Second chances

  As I go teetering into advanced middle age, I’m more and more conscious of the fact there’s a surprising amount of fun yet to be had. Instead of sitting around waiting for one of my children to produce a grandchild (not that that wouldn’t be a good thing!), I’m cavorting with the Miss Demeanors, going to conferences, discovering new drinks, writing an exciting new novel, getting into trouble, planning to march in Washington. In fact, I’m doing things I didn’t do when I was young because I worried too much about repercussions.  Or because I was exhausted.    One of the things I like about the protagonist of my mystery series, Maggie Dove, (I hope it’s okay that I like her!) is that she’s given me a chance to explore more deeply what getting a second chance means. It’s scary for Maggie. She’s set in her ways. She’s found a safe place  and doesn’t want to emerge from it, and yet, when she’s forced to come out of her shell, to solve a murder, she loves it. She becomes a Sunday School hellraiser, if such a thing is possible.  A person who has been a great second-chance role model to me is the great First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She started off her life being a certain sort of person. A debutante, a society wife, a political wife. But then her husband got polio and everything in her life turned upside down. Although she was shy and insecure about her looks, she had to step out onto the political stage. She was a great advocate for women’s and civil rights during FDR’s presidency, and after he died, she continued as a diplomat. She also wrote a fabulous memoir, This is My Story. It’s one of my favorite books.  How about you? Are there any role models who inspire you?     

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Candy! Candy!

The protagonist of my new mystery is a woman who likes to eat candy bars. (Don’t ask me how I know. I do.) She’s the sort of person who keeps a candy bar in her pocketbook for times when she has low blood sugar. She’s the sort of person who has a favorite candy bar, and I have spent a great deal of time, energy and calories trying to figure out which particular candy bar that would be.      I was going to go with a classic. M&Ms. I like them myself, but I thought there were too many of them. For my purposes, I needed something you could take a big bite out of. Skittles were also out, for that reason and also because they took on political connotations I didn’t like. Butterfingers were too crunchy, Milky Bars too soft.  Then I stumbled across  the Take Five bar. It’s an intriguing candy. First of all, it has a jumble of flavors: pretzel, caramel, peanut, peanut butter and milk chocolate. My protagonist is definitely a person who likes jumbles. She mushes her food (I think). She likes jumbles of people too. In fact, one of the things that gets her in trouble is that she befriends everyone. It’s also a candy bar that has never done as well for Hershey as the big guns: Kisses and  Peanut butter cups. The Take Five bar flies under the radar, sort of like my protagonist. And it’s quite tasty. As I discovered from eating a lot of them. This one small detail helped me discover so much about my protagonist. I love the way that happens when you’re writing. It’s like a puzzle. One small details builds on another and bit by bit a complete character emerges. In this case, she’s someone who I like quite a bit. How about you? Do you have a favorite candy bar?

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Acceptance

Every New Year’s I make a resolution to improve myself in some way or another. I will be more productive, more focused, more ambitious and so on. But this year, I concluded that if I haven’t changed by now, I’m probably not going to. And all I’m going to succeed in doing is make myself feel guilty, which I already do enough. So this year I decided to accept what I am. And what I am is a slob.    My desk is cluttered with papers, books, pictures of dogs, notes from people I love, notes from my agent with advice, tissues, water bottles, an icon my son brought me from Russia, dog treats, post-it notes, and books. I’d like to say there’s order to this madness, but having just spent half an hour looking for an important bit of information that I found under a chair, I doubt it.  What there is, though, is energy. My office feels alive to me. When I walk in, I feel like I’m jumping into a stream of running water.  Periodically I do clean it, and then I feel very virtuous, and then I sit down and write and darned if I know how it happens, but by the time I stand back up, it’s a mess again. But you know what? It works. How about you? Is there anything you’ve come to accept about yourself this New Year?

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Pitching

December brings many exciting things for me (and others), and one of them is the New York Pitch Conference, where I’ve worked for almost ten years. This is a 4 day extravaganza/endurance contest in which authors pitch their novels and memoirs to editors, receive feedback, and occasionally contracts. One of our success stories landed on the NY Times Best Seller list. My own first novel, The Fiction Class, was sold at the pitch conference (which was how I came to get a job there), and my second and third novels were sold by my fabulous agent, Paula Munier, who I met at the pitch conference. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s a truly magical place.    My job is to meet with a group of 14-18 writers, help them write their pitches, and then sit with them as they talk to the editors. This has taught me a number of things. One is, when speaking to an editor, you should never put your head on a table and cry. You should also not grab on to her hand and refuse to let go. But mainly it’s taught me that a good pitch can help you shape and sell your book. A lot’s been written about pitches, and I won’t go into it, except to say that the essential part of writing a good pitch is to make it sound interesting. That sounds obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many people feel compelled to pack a pitch, and a novel, with all sorts of “essential” things that are really not that interesting. How do you know what’s interesting? You have to try to put yourself in a reader’s point of view. Say I come to you and say that you have a choice between reading a book about a woman’s experience at the podiatrist, or reading a book about  a woman accused of faking the kidnapping of her child. Unless David Sedaris wrote the podiatrist one, you’re probably going to go with the kidnapping. It’s high stakes. There’s a story there. You know something’s going to happen. There are few things in life as wonderful as seeing a spark in an editor’s eye when you tell her what you’ve written. It’s so exciting for me to be a part of this journey, though sometimes I have the sneaking suspicion that I’m the one who’s learned the most from all of this. Have you ever written a pitch for your novel?

