Waiting for Inspiration

By Elizabeth Engstrom

So here I sit, facing the blank page again.

The house is quiet, I’ve had enough coffee, I’m sick of social media. I am ready to write.

But what shall I write? Shall I tune up—yet again—that old broken short story that I’ve messed with for years? Shall I pull from the trash that old novel that I have pulled from the trash several times already and work on it? (Seriously. It’s back in the office closet. It needs to be in the trash.)

Or should I imagine something new, something fresh?  Yes, that’s it. That’s what I’ll do.

But what?

I know what. It’s what I always do, and it works.



Most people will go to the garden, or take a walk, or bake something, or worse, turn on daytime television. Inspiration will rarely come to you when you’re doing something other than sitting at the keyboard. Occasionally, I’ll get inspiration in the shower or on a walk, but that almost always involves a work in progress that has hit a snag.

For the fresh idea, I have to be sitting here, right here, ready to go.

And if nothing comes, if nothing in the past few days has piqued my interest sufficiently, then I begin my 10-minute free writing exercise. Timed. Internal editor off.  I just write whatever comes into my head and through my fingers to the keyboard. Most times it’s drivel. Sometimes there comes a germ of an idea.

At the end of the ten minutes, I stop, take a sip of coffee, read the crap I’ve written and see if there’s a thread there that could be pulled up. Sometimes no, but most times yes. And then I proceed, internal editor activated as usual.

Do these things always end up as stellar short stories or novel-length work that can take up to a year of my life? No. But it keeps the writing and imagination machinery greased and working. And keeping the skills alive is  mandatory.

Not everything I write is publishable—far from it—but if the ratio is 90%/10%, then I best be getting on with that 90% of unpublishable stuff so I can get to the good stuff.

I get up in the morning, and I go to work, like everybody else. I don’t wait for inspiration.  I can’t afford to.

Sometimes I have to go hunt it down.

The 2017 World Fantasy Convention

by Elizabeth Engstrom

This is a follow-up post to Christina Lay’s experience of the 2017 World Fantasy Convention. I was there, too, and my experience was a little bit different.

I was there because I had been a judge for this year’s World Fantasy Awards. That experience warrants a blog post of its own, but I won’t go into that here. This is about attending the convention.


World Fantasy Award

When I was young and in the hunt, I used to go to this convention all the time. It is a professional convention, which means it is heavy on professional writers, editors, agents, and booksellers, and light on fans. There are fan conventions, where people wear costumes and write fan fiction, etc. This is not one of those. It is smaller, quieter, and to me, more meaningful. Professional.

I haven’t been to the WFC in many years, but I went to this one in San Antonio because I had judged the awards. I saw many people that I haven’t seen in years, and those relationships had not changed. We were all happy to see one another. I went to panel discussions, I participated in a surprisingly rich panel discussion of one of my favorite authors, I dined with friends old and new, and had a nice time.

But the minute I stepped into the convention hotel, I had a familiar feeling. These conventions bring out two emotions in me. One is envy. I tend to castigate myself: Why hadn’t I finished that book that’s been sitting on my desk for the last six months? I could be celebrating its release along with everybody else who was celebrating a release. (In fact, I had a book released this year and was celebrating its release.) The other is a feeling that I have become irrelevant, last-week’s news. And yet, I had a book released this year, and was a judge for these prestigious awards. Why would I feel like that? I don’t know, but both things plague me at every WFC.

This year, however, as I was sitting the ShadowSpinners table in the Dealer’s Room, I saw a very successful author I have admired for years. We have met, but I don’t know him well enough to approach (oh yeah, I also have to fight the introvert in me who wants to sit in my room and watch television), so I just watched him walk the floor in the dealer’s room.

I saw in him what I was feeling in myself. He looked exactly like he felt like he was irrelevant, last-week’s news. To me, he was anything but. And with that astonishing revelation, I started looking around the floor, the halls, and I saw it everywhere, on many people’s faces. There were the young hungry authors, networking their hearts out, but those of us of a certain age weren’t as aggressive. We’ve been well published. We’ve paid our dues, but somehow that wasn’t enough.

Knowledge is power, and once I realized that I was not the only one who felt like that, I stood a little taller, felt a little better, enjoyed myself twice as much and was bolder in all my interactions.

