Tag: #writerslife



I wanted to write about friendship because it’s the word that I most associate with Miss Demeanors. These women are not only marvelous writers, but they are also marvelous human beings. I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has shared a kind thought or helpful piece of advice. I really can’t imagine the past two years without them.

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How does reading fiction change you?

Reading changes me. From the moment I start a new book until the moment I finish the last word, I feel like I’ve been on a trip. What I take away after the book is finished depends partly on what I brought with me before I started and partly what I learned along the way. Let me say that another way, when I delve deeply into a world I already know, I’m more likely to focus on nuances, when I’m looking into a world I’ve never seen before, I suspect I’m like a kid in a toy store who stares at the brightest and shiniest thing. And then there’s the entire spectrum in between being an expert and a novice. Still, when I close the book, I see people, places, and even my own self with new eyes.

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Two weeks ago, I had my first reading of Blessed be the Wicked at The King’s English in Salt Lake City. I haven’t lived in Utah since I graduated from high school a very long time ago. Still, Utah’s a place always close to my heart. My pioneer ancestors helped settle Deseret in the mid-nineteenth century. I grew up listening to my mom tell stories of her grandpa’s ranch out in Grantsville. The farm hands were up at the crack of dawn, and when they came in from the first labor of the day, around dawn, my great grandma would feed them steak, eggs, and potatoes for breakfast. Meanwhile, my mom would sneak spoon fulls of cream from the top of milk jugs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen happier grins than what I saw in the frayed black-and-white photo of my great grandpa in striped overalls with my mom by his side on his tractor. Grantsville, Utah, in the late 1940s was a place where people knew to cherish time. As a rancher, my great grandpa had plenty of work that had to be done. He did it and he did it well. If you’re a farmer and a rancher, there’s nothing to be gained by cutting corners. When he finished what needed to be finished, though, he knew there was more to life. From the stories, I know he knew how to have fun. He took my mom out on the horses, he let her drive the tractor, he watched her climb trees. I never knew my Great Grandpa Brown. I only know him through my mom’s and my grandma’s stories. HE laughed a lot. He smiled. He knew how to live. Getting work done was important, but so was playing. It’s a lesson I’m trying to apply in my own life. We need to get our work done: yes. We need to do the best job we can: yes. Then, we need to play: absolutely. So do what you need to do. Do it well. Then, climb a tree.

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Write what you know.  I’m not going to venture an opinion on this bit of writing advice, but I am going to use it as a jumping off point. Right now, what I know is that I’m on plane in Nashville waiting for take off. My husband and my son are here, too. My daughter is not. She’s staying behind to start her freshman year at Vanderbilt. She’s completely ready for this transition. Me? Not so much. After I hugged her this morning—and may or may not have shed a tear or three—we walked around the Parthenon in Centennial Park. There was time to think as we wandered among the exhibits and the enormous statue of Athena and her shield (that’s the photo to the right). I found myself alternating between feeling misty and knowing this is as it should be. By nature, I’m a person who wants to jump from one thing to the next. I’m not so sure that’s a healthy way to approach life. Transitions have their own beauty. Beauty isn’t pain-free. It can mean tears. It does right now. My daughter’s off to her new life. My new life will be one without waking her up in the morning or staying up past my bedtime to make sure she’s made it home safe. I won’t be picking up her shoes by the door. I won’t be making vegetarian meals for her. No more girls’ lunches after picking out a dress she needs for the next big event (at least not as frequently). I’m going to miss all that. This moment, though, has its own beauty. As I write this through watery eyes, I know I must feel what I’m feeling. I must feel the emptiness of her room in New York and the happiness of knowing she’s in a small dorm room overlooking the beautiful trees and green lawn of the commons of her campus. She has a lot to look forward to. I do, too. I know that even though this moment is bittersweet, I must savor it because it will not last. So, please excuse me while I shed a few tears . . . and smile some, too.    

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When the writing gets tough, the tough get writing.

 It’s hot. It’s sticky. If you’re feeling anything like me, you’re feeling a little lazy. Okay, maybe a lot lazy, but writers write. So how to keep it up as we enter the season of vacations, naps, and picnics? I’ve been thinking a lot about how to write through the tough periods. You know those times when your blank screen mocks you and your fingers aren’t able to find the right keys. (If you’ve never experienced this, count yourself blessed.) I know deep in my heart that it doesn’t matter whether the words come easily or not, I must write regardless. I also know that’s it’s more fun when you sit down to your computer and everything just flows. It’s nice when you start typing and the next thing you know, your characters have taken you down a road you never expected and the next time you look up, you’ve written three chapters. That’s a wonderful feeling. Savor it. None of us needs help when we have writing days like that. It’s harder when each paragraph–each word–comes slowly. When you find that your fingers keep hitting the delete key. Or worse: your fingers don’t want to move anywhere. Since I’m in the middle of one of those stretches, I’m going to share whats getting me through: (1) Be honest with yourself about your level of commitment. Last week, Ellen Byron (the amazing talent behind the Cajun Country Mystery series) wrote a wonderfully insightful blog on Career Authors about the difference between being committed and being interested. I won’t try to revise what she wrote. Please check it out yourself. The take away is: If you’re committed, you’ll do what’s necessary even when it’s uncomfortable and difficult.  (2) If you’re committed, you will figure out a way through. When I turned thirty, I committed to running a marathon. That meant running increasingly long runs every weekend. I did those practice runs pushing my young daughter in a purple baby jogger. As the runs got longer, her patience grew shorter. Let me tell you, when your baby starts crying, it’s hard to not just turn around and go home. But. . . but I was committed to running a marathon. I found snacks and toys to keep her occupied as I ran 18 then 20 then 22 miles along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.  Finally, I was ready. Then September 11th happened. My original plan for when and where I was going to run changed. Instead of giving up, I searched for the next marathon I could run without causing undue hardship on my family. Turns out it was Baltimore. The route back then was known for being hillier than Boston. I hadn’t trained for hills, but I registered anyway. My lack of uphill training manifested itself some excruciating knee pain by mile 5. A volunteer medic told me that even though the pain was bad, I wasn’t causing any irreparable damage. I kept running. I finished. The end.  If you decide you’re more interested than committed, by all means take the summer off. There’s nothing wrong–and everything right–with taking a break when you need it. If, however, you are committed, you can check back here this week for tips on getting through the challenging bits. On Friday, my fellow Miss Demeanors will share their best writing advice for getting to the finish line.  In the mean time, consider where you are on the interest-commitment spectrum. If you take the summer off: enjoy! If not: I hope you’ll share your thoughts on writing when the writing gets tough.  

