Tuesday, June 30, 2015

I hadn’t heard anyone complain about writer’s block in a while, and then recently someone asked how I overcame it. I am not prone to writer's block, so it was a hard question to answer. After thinking about it, though,  I realized that at times I do feel blocked, but that I learned long ago what to do when I can’t seem to get into a writing rhythm. I find a muse.

My original muse, who still spurs me to write the best prose I can, will be a surprise to many, who know that I write crime fiction. But I try to write good quality fiction—like my muse. He wrote about the south, and he wrote about crime—true crime. In fact, he wrote one of the most famous true crime books ever written—In Cold Blood.

But his writing that always inspired me was not his crime novels but his short stories. For some reason I could read just a few lines of Truman Capote’s prose, and my writer brain would light up.

         In the past few months I’ve been working on a book that is outside my usual genre, a thriller. I was having trouble not only with the action, but also with understanding the protagonist. I couldn’t quite figure out what the reader needed to know about him in order to care about him. It was time to find a muse. I picked up one thriller after another, thinking that if I understood how other thriller writers hooked me I might learn what I needed to know. And one after another I tossed them aside. Each had some kind of problem-- too wordy, no character development, improbable action, too self-conscious. And then I picked up The Tourist, by Olen Steinhauer. I had never heard of this writer, but as soon as I started reading The Tourist I knew instantly I had found a writer who would work for me. His story was convoluted but when he rambled too far afield, he went back and subtly reiterated the salient points. His characters were well differentiated and strongly defined. The story was intriguing and not too over-the-top. Best of all, he made me want to get to work.

         So I found my thriller muse. I don’t mean that I will copy him or try to write like him. But when I read his work, I tend to find myself itching to write. For some reason his writing rhythm spurs me to what I need to do to bring my characters and plot to life.

What I wish I had suggested to the person who asked the question about writers block is, “Get yourself a muse.” It doesn’t have to be a writer. It can be music or movies. It can be something in nature, or an animal you love. It can be a friend, or a particular piece of art. But when you see it, you’ll know it. You’ll have a little jolt that makes you feel like you need to get to work. The trick is to recognize it when it happens and to embrace it. And remember it, so that when you suddenly feel empty and unable to put words onto the page, you know where to go.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Right Advice (at the Right Time)

Writers are constantly bombarded with advice, everything from work habits that are supposed to help you find an agent (or not), get published (one way or another), get blurbs, promote your books, find reviewers, sell more books to personal habits that will help you avoid being overwhelmed, work harder and better, and use resources better, faster, more deeply. We are analyzed as introverts and extroverts and “in-between verts” and advised how to make the most of those traits. We are told what books are hot, which are not and how to take advantage of that.

We are advised which workshops and conferences will give the most bang for the buck, which social media will get our names out in the public—or whether it is worthwhile at all, whether readings at bookstores are worth your time, how to conduct readings to best effect, and what to do if no one shows up at your events.

The advice can be bewildering and sometimes seem at cross-purposes. It can make you feel like you’re never going to be able to do enough. It can make you doubt your abilities and your dedication. It can make you crazy.

So I’m going to give you some advice: Read all the advice you want, but  take to heart only the advice that is right for you at this particular time. At first every single tip you read may seem relevant. You are clutching at straws, hoping for that one little tip that will suddenly move you from unpublished to published; from sadly-published to best selling author. Advice that will help you not care if things aren’t going your way or that will make things go your way.

But some advice is better for you in your situation at this moment than others. The advice for how to promote your books is not useful if you don’t have a book out yet, and it’s a waste of your time to dwell on those tips. I’ve had writers who are unpublished ask me what I think is the best way to get a book reviewed in the newspaper. At some point this information might be useful, but it’s a waste of time and precious energy to worry about it until you need it.

I don’t mean you shouldn’t plan in advance—I just mean not too far in advance. At one point, before I found a publisher I began to collect everything I could about the best way to self-publish. I never used the information, but it wasn’t a waste of time because I was approaching the crossroads: I had two novels written and no publisher—and I wanted to be published. But to collect this information before you even have a novel completed is a waste of time.  And I don’t mean to ignore the advice. Start a file where you can keep information that you hope to use in the future.

But focus on the advice that’s useful to you right now!

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Imperfect Past Perfect

I’m reading a wonderful novel at the moment, which I will not name because I’m going to complain about one aspect of it that drives me crazy: Overuse of the past perfect.

Some of you are going to be mumbling, “I don’t know what past perfect is, really.”  Past perfect doesn’t mean that something the past had no flaws. It means that the event happened farther back than the immediate past:

Past:  We ran six miles every day for two years.

Past Perfect: We had run six miles every day for two years.

The past perfect implies “in those days.”

Let’s go farther.

“We ran six miles every day for two years. It was glorious. When we moved to the city, we found it hard to keep that up, so we joined a gym.”  Completed thought.

“We had run six miles every day for two years. It had been glorious. When we had moved to the city we had found it hard to that up, so we had joined a gym.”

The problem is that in the past perfect the use of the word “had” can get repetitive. (Note the example above “had” in italics). It isn’t necessary to repeat it again and again. The first use of the word “had” establishes that this is something that happened a while back. Then you can use it sparingly:

“We had run six miles every day for two years before we had to move. It was glorious. When we moved to the city we found it hard to keep that up so we joined a gym.”

