KEYNOTE: How to Find Inspiration
Tiffany, how are you doing today?
Tiffany: I’m good! Thanks for having me.
Sarah: Great to have you! For those of you who may not know, Tiffany is the author of ALLEGEDLY and MONDAY’S NOT COMING. Tiffany, can you tell us a bit about your books?
Tiffany: Sure, so ALLEGEDLY, which is my debut novel, is about a nine-year-old girl who was convicted of murder and now in the book, she is 16, out of prison, living in a group home, and she’s pregnant. And the only way to convince everyone, the only way to keep her own baby, is to convince everyone she didn’t commit the first murde. But the only way to do that is through her mother. So it takes place in Brooklyn and it’s loosely based or loosely inspired by a real case that happened to a girl who was convicted of murder at nine-years-old. And MONDAY’S NOT COMING releases in June- June 5th to be precise- so it’s coming up. It is about a girl whose best friend is missing and no one seems to notice until she shows up one year later and it takes place in South East, Washington, DC, and it is also loosely inspired by an actual case of children being missing.
Sarah: Oh wow, can you say a little bit more about your inspiration? So they’re loosely inspired by things that actually happened?
Tiffany: Yeah, so I could say that usually I hear some type of case or some story, whether it be loosely told or I read it in a paper or something, and you know whenever I hear the story and I have a gazillion follow up questions, usually that follow up question turns into a book, like my alternate ending almost to whatever the story actually is. But the cool thing about handling such gritty sort of tales is I’m able to kind of dig deep and expose kids, and adults to speak quite frankly, to things that are happening more within the community, in diverse communities, and things that maybe kids in Texas might not know that kids in Brooklyn are going through or even kids in Philly may not know what’s going on with kids in DC, but in some way we’re all connected and all of our stories resonate. It’s just a matter of kind of exposing more of the elements to other people.
Sarah: Mhm, oh wow, that’s really cool. Do you find that most of your inspiration comes from these new stories or things that you hear, or where do you draw most of your inspiration from?
Tiffany: Seems like lately that’s been the thing that I’ve been writing more towards is cases that sparked this what if question. Particularly with ALLEGEDLY, I first read this case back in 2012 and, you know, I was reading it, I was like, well what if she didn’t do it? What if she didn’t commit the murder? What would that story look like and what would that story look like in Brooklyn? And what would her life look like being so young and being in prison? So it really sort of inspired a lot of questions, which makes me start Googling and then I started researching and reading and I hit the library and it really sort of sparks more questions, more research, so that’s really for the most part where I get my ideas from. But yeah, a lot of my ideas spark from what if questions in terms of story ideas, like what if this happened then what would happen and I sort of try to play with it and make the story come alive in a way just from that inspiration, I guess.
Sarah: I love those what if questions. They just take you to so many different places.
Tiffany: Absolutely! I mean the moment you ask what if, you know… Even in older stories like Alice in Wonderland. What if she didn’t go down the rabbit hole then what would her life look like? Has anyone actually tried to paint that picture? And then you start adding all these things in and it sort of takes the tale into a different journey and it’s more about the character and her
Inner journey rather than it being about what the story is, like Alice following the rabbit and approaching the Queen, like there’s a lot. Alice was really a trippy story now that I think about it. I was about to go down a whole rabbit hole, I was thinking about the tea party and the Cheshire Cat. It just looks like there was a lot happening. There’s like, you could never watch that while you were drunk.
Sarah: Sure, did you watch the Disney movie, like the one that came out like years and years ago?
Tiffany: That was creepy! Yeah, I’m not gonna lie. There’s something about the way, like, bringing it to life. I loved it, it was just, it was still creepy. You know, you almost miss the cartoon in a lot of ways.
Sarah: I love Alice in Wonderland, but yeah, every time I watch the movie, I’m like this is a little bit eerie. The older I get to, I’m like yeah, this is weird. But I still love it.
Tiffany: Yeah, right? We didn’t really ask these questions as a kid, we were just so caught up in like the pizzazz of the entire story. The fact that she ate a piece of bread and she grew a gazillion feet, like we were so caught up in that. But then once you hit adulthood, you start asking more reflective questions, like should she be taking food from strangers? You start overanalyzing all the random details of it and that’s exactly how my stories always seem to be. That’s where I get my inspiration from. Like, you know, what if you didn’t eat that or what if that bread was actually poison, then what would that feel like? The story would end. So it’s a lot of what if questions. I love how we just turned this whole topic about Alice in Wonderland.
