times when you just can’t focus on your writing?
Being a procrastinator of Olympic caliber, I have developed a few tricks:
  • Try an egg timer. Sometimes if I’m really feeling squirmy at my desk, I set an egg timer and tell myself I only have to write for that amount of time before taking a break. Usually I set the timer for an hour, but if I’m really unfocused, I can set it for as little as 15 minutes.
  • Make a date with a writing partner. I’m convinced I never would have finished my first novel, Witchlanders, if I hadn’t been meeting regularly to write with my friend, Aino Anto. Somehow writing regularly helps get over that bottleneck of dread that keeps us away from our desk. At this point in my career, I don’t think I need a writing partner as much as I once did, but I will still make a date to bring my mini to a friend’s house to write if I’m feeling stuck.
  • Write every day, even if it’s for 15 minutes. You’ve probably heard this one before, but I’m a big believer in it. It keeps your work in the forefront of your mind, even when you don’t have much time for it.
  • Try a change of scene. I love to pretend I’m JK Rowling and write in my local café.
What book, song, painting, or maybe movie has touched you or has had great meaning for you recently?
I’m reading David Copperfield right now, a book my grandmother read to me when I was growing up. I hear the intonation of her voice very clearly when I read it, and that’s something that makes it doubly wonderful to read, now that she’s gone. It’s such a funny, sweet, clever, charming, sentimental book—probably one of my all-time favourites. I recommend it to absolutely everyone. 
As a creative person, do you have any other outlets for your talents? a hobby or interest?
I love to swim and I think my swimming and my writing go hand in hand. If I have a swim in the morning I find I come to my desk with half my plot problems already worked out.
Why do you keep creating in the face of all this trouble/effort?
That’s a good question, Lizann! Sometimes I do think my life would have been much easier if I’d become a computer programmer or a paleontologist, but I seem to be committed now!
Thanks, Lena. Having read Witchlanders, I’m very glad you’re committed. No escaping now, is there? Thanks so much for spending some of your time here. I’m going to try that timer trick.

Which tip will you try?

© Lizann Flatt,
No part of this blog may be used without written permission from the author.

Catherine Austen: Keep Faith in your Ability to Write a Really Good Piece of Work

Creating Through the Clamour: Instalment 7
Feel like there’s not enough time in your busy life to be creative? How do authors or illustrators continue to create while tackling everything else in their lives? About once a month as I’ll ask a writer or illustrator how they do it. ‘Cause I want to know. (I need all the help I can get in this department.)

The Creator 

name: Catherine Austen

resides:  Quebec
creates: Writing for all ages: PB, MG, YA. I used to write stories for adults and may return to that some day.

The Creations
Walking Backward (MG novel), Orca Book Publishers, 2009
My Cat Isis (picture book), Kids Can Press, 2011

All Good Children (YA novel), Orca Book Publishers, coming Fall 2011
26 Tips for Surviving Grade 6 (MG novel), James Lorimer & Company, coming Fall 2011

The Clamour

Work obligations: About ten years ago I quit my full-time job and began to write freelance part-time (conservation reports, funding proposals, fact sheets, etc.). My husband suggested I try it, and he’s been the main breadwinner in our family ever since. I did it partly to free up time to write fiction, but mostly to spend more time with my son. (It worked out so well, I had another one.)

After selling my first two books in 2008, I began to take fewer paid contracts in order to focus on my fiction. My work benefitted enormously but my debts increased. I was thrilled to receive news over Christmas that I’m getting a grant from the Quebec Conseil des arts et des lettres to help me write a sequel to my forthcoming teen novel. It’s a lifesaver, and in the nick of time. Now I can devote half of each day to my work in progress. Yay! That reduces the clamour.

Kids to raise, look after, chauffeur: My kids are aged 8 and 15, so there’s a lot of chauffeuring and assisting but not the intense and constant demands of the early years. I try to do my first drafts in big chunks while they’re at school. Revising and polishing I fit in whenever I can. Because I work from home, I’m with my kids on PD days and vacations and I don’t try to write much those days and seasons. On school days, my work usually ends when my youngest gets off the bus at 3:00.

I didn’t write much when my kids were tiny – I was a real cookies-and-crafts kind of mom – and I don’t regret that. As they age and become more independent, I devote more mental energy to my work and the focus of my life and my sense of self reorients. (Or that could just be middle age.)

