One Writer’s Ephemera

I couldn’t think of a post topic today, so here is a list (of a sort) of my creative idiosyncrasies; the things I do to keep writing, or to keep from writing; the things that keep my mind from wandering too far during the writing day.  Enjoy.
I listen to music when I write.  Always.  And 99% of the time it’s instrumental music.  But I can’t listen to classical.  I find it limits my creativity, though I’m not exactly sure why.  Mostly I listen to jazz and bluegrass — improvisational music tends to make me write more freely.  It’s almost like I’m jamming with the musicians as I write.
I have on my desk a small ceramic sculpture of a storyteller from New Mexico.  The storyteller in pueblo cultures is the embodiment of the oral tradition, the passing of shared stories from one generation to the next.  She is depicted as a large woman surrounded by children, and some sculptures of her are huge and can be astronomically expensive.  My storyteller is tiny by comparison.  Nancy and I were in Acoma Pueblo west of Albuquerque, and I had just learned that Tor would be buying my first book.  I was excited and nervous and utterly obsessed with my new career.  We drove out to Acoma on a clear, hot desert day, and while we there I looked up in the sky and saw a single cloud floating past.  And as I looked the sun struck that cloud in such a way that it created a rainbow within the white and grey.  No one else saw it.  When we turned the next corner, a woman was sitting out on the lane selling pottery.  Her young daughter was with her and she was selling a small storyteller that she’d made herself.  I bought it from her and have had it by my keyboard ever since.
With each series I write, I dedicate the first book to my wife and the last book to my daughters.  The books in between I dedicate to friends and other family members, but everything in my life begins and ends with my wife and children, so the dedications do, too.
I write all my fiction in courier, because it looks like typewriter print.  Weird.
I compose all my fiction on the computer, but I keep my notes — character descriptions, worldbuilding information, my editing to-do list — in a notebook or on note cards, handwritten.  I find it almost impossible to compose with pen and paper; and I find that when I try to type notes into a word document or something of the sort, they don’t end up as complete or as helpful as I need them to be.  That’s kind of weird, too.
At some point in every book I write you will find a reference to some bird of prey.  I started this with the LonTobyn books, which were all about sorcerers who drew their magic from the psychic bonds they formed with avian familiars, and from there it became my own little tradition.
My most productive hours tend to fall in the mid to late afternoon.  I’ve always been like this.  If I get two pages written before lunch, that’s a good start to my day.  After lunch I’ll generally add four to six more pages.  This began when I was in grad school, working on my dissertation.  Nancy would call me during around midday and ask how my day was going, and I’d invariably say, “It’s been awful.  I have maybe a page.”  And then I’d see her at the end of the day and she’d ask how my writing went, and I’d say, “Oh it was great.  I wound up with six page.”  Happened all the time, until she finally stopped calling during the day…
Back around the time I made the decision to give up my academic career to become a full-time writer I had an amazing horoscope appear in my local paper.  It read:  “What began as mere fantasy undergoes metamorphosis, becomes real.  Hunch pays off, you win by adopting unorthodox procedures.  Those who say it can’t be done will be startled by results.”  I cut it out and wrapped it carefully in tape — in effect laminating it.  I still have it taped to the stand of my computer screen.  I look at it every day.
I make a real effort not to make numerous trips to the kitchen during the course of my writing day.  (A full refrigerator is one of the great perils of working at home.)  I have lunch early in the afternoon, and will get myself water periodically, but I don’t allow myself to snack.  The one exception to this is that after lunch I have some kind of sweet.  Usually it’s something gummy — twizzlers, gumdrops, skittles, jelly beans.  I almost always have too much of whatever it is.  Can’t help it; sugar is one of my weaknesses.
I procrastinate a fair amount on my computer.  I check my email slavishly.  I go to CNN and FiveThirtyEight and Crooksandliars.  I don’t play as many games as I used to, mostly because I’ve removed most of them from my machine.  Otherwise I’d be playing spider solitaire all the time.  When I need a break from staring at the screen, I play a song or two on my guitar.
When I’ve just released a new book I spend far too much time checking out my reviews and sales rankings on  I have friends who get their numbers from bookscan, an online service that tracks (some) sales.  If I had that I’d spend my entire day on the site and would get carpal tunnel just from hitting the refresh button…
I totally obsess over names.  I can write three pages in forty-five minutes and then spend an hour trying to come up with a name for one character.  Sometimes, if the character is relatively minor, I’ll find a name that I really like and I’ll put it aside for someone more important.  I sometimes use a baby name book, but there are also times when I’ll have a sound in mind for a name and I’ll just play with words and spellings until I find one I like.  All things considered, I spend way too much time on this aspect of my writing.
I get frustrated with my books; I grow angry with stubborn characters and stalled plotlines and contradictory elements in my worldbuilding.  I grow weary of the business side of things:  the worry about sales numbers, the strain of contract negotiations, the idiosyncrasies of the royalties system.  But after thirteen books (ten published so far) and a dozen years, I still love my job more than I can say.
What about you?  What’s on your desk?  What little personal things do you throw into your books?  How do you waste time during the day?  What keeps you from writing more; what makes you more productive?  Time to share!
David B. Coe