Sarah: Haha oh my gosh, so good. You seem like just a naturally curious person; you hear these stories and you wonder what if and you want to know more. Would you say that you have been a storyteller your whole life? Have you always kind of been curious like that?
Tiffany: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I definitely. I’ve always been a quiet sort of curious person and a lot of times I make up, to my own detriment, I make up my own answers a lot of times. Like I was a very shy, quiet type of child so I would think something and be like, what happens if you go down that street? And so I will make up an entire answer rather than just asking an adult who would be like, there’s nothing down that street, it’s just a house. I had a huge imagination which, you know, to my parents’ credit, they definitely nurtured that imagination and they definitely went along with it. I was believing in Santa Claus until I was 11 and they themselves are really good storytellers as well too.
Sarah: Cool, that’s awesome. Runs in the family.
Sarah: Do you ever feel like… Do you always have these questions and these ideas in your mind or do you ever feel like you’ve run out of inspiration, and if so, what do you do then?
Tiffany: To be honest, I don’t feel like I ever really run out of inspiration. Like I have a pipeline of stories that I would love to tackle. It’s just more about taking everything step by step. And you know, deadlines run my life. So if I need to write this one story first, I kind of need to write this one story first. I will say though that sometimes if I’m running out of juice per se for a story or a for a scene and I feel like I’m getting a little bit of like, what’s it called, writer’s block? Which I’ll be honest, I’ve never really had until this past like year. I’ve always been able to sort of spit out stories. But recently I think it’s just a matter of touring and debuting and, you know, the world being on fire, I think my mind has been a bit clouded by a lot of other things. So in order to sort of claw my way out of those little humps, I typically try to go back to my first love, which is research, and I start kind of putting myself in the setting of the story. So for instance, for ALLEGEDLY, that took place in Brooklyn and if I, let’s say was having like a bad day, a bad writing day or whatever, I may stop down and look at maps of Brooklyn or I may walk to the Brooklyn Public Library. I live right down the block from the central Brooklyn Public Library. I may look at old newspaper clippings or I’ll look at yearbooks. I’ll start investigating and sort of put myself in it. For MONDAY’S NOT COMING, the main character Claudia, she really loves go-go music, which is, you know, very big and a subculture in DC. So I will of course go to YouTube and listen to a bunch of go-go music, just to watch videos from dances and stuff like that to kind of put me in the setting. So typically that really helps to get my mind flowing, the ideas flowing and stuff like that so it is sort of about putting yourself back into the setting in order to be like okay, what happens next.
Sarah: Mhm. That’s great advice. You said your first love is research. Is that, is it just like… Can you say more about that? I would just love to hear more.
Tiffany: I think it kind of goes back to the question of being curious. Like I’m a chronic Googler. I’m like that rude person in the middle of dinner when someone asks that, I’ll be like, “Let me Google that just to be sure.” I constantly need to know the facts of things and not necessarily saying I know everything. That’s one thing I will say, not a lot of information stays in my brain well. But it’s fun to kind of look at the facts. Like I definitely have been one of those people who will start on one page in Wikipedia and end like 5,000 pages later. I’ll start with Greek mythology and then I’ll end up on a page about like Brad Pitt. Which is always great because you do need some of those facts and templates and tidbits to make a great story. Like you want something that is rich so your readers are really… we want to paint that world for them. So I feel like research really helps to do that. And a part of me is always kind of fascinated by fantasy writers because I’m on one hand, like I research and will find all the tidbits and all the details, but literally all that stuff is in their mind. And that’s why, once again, when I think of the writer of Alice in Wonderland, I’m like what was he smoking? Like how did you, how did he get all this stuff? So I really, I applaud all the fantasy and sci-fi writers. That is some amazing, powerful creativity happening there.
Sarah: I love what you said about Wikipedia. It’s like on YouTube where you have a recommended video and then you just keep watching all the recommended videos and it’s like, how did I end up here?
