Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Take Yourself Seriously

A few days ago someone on Facebook asked writers to please give one line of advice to beginning writers. “Take yourself seriously,” is mine. It’s my mantra to myself because I wasted so many years not doing it.

When I first started writing, I treated it like a lark. Like so many beginners, I thought writing must be easy—unless you were writing Moby Dick, in which case it was probably hard. But since Moby Dick had already been written, I didn’t have to go there. But look at how easy Jane Austen made it look. And Eudora Welty with those nuggets of short stories. Look how you could breeze through Elmore Leonard and Dame Agatha and Elizabeth George. Right? Right? Must have been easy to write because they tripped so easily through the eye and into the brain. I’d take nwriting classes in which my prose was almost always praised. Piece of cake.

So I started writing a novel. And at some point I reached a hard spot in my novel. What to do? What to do? Abandon it in favor of another book that was going to be fabulous, that’s what. So I started another book.

Finally I finished a novel and it seemed good enough. That’s all I was asking for—good enough. But publishers sent rejections. Not good enough. Okay, now I knew more. I’d write another one. Good enough! No. And then another. And another. And all this time I was not taking myself and my writing seriously.

Here was my magical thinking:
1)   If I just knew the right person, I could get a foot in the door.
2)   If I could just write something “good enough” an editor could fix whatever wasn’t working
3)   If I could just write a book that happened to catch a wave of a popular theme, the book would be snatched up.
4)   My writing is good, the details should take care of themselves.

Meanwhile, I gave careless consideration to all the real things that needed to be addressed: voice, character, plot, structure, setting. I was pretty good at each of those things—hadn’t everyone in workshops said so? But I had someone gotten the impression that these elements were the by-product of writing, not the heart and soul of it.

What I mean by not taking myself seriously is that I was not requiring a serious attitude about the one thing I wanted to accomplish—to become a published writer. In the parlance of education, I was an under-achiever. The thing is, I put in a lot of hours—and I thought that’s what was meant by “taking myself seriously.”

Eventually I got to the right workshop, in which the words “take yourself seriously” was described in a way that hit home and I understood that I had to write from my brain, not just my instincts. Maybe I needed all those years of failure, all those “almost” books, before I was ready to hear it. But boy, did I waste a lot of time and energy before that.

So I’m saying to anyone sitting down to write a story, whether it be your first or your twentieth, whether you’ve published or not: take yourself seriously. That’s the way it works.

Book Recommendation: Attica Locke's Pleasantville just won the Harper Lee prize for legal fiction. It's a phenomenal book. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

New Horizons

Next January my sixth Samuel Craddock book comes out, a prequel called An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock. I love Samuel and the citizens of Jarrett Creek, and I hope to continue to write about them for years. When the first one came out three years ago, it was a dream come true. The first book got a lot of attention and was nominated for some awards. The books continue to be popular, get terrific reviews and attract happy readers. I’m pleased with my publisher and with the whole experience I’ve had.

That said, I want to expand my horizons. I am working on a thriller, and it is finally beginning to look like a viable book. Writing it has been a steep learning curve. Even though both small-town chief of police novels and thrillers come under a general heading of “crime fiction,” they are very different types of books. The thriller demands more action and a wider venue. I’ve had to learn a lot about another country, about the subject of the book and about a different set of protagonists. Who knows whether it will have the same success as my series, but I’m moving forward.

But there’s more. I am intrigued by the psychological thrillers I’ve read and would like to try my hand at one. I have an idea for another thriller. And I would even think of starting another series.

                          At Thrillerfest with award-winning thriller writer Taylor Stevens.

I look at Catriona MacPherson, who writes her delightful Dandy Gilver historical series, but has put written amazing psychological book after another. Or Rhys Bowen, who has two strong historical series going with completely different protagonists. John Sanford. Steve Hamilton. Tim Hallinan! What they all have done is branch out at some point to new territory.

The problem I have is not where can I get ideas, but which one to tackle first. I still have two half-finished books that were started around the time the first Craddock book came out. I still like the idea of both of them. The fact is that it takes time not just to write a book, but to promote it. I am lucky to write fast and to be able to write full-time, but the idea of writing two or even three books a year, plus articles and short stories, is daunting.

I would love to know how other writers decide which project to tackle first. Does the publisher demand it? Their agent? Do they follow their own instincts and write what excites them? If I did that, I’d be writing three books at the same time. They say that Isaac Asimov wrote four books at a time. He had four desks, each facing a different direction. He would work at one desk for a while, then move on to the next desk and a different novel. Apparently he could keep them all straight.

I think I could keep them straight—different voices, different plots, different intentions—but would I have time for a real life? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Conference rules

Two years ago I attended my first Thrillerfest as a debut author. International Thriller Writers celebrates new authors as if they have just discovered a cure for cancer. So although I felt a little intimidated by all the honchos at the conference, I was in a haze of delight.

                                          Bay Area Thriller Author Alan Jacobsen and me 

Last year that changed. I thought the big time authors held themselves aloof from the peons and were inaccessible, and there was a certain cliquishness to the conference. It was clear who was in the inner circle. The rest of us were wannabes—even those of us who have well-established crime fiction books.
One of the problems is that at other conferences the big name authors are sprinkled through the panels, so that they hobnob with everyone. For some reason at this conference the big names tend to be packed into panels together, which gives them an air of invincibility and leaves panels held in parallel to theirs sadly lacking in audience. And it makes the name authors seem unapproachable.

It looked like this year was going to be the same. Even though I am self-confident and feel like I can talk to just about anybody, I felt intimidated and unable to approach authors I admired. And then I remembered the first rule of conferences: wade in and talk to everyone. Find people to converse with that you have something in common with. Are you both writing about small towns? Is the author writing something you are intrigued by and know nothing about? Are you curious about their background? Find something to talk about. Introduce yourself to people, even if it’s just to say hey, I enjoy your books.

The second rule: Don’t wait to be invited to a meal—invite someone you want to get to know better. For some reason, I always assume everyone already has plans. I was happily surprised to find that people were thrilled to be asked. Suddenly the conference became intimate and more interesting. Here’s the strange part: when I was talking to people I found common ground with, suddenly I became more interesting. Writers I had felt intimidated by stopped to chat. A few even shared some of their current challenges.

The last rule was for me alone. Last year, I drank too much. I took the “see you in the bar,” too literally and ended up feeling fuzzed headed and grumpy a couple of days. This year, I decided that water was my friend. Sure, I had a glass of wine or a drink, but that was it. And I discovered that the next day I remembered what was said the previous evening. It also meant I slept better and I felt more energetic and upbeat. And one unintended consequence is I came away with a heavier wallet—those NY drinks can be expensive.

This is a cautionary tale for everyone attending conferences of any kind. Did you notice the questions I gave as examples? They were all “you-oriented,” not “me-oriented.” You’re going to have more fun if you see it as a voyage of discovery.