Debbie Zaken On Finding Inspiration In Music

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.


Today's guest for the WHAT is Debbie Zaken. Born in Miami, Debbie grew up in Guatemala and is fluent in English, Spanish and Hebrew. She currently resides with her husband and her two fabulously trilingual and adorable girls in South Florida. Her debut novel, Colliding Skies, received 1st place in the Society for Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Florida Rising Kite 2016 Award

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

Music has always been an important part of my life. As an author, music fuels my writing. Almost every scene I write has a song associated with it. It’s not so much that I look for songs to match a specific scene. It’s more that certain songs will inspire entire scenes. So a song will prompt a scene in my head and once it’s there, I’ll play it over and over, until I can see it clearly, down to the characters' dialogue. That is how the premise for Colliding Skies came to me. I was in my car listening to a specific song one morning and the idea just popped into my head. It was like an entire music video played in my mind while I drove. I played the song on repeat the entire way and by the time I got to work that morning, I had the basic premise of the book fleshed out. I went home that night and wrote a brief outline. After that, music became my go to for inspiration. I even had the song titles for each chapter on my outline. The full playlist for Colliding Skies is on my website.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

Once I had the premise, I wrote a very basic outline of the story that just laid out the beginning, the middle, and the end. With that, I began writing the first draft. As one idea lead to another, one chapter to the next, I tightened the outline. Pretty soon, I went from a loose outline to one that was broken down into chapters and scenes, some even with entire chunks of dialogue as they came to my head. Before I knew it, I had the entire plot figured out. Around that time was when I realized that the full story was not going to fit into one book and that I was looking at a duology. So I began to plot the sequel while I finished drafting the first book. I knew that as a debut author it was going to be hard to sell a series and that Colliding Skies had to stand on its own. It took me a while to figure it out, but thanks to some amazing critique partners, I was able to give Colliding Skies the depth and breadth to stand on its own.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

I consider myself a plantser, a hybrid of a plotter and a pantser. I outline enough to have a solid structure to start writing with, but keep it flexible enough so that I can adapt it as the story progresses. An interesting thing that happen to me with Colliding Skies was that I introduced a character, which initially was going to be a minor one, very early on in the story, and ended up falling in love with them. The moment this character entered the story, they became an important secondary character and ended up changing integral parts of the plot. The premise of the story stayed the same. But this character that originally wasn’t even part of the story, became a central character, adding a completely new layer to the plot. 

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

I wish I was one of those authors that constantly came up with brilliant story ideas. Ideas for stories don’t come to me very often. On the positive side, the occasional story ideas I do get come to me pretty fleshed out and tend to really captivate my imagination. So once I have the idea, I’m so drawn to it and itching to put it all on paper, I can really focus on the project and see it through to the end. In a way, I’m actually glad that I don’t have so many story ideas bouncing around in my head at the same time. I think I’d find it hard to choose one and focus on it if I did.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

Since I’m not constantly bombarded with story ideas, that hasn’t really been a problem for me. But if I did have a few story ideas to choose from, I think I would go with whatever was calling to me the most. That is kind of the challenge I have now with the sequel for Colliding Skies. I have a different Work In Progress that is really calling to me but because of a looming deadline for the sequel, I’ve had to put it on the back burner. This has made writing the sequel not the most fun experience for me. But my plan is to go back to my Work In Progress the moment the sequel is with my editor.

I have 8 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

I don’t have any pets. But I do have two young children. There is no way I can write with them around. I can barely complete a thought in my head without being interrupted by one of them. Honestly, I prefer to be by myself when writing. I don’t mind writing at a coffee shop or at a library. I just can’t be with someone else while I write. I guess my writing buddies would be my coffee, a glass of water, and maybe some cookies. Oh, and music. Always music.