I used to teach an advanced novel writing class—mostly about marketing and getting published—and one year WFC landed in Seattle in the middle of the course. Almost everyone in the class decided to go. I gave them an assignment: Write down three goals for this trip. Those who did as I suggested had a much better, more productive, time. And each of them achieved their three goals. Those who did not stood in the shadows, feeling irrelevant.

Here’s the takeaway for me: Make three goals, and actively and aggressively pursue them at a convention like WFC. I could have made my time more productive, I could have had a better time. I could have made these my goals: Introduce myself to three authors whose work I admire (I actually did that); Make three new friends to connect with at future WFCs (introvert that I am, I mostly hung with old, familiar faces); More aggressively market my new release (Benediction Denied, a Labyrinth of Souls novel, from ShadowSpinners Press) by making sure that certain editors and reviewers had copies.

World Fantasy Convention is the best convention for me, despite my personal demons. I always enjoy myself, I always have fun, I usually buy art at the astonishing fantasy art show, and the big Friday night booksigning is beyond imagination. The East Coast conventions have a completely different personality than the West Coast conventions. Baltimore is up next year and after that, Los Angeles.

I am a big believer in attending conferences and conventions. If you’re a professional writer, or want to be, this is the convention for you to attend, get to know, and frequent. Find me on the convention floor. If we’re not already friends, we soon will be.

Write What You Know

By Elizabeth Engstrom

I’ve been fortunate to have a career writing and teaching fiction. I love fiction. I love reading it, I love writing it (sometimes), and most of all, I love watching a new writing student’s fire ignite with the passion for his or her own fiction.

This is why I am annoyed by one of the biggest truths and biggest lies that circulate and recirculate around the writing world—academic and otherwise—which is “write what you know.” I am annoyed because it is misunderstood.


If I took this advice on its face value, I would write about a middle-aged, middle-class woman, married with children, average income, average height, average experiences. I make dinner, I keep house, I do the laundry, I go into my home office and write. I can’t imagine anything more boring to write about than my life.

This is not to say that my life is boring; far from it. But it would not make good fiction.

There are other things that I know about, and they require a broader, deeper investigation of the advice to “write what you know.” I know about love. I know about the first blush of a crush, I know the deep and abiding knowledge of another person for whom I would gladly give my life. I know about loss. I know the chest-crushing experience of grief and the periodic waves of it that have rendered me unable to move. I know joy, and anger, and frustration to the breaking point. I know anxiety, stress, and responsibility far beyond my ability to be the adult-in-charge. I know about betrayal and infidelity. I know paralyzing fear. I know soaring, thrilling triumph and how to put it all into perspective.

This is what I know, and this is what I write about. And because I write about these things, I can write from the point of view of a man, or an alien, or in a place I’ve never lived, in a time far before or after my limited lifespan. That is the imaginative, tale-telling aspect of fiction.

While many people would resonate with trying to figure out what to cook for dinner, my readers deeply resonate with my portrayal and reaction to a cancer diagnosis. Or the face-slap of a dear friend’s betrayal. These are the things I know that you know. These are the things that you can and should write about, because fiction is about adding your voice to the chorus.

Writers are the keepers of the literature, the chroniclers of our times. Your voice is important, and you must speak your truth. Not about choosing where to buy your produce, but how you reacted to the major upheavals in your life. Your voice is unique. It adds depth to the choir.

Write boldly. Write courageously. Write what you know.

Grist for the Mill

By Elizabeth Engstrom

How many times have you been told, when going through a rough patch in life, “Well, it’s grist for the mill.” That phrase never helps me when someone else says it. Only when I say it.

For those who don’t know, grist is grain that has been separated from the chaff (outer husk), leaving the kernels ready to be ground into flour.

Today I use my Vitamix to grind wheat berries into flour, but in the old days, oxen walked around and around a big stone where people threw their wheat, to be ground into flour by another enormous round stone. Later, windmills powered the grinding stones to make flour. Wind powering a mill. Windmill.


For an author, the real milling happens internally. Authors are quirky people, very interesting to talk to (if you can get them alone and not in a crowd) because they live lives of grand events, they feel passionately, and grind their experiences into a fine powder and then play it out on the page.

Very few people have a book published prior to acquiring a few gray hairs. This is because we have to live life, we have to experience a vast landscape of people, events, relationships, emotions; we need grist that we can ponder, from which we extract the kernel that will become fiction worth reading.