30 comments to One Writer’s Ephemera

  • Thanks for the inside scoop, David!

    What’s on your desk?<< Generally work stuff since I can only write while at work.

    What little personal things do you throw into your books?<< I always have at least one scene where it is raining. I love the rain and it draws out pwerful emotions from me.

    How do you waste time during the day? <<< Working in the mundane world generally. Other than that, reading blogs, going to FOXNews, checking dragonmount.

    What keeps you from writing more; what makes you more productive? <<< What keeps me writing more is reading writer’s/agent’s/editor’s blogs. Reading about the publishing industry always inspires me to write more because I want to be a part of that. As for productivity… I listen to music as well, mostly Jimi Hendrix, Bach, New World Symphony, The Doors, or Ozzy.

  • My desk is, well…a mess. Mostly it’s scattered with school books and papers as I’m currently in school to become an elementary teacher. I have a large, recling toad on top of my desk, a gift in memoriam to my childhood nickname. My writing comes in bits and pieces now, whenever I get an open hour among homework and family duties. It’s difficult to write with the distractions of kids, tv, and the like, so usually it’s the last hour before bed that I do anything writing related. Sorely wish I had more time to write, as right now I’m editing on the two novels I’ve completed, and not working very much on new stuff. I told myself I would get these edits done before starting on my new story, and it’s rather difficult. Ideally I would have silence to write. I generally get too distracted even with music playing, though occasionally I’ll have classical or jazz to write by. I look forward to the day my schooling is done, I’m settled into a new teaching job and I can reestablish a new and regular writing routine.

    Oh, on a completely unrelated note, I’m looking for other good fantasy sites/blogs to go along with this one. Any suggestions?

  • Thanks for sharing, Mark. Aside from FoxNews it sounds as though you’re using your “wasted” time well… 😉 I’d be grateful for your input on Jim’s question about other fantasy sites/blogs for writers and readers. Thanks in advance.

    And thanks to you, too, Jim. I wish you every success with your teaching degree and I commend you for pursuing what I feel is the most noble of professions. I was raised by an educator, and I married one. And as a Dad myself, I know what enormous influence teachers can have on kids. Good on you. One site you might want to check out is It’s another group blog. It’s maintained by a group of approximately 100 fantasy and science fiction professionals. We have links to our sites and to sample chapters, and we have a blog to which many of us contribute on a regular basis.

  • David, I’m a slob.
    I have so much stuff on my desk, my screen, it’s awful. Mostly dust…
    I’ll play on Wednesday.

