7 posts categorized "The Writing Life"

January 07, 2011


By our Will

One of the most frustrating things about writing is facing the fact the project you believe in, the project you’re over the moon about, the one you just know is going to blow the socks off everyone who reads it…. just…. isn’t….working….

Short version:  Many years ago, I wrote a spec script for THE X FILES.  It was a piece I was particularly proud of, but could not get in the front door.  Or the back door.  Or any door.  A few years later, it was heavily revised and submitted to THE DEAD ZONE, with slightly better results.  Ultimately rejected, the feedback and comments were invaluable, and it remains the nicest most constructive rejection I’ve ever received.

A couple of months back I heard of a new anthology looking for mysteries with a Christmas theme.  Kicking around some ideas with friends over coffee, the brain flash came, this could easily be adapted into a novella set on Christmas Eve.  The starters  gun went off in my brain, and we were off to the races.

Scary_2After six weeks of intense daily work, changing this and editing that, revising here, creating there, it hit me like a ton of bricks I’d left out a third character who, while on the fringes of the action, plays a very important part in the last third of the story.  Without this character, the heroes cannot do what they need to do to uncover the mystery. 

 I spent one entire day trying to re-work, re-write, streamline, edit, and make this happen.  The frustration level was mounting, so I stepped back for the night and thought it through.  Spent the evening with the Macbook Air in my lap, working Scrivener to death, arranging and re-arranging, making notes, revising dialogue.

Yesterday, I realized it just isn’t going to work.

I’m not saying it can’t be done, but not in this incarnation.  The final nail that sealed its doom is that the Big Mystery, the Solution, the ‘snap’ in the tale, the Lost Ark, the MacGuffin, the Major Shock…. well, it was horrifying ten years ago, but today wouldn’t get more than a ‘ho-hum, this old chestnut again?’

Okay.  There is no shame in graceful surrender.  Not everything works the way we plan it.  Sent a private email venting to certain people, all of whom came back with “Don’t throw it away!” and some terrific words of encouragement (this is why we have friends, and if they are writers too, they understand the frustration of it all.)  This one isn’t working, archive it, move on, think of something else.

Sometimes, despite my cynicism, I have to wonder if there really are Angels around us.

Ic steamer trunk Less than two hours after that, an acquaintance on Facebook posted an interview with Michael Chabon about his ‘failed’ work, ‘Fountain City’, and how he is allowing the first four chapters and a cautionary foreword to be published.  Harlan Ellison recently released a four page fragment of what was to be a magnum opus, a dream project, when he realized (as he explains in the footnotes) the unbelievable hubris of himself, that he would even dare to attempt this particular kind of story.  Stephen King, according to legend, has left very strict instructions about the material in a certain steamer trunk in his office upon the event of his passing; something about a blowtorch and kerosene, if I remember correctly.  Boo’s friend Harley and I have had long long talks about how amazing it is that anything ever gets done in The Movie Business.  (Talk about all the Stars and Planets in the Known Universe lining up just to get a movie made… and the tiniest glitch along the way can tank the entire project, sometimes after millions of dollars have been put into it.  Ye Gads!)

Was poking around early this morning online, doing some research, and ran across some interesting stuff for a possible New Christmas Mystery.  Something different, potentially a little more paranormal than usual for me,  but the idea is there and cooking and simmering and in the next few days it’ll bubble to the surface and come together.

Scary_1Frustrating business, this Writing Stuff.  I keep telling myself I’m still a young man, I could get into something decent and reasonable, like selling used cars, or condo time-shares to retirees, or maybe television evangelism.

But then, the words flow, the plot holds, it all comes together, and, to quote Freddy Shoop, "This shit works!"

If Stephen King and Harlan Ellison and Michael Chabon and countless other writers had to abandon more than one project, then whatthehell, I’m in good company…..



A note from your blogwerker: The Tarts and I would love to be nominated for a Bloggie, the 2011 Annual Weblog awards. We would appreciate it if you were to go here and nominate us (best group blog or best-kept secret seem to be the best catagories) before the 16th of the month.

