I have to confess–I did it. I murdered someone. It was a first time for me but probably not the last. I’ve been advised to say no more.
My sister-in-law (also an aspiring writer yet definitely not someone you associate with murder) here visiting from Florida by way of Pennsylvania was a most eager accomplice. While snapping green beans and sipping wine, we planned the murder. Over dinner, she would interrupt the flow of conversation with “what if…”. Certainly not appropriate conversation for a dinner party but totally acceptable among family members.
You’ve no doubt figured out that I am writing a murder mystery and the person I killed is a fictional character in the novel, whose identity I am not at liberty to reveal.
The outline for this murder mystery is supposed to be my submission for this week’s writing group. I’ve been working on it what feels like every free minute I have (which haven’t been many lately). The outline has been inching and crawling toward the murder; at times I have felt as though I am writing away from the murder instead of toward it.
Thus the decision to jump right to the outline of the murder and skip the remainder of the forty-nine unwritten pages leading up to it. (Murders should happen by page fifty, I am told.) I am certain John, our fearless leader, has instructed me or someone else in the group (we all start to blend together after nearly seven years) to do just that. I am beginning to see the logic in it. Now that I have the murder, or at least the first version of the murder, committed to paper, I can return to the beginning and force the actions of the characters to keep the reader guessing who the murderer is. Reminds me of solving quadratic equations. Creatively.
You know you’ve made it as a writer when your career is the subject of one of the questions on the Buzztime Trivia game at Buffalo Wild Wings. We were “dining out” with our oldest grandson at B-Wild at Chandler Fashion Center when I glanced up at the huge screen on the wall connected to the tablet at our table and read a question I could actually answer. In other words, it wasn’t sports related.
The question was, per my recollection, “who writes about the nightmarish side of society?” I’m unsure who the other choices were but I knew immediately that Joyce Carol Oates was the answer. She may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I happen to love her books, as depressing as they tend to be. Wonder what that says about my psychological makeup?
I was fortunate to hear Oates read from her novel “The Accursed” at the Canaan, NH, Meetinghouse Readings on July 11, 2013. (Was it really almost three years ago?)
Anyone living within an hour’s drive, or more, of Canaan, NH, please plan to attend the readings at least once. The Meetinghouse, built in 1793, is worth the trip alone. I don’t know how the moderator convinces such acclaimed authors to make the trek to Canaan but you are certain to find at least one each summer that has you sitting on the edge of your bench, pinching yourself to check that you haven’t ventured into an alternate universe.
If I had to choose between being a question on the Buzztime Trivia game and reading from one of my novels at The Meetinghouse, without a doubt I would choose the latter. On second thought, I’d prefer to follow in Oates’ footsteps and do both.
Today’s post on the Maine Crime Writers blog by Bruce Robert Coffin about why he writes resonated with me, as do many of their posts. Beyond the writing connection, it may be because I spent my “formative” years (ages 4 to 14) living in Bangor.
Funny how my reasons for not writing when I should be writing mirror Coffin’s reasons for writing…
He writes to quiet those voices he hears in the middle of the night. When I can’t sleep, I think about my characters and what they are up to and–just as when I was hypnotized on a stage in front of hundreds of people–before I know it I’m sound asleep. No need to keep pen and paper on my nightstand. (I do but, as you may recall, I can’t read what I’ve written so I use it for grocery lists.)
Coffin apparently has some demanding, strong-willed characters in his stories who have no qualms about disagreeing with his plans for them. My characters, on the other hand, hang around as they lean against the walls, hands in their pockets, and wait for direction from me. Don’t they realize how much work they make for me with their lack of gumption and rebelliousness? Give me a protagonist who has a mind of her own and flaunts (my) authority and I’ll step back and let her take charge.
I don’t know where he gets some of his characters, either. Apparently his Sergeant Byron takes Coffin for rides in his car on his way to catch the bad guy. Instead of the other way around. As none of my characters have drivers’ licenses they expect me to drive them wherever they need to go. I just don’t have time for that. Maybe carpooling is the answer?
One thing we do have in common is that he doesn’t appear to prepare in-depth outlines. (And why should he? His characters run the show.) I’m a proud pantser and I surmise that Coffin is as well, based upon his comment that the enjoyment he derives from writing is not knowing what is going to happen in his stories.