  • I don’t listen to music while I’m writing, except on very rare occasions. I tend to, if music is on, listen to it to the exclusion of anything else, and so I can sit at my computer desk for an hour and a half accomplishing absolutely nothing but listening to music. Not good. 🙂

    Re: sweets. They’re my weakness too. If you happen to like mint, let me suggest getting some hard mint candies. Just one takes several minutes to dissolve in the mouth and gives you the sweet hit with very little in the way of calories. I find that one of those will trick me into not wanting another sweet/snack for a good couple hours. 🙂

    I have a blog topic for tomorrow, but maybe I’ll do this instead. It looks like fun. 🙂

  • Thanks for the insights into your writing life, David! I think the trouble with classical music is that it is so complex it draws your brain into it. If I do have music on in the background, it will be something instrumental but light, such as Shadowfax. Sometimes I will even put a well-watched film on in the background (Star Wars trilogy is great for this) to occupy the bits of my brain not involved in writing.

    I keep my desk very bare; I am an obsessive organiser and I cannot bear clutter. Bar my laptop and associated devices and cables, I have my Tigger coaster and a china cat mug (to my shame, I am a catlady) which usually has Earl Grey in it. My wall is covered in post it notes about writing, my dissertation, advice on losing a couple o’ pounds, books to go on my ‘to read’ list etc.

    The little bit of me that always ends up in my stories is my love for Egyptian belly dance. There will always be a dancing girl in my stories. She might appear in one scene to perform in the background, or she might be the main character. I have the horrid feeling that a nasty warlord in one of my current novellas is going to ravish some poor dancer O.o

    I am a terrible procrastinator; I went to Google Reader and found your post while trying to ignore the cries for help from a character currently facing certain death. As you mentioned, in an attempt to not procrastinate I removed my games, so then had to go find some online. A great timewasting game I’ve found is

    For a bit of moral support I love authors blogs – and sites like this are great, but I stay away from pages dedicated to the industry of writing rather than the art of it.


  • Anna said, “I have the horrid feeling that a nasty warlord in one of my current novellas is going to ravish some poor dancer.”

    Zills can serve as an excellent weapon, you know. I’ve konked a drummer in the head with a zill before, and I’ve also been pinched by my zills. Hurts like fire!

  • I tend to listen to insrumentals as well, but it’s either the Midnight Syndicate CDs or the soundtracks to Buffy, Angel, Torchwood or Dr. Who or Pirates of the Caribbean. If they have words in them they’re distracting because I start thinking about the words. I like to sing and it ends up distracting me from writing. So, no lyrics.

    My desk is about always a horrible mess; pill bottles, RPG books, candy, Netflix envelopes, random CDs, Icy Hot, my coffee cup and warmer and a slew of other things I really should clean up. I know cleaning it actually makes me feel more organized, but it’s just such a chore. I have a cork board on my wall that has random pictures I’ve drawn and business cards from friends, a calendar and a writing time sheet that I write down my word count on. On the wall above that I have a shrunken lookin’ pirate head that someone got for me after they found out I like piratey stuff after I wrote Argh! Thar Be Zombies! There’s also a small pirate flag hanging there that says Dead Men Tell No Tales and the head’s hanging under it. And there’s a print out of the book cover for the pirate supplement.

    I have to turn off the internet to work. I’m terrible about playing on the net and will get distracted from writing if I can click to check out my favorite sites. I’ve set up blogs in the past just to keep track of friend’s blogs and I have a lot of them to check. I’m on MySpace and Facebook, as well as a few forums that I like to visit. There’s a lot of stuff out there I like to keep track of and that all adds up to wasted time. I’m starting to budget my time a little better, but I’m still somewhat lax.

    I don’t play games much anymore, no time, nor really money to buy them…or another bigger, faster, better computer to run them on. So I just don’t play them. Though Left 4 Dead has been calling me. Seriously, on the phone…all the time…it’s embarrassing. So I usually click the little button on the top of the modem to temporarily shut the internet down when I’m writing. The TV is usually on, but I can usually block out that distraction. Generally it’s Sesame Street or some other kid’s show for my daughter that’s on anyway, so it’s not hard. I also don’t answer the phone during writing time, unless it’s my wife. They can leave a message, and if they can’t it must not’ve been all that important.

