Who are you?
My name is Erin Cotter and I’m a writer based in Austin, Texas.
What do you write?
My debut novel, By Any Other Name, is a young adult historical novel, but when I first started to write I wrote contemporary novels. I didn’t find my writer niche until I decided to fuse together my curiosity and love for the past with the voice-y character-driven stories I loved in contemporary fiction.
I enjoy writing historical novels, especially for young adult audiences, because it lets me take the past and make it legible and fun (I hope!) for present day readers. I feel like when we learn history in the classroom it’s often a very dry, very cause and effect narrative. There’s a lot of “X happened because of Y” and there’s usually more to that story than the textbooks let on. History is very much a record created by people privileged enough to have the time to process events and record them. The writers of history have certain perspectives that are bound to influence how we read their narratives. I like to write about the lives of people living in a particular historic moment who were unlikely to have their perspectives recorded.
Where do you write?
Before I start writing something new, I spend a lot of time brainstorming about my characters, their motivations, their goals, their fears, and then I take my thoughts and shape them into an outline. Using an outline was the most helpful change I’ve made in my process from when I started writing. Even though there’s bound to be detours and I know I’ll still get lost, writing an 80,000-to-100,000-word draft is a lot less intimidating when you have a roadmap.
Most of my outlining and brainstorming is done by hand in a notebook I dedicate to the project. This part is maybe my favorite part of the process. Something about being alone with my thoughts, putting them down on paper, feels full of excitement and possibility. All my drafting and revision is done on the computer.
When brainstorming and outlining, I often use Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and Lisa Cron’s Story Genius to help myself think more deeply about the story I want to write.
When do you write?
I do my best writing at my desk in thirty-minute chunks. I even use an actual sand hourglass to time myself. Unless I’m brainstorming, I have a really hard time concentrating outside my house. I built my writing desk myself and I’ve written four novels and a dissertation there. I’m very particular about my things and my environment when I write.
I set time goals for myself over word count goals when I’m drafting or doing a big revision. The creative process isn’t always straight forward: sometimes a great writing session might result in a negative word count for the day. Giving myself a set time to work reassures me that I’m putting in the time and effort into my craft without the pressure of needing to have results right away. Writing a book happens one word at a time after all.
Writing deadlines are a tricky thing to navigate. Before my publisher bought my book, all my writing deadlines were self-imposed. Being your own supervisor is a great and also terrible thing. Discovering what sort of writing goals and deadlines were achievable for me, on top of a full-time day-job and all the other miscellaneous things one must do to live, was a years-long process. Even though now my editor sets most deadlines for me, it takes a lot of reflection and goal setting on my end to figure out how to best meet those deadlines while not becoming a burnt-out crisp of a person.
Why do you write?
For me, I feel like it’s less about the writing and more about storytelling. Storytelling feels like a compulsion. It’s something I can’t stop myself from doing. Some of my earliest childhood memories involve retelling scenes from my favorite stories with toys. Story is both how I process the world and how I contribute to the world.
I find inspiration in many, many different things in life, but I’d say the thing that inspires me the most is the mystery of human actions and feelings. Why do people do what they do? How does it change them? Even our most mundane decisions—like what to wear to work—are influenced by deeper motivations we rarely think about. I love how storytelling lets me explore how the smallest, most surface level details are the result of something far deeper and vaster in a character’s past.
How do you overcome writer's block?
When I’m facing writer’s block it’s almost always a sign that it’s time for me to take a break. I like to refill the well by rereading old favorites or by trying new activities or experiences. Storytelling is a strange sort of alchemy where you take the sum of your thoughts, emotions, and experiences and then spin it into an entire world for someone else to explore. That’s hard work! It’s important to take breaks, even if it’s only for an afternoon or a weekend, to make sure you can keep going.
Bonus: What do you enjoy doing when not writing?
As someone who spends a lot of time behind a screen, I enjoy spending time outdoors. There’s no screentime when you’re walking through the Texas Hill Country!
My thanks to Erin Cotter for today's interview.