Volunteer work: I volunteer in the library of the local elementary school two mornings a week – an ideal volunteer job for a children’s book writer. I enjoy the work, both helping rambunctious classes of kids find something to read and doing the more tedious coding, shelving, and repairing of books. The school has no librarian so my help is appreciated.

The internet: The internet can be a sinkhole for time but it speeds up research enormously. I am so often awed by how simple it is to check facts for a story. (What time does the sun set in Hawaii on August 14th? When was the tape recorder invented? Where do police dogs live? OMG, you can find out anything!) And even though I do most of my research through books, I find and reserve those books from my desk via the online library catalogue. 

Life in general: When a story is really alive in my head, it’s not hard to find the time to draft it because I can’t concentrate on anything else. But preparing for that stage and, afterward, revising the mess that comes out of that stage, are more challenging because they require more discipline. The internal drive just isn’t as strong. So that bizarre human habit of avoiding the difficult things we love to do comes into play. (I know it’s not just me. After every yoga class I drag myself to, I hear someone say, “I feel so good! Why did I put this off all month?” Same habit. I’ve cleaned closets to avoid writing stories. What is that about?!?)

There are so many diversions out there – work and kids, friends and fun, chores and errands. Most of us have a long list of things we either have to do or like to do and it’s difficult to admit that you can’t do it all. If you want to write a book, you have to forego other stuff. Fun stuff. If you only have one spare hour in the day, you can’t meet your friend for coffee or take a piano lesson or walk the dog in that hour. You have to write your book. And hope that one day you’ll have more time to devote to your writing so that you can do other stuff in your spare hour. (That’s where I’m at now. But for years I wasn’t so lucky.)

How did you get started in this field? 
I wrote stories and poetry as a child but I don’t remember much and didn’t keep any. The first time I took writing seriously was in university when a professor suggested I try to publish a story I’d written for an English elective. It was the first of about a dozen stories I published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I continued to write sporadically over the years and writing was always a major part of my work for conservation organizations. After reading a thousand picture books to my own son, I tried my hand at writing them. The first dozen were wordy, dull, or Robert Munsch echoes, but I got better each time. I now write a mix of picture books, stories, and novels for different ages. 

What are you working on these days?

I’m revising my teen novel, All Good Children, based on my editor’s comments, and I’m drafting its sequel, Across the Water. Over the Christmas holidays I returned to a picture book I’d drafted in the summer and polished it to where I want it to be. I have MANY books on the go, outlines and drafts and not-quite-there manuscripts. Sometimes I wake up wanting to work on a specific piece, and I get to it. But I try to work on one draft at a time.

What’s the hardest aspect for you in terms of being creative, finding the time? the space? the focus? something else?
Sometimes it’s not the clamour but the writing itself that pushes me away. Sometimes a story just isn’t ready or isn’t working so the writing is frustrating and hard to face. It’s a lousy feeling reading back your work and thinking, “This is crap.” It takes a lot of experience and a thick skin to learn to work through the crappy and mediocre pieces and keep faith in your ability to write a really good piece of work. (Give me the strength to file my crappy drafts, the courage to revise my promising ones, and the wisdom to know the difference.)

One other obstacle for me is that sometimes I just can’t face my character’s hardships. There’s an emotional surrender in writing that’s frankly exhausting. I love to write humour, which doesn’t pose this obstacle. But the novels I’m drafting and editing now have some sad parts, and getting in the head of a narrator who’s in pain is just not fun. There are certain scenes I dread. (I’m a fanatic outliner so I know what pain is coming.) I procrastinate as they approach. I have to work myself up to it. (Mentally and physically – I run and lift weights before writing and during breaks. I suspect it helps my aging brain but, if not, at least it keeps me trim.)

Do any of your distractions end up feeding your creativity?  
Anything to do with my kids or pets feeds creativity. Dabbling on the internet can spark things, too, just as any reading or conversation can. A few weeks ago, I wasted half an hour of work time doing an online survey about emotional intelligence (of which I have little, it seems). I was berating myself for the waste when suddenly a list of feeling-words struck a chord and led to vast improvements in my picture book manuscript about an emotional marmot. Hah! Surfer vindication.