    I’ve learned recently that I don’t like when my characters slow down. I actually slow down too and have to slog my way through like I’m walking uphill through molasses. I guess I don’t like writing about mundane things, like stopping for the night and doing mundane tasks. I bog down at these times. I can write about travel fine and fighting, dialogue or things that further the plot and action type stuff, even love scenes if that’s the kind of story I’m writing. I just can’t do those slow down points very well.

    And when I write the rest of the chores suffer. It’s amazing how fast a house can look like a bomb went off in it when you ignore it for a couple days to get some writing done. Especially when you have a two and a half year old daughter who I’m certain is plugged into some chaos stream and will most likely become a chaos theorist when she’s older. No, I jest, she’s awesome, but hasn’t managed to learn yet that it’s better to pick it up when you’re done playing with it. Then again, I guess neither have I. 😉

    I haven’t noticed any kind of recurring theme in my stories yet, but I’m sure something’s in there somewhere. I’ll probably have someone mention it one day and I’ll go, “huh, never noticed that…er, I mean, yeah, yeah, that’s intentional!” 😉

  • Misty said: Zills can serve as an excellent weapon, you know.

    That is an inspired idea – death by zills? This awful man (He’s the first truly depraved character I’ve ever created) does deserve to be assassinated in a unique and degrading way.

    I’ve hurt myself doing bullwhips with a beaded-edge veil… eyes are sensitive things… but so far I’ve never pinched myself with zills!

  • I have a few things on my desk, or on the bookshelves right next to my desk:

    What’s on your desk?
    *Pewter sculpture of Gandalf my oldest friend sent to me when he was stationed in Germany in the Air Force back in 1990.

    *One of those desk nameplate things that has my name and Author written below it. I consider myself a writer, but not yet an author. For me, that’s what I’ll be able to call myself when I get published.

    *A couple of small pewter figures: orc, ranger, dragon.

    *A reproduction of a Japanese dog sculpture from the Met.

    What little personal things do you throw into your books?
    I don’t know that I’ve got any specific little tidbit I toss in. About the closest thing would be: mist.

    How do you waste time during the day?
    Blogs, great TV shows. I watch some FoxNews and CNN and listen to NPR. Do research (either for the day job or writing related).

    What keeps you from writing more; what makes you more productive?
    Work keeps me from writing more. I’m in the middle of a project that will last until early summer so it eats at the time I have for writing. But I do my best to make time. As for being more productive, it’s a combination of reading blogs such as this, as well as reading. Sometimes it just a great idea, or the clarification of something that has been cloudy can really spur on the writing. All sorts of things, really.

  • Anna said, “That is an inspired idea – death by zills? …I’ve hurt myself doing bullwhips with a beaded-edge veil… eyes are sensitive things… but so far I’ve never pinched myself with zills!”

    My teacher has a pair of zills so big we call them her pie plates. I love them, but so far I don’t play them very well – they’re just too big. But those would definitely put a dent in a man’s skull.

    If you think about it, belly dancers are pretty dangerous. Beaded-edge veils, swords, canes, fire fans, fire poi…we dance with some heavy weaponry!

  • Catie said, “I have a blog topic for tomorrow, but maybe I’ll do this instead. It looks like fun.”

    I will, too! Except on Thursday, when it’s my turn. But you knew I meant that. 😀

  • “If you think about it, belly dancers are pretty dangerous. Beaded-edge veils, swords, canes, fire fans, fire poi”

    No doubt. The proverbial whirling dervish, comes to mind. They’d make (and probably have in history) pretty useful assassins. I think I’ve found a fifth character for my latest idea. Thanks! Now off I go to do some belly dancing research…but not to…do…belly dancing…that would look just…wrong.