My friend, romance writer Susan Wiggs says the hardest scene ever to write is that of a woman crying. She’s right. Most authors cheat and say something like “tears ran down her cheeks.” Well, that’s just not right. It’s passive, it’s likely from the wrong point of view, it tells the reader NOTHING. It is only those of us who have experienced gut-blasting, heart-exploding grief, where it feels like a heart attack, it feels like asphyxiation, the kind of grief where we’re certain we’re going to die–who can write a scene that a reader will get on the emotional level that we intend. On a human level. Not every woman crying scene deserves all of that, but it deserves a corner of it.

And yet, we can’t write that while it’s raw. We have to grind it. We have to absorb it into our personalities, make it part of our total human experience. We have to portion it out in this scene and in that scene, knowing that the depth of our personal experience is so vast that we can draw on those experiences for the rest of our lifetimes.

Sometimes, of course, we have to write it raw. Sometimes that’s the only way to survive. But that writing is not for publication. That is merely the record of the grist entering the mill. The finished story or novel is the finished, baked bread. As you know, good bread needs leavening. That takes time.

So when you go through something terrifying, horrible, or devastating, and someone else, knowing you’re a writer, tosses it off by saying, “it’s just grist for the mill,” realize that they’re trying to comfort you. They don’t mean to invite a slap across the chops. They know you’re a writer, someone who feels everything intensely, and that someday you will indeed use this unexpected windfall of wild grain in your mill to bake a loaf of something delicious that they will enjoy.

Team Work

By Elizabeth Engstrom

About two years ago, Matthew Lowes, game writer/designer, asked me to edit the rule book for his new game, Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls. I got the manuscript, but it didn’t have any of the charts, graphs, or illustrations of the finished book. I couldn’t really follow the instructions, so I just carried on, looking for typos, sentence structure awkwardness, etc. Much of it was repetitive, as there are the Basic Rules, then the Expert Rules, which includes the Basic Game. Then the Rules for Two Players, which includes the rules for the Advanced Game, which of course includes the rules for the Basic Game. You get the idea. So my work was rote, and gave my imagination time to roam.

In the game, the player delves into the underground Labyrinth, there to meet monsters (Really? What kind of monsters?), find treasure (Really? What kind of treasure?), and encounter and endure all manner of adventures. At some point, the player must weigh how many resources he has left in order to turn around and make it back out of the labyrinth before losing all his light, or his food, or his life.

It’s a fun game. While reading through the rule book without real comprehension, I started to wonder: Who would delve into the underground labyrinth, and why? Pretty soon I had an idea. And then I had an idea of what kind of monsters that particular character would encounter, and what kind of treasure he would search for and find, or not find.

I finished editing, and when I returned the manuscript back to Matt, I said, “I could write a novel based on this game scenario.”


Fast forward six months. The game came out to great acclaim, the accompanying deck of Tarot Cards with art by Josephe Vandel is exquisite, and a small group of writers got together to learn to play. Within a couple of weeks, ten or so authors signed on to write books loosely based on the Labyrinth of Souls.

My book is the first one to drop, only because I finished it first. Published by ShadowSpinners Press, authors to come include Matthew Lowes himself, Christina Lay, Eric Witchey, Stephen Vessels, John Reed, Mary Lowd, Pamela Herber, Cheryl Owen-Wilson, Cynthia Ray, and likely others. We plan a big launch of the first five books at this November’s World Fantasy Convention in  San Antonio, Texas.

The best part of this experience has been being part of the team. We’re all stupendously supportive of each other as we encourage the writing, the rewriting, the editing, the promotion. We even had a memorable weekend away, where instead of partying, the great room was silent except for the quiet tapping of keyboards. We helped each other that weekend with plot, character, and setting, and talked about the unique problems of writing a book that takes place underground. I’m not much for collaboration, but if this is what it tastes like, I will gladly change my opinion. I’ve read three of the novels-to-come, and they are extraordinary, each entirely different from one another.

I invite you to join us in the Labyrinth of Souls, to read these books as they come out, one every month, and bask, as I have, in the astonishingly unique vision each author has for this world.

Deadlines! Oh, the Horror!

by Elizabeth Engstrom

Nothing in my office happens without a deadline.

Deadlines mean that I get stuff done. On time.