October 28, 2010

Overheard at the Opium Den

Overheard at the Opium Den

by Diane Chamberlain

 Head in coffee beans         

 It all began years ago when I decided to rent a room in my house to a young couple. They were delightful tenants, but I found it challenging to write when they were around. One evening, I escaped to the only place that was open nearby: Starbucks. I studied the menu board, feeling awkward. I wasn't a coffee drinker, so I wanted to order a small decaf, but the word 'small' was nowhere on the menu. I saw Tall. And Grande. And whPoisonat on earth did Venti mean? A kindly barista gave me a tall decaf that tasted like poison and pointed me in the direction of an inviting red velvet chair, which turned out to be every bit as cushy as it looked. I'm one of those people who actually uses her laptop on her lap, so the chair was perfect for me.

  Di starbucks
 Activity swirled around me. I lived in Northern Virginia at the time, DC right outside Washington, DC, and the evening crowd at the Starbucks consisted of foreign students hunched over textbooks, self-conscious couples on Match.com dates (I was soon to become one of them), young people--pierced, tattooed and adorable--socializing with one another, and a large group of middle-eastern men who sat near the front door. At first, it was hard to concentrate on writing because the people-watching was too seductive, but I gradually tuned out everything around me and lost myself in my work.

Ten o'clock, closing time. The hours had flown by and I'd written fifteen pages! If I worked so efficiently at Starbucks in the evening, why not try it in the morning as well?

My cushy red chair (yes, I'd already come to think of the chair as mine) Red velvet chair was vacant the following morning, but the crowd was entirely different. A laptop on nearly every table. People with phone buds in their ears, sitting alone, talking to the air. Consultants--the DC area is awash with them--meeting with their clients. Flow charts spread out on tabletops. Again, I wrote pages upon pages. This time I had caffeinated coffee. It was morning, after all. When I went back that evening, I decided to try a latte. And a blackbottom cupcake. Already, I was hooked. I quickly dubbed Starbucks "The Opium Den" believing there is an addictive substance in the lining of their cups that is activated by heat. Otherwise, why would I crave coffee that is so bitter and burned tasting that the first time I was served it, I thought there was something wrong with it?

Years later, I am still hooked. Addicted woman  My addiction costs me more than four dollars a day, but for that four dollars I receive far more than a coffee high, breakfast (cinnamon scone), an expanding waistline and an office away from home. The truth is, I've been touched, enlightened and enriched by things I've overheard in the Opium Den.

It's my duty as a novelist to gather stories wherever they can be found, right? Megaphone The first time I eavesdropped in the O.D. was when two men sat down at a table near my chair. It was clear from their conversation that they were discussing theTeen boy   welfare of a teenage boy.  As a former psychotherapist specializing in adolescents, I'm a sucker for teenagers. I'm sure the men thought I was deep in my work, but I was actually glued to their conversation.

The blond truck driver was the boy's father; the dark-haired born-again Christian, his stepfather with whom the boy lived. It was clear the men were meeting to find a way to help the boy cope with social and family issues. Obviously, there'd been some ugliness between the men in the past and I could tell they had very different approaches to child rearing. Yet their love of the boy was deep, transcending those differences as they explored solutions to help him.   When their conversation was over, the men stood and embraced, touching me with their caring and nobility. As they walked out of Starbucks, I reread the scene I'd been working on and knew it lacked the emotional depth I'd just had the honor of witnessing. I deleted the scene and started over again.

That was the first time customers at the Opium Den inspired my writing, but it wasn't to be the last. There was the day two unsuspecting women gave me the gift of an idea for a novel. 

Women in coffee shop 

          "Did you hear about Sharon Smith?" the brunette asked her friend as she sipped her Venti Americano.  "Her ex and that bitch he married were awarded custody of her son!"

        "You're kidding!" responded the redhead with the Grande Latte. "Why would a judge take a child away from his mother?"

        "Her ex and the bitch are both lawyers, that's why. Sharon didn't stand a chance."

        "If that happened to me," said the redhead, "I'd change my name, take my kid, and disappear."