Does that last sentence lose its meaning by dropping three of its use of the word “had?” No. It just makes the reading smoother.

In the book I’m reading, there is a page or more in which the protagonist is remembering the past. And the author never drops the word “had.” It gets numbing. Not only did the author write it, but the editor did not correct it.

It isn’t that the usage is incorrect; it’s that the usage is cumbersome. Here’s what Chris Roerden says in Don’t Sabotage Your Submission: 

“Steer clear of cumbersome…The one-time use of the past perfect tense is usually sufficient to signal a transition to the more distant past…After that the simple past tense is fine. It makes the long-ago action more immediate and less wordy.”

Or from Elizabeth’s Lyon’s Manuscript Makeover, “In flashbacks, drop “had” once the past is established.”

I’m curious to know what grammatical quirks annoy others. Especially those that a good editor should catch and correct.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Circling the Computer

I was on an interesting panel at California Crime Writers Conference last weekend. The topic was “The F word.” No, not that word. The word was “fear.” Turns out I’m not a fearful person with regard to writing, although I always have a few days of dread when I turn in a manuscript (what if my editor says, “Uh oh, this one doesn’t cut it.”).

The part that I found interesting is that a lot of people seem to feel embarrassed by procrastination. I listened as several people described their delaying tactics: making sure the kitchen is clean, checking emails, reading an article, doing a little social media, etc. Sound familiar? If it doesn’t, then you are unusual or perhaps telling a little fib.

I suggested that instead of procrastination, those activities could be dubbed “preparation.” Dennis Polumbo, who moderated the panel, said it would come under the heading of “process.” And one member of the audience delighted everyone by saying that her family teases her when they see her doing those little dances. They say, “Mom is circling the computer.” I told her I planned to steal the phrase (note the title above).

I have two different modes of processing my writing. The first is to get up at 6 AM, grab a cup of tea, and start writing. This is usually a first draft method. It works well for me, but only because I’m an early morning person. The second mode is to read the paper, do the Sudoku and Ken-ken, work out, eat breakfast, and finally start working about 10 AM. The first method is draconian and doesn’t allow for much in the way of preparation, and that’s deliberate. When I read The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, I did the morning pages and found that my ideas flowed faster and more freely when I went straight to the page. When I work on first draft, I like having no thoughts between me and the page.

The second works better after I have the first draft done. It gives me a chance to prepare for promotional work, to diddle around, and to keep my world running. In the first method, everything in my household tends to fall to pieces—where are the clean sox? When was the last time the dog had a bath? Why haven’t I written thank you notes to the people who hosted me? The second method allows me to keep my life in some order.

The trick is that, even if you allow yourself procrastination under the guise of preparation, at some point you have to say, “Enough!” and face the pages. Everyone always says I am disciplined, but what I know is that if I dither away the day and don’t get my work done, I feel like a total grump at the end of the day. Just as I would feel embarrassed and sleazy if I neglected to brush my teeth or wash my face. These are essentials. Wearing pajamas all day? That’s okay. Not brushing your teeth? Mmmm, not so much. I don’t think of it as discipline so much as necessity. Preparation is wasted if you don’t put it to good use.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Always Learning

This coming weekend, I’m going to do one of my favorite activities—I’m attending a conference--the California Crime Writers Conference in Los Angeles. I’m excited because it’s a conference that’s only put on every other year and last time I went, I learned a tremendous amount. Many conferences are fan-oriented, and they’re wonderful. But this one is a working conference. This weekend I’ll see writers of every level of experience, from beginners to very accomplished and long-published ones.

What makes so many well-published writers spend the time and money to go to a working conference? There’s hardly a writer who can’t benefit from the opportunity to learn what’s new in the world of publishing, as well as to get a refresher in aspects of craft. But it’s also a chance to catch up with friends and become acquainted with other writers. It’s a chance to find out what the current trends are in crime fiction—are food cozies still hot? Is the trend to deeper characterization in thrillers still going strong? Are Scandinavian crime novels still all the rage? Find out who the new small publishers are, and what’s going on with the Big Five. Find out the current state of independent publishing.

When I finally got published, after many years of “close, but no champagne (who needs cigars?)” many people congratulated me on my perseverance. But perseverance was only part of the battle. The bigger part of the equation was that I kept learning, trying to get better. Instead of writing the same book again and again, with different characters, setting, and plot, I kept struggling to write a better book. And I kept up with trends so that I wouldn’t be writing a mystery of the kind that was popular ten or fifteen years ago, but that couldn’t find an audience with current readers.

For the writer trying to break into the business, there’s no better way to meet people who might help you by reading a few chapters and giving you advice or offering to introduce you to someone who can help. You may, as I did, meet a writer who is generous enough to give you a blurb for your first book, or who knows an up and coming agent looking for clients. You may meet an eager editor of a small press who is hungry for good product.

Not only are working conferences a great way to learn, but they are a lot of fun. These days I get to be on the same types of panels that wowed me back when I was struggling. I try really hard to make them as valuable as I found them to be. And you know what? I still get wowed. At every conference I attend I usually find some panel that sparks my creative juices and makes me glad I went. Or I meet an author I’ve always admired and get a chance to hang out with him or her. I’m looking forward to the weekend.