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Inspirations

When I was a young mother, it was out of the question for me to go to an MFA. program. First of all, I didn’t have the money.  Secondly, I had four young children. Those years were filled with hiking around and laundry and writing late at night. Though I did manage to persuade my kids, for quite a long time, that they should go to bed at 7:30. I remember my oldest son once saying to me that he was the only kid in 8th grade who had to go to bed so early, and I said he didn’t have to go to sleep at 7:30. He could read for as long as he wanted. He just needed to let me have time to write. Anyway, during that time, I had to invent my own personal MFA program, and the way I did that was by finding passages in short stories and novels that I liked. I would type up those passages, because it helps to have the words in your fingers. Then I would print them out and put them on my wall. I’d read them over and over again, trying to figure out what worked and why they moved me. One particular influence was V.S. Pritchett, who I became obsessed with. Another was Anne Tyler. At one point I think I covered my wall with paragraphs from Saint Maybe. I was thinking of that recently when I read a book by Neil Gaiman. I’d never read anything by him before, but a lot of people love him, and I’m always intrigued by writers who are loved. I came to this passage, which is describing a character with a hangover: His skin felt clammy, and his eyes felt like they had been pt in wrong, while his skull gave him the general impression that someone had removed it while he had slept, and swapped it for one two or three sizes too small. An Underground train went past a few feet from them; the wind of its passage whipped at the table. The noise of its passage went through Richard’s head like a hot knife through brains. Richard groaned. I love this for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s true. If you’ve had a hangover. Which I have, once or twice. It’s alive. It’s funny, but it’s real. It surprises me. It makes me see something familiar in a new way.  I’m going to type it up and put it on my wall. How about you? What passages inspire you?  

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The shapes I see in trees

Every day that I can, I like to go off into the woods, with my two little dogs, and admire the trees. (You might have deduced as much if you read Maggie Dove.) Of course I love the leaves, but what really intrigues me are the shapes. There is so much drama in a forest! So much emotion, especially in the trees knocked over by a storm. Few things are as sad as a tree tossed to its side with green leaves still growing. What I love is how the shapes change depending on the light. IOne of the things that’s been very useful to my writing self is that trees help me see how humans express emotion.So, here are a few of my favorites.  1. Anguished treeLook out how the feathered hands reach up to protect, and you can almost hear the howl coming out of this poor trunk.   2. Ghost coming out of a tree.    3. Sassy tree: Can’t you hear it swish?    I have many more tree pictures, but perhaps I’ll stop there. How about you? Do you have a favorite tree?  

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How long do you write?

I was on a panel not long ago, with several other mystery writers. Various people in the audience asked questions, and one wanted to know how many hours each of us spent writing every day. I answered, “six.” Whereupon one of the other panelists, (who happens to be a friend), barked out, “You’re lying.” (You might wonder what people who are not my friends say to me.) I pointed out that I wasn’t lying and that she was a bully and then she said… Well, never mind. Yesterday, though, when I did in fact spend 6 hours writing, I found myself thinking about the question and realized that when I say I’m writing, I don’t mean that I’m sitting at the keyboard typing for that six hours. I’m doing a bunch of things on top of that. 1. I’m thinking, which, to the naked eye might look like I’m looking out the window at the oak tree on my front lawn. But so much of writing is imagining, and so much of that is letting my mind wander. 2. I’m reading. Because the book I’m working on now involves a different historical period, I’m reading lots of books about how people in that time dressed and ate and talked. I’m also reading psychology manuals and trying to get a better understanding of why people do what they do. And sometimes I’m reading Agatha Christie or Louise Penny, just because I want to absorb their wisdom. 3. I’m outlining. I don’t write up a formal outline before I start a book, unless an editor wants me to, but I do like to jot down notes about what’s to come. Just in case I forget. Or I might jot down a bit of dialogue. 4. I’m drinking coffee. 5. And yes, I’m pounding on the keyboard. All of which takes six hours, or sometimes more, when everything is going well and I’m in that groove and I don’t even notice the time has gone by. How long can you write?  

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Dangerous Donuts, etc.