Tiffany: Yes, I definitely, recently I found… Because I used to work in television up until last year so now I’m a full time writer. And I’ve been working in television for a little over a decade so I’m used to noise. I’m used to office sounds around me, and I went down a YouTube rabbit hole and found office background noise. So now I write with this YouTube channel on called Office Background Noise and it’s like random typewriters and, you know, someone’s always like answering the phone.
Sarah: Oh my gosh, I didn’t know that was a thing!
Tiffany: Yeah, so instead of classical music, I listen to a guy who’s kind of like fake answering the phone. It’s helpful!
Sarah: It’s like a treasure trove of great advice right here. Amazing. At what point would you say that inspiration is less important than just pressing through and perseverance? So writing even when you don’t feel inspired. Or do you feel like it’s always important to be inspired when you’re writing?
Tiffany: I’m going to say perseverance is the biggest part of writing. I think a lot of people are inspired, everyone gets inspired by every little thing that’s happening, but you know that inspiration doesn’t age, you know what I mean? Like you need to actually put in the work for that story. So you may have a full movie going on your head, but are you actually sitting down to write the script? No one’s going to see it if you don’t actually put words to paper. And so I think that’s a part of what people forget is like, writing, it’s really hard. And I’m saying that very simply because it’s really hard. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort and muscle, like brain muscle, just working in overtime to pump out the story and all these fantastic pages. And unfortunately a lot of people look at us writers and just think like, oh you know, I always wanted to be a writer. And I’m usually the like clap back queen and be like, oh you know, I always wanted to be a doctor, that looks so simple. Like that’s how it sounds to me when you say something like that. So I think it is really about perseverance and if you really want to see this story happen, you will sit down, you will make the time, you will get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and put that story to paper. And even if the idea itself, the inspired idea, is trash, complete trash, at least you get into the habit of actually doing the work, the real work, to make it happen.
Sarah: Can you say a little bit about your own personal writing process? What does that look like for you after you get the first initial inspired idea? What do you do next?
Tiffany: So typically when I first get like an idea, I may write down a couple lines. A lot of times the ideas will come to me in real random places like the shower or like I’m on the subway. And I will most likely write a few lines about it in my notepad, in my phone And then I may start doing a little bit of research, start digging into it a little bit, kind of getting a scope of the land and what something would look like. And then it really depends on how inspired I’m being at that moment. On one hand, sometimes particularly with my first two books, with MONDAY and ALLEGEDLY, I start just writing a scene and the characters and everyone will just come to me. A lot of times those scenes will be like in the middle of the book. Other times, with my third book that will be released in 2019, I actually just wrote out a whole outline because I had an idea of what the book would look like, I just didn’t know the characters and all the settings correctly. I just knew where the characters were going to start and where they were they were going to finish. So it really depends. Which I will say, the writing process, it’s fluid. I think that’s helpful in a lot of ways, like some writers need that step by step, stagnant type of way to work, which is great in terms of pumping out as much work as possible. But some writers, they need to change it up a bit. I for one, I write much better in the warmth. So I tend to, you know, at least like to have it be, I don’t know, 75 degrees. Right now it’s really cold in New York, so I’m just, I feel horrible. Some writers love to write in the dead of winter, like it really depends on the writer. But I definitely tend to skew in either direction it really does depend on the story.
Sarah: Would you say that each project calls for a different process in a sense?
Tiffany: Absolutely, absolutely. Because particularly with writing books that are loosely based on real cases, each case can be so different. I mean there are a lot of cases that are relatable. There are a lot of cases about any stories about kids and juvenile prisons and stories about the juvenile justice system and law has changed in every state. There are so many stories, but it’s more about digging more into the meat of the actual event that happened and how you can apply it as a lesson. Not so much spoon-feed the lesson, but more making it an experience and letting readers sort of evolve and make their own judgment without giving them the answers, which is something that I’m truly a believer in. I would hate to be the person that someone tells me don’t do something, like of course I’m gonna do it. But in the sense of every case being different, you do need to give it different qualities. I particularly, with ALLEGEDLY, I interviewed a lot of people in my research process. So I talked to doctors and lawyers and social workers and kids that actually were in prison and correctional officers, versus MONDAY’S NOT COMING, I actually talked to more reporters, people who actually lived in DC, lawyers and teachers. So to get more of a balance of what that would be like, it really does depend on the case.