Voila! I had my character and the core of her dilemma. I gave her a used computer filled with information that would allow her to save many lives—if only she would turn herself in to the  authorities--and my novel, The Escape Artist, was born.

Does my eavesdropping sound--I don't know--creepy? I don't go out of my way to listen in, but I'm interested in people and apparently, I have very good hearing. Ears Sometimes, though, my hearing ability doesn't matter.


   Not long ago, I was sitting in my comfy chair at the O.D., typing my manuscript as I sipped my Grande half-caf-with-steamed-milk.  Sharing the leather sofa across from me were three women, and I couldn't take my eyes off them. Legs on couch

My best guess was that they were two middle-aged daughters sitting on either side of their elderly mother. They were speaking a foreign language–-Middle Eastern, I thought, although I couldn't hear them well. The two younger women looked very American, but it was the elderly woman who had caught my attention. Her face was incredibly lined. I’d never seen so many crinkles and wrinkles in one place, and she was absolutely beautiful. She was tiny and she wore a little beige hat that looked hand-knit. On the side of the hat was a small, floppy, coral-colored flower. I was pretty sure she was on to me and my snooping, so I tried to stop staring at her but didn't do a very good job of it. Her face was like a magnet for my eyes. I wanted to get up and hug her.

The younger women, soft mirrors of their mother, had a few lines on their faces too. They clearly loved their mother. They talked non-stop and seemed to be explaining something to the older woman, using their hands to help in their descriptions. Their mother didn't say much. She nodded and said “oh” from time to time, a tiny smile on her face as she sipped from her Starbucks cup–which somehow looked incongruous in her hands. Old lady hands I noticed she wore identical rings on the ring finger of each hand. Each gold ring held a single pearl in a large, round beaded setting, and I wished I knew the significance of those rings.

The younger women were oblivious to me, but the old one was not. I felt her eyes on me and wondered who or what she saw in me. A third daughter? One who was missing? I glanced at her one more time and suddenly understood my attraction to her. In her face, I saw both of my grandmothers, long gone. I saw my mother, who had never looked this old, although she lived to be eighty-eight. I saw all of them in her, and I felt the yearning for people I loved but could no longer talk to or touch. 

It was time to leave. I turned off my laptop and slipped it and my notecards into my carry-all. I got up and walked past the leather sofa, but impulsively turned back and stepped in front of the women.

“I’m sorry I’ve been staring at you,” I said to the elderly woman, not knowing if she understood me or not. “It’s just that I think you’re very beautiful.”

The younger women smiled and translated for their mother, who laughed and said "thank you.” One of the women said, “She’s our mother,” with more pride in her voice than those three little words could possibly hold. I was a little weepy by the time I reached my car. I wished I could take my mom to Starbucks. Mom 4th teeth

I thought of how lucky I am to have my office away from home. Writing is so isolating. I need to be around people even if I'm not directly interacting with them. It all comes back to replenishing the creative well, and there's only so much well water my home office can hold, even though I have a great house. It's over 4000 square feet of space. I can work in my office or in the sunroom or on the screened porch or at the dining room table. But you won't find me in any of those rooms in the mornings. You'll find me in a cushy chair at the Opium Den. I expect that I'll be there for many years to come--or at least for as long as they continue to put that coating on the inside of the cups. 

  How about you? Do you have an office away from the office, and if you do, what draws you there?



April 04, 2010

With Three You Get Egg Roll


HANK:  Do you know Julie Hyzy? If you don't, I am delighted to introduce you to one of the most charming, intelligent, witty and hard-working rising stars in mystery world. Julie and Karen Olson and I toured the hot spots of North Carolina together a few weeks ago--we were the Triple Threat Mystery Tour under the watchful eye and wise shepherding of the amazing Molly Weston. And someday really, I'll post pictures of the hilarity: books, barbeque, sweet tea, some wonderful bookstores and libraries and non-stop fun--but the photos are still in my camera, so you'll have to imagine.  Oh, wait! here's one, courtesy of Karen Kiley (xoxo) at the Cary Library. (Notice Julie and me, listening, enraptured, to Karen, while Molly Weston prepares her next tough question.)

