MISS DEMEANORS

Looking for a muse? Maybe you should stop.

A muse, that inspirational goddess of literature, science and the arts found in Greek mythology, is supposed to inspire an artist, writer or musician. But does she? Does anyone wait for the muse to walk into their mind and ignite that spark? I’m not saying that ideas don’t spring to mind fully formed as a random thought during the night, or while walking the dog. Those are the words and ideas that writers rush to put on paper. They may in fact be the kernel of the next great novel or short story. However, rather than putting my faith in the muse, I’m a believer in the creative process. I don’t think that relying on a Greek muse will get me anywhere in the long run. Perhaps it’s because I was trained as an architect, and architecture and writing both rely on a creative process. In architecture you may be designing a house or a library. In writing you are perhaps creating a novel or a short story. A mystery or a memoir. Know this and you’ve started. I’m currently working on a series, so I know the name of my main character, where she lives, who her family is and what motivates her. All I need to do is put her into the current story. In architecture this is the equivalent of picking a site. Now you know the house will face the ocean on a narrow plot of land. You have a start. I think that the most important part of the process is simply beginning. You need the first word on the page; the first line on the page. Once you’ve started, the process continues – this is where it feels like a toss between a miracle and torture. Another layer in the writing unrolls. Perhaps it’s the development of a character, the addition of characters, the development of setting, the addition of details. If you’re writing a mystery, clues are scattered. It’s healthy to look at the exact process other writers use. Do they outline, create detailed backstories for all of their characters, or are they ‘pantsers’ writing by the seat of their pants. But it is also healthy to remember that each person’s process is individual and each person’s mind works in a slightly different way. The most important part of the process, to me, is to keep moving forward. Will you take a left turn on the road to completion, or a right turn? Maybe even a u-turn. You will get there if you keep at it. Keep putting words on a page. Keep reaching for the end, and one day you will arrive.     

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The computer meltdown

Yesterday my computer ‘glitched’. I’ve had a computer crash before. Twice actually. Both times the machine simply stopped working. It wouldn’t turn on. Game over. One time a technician replaced the mother board, the other time I bought a new one. Both times I accessed my documents from a backup drive and quick as a wink I was back in business. Yesterday was worse. Worse than a complete shutdown. It was heart palpitation bad. Every time I opened a document the content was that of the file opened immediately preceding it. Think about this. Pick a recent file and open it, and while the file name remains correct, the content is from the preceding one. I tried changing the file names, copying the document…. At this point I felt a cold dark panic. I pulled a document from my backup drive…. Same thing happened. I restarted the computer a few times, nothing changed. Imagine: You cannot keep content in a document. It felt like a ghost was in the machine. Watch The Shining, it was that frightening. End result, I turned my computer off and left it. Much, much later I restarted it a final time (okay, I waited until the next morning, today) and miraculously everything is fine. If I didn’t have a witness I wouldn’t believe it myself. (Their response to the problem was maybe you’ll have to retype the document from your hard copy….. ah, but that was the problem. Once the newly typed text is a new document, the next time you open it the content will be from an older document. ARGH!) All we can figure out is that something happened when the power went off yesterday. I think that the files were in the middle of backing up to Dropbox and something got ‘off’ (that’s a technical term). Anyway, back to normal today. What’s your worst computer failure?  

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Just off a reading jag and Lee Child owes me a few hours