Sarah: Oh, that’s really cool. I love how each project inspires different methods for you, or opens up these different doorways for you.
Tiffany: Yeah, and you know it keeps me on my toes.
Sarah: Always curious. Do you think that, well, you mentioned that you like it when it’s warm for you to write. Do you think you have any other consistent things in your writing process? Like do you like to write in the mornings versus nighttime? Do you have a set amount of hours a day that you work? What is the actual sitting down writing process look like for you?
Tiffany: I’m much more of a morning writer. I typically like to wake up and start writing right away and that usually results in me writing in my bed a lot because the moment I leave my bed, I know it’s like my day is actually really starting. So I need to actually take a shower and feed the dog and eat something, versus me just trying to get as much words in as possible. When I was a part of the 5 AM Morning Writers Club, I would write usually from 5 to 8 AM before I would get dressed and ready for work. And it’s also based a little bit on deadlines, like knowing that I need to have a first draft in the next 10 days, I tell myself that you have to write and it’s particularly helpful when you’re using programs like Scrivener where it tells you how many words a day you have to write in order to make your deadline. So right now I think my Scrivener is set, I think I have to write like about 2200 words a day, which really isn’t bad, so I do tend to tap over that number.
Sarah: Can you speak a little bit about the difference between writing full-time and working while you’re writing? Because you mentioned you had worked in television before, so how has the process changed for you?
Tiffany: Time is moving way faster now that I don’t actually have a full-time job, and it’s crazy to think about because I stopped working full-time last year and I feel like I blinked and all of a sudden it’s January. It was last summer and now I blinked and now it’s January. I feel like all those couple of months passed, versus when I was working full-time, I definitely… it gave me a bit more structure. Because then I knew how many hours a day I had to devote to my writing and it wasn’t much so I had to make the best of it. And that meant double duty work. A lot of writing during lunch, editing on the subway. A lot of times I was writing on set while people were shooting. There was a lot of pulling double duty at all times.
Sarah: Really on the go.
Tiffany: Yes absolutely on the go. I am an amazing airport writer. I really have no problems with delays in flights, unless it’s like I’m not going to make my connection, but most of the time I’m actually okay with that because I’m like, well I can just sit here and write. I’m very quiet.
Sarah: That’s an incredible life skill.
Tiffany: Like I know this will just give me a couple more minutes to sit with my computer and that is imperative a lot of the time. So I clap for all the writers, particularly moms who, you know, children are a 24-hour job. So yeah, I mean my dog is enough for me right now.
Sarah: Can you say a little bit about a day in the life of a full-time writer? Like what is a typical day look like for you, or is every day just totally different?
Tiffany: It really does, it can be different. But a typical day, like a day where I’m really at home and just nose to the ground, typically like I said, I usually wake up, I write as much as I can, I stop down probably around like 10:00, 10:30 to start checking e-mails because there’s emails from publishers, there’s emails from teachers and librarians, and you definitely want to answer your fan emails as much as you can. I try to handle any busy work up until maybe about lunchtime and then I will try to eat something. And then after that I go back to writing and I could potentially write up until like the wee hours of the night depending on the schedule and the days then they fly. Like that’s the thing, being alone with your book and you’ll blink and all of a sudden it’s quarter to midnight and you’re like, oh! So I will say that’s my typical day that I’m at a computer for a while. On other days, sometimes I will stop down around like 6, 7 o’clock to at least watch some television shows, you know, hit some Netflix. And a lot of times is reading. I like to read books in my genre while I’m writing in my genre, so it’ll keep me kind of focused.
I know some writers can’t. They can’t read at all while they’re writing because sometimes some of the words will blend in to their own story and I totally understand that. But I’m also like a writer who, I can’t write about serial killers and read a romance novel, like it doesn’t work for some reason, it will totally take me out of my game. And I’m like, you know yeah, a lot of times if I’m writing really dark scenes I definitely stop down after it. I stop down to typically watch like Twilight over again or I’ll read some mushy book or I’ll eat a whole roll of cookie dough in order to get myself back, like okay Tiffany, you come back to the real world. It’s okay. It wasn’t you, you’re okay. Yeah, so that’s my typical day.