Do you have any tips for others about how to carve out time to be creative? 
If you have trouble facing the keyboard, I recommend doing a minimum amount of work each day, like half an hour, and not doing any more than that (until you no longer feel like procrastinating). That technique worked for me in the past when I was more pressed for time. It changed the way I look at my time and made me eager rather than reluctant to write. Three hours on a Saturday morning is a lot of time to fill if you’re not used to writing regularly. You put a lot of pressure on yourself to perform in those hours, so you may be reluctant to start. But half an hour? What can a person accomplish in half an hour? Not much. No pressure. Anything you write in that time will be better than nothing so you might as well get it over with. And books are written that way, a couple of pages a day.

I also recommend outlining for those so inclined. I used to write without outlines and I’d steam ahead until halfway through a novel, when I wouldn’t have a clue where to take the book. Then I’d get easily distracted. Now I have a clear outline of my scenes, so even if I don’t feel like thinking on a given day, I know what I have to write and it’s easier to just do it.

Are there times when you just can’t focus on your writing/illustrating and if so how do you cope with them? 
Yes, and I have learned to accept them and trust that they will pass. I still usually drag myself to it, because I want to keep my work habits, but I’ll work for less time than usual, or I’ll work on editing or researching rather than actual writing. In a pinch I’ll read a slew of “how to write” books, which often spark renewal of interest in some project or other, or I’ll just read. (All reading is professional development for writers.) People in other professions do professional development activities. They spend a few days filing and emailing. And they take vacations. Why do writers expect themselves to produce pages of new work every day?

Any tips on how to get through chores faster/more efficiently? 
Sorry. Nothing comes to mind other than “Embrace messiness.” 

Are there any other creative genres you look to for inspiration? 
Music is often part of my writing process. I don’t play it while I write but I play it while I cook or exercise before and after writing, and I use it as a soundtrack for envisioning scenes or generating emotions. I actually make playlists for each novel I’m working on. The one I’m listening to today has a don’t give up/stay strong theme and includes songs like:
“Kangaroo Cry” by Blue October,
“Swim” by Jack’s Mannequin,
“Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen,
“Dying to Live” by Jonny Lang,
“You Get What You Give” by the New Radicals, and
“Colby’s Song” by Joshua James.
I listened to that last one about 100 times while writing the last half of All Good Children. It has nothing to do with the story but something about the emotion in it helped feed my writing. The same thing happened while writing Walking Backward with the song “Virtue the Cat Explains her Disappearance” by the Weakerthans. I don’t know how it works but I don’t question it. (I embrace it along with messiness.)

As a creative person, do you have any other outlets for your talents? 
I photograph mushrooms with a passion. And I quilt by hand in front of the television a few times a week while watching mediocre movies or bad TV. (“So You Think You Can Dance” is excellent quilter’s viewing since you only have to look up one minute out of five.) It takes me about two years to make a quilt, longer if there’s a lot of appliqué (or subtitles). I’m still a beginner but I learn more about design and fabric with each quilt. I’d like to quilt a story, especially a life story, like Harriet Powers, but I don’t feel ready yet. I have no visual intelligence at all so it’s a big learning curve for me to figure out how colours and shapes balance. But I love it. I get all my material from old clothes. I tremble with excitement when I find unusual cotton pyjamas at the junk shop and I’ve been caught ogling the shirts of strange men in elevators.

Why do you keep creating?
I think creating is natural to our species. Our brains are awfully big and our hands are free, after all.


Thanks, Catherine, for spending some time here, for sharing this wealth of information, and for making me chuckle in the process. I love that New Radicals song you mention. Here’s to your forthcoming titles (can’t wait to read them!), quilts, and continued creativity!

© Lizann Flatt,
No part of this blog may be used without written permission from the author.

Mahtab Narsimhan: Writing is as Essential as Breathing

Feel like there’s not enough time in your busy life to be creative? How do authors or illustrators continue to create while tackling everything else in their lives? About once a month as I’ll ask a writer or illustrator how they do it. ‘Cause I want to know. (I need all the help I can get in this department.)

