What place makes for the best writing?

I’m peripatetic, finding many places in the house, on the porch, and occasionally in a library to sit and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t re-think this. What did the greats do? P.D. James worked anywhere she could rest her notepad. Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickenson composed poetry in their heads while at work and doing chores respectively and wrote them down at night. (I know I can’t manage that.) Henrik Ibsen sat at his desk facing a portrait of August Strindberg, so that his countryman and “mortal enemy” could “hang there and watch” while he wrote. It’s tempting to come up with a mortal enemy, but likely not worth the effort. What if they didn’t inspire me? What if they intimidated me? Although if you have a mortal enemy who inspires your creativity, I’d suggest investing in a good portrait right away. There are a few examples that I think might be workable… or at least aspirational. Edith Wharton wrote in bed, tossing the pages on the floor for her secretary to pick up. In a nice parallel, Victor Hugo often wrote naked, after telling his valet to not bring clothes until his writing was complete. The problem with these examples is that I lack the household staff to fill all the roles. I’m better off sticking to the example of John Keats who rose early, dressed as if going out, and sat down to write. Simple, diligent and clearly effective. Actually, not so different from what I do. Perhaps I’ve found my inspiration. What works for you? 

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“How do you get the work to hold the resonance of its history?” Claudia Rankine

 This quote is from an interview in the Paris Review with author Claudia Rankine. The entire interview, conducted by David Ulin and published in Winter 2016, is worth reading. Rankine’s poetry focuses on social issues ranging from micro aggression, to racism to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. To her, words matter. She recounts listening to the recording of the shooting of Philando Castile and hearing the words of the little girl in the backseat of the car say, “It’s okay, Mommy, I’m right here with you.” She talks about the ability of the words to transport her to the point where she is literally experiencing the child and her words. Rankine is a poet who writes across many formats. She is a writer for social justice. How does that compare with writing mysteries? Should it compare? I’d like to think that it can. Not every page of a 300 page novel will stand up to the scrutiny of a poem. Not every word will achieve a lyrical meaning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t aspire to this. Words matter has resonated across the country this year for many reasons. Whether high oratory, poetry, or a hastily written note in a lunch box, words matter. As I work on final revisions, where it sometimes feels like there are too many words to care about, I’ll keep this as an aspirational goal even if only means I get it about one third right. To read the full Rankine interview visit: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6905/claudia-rankine-the-art-of-poetry-no-102-claudia-rankine

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The Betas

My Beta readers are the unsung heroes of the writing process. Every author has them, a fixed group or changeable one, dependable or sporadic, they are the kind souls who are willing to read a draft and speak honestly about it. I have a crew and what a group they are. Scattered around the globe I usually send the chapters to them all at the same time. Then I keep working on something else and wait. Not patiently. After all, shouldn’t they drop everything they are doing – work, family, vacation, other books and read what I have suggested? In all fairness, they are unfailingly excited to receive their email with attachment. And they do read quickly (anything outside of a 24 hour turn around for me feels like a nail biting trip to Mars and back. I have actually Tweeted a Beta reader that she needed to start reading faster. Did that smack of desperation?!). Some readers are naturals – they read carefully, thoughtfully and don’t hesitate to make ‘suggestions’. Others must be trained. Yes, you really do want their opinion. You may not take all their suggestions, but each and every idea is welcome and plays a part in strengthening the final book. My Betas fall into two broad types. Some are the nit-picky comma and word choice gurus. Amazing! (I’m always surprised how many typos go undiscovered. Did logic REALLY look like topic each and every one of the 10 times I read it? Yes, it must have.). The other readers are big picture. Their emails critiques start off “some typos and weird punctuation to fix but what really concerns me is….” Honestly, I couldn’t live without either group. Each word and comma is important and needs a second set of eyes. At the same time the words and commas won’t matter if the plot point fails, or if the chapters drag on too long or (there are many ‘ors’ here). People are busy, your Beta readers are friends, they’re not doing this for a pay check and yet they read something that isn’t as polished as it will eventually be, and then they agree to read it again (hopefully more polished). And, bless them, they read the final version to see how you’ve changed it (even after I assure them that they read was the final version with the exception of a few very minor word changes). More shocking is what they notice. They have read and absorbed and remembered more than I did. Writers are used to reading drafts. Most readers aren’t. Those who take this on willingly should be saluted. It’s a beautiful thing. What kind of a Beta reader are you? 

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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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Writing, Blogging, Editing and Reading–All At Once

The first book was difficult because I didn’t have a publisher. I spent hours each day writing it without knowing whether anyone besides my mother and husband would ever read my work. Without a deadline, I had to apply pressure on myself to get it finished, making up deadlines as I went along and justifying to myself why I had to stay up late or wake up early in order to make them. After it was done, I had to hold my breath and pray that my agent would be able to sell it. The anxiety was horrible. The second book was difficult because I did have a publisher. I had to write it while also tearing up chapters in my first book that my editor found boring or distracting. I had to rejigger secondary plot lines and beef up character arcs in between penning chapters for the second book. Essentially, I wrote two books at the same time. When book one was with my editor, I went back to book number two. When my editor gave book one back to me, I put down book number two to rework another chapter or review another copy edit.  While doing this, I also had to read the books in my genre and do what I normally do each day as a stay at home mom of two children who, at the time, were both under five-years-old. I’m not alone in this. Most writers I know are juggling day jobs or full-time family responsibilities with writing multiple books at a time and publicizing previously published books.  Now, I’m on my third and fourth books. My third is in with my publisher and I am two-thirds of the way done with the first draft of my fourth. I am also in the midst of publicity for the second book which includes blogging and radio interviews and writing guest posts for other people’s publications.  I know that the edit for the third will come back soon and I’ll have to start the two book trade-off. I also have a list of must-read books (many by fellow authors on this blog) that I intend to finish before the year is out.  Writing is 10% inspiration, 60% perspiration and 30% time management.     

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