  • Wendy

    My desk has had to be in my bedroom for most of my life. I’ve only ever managed to keep it free of clothes for weeks at at time in college when the space was so small I had no choice.
    I’m about to move into a condo that will finally allow me to have a bedroom and some spare rooms for other purposes. My husband gets his crazy costuming, painting space, and I finally get my writing space. I’m hoping this creates productivity. I tried to create a writing corner in my apartment, but it didn’t work very well. I end up on the couch with my laptop more often than not. This is why my writing-room-to-be will also have a small sofa in it, just in case this is the way I work best.
    When my desk is usuable, I can see the following under the glass overlay: Great-Great Uncle Ernst in his brilliant early auto, my grandparents in their youth, an unknown Victorian relative who is very handsome and well-dressed, and various landscapes from travels that inspire fantasy geography. I also kept a card from my sister that has a quote on it from Alice in Wonderland about believing impossible things.

    I always have music on. Doesn’t matter what. Sometimes, I’ll make a mood play lists for a project. I like to think about my characters’ stories in terms of songs when I’m feeling aimlessly creative, so I end up with lists.

    I think the nature of my job is the thing that keeps me from writing most days. I am allowed to write at my desk, but I sort of live in the expectation of being interrupted, so unless I get going on something right when I arrive in the morning, my day is kind of shot. I find I’m most productive before 11:00 a.m. When I have taken a personal day, but yanked myself out of bed at 6:00 a.m. anyway, I almost always have 2-3000 words by 11.

    Blogs are a distraction, but can also be inspiration. I read this one, the silly ladies over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, various fashion blogs full of good humor and things written by my friends near and far. The creativity of others often sparks me.

    I must also wave to my fellow dancers on the list! I will never look at my zills the same way again. 😉

  • *waves at Wendy* It is crawling with dancers here!

    Smart Bitches is a timewaster of mine as well… I also have a little desk in my living room, as well as a larger desk in the cats’ room (well, uh, the spare room) – yet I always end up sitting on the couch with my laptop.

  • Wow! Quite a discussion! And lots of dancers with dangerous zills! Thanks to all for their contributions so far. Looking forward to the posts from Catie, Faith, and Misty later in the week.

  • Heh! Guess they got MAD ZKILLS! Sorry, bad joke. -_-

  • Daniel said, “Now off I go to do some belly dancing research…”

    If you have questions, you know where to email me!

    Anna said, “It is crawling with dancers here!”

    Wouldn’t that be “it’s shimmying with dancers”? *laughs* One of these days we’ll all get together at some con and shake the house down!

  • “One of these days we’ll all get together at some con and shake the house down!”

    Okay, I definitely want to be there for that.

    And Daniel, that was awful…. But I did laugh.

  • Being assaulted by a bunch of belly dancers with zills is not the worst way to go if you ask me. *laugh**wink*

  • Misty said: Wouldn’t that be “it’s shimmying with dancers”? *laughs*

    It crossed my mind, but I thought it was straying dangerously close to being a bad pun. I wasn’t sure if that would get me stoned here. Although it appears that Daniel had no such concerns…

    His pun made me snort tea. I’ll have to tell it to my dance teacher – she seems to have the right sense of humour for it.

  • My desk is tidy; I can’t work surrounded by clutter. Blame it on my German upbringing. 🙂

    I often listen to opera, preferably Italian belcanto, though for some scenes Wagner works better. I’m an owl and work best at night (I just have to take care not to sing along with the operas 😉 ). I need tea to function and drink lots of it, albeit later at night it can also be some red wine or a nice single malt, provided I can talk my father into buying me a bottl now and then; it’s beyond my budget. 😀

    My worst procrastination tool is my blog, and the blogs of my online friends. I’ve been sick the last two weeks and didn’t post that much, but usually I have 1-2 longer posts every week, often about history and architecture, sometimes about writing. Those posts take more time than they should, but it’s fun and I’ve gained some readers, so I won’t stop posting that sort of geek stuff now.

  • I’m with Mark on that one.

    Gabriele I think your blog sounds great. And the thing about procrastinating with a blog is you’re still writing. That’s a good thing.

  • Thank you, David.

    I’m a bit of a photographer as well as a writer, and my blog comes with illustrations. I suspect that is the true reason I got a readership. 😉

    (Link is via my name, btw.)