North caro tour



So you see--just like any good writing ,the weekend has a theme! The Triple Threat reunion.

Yesterday, the fabulous Karen shared her tattoo secrets. Today, we're eggcited to welcome Julie. Yes, I can spell.  But that's eggzactly what I meant to say.




Julie Hyzy: Today is Easter Sunday, and whether you celebrate the day because of its religious significance, or just because you enjoy Marshmallow Peeps, you have to admit one thing: Eggs are everywhere. There are plastic eggs filled with treats, hard-boiled eggs colored in bright pastels, cream-filled eggs, and those superbly smooth Dove truffle eggs. Ooh… I could go for one of those right now.



Hank generously invited me to guest blog today because my latest book—the third in my White House Chef Mystery series, Eggsecutive Orders, is set just before the Easter Egg Roll. These books feature Olivia (Ollie) Paras as Executive White House chef who feeds the First Family and saves the world in her spare time. Although we truly do have our first-ever female Executive Chef in the real White House, my books are fiction, and my President Campbell and his wife bear no resemblance to our current leader and his family. (Buffalo West Wing comes out next year and…cough, cough…that may change…)


Tomorrow, in the real world, in a tradition that dates back to 1878, President and Mrs. Obama will open the White House lawn for the annual Egg Roll. The event is for kids and their families—provided, of course, those families were lucky enough to snag tickets. As I’m sure you know, books take a long time to get published.


   Back when I turned in Eggsecutive Orders, the only way to get a ticket was to stand outside the White House on the prescribed date, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. The Obamas have since updated the process so that Egg Roll lottery tickets are awarded online. Now hopeful families sit at their computers with fingers crossed and hope for the best. So, even though it just came out, Eggsecutive Orders is already a little bit dated.

This year’s Egg Roll theme “Ready, Set, Go!” is designed to dovetail with Mrs. Obama’s mission of promoting kids’ health. And just for the record, the Egg Roll is no small event. There will be live music, cooking stations, storytelling, kids’ activities, and of course there will be eggs. Lots of eggs.


And hey… even the Oval Office is in on the fun. It’s in the shape of an egg, isn’t it?



When I was researching Eggsecutive Orders I discovered that the White House provides over fifteen thousand hard-boiled eggs for the event. Think about that. Fifteen thousand eggs. That’s one thousand two hundred and fifty dozen. When my kids were little and we colored eggs the Friday before Easter, it sometimes felt as though we went through at least that many. Nowadays we color just enough to make a pretty platter at dinner. But it’s still a lot of work.


When I envisioned what it might be like for my characters to produce fifteen thousand eggs, I had a hard time wrapping my head around that number. But I also realized that the White House kitchen staff does this every year as a matter of course. No big deal. Just one more “herculinary” project on their platter. So I decided to make things a little tougher—to give Ollie’s group an extra challenge this time around.




When Eggsecutive Orders opens, it’s eggsactly (sorry, couldn’t resist!) one week before the annual Egg Roll and Ollie, Bucky, and Cyan are hauled in for questioning, eventually finding themselves banished from the kitchen. Seems one of the president’s guests didn’t make it to dessert. What’s the worst kind of dinner guest a chef has to deal with? You got it—a dead one. Carl Minkus, head of the NSA, keeled over at the table, a victim of poisoning. And except for the kitchen staff, no one had access to his meal.



Fun stuff. Along with the dead guest and the team’s subsequent banishment from the White House, there’s espionage, Ollie’s mom and nana visiting from Chicago, Ollie’s frustrated Secret Service boyfriend, a couple of celebrity guest chefs with a possible motive, and an over-the-top newspaper reporter looking for scoop… all in a day’s work for Ollie. Heh heh heh. Why is it so much fun for writers to put characters in conflict?

I think that’s another blog.


Today—this Easter—I have far fewer worries than Ollie does. I’m carrying on a tradition set up years ago by hosting the extended family for dinner. I’ve owned Easter as my holiday for a number of years now, and although I can probably run dinner in my sleep I still worry about everything being hot at serving time and remembering to turn the coffee on before we sit down. Small concerns really. Even if I burned the entire meal, they’d all still love me…and probably even come back next year for another round.