When you’re a writer, nothing goes to waste. No insult, no embarrassment, no foolishness. If I lived it, I can write about it. This has certainly been the case with my Maggie Dove mysteries, in which I’ve drawn on my experiences as a Sunday School teacher to help Maggie solve murders. But I’ve had other career experiences that have also been useful.    1. I helped compile the Fortune 500. Yes, that one. It was my job as a young reporter at Fortune magazine to read through about 1,000 annual reports (I’m not exaggerating; it might have been more). My job was to figure out which U.S. companies had the highest revenues, and in which sectors of the economy. It took months. Never in my life did I make my grandfather so happy as when that list came out and my name was on it. There are no Fortune reporters appearing in Maggie Dove, yet. However there is an economist! 2. I worked as a docent at Sunnyside, which is where Washington Irving lived. You have to know what I look like to appreciate the humor in this. Sufficient to say that on a very good day, if the wind isn’t blowing hard, I’m about 5 feet. Dressed in 19th century clothes, with an apron, and a bonnet, I looked a bit like a dumpling. And yes, there is a docent in Maggie Dove, but she’s gorgeous. I figured, why not? 3. One of my first jobs was as an obituary writer, which is probably perfect training for a mystery writer. It wasn’t a job I excelled at because I didn’t like prying into people’s lives at a difficult time. And how do you feel now that your husband’s dead body has been laid out? But I suppose it did give me various ideas, and my mother was very proud. For years we had a framed picture of a fatal accident in our kitchen, with my byline underneath. 4. My most horrifying job was at a donut store. I had to get there at 4 a.m., and it was my job to pluck the glazed donuts out of the boiling oil with my finger. I’m sure in the decades since I worked there, some governmental agency has stepped in, but I was just a teenager and my boss said, put your finger in the boiling and I said, Sure. I don’t know what I learned from that except that it’s good to question authority. How about you? Any horrifying job experiences? 

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Nanowrimo

I first heard about nanowrimo some years ago when one of my students kept submitting manuscripts without contractions. Take it from me, that if you read twenty pages and there is not one contraction, you notice pretty quickly. The writing seems formal and stiff. Anyway, one night I asked why she was doing this and she said it was because she was participating in nanowrimo and needed to write 50,000 words in a month, and if she didn’t use contractions, her word count would go up. So from that I deduced that nanowrimo was for people writing awful manuscripts.    However, time went on and more and more of my students began talking about it and I noticed everyone spoke about it with enthusiasm. No one had a bad thing to say about nanowrimo, and in fact, everyone seemed energized by the whole process. So I began to think about it more seriously, but I wasn’t tempted to do it because the fact is, I write a lot anyway, so I didn’t think I needed an inducement. Last year, I had an outline due on December 15 (for Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency.) I hate writing outlines. I once spent two years writing an outline and it was the only time in my life I’ve ever suffered from writer’s block. So I approached the whole thing with some trepidation and then I thought, ha! Why not write the novel, and then, when I have the novel, I can outline it. So, I signed up for nanowrimo and it worked. I wrote 50,000 words of MDDA, and I’m not going to say they were fabulous, (I probably wound up using only 15% of them) but I knew enough of the story by the end that I could write an outline. Then, once that was done, I could go back and write the book more thoughtfully.  This year I wasn’t sure if I would sign up again, but as luck would have it, once again I’m working on an manuscript. I don’t need an outline, but I would like to bulk it up, quickly, and I believe this will be a great way to boost my mind into thinking of all sorts of fun plot points. So yesterday I signed up to take part in Nanowrimo 2016. I’m a veteran!

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Two classes

Although I spend a lot of time writing, reading manuscripts, walking dogs and watching Dancing with the Stars, every Wednesday I emerge from my lair and teach two novel-writing writing classes in NYC. I teach one from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then the next from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. In between I hang out at the Gotham Writers offices, which is a fun place to be, and I usually spend the time working on a chapter of something. What that means is that every Wednesday I get to hang out with 28 or so novelists. That also means I’m reading 28 novels in progress. And it’s taught me many things. 1. Writing a novel is an exercise in patience. Some of the people in my class having been working on their novels for 4 years, and they’re not done. They’re serious writers and they’ve taken on ambitious topics and it just takes a long time.  2. Revision really works. There is a huge difference between the first draft of a novel and the fifth, and yes. Sometimes it takes five drafts. Sometimes more! 3. No one really knows what they’re doing (the teacher included). Everyone writes a novel in their own way, but my job is to help my students figure out what is the best way for them. 4. Writing can be a lonely job, and it helps to have a supportive bunch of people around. 5. People in a workshop can see things in your work that you just cannot see for yourself. It does help to have readers who can tell you what they don’t understand, and where your work seems slow, and what you’ve done that’s wonderful.  6. Everyone has a strength. Sometimes it’s plotting, sometimes it’s dialogue, sometimes it’s voice. Once you know your strength, then you can jump into the fray. 7. Writing is exciting and satisfying and exhausting and worthwhile. So is teaching.

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