A Peek at the Creative Space of Susan Cunningham

Susan Cunningham’s debut novel, Crow Flightpublishes December 11. In Crow Flight, the curious flight patterns of crows leads a teen computer programmer down a path of mystery and romance. Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it?

Susan lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office analyzing data on wool apparel. She blogs about writing and science at susancunninghambooks.com. You can learn more about her and her writing on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Describe your workspace.
I write in my bedroom, which has great light and big trees out the windows that keep me inspired. I used to write while sitting cross-legged on my bed, but have since started using an actual desk. But I can tuck everything away when I’m not working: my desk chair wheels into the closet, my laptop slides under the bed and my writing desk transforms into a nightstand.

Describe a typical workday.
I try to start most days with journaling (technically “morning pages” as recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way). Then I get the kids ready for school and depending on the day, either analyze data (my “pay-the-bills” job that I also enjoy) or write.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
A crow statue that was a birthday present from my husband. It reminds me of how important research is to my writing process, and of how lucky I am to have a partner who supports my writing.

Our dog, Cricket, who is a fun writing buddy and is always ready for a walk if I need a break.

And photos of backpacking trips – when I’m out in the mountains with everything I need on my back, I am most happy.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them. 
Morning pages first! I always journal in inexpensive spiral notebooks: they’re so plain, I don’t feel any pressure to fill them with brilliant words. When I’m working on a book, that journaling often includes a lot of brainstorming. I’m pretty motivated when I’m writing a first draft: the success of seeing words pile up keeps me going. But if I’m revising, I have to reward myself with sticker charts (a trick I picked up from author Laura Resau) and prizes.

What do you listen to while you work?
Though I have different playlists that inspire each story, I mostly listen to my white noise app while writing. Typically, I’m typing away to the cozy sounds of crickets chirping or rain falling.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
Hot tea or hot cocoa. And for snacks: chocolate, popcorn and gum.

What keeps you focused while you’re working? 
I set loose goals (finish half a rough draft before an upcoming vacation, wrap up another set of edits before a holiday) and then plod along towards those goals. If I have a hard time getting started, I’ll set very small goals – write for 20 minutes or revise two pages. Basically, I find lots of ways to trick myself into actually writing.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?
I’ve tried both and found that writing on my laptop worked best for me. But my brainstorming is all done longhand.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?
My stories tend to start with one image – for Crow Flight, it was a boy and girl on a wintry field, with trained crows flying around them.

Once I have that initial idea, I write a first draft. It’s pretty terrible, but it helps me narrow the story down.

And then I revise. Through revisions, the story really comes to life – but revisions are hard for me as I don’t always feel productive. Often I’m deleting words, not adding them. Hence the need for external motivation: stickers, a pastry from the local coffeeshop, a trip to the movies… My artist self is not above being bribed.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
That’s a tough one, because I write best alone. But if I had to choose, I’d share my workspace with my husband. He’s a musician, though, so I’d likely be wearing noise-cancelling headphones.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received? 
One of my favorites was from the author Ron Rash, who spoke about how he spent years trying to learn to write. Nothing he wrote at first was good, but he just kept going and going. And now he’s a master. But he didn’t regret those initial years at all. They’re helpful for a writer, because you learn what techniques work for you, and you learn that you’re committed to it. So for all the aspiring writers out there who write and write, with no idea of what will come of it, keep going!