But tomorrow—Egg Roll Day—just as Ollie puts all the pieces together to figure out who killed Carl Minkus, just as

she scrambles to make sure all of those fifteen thousand eggs are where they need to be, just as she brings the guilty person to justice while protecting innocent bystanders from getting killed, I’ll be here in my quiet house, enjoying the best part of hosting holidays: leftovers. Ham, potatoes, sausage, sauerkraut, lamb cake, jelly beans, and chocolate..



 For the record, I can skip on Marshmallow Peeps. But hand over those truffle eggs and no one will get hurt.


HANK: Thanks, Julie!  We used to make Easter Eggs by--writing on them with crayon? And  then dipping them into..something?  Am I remembering this correctly? Any Easter egg-making secrets out there?




Julie Hyzy’s first book in the White House Chef Mystery series, State of the Onion, won the Lovey Award for Best Traditional Mystery and the Barry, and Anthony Awards for Best Paperback Original in 2009. The series includes Hail to the Chef, Eggsecutive Orders, and (coming in January) Buffalo West Wing. Julie is also excited to announce the debut of her new Manor of Murder Mysteries. The first book in that series, Grace Under Pressure, comes out June 1st.

November 21, 2009

1-800-Evelyn David

Rhonda Dossett calls herself the "Southern half of Evelyn David." Rhonda lives in Oklahoma. Her writing partner, Marian Edelman Borden, lives in New York. Together, they’ve written two hilarious mystery novels – and never met. Today, they give TLC advice on the dog-eat-dog world of publishing.

By Rhonda Dossett   

We’re preaching to the choir when we observe that these are hard times in the publishing world. Mystery authors aren’t exempt from the "low-advance, cut the mid-list, it’s not quirky enough" syndrome that has embroiled the publishing world.

So what’s a self-respecting mystery duo to do? Look for a back-up day job.

And we’ve figured out our calling. We’re going to start a "Dear Evelyn," advice to the lovelorn column, because one thing that collaboration has taught us is the basics of a good relationship – be it marriage or partnership in murder and mayhem.

Science fiction writer Keith Laumer once wrote: "If you possibly can, write it yourself. Collaborations, like marriages, should only be undertaken if any alternative is unthinkable."

Evelyn David is the pen name of Marian Edelman Borden and Rhonda Dossett. We believe that collaborating is the only way that either of us wants to write mysteries. But we point out that we could offer a broader perspective for the lovelorn. To quickly bring you up to speed, Marian, a nonfiction writer with ten books to her credit, lives in New York.

Rhonda, the coal program director for the state of Oklahoma, lives in Muskogee. The standing joke is Marian wouldn’t know a coal mine if she fell down a shaft.

Now since only one of us (the Northern half) is married, that might suggest we shouldn’t take on the role of counselors of wedded bliss. The truth is that many of the reasons why our collaboration works are fundamentally the basics of a good marriage. There’s someone to share the joys, for sure, but as we all know, writing, like marriage, can be tough on the ego. Rejection is the norm, and collaboration means there is always someone to listen to the hyperbolic rants about the unfairness of who gets published and who doesn’t, as well as the heartfelt whispers when one of you has hit a brick wall and couldn’t compose a shopping list, let alone create a scene with dialogue.

Here’s what else we’ve learned about successful relationships.

Check the ego at the door


There are no diva moments in the Evelyn David world. Both of us write all characters, including the dog. That’s not to say that we don’t have our personal favorites of the core group that have appeared in both books. But we discuss each scene, then one of us says "I’ll start," and we’re off. The scene goes back and forth so many times that by the end of the book, we can’t tell who wrote what. And that’s the way it should be: it’s the voice of Evelyn David we want you to hear – not Marian and Rhonda. Can we agree that a marriage of two divas, or even one diva and one doormat, is a recipe for disaster?

Second, and maybe it should be first, we both have a similar, wicked, at times downright crazy, sense of humor.

In the writing business, even if you’re penning War and Peace, instead of cozy mysteries, you’ve got to be able to laugh at yourself, as well as at the vagaries of publishing. I think we all agree that humor is a major key to a successful marriage, or for that matter, surviving and thriving in life.