Sarah: Just have that cookie dough ready for after. Would you say that when you’re writing, would you say that you divide things up into segments, like for this amount of time is just first draft and then this amount of time is revision and then this amount of time is showing it to other people and getting feedback? Or does it just kind of all naturally flow together?
Tiffany: I am definitely like this is first draft. I like to live with my first draft before I show it to anyone and particularly because I am not the best editor, so I like to have my first draft be slightly more on the polished side, not completely, but I like to kind of go over it with a fine-tooth comb a couple of times before I show it to any beta readers. That being said, right now I’m working on a book that I finished the first hundred pages and I was kind of worried about it, so I actually shared it with a couple of my writer friends just to get some feedback and be like hey, I just want to check to see if I’m on the right path before I go down a road and I can’t come back and I have to throw away the whole book. So I really, I guess it does depend in a lot of ways, but for the most part I do like to live with my baby alone in its infancy stage and sort of make it better, make it as good as it possibly can in order to show other people. And particularly for writers who are still trying to get an agent, I always say to sleep on it, like let your book breathe and sit in a drawer for like four mouths and then look over it again and decide whether it is right to send to somebody. Time really does make a difference in the way you see your own writing.
Sarah: Would you say you have a favorite part of the process? Like do you love first drafts, but hate revisions or do you love revising, but that first draft is just killer?
Tiffany: I think I am a… I like revising. I think I’ve been starting to. Before, you know, younger Tiffany would say that I love the first draft process because I used to be able to just bang out the entire story and I’ll be like oh, it’s great, it’s amazing. But now I’m more into the revision because that’s when I go back in, I can actually see the story, breathing more life into the story and becoming more alive and richer, and that’s when I’m like, oh wow this actually is really good. And so I think I am starting to get into that process, that mode of me. I really do like revising. Or a lot of times, I’ll think of a scene way later after the first draft is done and I’ll be like, oh that scene would be really good here. And then the novel is even better. So I think I am more in the revising stage. I think that’s my favorite part.
Sarah: Oh very cool. It’s where you make the story stronger.
Sarah: One last question about actually back to the whole research thing. Do you find that you do research all throughout the writing process, like even as you’re revising are you still researching new things? Or do you think that it’s more of a first draft activity?
Tiffany: I think I definitely am actually researching throughout the entire because you never know. Even for MONDAY’S NOT COMING, my main character has a learning disability and even though I research as much as possible, I still didn’t feel like it was 100% accurate and I wanted to reflect that as brilliantly as possible to be respectful most importantly. So even up until the first pass pages of MONDAY’S NOT COMING, I had a sensitivity reader review it and make sure that it was up to snuff. There are times and particularly during the copy editing stage, I mean copy editors, they’re really like very fine-tooth comb detailers. And you know they’ll call us out in the comments like, oh you said 26th Street on this one page but actually it’s 27th Street and I’m like, you’re right, and so then sometimes I have to go back and be like where is this building, is it on 27th or oh it’s on 28th. It really does make you a better writer, so really kudos to copy editors even though they put us through stress. They definitely make our book stronger.
Sarah: That’s so cool. I love how all throughout you’re talking about how going back to the inspiration and the research just really also goes back to the roots of the story and helps make it stronger all throughout, like even during your vision. I really think that’s so cool.
Tiffany: Thank you!
Sarah: Alright Tiffany, well, if readers or listeners want to connect with you online, where can they find you?
Tiffany: So you can find me on my website at WriteInBK. That’s W-R-I-T-E IN B-K. That’s also my handle for Twitter, WriteinBK, and Instagram, WriteinBK. And yeah, you can find me on Facebook, Tiffany D. Jackson. I love hearing from people, so please shout me out and feel free to yell at me if you, you know, feel the need I guess. Otherwise yes, I love hearing from people.
Sarah: And MONDAY’S NOT COMING is coming out on June 5th 2018?
Tiffany: Yes, 2018.
Sarah: Great, very excited. Thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in and Tiffany, thank you so much for the chat today! I feel like I learned so much.
Tiffany: Thank you so much for having me.
Sarah: I want to do more research now. And I’m gonna go watch Alice in Wonderland after this.
Tiffany: I was thinking that too. I was like, now is a good time.
Sarah: Okay have a great day. Thank you so much!
Tiffany: Thank you.