If I don’t have a deadline to meet, I’d rather be digging in the garden, knitting, having lunch with a friend, or outside reading a book. If I don’t have a deadline, then I have time off.


Whenever anyone asks me to do something, my first question is: What’s my deadline? And if that is reasonable, I put it on my calendar. If it’s an extended project with many steps, I put intermediate deadlines on my calendar to make sure I meet the ultimate deadline.  The last thing I want is to be chained to my desk for three or four days at the end of a long project because I failed to schedule properly and allocate my time wisely.

My calendar is my lifeline to getting things done. Rarely do I miss a deadline. It happens, but it’s rare.

When I sign a contract for a book, I agree to submit the manuscript on a certain date. When the publisher gets that contract, they set all their intermediary deadlines for catalog copy, cover art, interior design, for copy editing, publicity… there are many,  many steps that a book goes through from the time I submit it to the time that it is published. All those intermediary professionals put my book on their calendar and schedule time for it.


If I miss the deadline (that I agreed to, by the way—if the deadline on the contract is too short or looks like it will pinch, I change it before signing the contract), then all those people miss all their deadlines, all the way down the line. And it isn’t as if the publisher doesn’t have other things to do that they can just accommodate an irresponsible writer. They have long memories for things like this.

So I make my deadlines. Even if it isn’t a book contract, other people depend on me to be on time, see to my commitments, take other peoples’ time and energy seriously.

Imagine, if you will, hiring a contractor to build your new deck. He’s to arrive on Monday morning at 8am, but instead, he waltzes in Friday around 3. You’ve prepared for him, you’ve inconvenienced yourself for him, and he hasn’t taken his business seriously enough to show up on time. Likely to use him again?

Meeting deadlines is a courtesy to everyone involved.

But not only is it a courtesy to other people, it is an act of kindness to myself. I get to have those days of digging in the garden, jumping up and going for a spontaneous bike ride, taking off for a day at the beach with the husband and the dog. My conscience is clear, my calendar allows it, and I am free to have fun.

My calendar is my lifeline to having a peaceful life.

And I have deadlines to thank for it.

One Legendary Evening

By Elizabeth Engstrom

There is a legend that tells of Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein sitting down in front of the fireplace one evening with a bottle of brandy, and each of them burning one million unpublished words. To date I’ve been unable to authenticate this legend, but it doesn’t really matter whether or not it is true. I like to think it is, and I choose to think that for many reasons.


The main reason I like this story is that it tells me that I am not alone with my quirky propensities.

I have a propensity to keep everything I write. I’m not the only writer whose filing cabinet is filling up with unpublished, unpublishable writings. Why do we cling to these things? Because we may look at them some day and discover that they had mutated over the years into something useful?

This lore also tells me that even the great writers—the writers of legend—have dead end ideas, bad books, worthless prose. They don’t consider their every word golden, and neither should I. (Tony Hillerman says he has a whole file cabinet full of first chapters.) They practice their craft, and don’t subject their fans to their practicings. I thank them for that.

I wonder what went into that fire of Heinlein and Bradbury. What brilliant poetry, intriguing concepts from the minds of those two gentlemen will be forever lost to our body of American literature? With Heinlein long dead and Bradbury recently so, what would Christie’s get for those manuscript pages on the auction block?

While I long to read fresh material by these two men, I’m glad they had the courage to reduce those pages to ashes, rather than to let me at their files of rejected prose and aborted projects. Why would I want to lessen my opinion of them by reading their worst, when I have been privileged to read their best?

How was this plan conceived, and how did they go about choosing what went the way of the flames? Were these things unpublished because of the authors’ internal editors or the editors of some publishing house? Did they ball up the pages and toss them in with cavalier bravado, or did they gently, reverently, lay stacks of pages upon the logs? And what did they talk about as they fed the fire? Did they tell bawdy jokes, or gossip about other writers and their work or their love lives, or did they complain about the changing aspects of the publishing industry? Was this an unburdening, cathartic evening, or a memorial service filled with melancholy of stories that could have been?

Two men who wrote with typewriters and carbon paper, pre-computer, pre-Xerox, each burning the equivalent of ten 100,000-word novels. It gives me pause.

Some day, I hope a writer hears about the same ritual as performed by me and one of my contemporaries, and considers it with the same amount of speculation. But to have a million unpublished words is a huge undertaking.

I best get busy.