Finally, we have similar work ethics. Just do what needs to be done – and don’t worry about the credit or even if the work load, for that moment, is 50-50.

You’ve got to take the long view, that it all evens out in the end. We think it's fair to say that premise works in a good marriage too.

In this "dog eat dog" publishing world (and yes, there’s an adorable dog in our books), you’ve got to think outside the box and be ready with an alternative plan should the publishing world go south. So here we go! Today, here at Lipstick Chronicles, we're debuting our new sideline.

Got a relationship question? Need some advice on your love life? We'll provide the answers along with a mystery to read while you work it out. Call 1-800-Evelyn David. All major credit cards accepted.


August 29, 2009

Friends With Benefits

New York Times bestselling author Louise Penny found an unexpected benefit to her life as a novelist. We met her when she rode with Book Tart Elaine, as well as guest bloggers  Marcia Talley, G. M. Maillet, and Mary Jane Maffini, on our annual road trip from the Malice Domestic conference in Virginia to the Festival of Books run by Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pa. Margie is still buying the negatives from that adventure. Here’s her blog. And buy her book. It’s good. Would we steer you wrong?

Brutaltellingfinaljacket,July2109  Friends With Benefits

By Louise Penny



It’s such fun to be guest blogging, thanks to the remarkable – and remarkably kooky – Elaine Viets.  I had the rare pleasure of surviving a road trip with her, Marcia Talley, GM Maillet, Rhys Bowen and Mary Jane Maffini a couple months ago.  The penicillin shots did the trick and I think the psycho-analysis is helping too.  We bailed Mary Jane out and have just recently located Marcia in that Turkish prison.    

I wondered what I’d blog about today – would I tell you all about my latest book?  I suspect I will a bit later, but I found that my mind kept coming back to the most unexpected and precious gift of my writing career.

Meeting people like Elaine, and Marcia, like GM and Rhys and Mary Jane and so many others.  At the age of fifty plus I didn’t really expect to make many new friends.  I thought that dance card was full, and I was pleased with the people I already had in my life.  I’m not very out-going, and will always prefer to spend time reading in my room, as I did as a child.  A great day for me is when I don’t need to leave the house. 

You can imagine what a shock to the system my career has been.  It is definitely my dream come true – something else unexpected later in life! – but it can be trying for someone who prefers quietude, and is frankly more than a little intimidated by others. 

Now I find myself on stage speaking to hundreds of people.  And having breakfasts, lunches and dinners with book people.  I go to conventions and on tour and genuinely am grateful for this great good fortune.  But then I can hardly wait to sneak back to my hotel room, alone.  And exhale.

People frighten me, so it is with real wonder and awe that I discovered the kindness of the people I was meeting.  Their gentleness, and humour.  The unexpected embrace of other authors.  Yes, we’re competing – but there’s also the understanding that if we help each other and are kind to each other, then we all win. 

I think aspiring writers dream of the huge contracts, the thrill of seeing and holding your book, the accolades and movie rights.  That was my dream, for sure.  But the reality is, the real richness of a writing career, especially mysteries, lies in things less tangible but more sustaining.  Friendship, belonging, community.  Laughter and support. 

Now, I’d LOVE to tell you about my latest book!  It’s called THE BRUTAL TELLING and is the fifth (can hardly believe it!) in the Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries.  It’s set in Three Pines, a fictional little  Quebec village.  A body is found in the village bistro, and the owner, Olivier, is immediately under suspicion.  As Chief Inspector Gamache of the Surete du Quebec, searches for clues he comes across a remarkable log cabin in the woods, filled with first editions, with art, with ancient antiquities long thought lost.  But every path seems to lead right back to Olivier, who is growing more and more desperate.  The hunt takes Gamache deeper into the woods, and across the continent to the Queen Charlotte Islands – then back to tiny Three Pines and the final, brutal telling. 

My books are about fear, and murder – but more than anything, they’re about friendship, and the remarkable healing power of belonging.