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Inspiration Sideways

Most writers have more ideas than they know what to do with. (Yes, I did end that sentence with a preposition.) Finding inspiration is not a problem . . . except when it is. For me, this usually happens around the 30,000-word mark. I’m happily typing along, letting my characters do what they want to do when the words start to slow down until I click on the keyboard one last time. I describe the feeling as standing on a wobbly rock in the middle of a river. There’s no clear way to the other side and the rocks behind me are under water.  I am, for the most part, a big believer in AIC (credit to Nora Roberts). Writing output is directly correlated to time spent sitting at the computer. When I start in the morning, I set a timer and do nothing but write until it goes off. Just doing it works great when it comes to getting writing done. From time to time, however, we face something in our story that doesn’t quite work, and we’re not sure how to make it right. That’s when it might be time to step away. A few weeks ago, I found myself in a hole at the very end of the second Abish Taylor mystery. I spent a few days trying to type my way through it, but got no where. So, I took a break at the Met. Art museums are my refuge.  If I can find space away from the crowds, I don’t much care what the exhibit is about. (There, another preposition.)  A stroll through Central Park works, too, if the weather is to my liking. I’ve come to believe our subconscious mind sometimes can solve problems our conscious mind cannot. We need to give our subconscious space and time. For me, walking and looking at something pretty allows for just this kind of problem solving to happen. Museums and parks may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I suspect that everyone has his or her own way of “stepping away.” Find yours. . . . and, if you like museums, are interested in the Catholic Church or fashion, I can recommend the “Heavenly Bodies” exhibit at the Met.      

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Note to self

When I asked my fellow Miss Demeanors what advice they’d give their younger writing selves, the answers came quickly. I don’t know that I have anything to add, but I’ll share my thoughts any way. If you want to write, write. Don’t let fear of rejection or failure get in the way. The more you write, the better a writer you’ll be. Whatever happens, pay attention. You can always write about it. Cate: Quit your day job sooner. Better to starve (when you’re single) and do what you’re passionate about. Tracee: I agree with Cate. Get a good education, then try to live your dream…. maybe get some life experience. No better time to volunteer with a NGO and see the world. I used to see the UNHCR cases with their handlers on the train outside Geneva and wonder where they are going….. looking back I should have gone along. Susan: That’s a great question, Alison, and I think about stuff like that all the time, except that I’ve come to realize that most of the really stupid things I’ve done have led me to a better understanding of why I, and others, do stupid things, which is a useful thing to think about, especially when writing mysteries. So I guess my advice to my young self would be to try and be forgiving and take lots of notes. Michele: Don’t let fear hold you back. Dare to break the rules. Learn to know when. Live life fully so you have lots of material to write about. Don’t make time to write. Write, and if there’s time leftover, well then do the other stuff. Alexia: Don’t fall victim to imposter syndrome. You’re a good writer. Your stories are as valid as anyone’s. Don’t let anyone else tell you how you should tell your story, don’t let anyone else tell your story for you. And if they don’t like your story, told your way, tant pis for them. Their loss. Paula: Breathe. (Not that I would have listened.)

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Rules and breaking them

A grammar and punctuation maven, I am not. I want to be, though. The more I read and the more I write, the more I appreciate those writers who not only dazzle with storyline and character, but who also construct sentences with careful thought. It isn’t that these writers always follow the rules, but when they break them, it’s with style. So, I’m happily embarking on the never-ending journey of learning the rules . . . and how to break them. What the rules are is up for debate. Reasonable people can disagree (cue: Oxford comma). I think it’s a writer’s obligation to make an effort to know both the rules and the debates about them. I may never have the depth of knowledge that, say, my editor or agent has, but I’m going to at least try. The Elements of Style is always a good place to start. I have the 2005 edition Maira Kalmon illustrated. It makes me smile every time I open it. Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Kingsley Amis’ The King’s English and Stephen King’s On Writing are some of my favorite reads when I want to give in to my inner writer geek.  I’m also a fan of some of the on-line grammar gurus. Grammar Girl, Grammarly, and Oxford Dictionaries are just the thing when I’m in the middle of something and need quick guidance. There is, of course, the risk of falling down the rabbit hole because of the temptation to just keep reading until I get to a debate on the Oxford comma or using prepositions at the end of sentence. That’s my signal that it’s time to get back to my writing. I’m always on the look out for something I haven’t seen, so please share your favorite standbys for all things grammar and punctuation.      

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