I took a well-deserved break the other evening and went to a movie. I picked Jack Reacher, Never Go Back as my two hours of entertainment. The problem, and one I should have anticipated, was that once I’d seen the movie I needed to read the book. How did it compare, what changes were made (other than the obvious ones…. how tall is Reacher?). Fortunately (deep irony here), when I went to my book shelf there it was – Lee Child’s Never Go Back in hardcover splendor. I have a lot of books that I’ve bought and not had a chance to read, so there is no shame in an unbroken spine. I thought I’d take a peek at the first chapter or so and get a sense of the difference between movie and manuscript, then get back to work on my own manuscript. It takes me around a minute to read one page of a novel. That’s over four hours to read Never Go Back. In one big chunk of time. I’ll skip the obvious, clearly I enjoyed it. What struck me is how much of Reacher is internal. Jack Reacher the quintessential action hero is actually the quintessential cerebral action hero. How does that translate on screen? How do you show Reacher weighing all of his options and trying to get the bad guy to back down unharmed? Reacher is a loner and loners aren’t the most loquacious people. How do you translate that into film without it becoming a silent picture? Anytime I read I feel like I’m taking a personal master class in writing. With Lee Child it is a master class in picking the exact level of detail to incorporate. In an interview he once said that he skips research. He wants to write what will feel familiar to the reader. If the reader expects the gun to be heavy why interrupt their immersion in the story to explain that ‘technically the xyz revolver is lighter than most in the same category.’ Who cares! At that point in the story, with the gun pointed, all the reader should care about it What Happens Next. Child knows this. Maybe a little of his talent and skill will rub off on me as I re-read my own draft, trying to gauge the details needed for my reader to feel the place. Really feel it. I undergo serial reading more often that I’d like to admit. (A real confession here…. a bit embarrassing… I was on a long flight last week and read three Jack Reacher novels in a row. Yep. In a row. It was like eating a whole bag of candy at Halloween. I blame this on e-books which allow instant gratification. I also blame this on the airline. There was not one single good movie to watch.) Back to the point. Reading a clump of books by one author is instructive. If they have a continuing character you see very clearly how they capture that introduction each time. How much description and backstory is enough? How much does it vary? You judge what the author keeps as part of their style and what is unique to the story being told in that particular book. How do these authors keep us coming back? We want familiarity, but not imitation. In Lee Child’s Never Go Back the story was comfortingly expected, yet fresh. Of course, in the end, I have to remember that I read that last Reacher novel when I should have been writing. Maybe Lee Child will offer a few hours of his time to make up for my writing jag? Writing for me, of course. Or maybe I should count the debt paid, since I certainly learned enough from my read to justify those few hours immersed in someone else’s world. Thank you, Mr. Child. 

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The bonus book

Recently I took a step back in time and read an article on the craft of writing printed in the Paris Review. It was dated Winter 1986, and recounted an interview with E.L. Doctorow on stage in New York City in front of an audience of 500, and I wish I had been there. Doctorow started by saying that he works through six or eight drafts to complete a manuscript. However, there was one time – a miracle time – when he wrote a book in about seven months. The book was World’s Fair and he credits it to God giving him a bonus book for paying his dues over many long years. How did he decide this was a bonus book? Well, according to Doctorow, Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks and Stendhal wrote Charterhouse of Parma in twelve days, and clearly God spoke to them because if it wasn’t God then it was crass exhibitionism. I’m certainly not at the point where I’m due a bonus book, but I like the idea that one day I might qualify. Thank you Doctorow. The entire interview is worth a read. It starts with a demonstration that fame and literal recognition aren’t necessarily hand in hand. The first questioner asks about a Vonnegut book, confusing the two authors. Awkward if you are anyone but Doctorow. As I work on my own manuscript I was particularly drawn to Doctorow’s description of his process. He types single spaced and tries to get as many words on a page as possible. To view the entire landscape, he explains. Small margins get him near 600 words and one page a day is good. Two is worrisome since it might leave him with nothing for the following day. Sage words of advice. Throughout the discussions of what he reads and what he draws experience from the thread of the joy of writing is constant. Writing is all that matters. Experience doesn’t matter. Technique, education, nothing matters except the writing. Also sage advice. Read the complete interview and the others that the Paris Review will publish on the craft of writing. That is, unless you are contemplating a graduate degree in writing. You may want to skip Doctorow’s opinion on that subject. His full interview may be found here: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2718/the-art-of-fiction-no-94-e-l-doctorow

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A week in Paris

How’s your balance? Recently I went to Paris for a week. It was an unplanned trip. Very last minute and I was thrilled to return to a city I love and where I lived years ago. I declined at first, citing work load. I’m working through my draft and want to keep momentum. I was lured by a free ticket and the offer of a friend’s empty apartment. Who could turn that down? It should be noted that when I said yes, I also said, Thanks, I’ll work five or six hours a day and use the rest of the time to re-visit the city. Here’s what really happened. I spent every hour of every day (and night) visiting the city. I went to the Louvre three times, and about 12 other museums, including an unfortunate venture to the Musée des Égouts de Paris (the Museum of the Sewers). With my husband I strolled the streets, visited the stores, gazed at the Seine and enjoyed many fine restaurants. What I didn’t do is take a look at my manuscript. Not once. Not even a glimpse (I was beyond lying to myself). However, and this is a big however, two things did happen. One, I got some distance from it and now that I’m home and working again I have a fresh perspective. Second, and most important, I came up with the theme and plot for my next book! It was liberating to be in a place where I had no other obligations and think, really think, about what comes next. Clearly the next in the series will now be partly set in France, specifically in Paris, and I spent several days following up on ideas and wandering to the appropriate places, and talking to people. I think it can be hard to balance life and work. It can also be hard to justify taking a real break. Now that it’s over, I’m glad I took that break. A break that is far from the routine of daily life is a wondrous thing. Anybody else thinking about a break? My advice, take it.