January 27, 2007

Guest Blog by Margaret Maron

The Things We Do For Love

by esteemed and much beloved mystery writer Margaret Maron

As a teenager, my son used to keep my mother's grass cut all through the long hot summers. She had a friend whose own grandson couldn't be persuaded to touch a mower, so the friend asked my son if he would mow her grass, too. Now my son has never liked getting hot and sweaty so he turned her down even though she offered to pay him generously. "There are things I'll do for love that I would never do for money," he said.

I've thought about that often over the years--the things we do for love. We'll wipe a baby's bottom, we'll clean up digusting sickroom messes and empty the bedpans of people we love without the least expectation of monetary reward. Vegetables are cheap to buy, yet we'll grown our own for the love of gardening. We would rather have our own raggedy, sweet-smelling roses crammed into a dimestore bowl than a florist's elegant arrangements because the rosebush was given to us as a housewarming gift from a dear friend. We'll cook split pea soup for a husband homesick for his mother's cooking even though the very thought of actually eating split pea soup makes us gag.  And yes, we will spend years writing poetry and short stories.  We will fill journals with our hopes, dreams and aspirations. We will labor on a novel that may never see publication, we will send out manuscripts over and over again though no one pays us a dime for our words.

Professional writers love to quote Samuel Johnson--"None but blockheads ever wrote except for money"--because none of us can live on air. If we intend to make our living by our writing, then of course we must be paid enough to live on. But it is equally true that "none but blockheads--and hacks--write solely for money."

No, we write out of love. A love affair with words and ideas and visual images made permanent, like catching a butterfly and pinning it to the page so that others can inhabit our minds and feel the pleasure we felt when the precise word, the precise turn of phrase, was captured. We write to memorialize a beloved parent, a bittersweet romance, a heartbreaking loss. We write for catharsis and for confirmation. Plato wrote that the unexamined life is not worth living. Writers examine every aspect of their own lives and then they go on to examine the lives of everybody around them. What is character and motivation if not the result of that examination? Nothing is off-limits. As E.L. Doctorow wrote, "A novelist is a person who lives in other people's skins," which is similar to my favorite Walt Whitman quote, "I am large.  I contain multitudes."

Even if we're writing nonfiction, we still have to capture the reader's imagination and interest, and make him care about the things that drew us to write about this subject to begin with.

In my own case, I was fascinated by the possibilities that language held--how a certain combination of words could move me to tears or laughter or start adrenaline flowing through my body.  I began to look at the printed page more analytically, trying to to understand precisely how the magic worked. Why did the characters created by one writer rise up gracefully off the page while the characters of another just lay there in wooden awkwardness?

Yet even though I knew I wanted to be a writer, I did not immediately know what it was I would write. After flailing around in several different genres, I discovered that I was most comfortable with writing mysteries.

In one of my NY novels, Lt. Sigrid Harald and her housemate are discussing his plans to write a mystery novel and he says he thinks he can do it in three months.

    "Three months?" Sigrid asked dubiously. "I thought a book took at least a year."

    "That's for serious writers," he told her.

    "And you're not?"

    "My dear, I'm forty-three years old. I have a certain flair for the English language, a certain facility, but depth? I fear not. . . . Writers with something profound to say write poetry, writers with something serious to say write novels, but writers with nothing to say write genre fiction. I shall become a mystery writer. . . . And don't look so sad.  I shall try to be a very good mystery writer."

I have occasionally--with my tongue tucked firmly in my cheek--said that "it's a great handicap to want to write and then to discover that you have nothing to say. Where does one go from there?"

This, of course, was never strictly true.  I had lots to say but I was also a very private person. I could not write the usual coming-of-age novel wherein the closet doors are flung wide and all the skeletons trotted out for the bemusement of a jaded world. I could not take off my clothes in public. Fortunately, the mystery has allowed me to say anything and everything while still remaining private. There have been no limitations. And because I happen to believe that the mystery contains vestiges of the old morality play with its examination of good and evil, I do have a chance to present my version of how things are ought to be in this flawed and messy and endlessly intriguing world.  I love that. 

And so we come back to the things we do for love.