Creating through the Clamour, Instalment 5

The Creator 

name:  Mahtab Narsimhan
resides: Toronto, Canada (aka the centre of the universe :>)
creates: MG and currently working on a YA novel

The Creations
The Third Eye (Dundurn Press, 2007) which won the 2009 Silver Birch Fiction Award in Ontario
The Silver Anklet (Dundurn Press, 2009)
Her Mother’s Ashes (TSAR Publications, 2009) Anthology to which she contributed
Piece by Piece (Penguin Canada, 2010)  Anthology to which she contributed
The Deadly Conch (Dundurn Press, Jan 2011)
The Tiffin (Dancing Cat Books, September 2011)

The Clamour
A day job: Gotta eat/pay rent. But on the flip side it also gives me a rest from the intense mental activity of creating something out of thin air. Not a bad thing at all.

Household Chores: Real bore but has to be done. I hate a messy place. Sometimes I’ve solved quite a few problems in my plot/character motivation while vacuuming or cooking, so again, not a bad thing at all!

Kids: One with two legs and one with four. And a third one whom I married. All boys and they all need looking after.

How did you get started in this field?

I started out with recording incidents of life back home (Bombay, India) after my father passed away in 2003. That somehow got me thinking that I would try my hand at writing since I had always been an avid reader. I’ve never looked back since and this is my favourite of the four career paths I’ve taken!

Someday I’ll have to ask you about the other three! What are you working on these days?
Just finished the second round of substantive edits on THE TIFFIN. At the moment I’m writing a dystopian YA which will be a trilogy. Finished the first draft of book 1. I’m taking a break so that I can get back to it with fresh eyes in a few weeks. It’s a lot easier to see mistakes when you put it away for a while.

What’s the hardest aspect for you in terms of being creative? Finding the time? the space? the focus? something else?
Finding the time. There is always so much to do that if I don’t carve out some time in the day, I’ll never be able to write. And so, every morning from about 6:00 am to 8:00 am is the time I devote to writing. This includes Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. And yes, even my birthday.

Now that it’s become a routine, it’s easier to focus and get my quota out for the day (approx. 1500 words a day) before I allow myself to stop.

Wow, that’s discipline! Do any of your distractions end up feeding your creativity?
All I can say is that when you are looking at a problem slant, sometimes the answer comes to you.  When I tend not to focus on my writing and instead distract myself with other work, it helps.

How do you minimize your distractions while you’re working? Any tips for others? 
Have a set time, a set place and a goal. The rest will follow. An interesting fact I discovered is that most habits, good or bad, take about two weeks to form.

I have followed this routine of mine, i.e. writing early in the morning in my basement office and giving myself a daily quota, for the last six years. It’s a deeply ingrained habit and has allowed me to complete the first draft of a novel in about four to six months. It works! In fact, now, if I have not finished my “homework” on a daily basis, I feel terribly guilty and even cranky.

Are there times when you just can’t focus on your writing and if so how do you cope with them?
As time goes by I have learned to trust myself and the creative process. If I cannot write or think of the next thing that needs to happen in a plot, I’ll put it aside and work on something else. I know that I will still be thinking of the problem subconsciously and by forcing the issue I’ll only get frustrated. And sure enough after a couple of days’ break, I come up with a solution and am eager to get back to the manuscript. The first few times this happened I felt panicked, wondering if I would ever write again. Now I know I will.

Any tips on how to get things done faster/more efficiently? 
I know this is the age of multi-tasking and I am as guilty as the person sitting next to me on the bus. However there are some things that need complete focus and for me, it’s writing. I try not to think of or do anything else when I am writing. I cannot even have another person in the room when I am writing. This is why I write best early in the morning when all the boys are all snoring.

I tend not to think about unpleasant tasks too much. I grit my teeth and jump right into it. And before I know it, it’s over and done. Most efficient if you don’t dwell on it too much.

What book, song, painting, movie, etc has touched you or has great meaning for you recently?

I love fantasy fiction. It’s what has always fascinated me. The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter series remain my favourites to this day and once in a while when I have the time, I’ll read through them again.

I loved Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Illusions by Richard Bach. Also love The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.

As a creative person, do you have any other outlets for your talents? a hobby or interest?
Reading is my only other hobby. If I’m not writing, I’m reading. My secret ambition at one point in my life was to be a librarian. I mistakenly assumed that all I would have to do is check books in and out and read the rest of the day. This revelation never fails to make all the teacher-librarians I know, laugh.

Why do you keep creating in the face of all this distraction and effort?
Writing and creating is as essential to me as breathing. I couldn’t stop either even if I tried.