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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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Learning to see

Description does not come easily to me. I can write pages and pages of dialogue, but ask me to describe a room and I start to twitch. I recognized some time ago that this might be a barrier to a career as an author and so I settled upon a way to force myself to observe. Every day I take a walk in the woods. With my dogs. Every day I observe the same thing, except it’s not the same thing, because it changes from day to day. There are the seasonal changes, of course, which are very evident now. Acorns are falling, leaves are drifting, chipmunks are chirping. That was a surprise to me. A chipmunk sounds like a bird.   There are also changes after storms. I love to walk in the woods after a bad storm and look at all the drama. Some of the trees are uprooted, and they fall sideways, and their skirts make me think of ladies in crinolines. Sometimes one tree crashes on top of another, and then they look like monsters fighting. Sometimes a storm will force all the leaves off a tree, so what was bright and gold yesterday will be bare today. But then there are all sorts of quiet changes. Mushrooms erupt. Shifting light makes an innocuous looking stump look ominous. Streams dry up, or they overflow. There is one particular rock that is driving me crazy. It is way too big to move, and yet it does. Sometimes it’s in the middle of the path, and sometimes to the side. I can’t figure it out. I feel like someone is following me and moving it around, though that seems unlikely. However, when my oldest son was young I did one day go in the woods, did my circuit, and when I got done I discovered that a troop of Boy Scouts had following me. Evidently I am so focused on observing that I’m not paying attention to anything else. (Not surprisingly, there’s a scene in Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency when she’s being followed in the woods, though not by Boy Scouts.) One of my favorite trees in the woods is an ash. The leaves stay green, then turn a beautiful pale silvery color and curl up and they’re there all through the winter. They always make me think of sea shells. Then spring comes and they all fall to the ground and new green ones grow. I’m always excited to see that tree because I’m never quite sure what it’s going to do next. 

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10 questions

When writing about a character, I like to ask her 10 questions. (Actually, I’m more likely to ask her 1,000 questions, but that would be a very long blog post.) 1. What is your happiest memory? 2. What do you worry about before you go to sleep? 3. What’s your favorite tree? (That was an easy one for Maggie Dove. An oak.) 4. What do you regret? 5. Do you like chocolate candy or Skittles, and why? 6. If your best friend’s husband flirted with you, would you flirt back? 7. Do you believe in evil? (This became an issue in Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency.) 8. What scares you? 9. If you won a million dollars, what would you do with it? 10. What’s your favorite book? The more questions I ask, the more real the character becomes to me, and what I love is when a character surprises me. When I asked Maggie Dove about her happiest memory, she told me about an afternoon she wore a red dress and surprised her husband. I didn’t see that coming, but I loved it and went with it and it’s one of my favorite moments in the book. What questions would you add to the list?

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What's in a name?

I teach novel-writing for Gotham Writers in New York City. My classroom is in an office building that looks right out on to Times Square. So from my window, I see something like this picture. Even when my class gets out, at 10 pm, it still looks like that.  Sometimes it’s a little scary. The other night I left work and walked by two people, arms folded across their chests, sleeping in a box shaped to look like a coffin. But for the most part working in Times Square is exhilarating, and I feel like I’m tapping into the energy that makes New York City so vital. My classes tend to reflect that vitality. My students come from all over the world–from Haiti and Dubai and London and Pakistan and of course, from the United States too. Their names are often unfamiliar to me. I grew up in a suburban part of Long Island, in a time and place where most of my friends were named Betty or Marcy or Patty. So it’s always a worry for me that I am either going to forget or mispronounce one of my student’s names. So I’ve hit on this writing exercise I do at the start of each class, in which I have each student write about how she came to have her name. The stories are always fascinating. Some students are named after a relative. A surprising number are named after characters in TV shows. Others have names that are completely made up, which is fun too. For example, one of my students has a name that has a syllable from each of her mother’s best friends. When I hear the stories behind the names, it becomes much easier for me to remember who the people are. I spend a lot of time thinking about the names of the characters in my mysteries. Usually I have a pretty good idea, but one character gave me a really hard time in my new book, Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency. She’s the person who comes to hire Maggie. She’s rich, proud, a bit distant, of French descent. She’s also a devoted caretaker to her mother. She’s essentially a good person in a prickly package. Originally I was going to call her Augusta, and have people in the village call her Gussie. But the more I wrote the name Gussie, the less it felt like her. I spent hours going through directories of French names. Jacqueline? Too fancy. Claudette? Too sexy. On and on, until finally I found the name Racine. Not a name that has a nickname. Just a slicing sort of name. It fit perfectly, and that’s how Racine Stern came to be in my book. Where does your name come from?      

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