The Book Tarts urge you to check out the 12th book in the Deborah Knott series, Winter's Child.

October 14, 2005

Pat Kay's "Things I've Learned the Last 15 Years"

Pat Kay's "Things I've Learned in the Last 15 Years"

It's a pleasure to share tidbits from best-selling author Patricia Kay's recent article in the RWR about what she's learned in her years as a published romance author, because it's all great stuff.

Pat has sold 43 books to five different publishing houses in the past 15 years and notes that "it hasn't been easy."  She says "the effort to continue getting books out there on a timely basis led to a form of burnout and the loss of the joy of writing.  And there was (and still is) the uncertainty of income.  If I've learned anything at all about the finances of a working writer, it's that you can't count on anything.  One day you might be selling like hotcakes; the next, your expected income has fallen into the toilet."

No one, she admits, can answer all our questions about this business and what it's got in store for us, as "each of us is different.  Each career is different.  Each writer's goals are different.  But what I can do is share with you the things I've learned over the last 15 years."  So, without further ado, here are Pat's pearls of wisdom (with just a wee bit of editing done for the sake of space):

(1)  Do keep writing and trying.  Don't take anyone's word for it that you can't write.

(2)  Don't quit your day job if your income is needed toward your family's living expenses.  If you do quit, make sure you have at least six to eight months of living expenses in savings and, at minimum, a two-book contract from your publisher.  Remember that you probably won't see more than your advance for a couple of years.

(3)  Do constantly strive to learn and better your craft.

(4)  Don't compare yourself to other writers and their careers.  We are all unique.  Comparisons feed jealousy, and jealousy is a negative emotion.  It's okay to be a bit envious as long as you don't resent the other person's success.

(5)  Do write every single day, even if it's only a few lines or paragraphs.  The moment you stop writing, the harder it is to begin again.

(6)  Do enter contests, if only for that needed push to finish a project.

(7)  Do set goals.  And write them down.  The act of writing down a goal makes it more concrete and it is more likely to be accomplished.

(8)  Don't beat up on yourself if you don't accomplish all your goals.  Perhaps they weren't realistic.  Re-evaluate and set new goals.

(9)  Do remain true to yourself.  Just because romantic comedy is selling now or romantic suspense is a big thing, that doesn't mean you should move into it. 

(10)  Do remain flexible.  Lines change.  Publishing houses fold.  Editors leave.  Careers have ups and downs.  You've got to be flexible if you want to keep selling.  You've got to adapt to the realities of the marketplace and be ready to reinvent yourself if necessary.

(11)  When you achieve a measure of success, don't gloat.  Remember to thank those who've helped you along the way.

(12)  Do learn to pick your battles.  If you fight over every copy edit, when something important happens, your editor may be so sick of you, she'll resist on principle.

(13)  Don't be a complainer and a whiner.  Don't blame everyone else when you receive a rejection letter...learn from rejection. 

(14)  Follow up on every opportunity....people make their own luck, because luck is simply being at the right place at the right time.

(15)  Don't let writing take over your life. 

(16)  Do give yourself permission to take a breather...sometimes we simply need a break.

(17)  Don't give too much weight to ratings from fan magazines and web sites and/or reviews.  Always remember that a reviewer, no matter how knowledgeable, is just one person and his/her comments about your book are his/her opinion.

(18)  Do belong to a critique group or work with a critique partner if you feel comfortable doing so.  Don't do it simply because others do.

(19)  Do keep your own counsel.  A few years back, I made the mistake of telling an author who shared the same editor about something that editor had done for me.  Later, I found out the author had gone to the editor and complained about not receiving the same treatment.

(20)  Don't ever put anything in writing, especially in email or in on-line listervs, that you wouldn't want the entire world to see...be discreet and cautious.

(21)  Don't sweat the small stuff.  If it's not a serious illness or the death of a loved one or world peace, how important can it be?

If you'd like to read the whole piece, it appears in full as "Let's Get Down and Dirty" by Patricia Kay in the October 2005 issue of the Romance Writers Report, the monthly magazine published by RWA.  Pat's latest novel, COME OCTOBER, is just out.