Looking forward to reading more of your work, Mahtab! Thanks for spending some of your time here.
© Lizann Flatt,
No part of this blog may be used without written permission from the author.

Alma Fullerton: Creating Through the Clamour

Feel like there’s not enough time in your busy life to be creative? How do authors or illustrators continue to create while tackling everything else in their lives? About once a month as I’ll ask a writer or illustrator how they do it. ‘Cause I want to know. (I need all the help I can get in this department.)

The Creator
name: Alma Fullerton
resides: Ontario, Canada
genres: YA, MG, PB, and apparently now illustrator

The Creations

Walking On Glass, published by HarperTempest, 2007
In the Garage, published by Red Deer Press, 2006
Libertad, published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2008
Burn, published by Dancing Cat Books, 2010
The Clamour

part time retail worker

volunteer work: SCBWI Canada East

full time mom: Two children. One Husband (or would that be three children -hmmm), one dog, one cat, fish– last time I checked the tank –two — however one is really mean so I might/should check again.
taxi driver: (not paid) routes to work — hubby’s work, my work and oldest child’s work, schools, guitar lessons, cheer practices, cheer competition, grocery store, malls (my children are girls – -enough said about the shopping),  school visits, book launches, book festivals, veterinarian (my dog is a hypochondriac but we love him anyway).
maid: – okay seriously not. My house is clean but not spic and span clean (do they even still make spic and span)? 

and: master Googler, blogger (rarely), Facebooker, youtube addict. Researcher. 
How did you get started in this field? 
I fell into it — quite literally. I never read as a child. I couldn’t read as a child until grade four when my teacher discovered I had a learning disability  and helped me. And then I still hated reading and still had people tell me I could never achieve things and didn’t read for fun until I came across a book I really loved (I did actually trip over that particular book). I read the whole thing because the character drew me into the story — that was huge for me. Then I found more books I loved and decided I wanted to write books kids would love, so even though reading and writing were the most difficult things for me I worked really hard at them and just did it. And now I’d really love to slap the teachers that told me I’d never be able to achieve anything with my novels — especially the hard cover ones.

What’s the hardest aspect for you in terms of being creative, finding the time? the space? the focus?

All of the above. I need a lot of time to actually draw myself into a character to be able focus on writing. And sometimes even then I might be interrupted and have to start the process all over again.
Do any of the distractions end up feeding your creativity?  
Googling ended up feeding my creativity. I was procrastinating on writing one novel by googling when I came across a story that gave me the idea of Libertad. I did try to push the idea aside but it wouldn’t go. Libertad was finished and published before the other novel.
How do you manage to carve out time to do your creating?
Carving out time is difficult. But I can mind write while doing menial tasks (like my job) and then when I do get time to get to the computer a lot of times I’ll have the plot issues worked out. I also listen to music as I write to drown out other distractions. Closing the office door only works if no one else is home and then it doesn’t really matter.
Are there times when you just can’t focus on your writing/illustrating?  
ALL THE TIME. I have an extremely hard time focusing. It’s part of my learning disability, but sometimes I just have to sit my butt down and do it. 

How do you cope with that?
One poem at a time. Sometimes if that doesn’t work I’ll just paint. That tends to relax me and if I’m painting my characters or what I think they’d look like sometimes it gives me inspiration to find out their story.

Any tips on how to avoid doing some of those distracting thing? 

Avoiding is easy. Too easy. Think write when you’re cleaning. Often the thing I’m avoiding is the novel. 
Why do you keep creating in the face of all this? 
Because I can’t not create. I tried not writing. It didn’t work. I was grumpy, snapping and just horrible to be around. 
What are you working on these days? 
I’m working on a novel call “Broken” which will be along the same lines as Libertad, and I just finished a chapter book called “Miss Understood” about a girl with a learning disability.
As a creative person, do you have any other outlets for your talents?
Yes, I paint, garden, sew, read, and cook very little but love to eat great food.

Are there any other creative genres you look to for inspiration? 
Music. I love music –as well as art, and photography. Books are food for the mind, music is food for the ears and art and photography are food for the eyes and as I said, I love to eat great food. 

Thanks, Alma!
Thanks so much for spending some of your valuable creating time with me and sharing your tips with us. Here’s to lots of great food, minimizing your clamour and maximizing your creations!
© Lizann Flatt,
No part of this blog may be used without written permission from the author.