  • David said, “And lots of dancers with dangerous zills!”

    Oh sweetie, sometime you’ll need to hear the story about when I lost control of my cane in front of an audience, and nearly brained a drummer.

    Mark said, “Being assaulted by a bunch of belly dancers with zills is not the worst way to go if you ask me.”

    My husband fully agrees – you’ll have to ask him about my troupe dropping their zills just to make him pick them up. This tends to happen when he wears his velvet tights to faire…

    Anna said, “…but I thought it was straying dangerously close to being a bad pun.”

    I LIVE for the painful pun! Bring ’em on!

  • Gabriele, I’m a photographer, too. (The MagicalWords graphics at the top of the page are all from my photos). I’ll look forward to checking out your blog.

    Misty, I look forward to hearing the story over single malt.

  • Desi

    The comments on this post are great! I currently have two desks, both so packed with crap (book notes, drawings, my painting equipment, tax documents, bills, favorite coffee mugs that have been chipped too badly to use, but that I love too much to throw away, and even, shamefully, the odd dirty dish from eating at my desk that I don’t find until it’s either missing or I actually clean off my desk). These surfaces are unusable approximately 80% of the time, so i have moved to my dining room table, which is probably why my carpal tunnel issues have flared…but in my silly defense, there is something so absolutely beautiful about sitting in front of a sliding glass door, looking out at the weather or the trees rustling in the breeze, or the weird neighbors from the apartment upstairs playing with their Larping pals…it’s probably the biggest reason I never clean off my desks and use them.
    Typically, like you, David, I write notes by hand. That allows me to doodle on the pages, creating ornamental letters, little maps, etc. Once I even did a flow chart for the possible events of a story because i was feeling especially nerdy. I almost always listen to music while I write. I don’t listen to classical because it is either too complex or too boring (which puts me to sleep in an instant). The only kind of music that I enjoy that I absolutely cannot listen to when working is (underground) hip hop. In most other vocal music, the singing voice becomes an instrument in the background of my world, but a speaking voice is just far too distracting. It keeps me from sinking into the world that I’m writing about. Once in a great while I find the word I’m looking for from listening to the lyrics while I think :).
    As a side note, has been great for expanding my musical horizons 🙂

  • I write in the Oriental Room, as we call it. It has a lovely view out the front of the house and is full of artwork, statues, etc. I’ve collected during my stays in the Mysterious East. My desk has dragons (statues or wall hangings)on three sides just to help the energy flow. Ferret Fred (a stuffed ferret from my Time Rovers books) looks over my shoulder as I write. I listen to music like you, David, though it varies across the map from vocal to instrumental, from Celtic to New Age. Music definitely sparks creativity — I’ve come up with whole books based on one song.

    I often tuck little homages into my books–Jolly Sailor Tobacco in honor of Sir Terry Pratchett, tomato seeds in honor of Kim Harrison, etc. Occasionally friends will show up as minor characters. Consider yourself warned (wink).

    My productivity is all over the map. Some days I’m very prolific, others I just putz around. I work best when I’m cornered like a rat, but my good sense tells me not to let things get that far out of hand deadline-wise.

    To be honest, I KNOW this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing in my life. I’ve had a number of other jobs over the years, but this one is home. Often frustrating, often tiring, never dull. What else can one ask for?

  • Thanks for the description of your work space and habits, Desi. Flow-charts are a great writing tool, and yes the notes-by-hand thing is very important to my process. Vocal music, though, is not something I can handle when I write. I’m a singer and I’m obsessed with lyrics. Not helpful when I write….

    Jana, some of the best characters I’ve written have been musical. I love allowing music to seep into my writing. I think it’s very cool that you’re so certain about your writing career. I’ve never been that certain about mine. I don’t think I ever will be. I’ll always wonder if I should be doing something else, something that contributes more to the family finances. I don’t know if that’s a gender thing or a parent thing or a Jewish thing, but it certainly is SOME thing, and not always something good….