Author Nikki Loftin is everywhere these days. As a writer of poems, essays and novels, you can find her work scattered through-out your local bookstore or newsstand. In addition, locals will be able to see Ms. Loftin this spring when she will be the keynote speaker at the annual Houston Writer’s Guild conference. Recently I caught up with Nikki and we chatted about her daily schedule, working in pajamas, and the healing properties of chocolate.
Where did you grow-up and where do you live now?
I have lived my whole life in the heart of Texas. I was born in Austin, grew up in Round Rock, and moved to Wimberley after high school. I earned my undergraduate and graduate degrees from UT Austin. Now I live in between Dripping Springs and Oak Hill, southwest of Austin, with my Scottish husband, two sons, two dogs, and three chickens. I have a great view of the Texas Hill Country from my writing window!
What is a normal “writing” workday like for you?
First, I check email, Twitter, and Facebook for important overnight developments. Also, funny pictures of cats. Then, if it’s on one of the days I don’t work at my other job – where I teach dance aerobics (Zumba) at the Austin YMCA – I stay in my pajamas. This is very important. Getting out of the pajamas would free me up to do all sorts of non-writerly things: grocery shopping, errands, lunches out with friends. If I keep the pajamas on until the boys get home on the bus, it’s been a very good writing day indeed.
Then, I brew a pot of cinnamon tea – or coffee if I’m still bleary-eyed. I break down the number of words I want to get through if I’m working on a novel – usually between 1,000 and 3,000 per day. I take breaks every couple of pages, to keep my brain from overheating. (Many of these breaks involve chocolate, the reason for my other job as a fitness instructor.)
Of course, if I’m writing a shorter piece or a poem, it’s a much different process – fewer words, more staring out the window and thinking deep, black-turtleneck-worthy thoughts.
I frequently check Twitter, Facebook, and the Internet in general for any further, vitally important developments involving hilarious cat antics.
You’ve written for all types of audiences. How does your writing process differ as your audience changes?
Great question! I write for children, young adults, and adults. I’m not sure my process changes for the audience, though. It does, however, differ fairly radically for the type of project I’m working on.
For a novel, it begins with a “what if?” I’ll be walking along, living my life, not hurting anyone, when a scenario will come rushing at me and throw me completely off course. The idea for my forthcoming novel, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, attacked me in a fish-and-chips restaurant a year and a half ago: What if Hansel and Gretel were alive today, in America, and they went to a charter school where the teachers were witches? When an idea happens, I have to talk about it to whoever happens to be nearby. (You should feel very sorry for my husband and hairdresser). Then I mull for a few days, even weeks. I take a lot of walks, listening to instrumental music. Usually on one of these walks, the first lines will come to me and I will run home and start writing. (Cue pajamas, tea, cute cats.) It may seem like an odd process, but I finish about three or four novel-length manuscripts a year this way.
In between novels, I like to write short stories and essays. The change of pace, and the immediate gratification of starting and finishing a piece in the same day, is like a reward after the months of longer-horizon work drafting and revising a novel.
Poems are different. They’re like butterflies – they come into my mind when they want to. I have to drop everything to capture a poem. If I’m fast enough with a pen or pencil, and write it down when it flutters past, I get to keep it. If I ignore a poem, it goes away, and (I assume) finds a more attentive poet to bless.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Everywhere. The world is full of fascinating things, people and places and events worth telling stories about. We know that when we’re kids, but somehow we lose our sense of wonder as we grow up. I try to remember how I saw things, how I really looked at the world, when I was a child. I let my mind play.
Sometimes, though, I get ideas through obstinacy. For instance, when I finished my first novel (a malformed, grammatically twisted creature that lives in the dark recesses of my hard drive), I read on a well-respected agent’s website that books about that particular topic were overdone. They indicated that middle grade novelists should write sports books. I knew nothing about sports, and that fact annoyed me. So I did just enough research on soccer to write my next novel, which won the Writer’s League of Texas manuscript contest (and, in a circuitous way, the attention of my future literary agent).
Who are your favorite writers and why?
I love Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking books. She created characters that stayed with me my whole life, and books I couldn’t wait to read aloud to my own children. I still remember sleeping upside down in my bed like Pippi – and laughing when, thirty years later, I caught my son doing the same thing.
I love so many present-day writers who mix magic and humor into their work: Roald Dahl, Ingrid Law, Neil Gaiman, Rebecca Stead, Kate DiCamillo, and Jane Yolen.
But I’m obsessed with older stories, too. I compulsively buy and read fairy tales from all over the world, and re-read the Odyssey and Dante’s Inferno every few years.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
We’re all faking it. We’re all using the Think Method and blowing on imaginary trombones. Don’t be fooled by the way authors on the other side of the publication fence seem to read every book, write thousands of words a day, know everything, and have excellent skin, teeth, and hair. They don’t have all the answers. Don’t look to an author for the magic bullet, the secret elixir. The only thing you have to do to be published is write, read, study, and stay in the pajamas. I didn’t have any connections in the industry when I began writing, and most of the published authors I know didn’t either. What they all have – and what I hope to cultivate in my own life – is the burning desire to write, to create, and to share what they’ve written with the world. It helps to have the ability to withstand a thousand No’s on your way to the Big Yes. Chocolate helps dull the pain of rejection.
Write fast, if you can. The more words, the better. You will get better the more you practice, just like with any instrument or sport. Write whatever comes to you: short stories, essays, poems, plays, novels, picture books. They will not all be published. It doesn’t matter; they are practice. Keep writing. Never stop.
What are you working on now?
I am about to send my second novel to my editor! This one, currently titled Chloe Green and the Grimoire Garden, is the story of a girl named Chloe who has a peculiar sort of Midas Touch: the ultimate green thumb. I can’t reveal much more about it, since not even my editor has seen it yet. But there’s magic, poison, witches, and evil camp counselors in this one!
Do you have any upcoming appearances or events?
I’m thrilled to serve on the faculty of the Austin Regional SCBWI Conference, “Something for Everyone,” February 17-19. This conference is always amazing, with talks on craft, publishing, and tons of opportunities to meet agents, editors, and other children’s lit writers.
On April 13-14, I’ll be the keynote speaker at the Houston Writer’s Guild annual conference. http://www.houstonwritersguild.org/welcome.html
You can purchase Nikki’s books online or at your favorite local bookstore. If you’d like to learn more about Nikki please check out her website at www.nikkiloftin.com.