Unfortunately for me, a newbie cozy/murder mystery writer, demands are being made of me that I may not be able to meet. After submitting my rough plot summary and character description for a new cozy to my writing group last night I’ve been asked to write the murder scene. Before I write anything else. The audacity! That I should know “who done it” before, well, before I know anything else. Apparently the writer, unlike the reader, should know this prior to investing time and energy into writing the actual book. Sigh. Big sigh. How do I reconcile this with my badge of honor as a pantser? I suppose it could be to ensure that the reader will want to invest time and energy into reading my book…
Two Thursdays ago I submitted to my writing group for critique my short story “The Intruder” now renamed “He’s All She’s Got.” As usual, my submission generated a fair amount of “positive criticism.”
Our facilitator, John, pointed out that I had “not fully imagined from the inside” the main scene that involved the gun, the intruder, and the tying up to the newel post of my protagonist. I have since attempted to immerse myself deeper into this scene only to discover that I have imagined it to the fullest extent possible. I just can’t write any more realistically about guns and tying up people.
I’ve given my story a hard look–a VERY hard look–and decided to rewrite it with more of a focus on the relationship between the mother and her daughter. I think it best to say adios to the gun scene. What a relief. Eleanor, who has worked tirelessly on a gun scene for possibly years suggested an alternative to my opening scene that does not involve a gun and I’m going to give it a try. Naturally, this change will ripple throughout the story. It’s all for the good. I am better at writing about relationships than guns.
Once again I am thankful for the input from my writing group. Without their advice, I’d–well, I’d be a wannabe writer without any possibility of publication. With them, my odds are slightly better. When we concluded the discussion of my short story, I made a negative comment about it. Immediately, thousands of miles away, I heard “it’s a good story” and “I like your story.” That was enough encouragement for another go-round. Thanks, guys!
What I find of interest is that when I am working on one project, my short story in this instance, all sorts of ideas for my other current project, (my book, “Anne”) erupt unbidden. I do wonder if all other writers have this problem, or if it just belongs to us procrastinators, for whom it is a means of getting out of what we are supposed to be doing.
Last week I took a break from my writing group and writing as my mother, sister and brother-in-law visited from New Hampshire. We relaxed by the pool at their resort, did a few tourist activities, and ate out, naturally. We were pleased we could reward them for their long flight with sunshine and some record-breaking temps in the 80’s. Too bad they had to return to temperatures that were nearly 100 degrees lower (with wind chill) than what they enjoyed here.
Now I will have time to write–the grandkids will be in school, Joy will be working, Steve will be golfing, and, oh, darn, the sun will be shining and temps will be even higher….
Technology is great (when it works, of course). For the past two Thursday nights I’ve been able to FaceTime with my writing group back in New Hampshire. I hope the second Thursday was an improvement for them–I used my iPad instead of my iPhone and they added speakers. The only problem on my end is that it’s harder to interrupt someone when you’re an image on a screen!
With the two hour time difference, I had no choice last Thursday but to eat my dinner while we had our discussion. I don’t imagine my slurping spaghetti noodles was a very appealing sight. That won’t be an option this week as I volunteered to submit. Tacky to eat and present at the same time.
Yikes. What was I thinking? I’ve been much too busy enjoying myself in sunny, warm Arizona (not so much today as we had a storm blow through last night–thank you, El Nino) to find time to write. And we’ve had visitors from New Hampshire. And the three grandkids passed a diluted version of their debilitating virus to me which kept me in bed part of this past weekend. And this coming weekend we have family from New Hampshire arriving.
And…that’s my life as a writer. Full of excuses as to why I haven’t written. But as I look through my two yellow pads of paper, I see pages of notes about both my story, “The Intruder,” and my book, “Anne.” But notes, in my book, don’t constitute writing. And as useful as they are to me, I can’t submit them to my writing group.
My notes on “Anne” pertain to combining my three related novels into one, not as easy a task as I originally anticipated. The process of writing my thoughts down on paper led me to the realization that I am starting the novel with Anne’s story and I need to conclude the novel with her story. My original plan was to end the novel with her daughter Olivia’s story. I suppose if I keep writing notes about the book I’ll come to a different conclusion.
I did have a motivational experience at, of all places, my grandson’s soccer tournament in Tucson. The opening ceremonies included the typical dais with a podium, microphone, and folding chairs. And a replica Olympic torch. Just the sight of the dais (sans the torch) transported me back to a scene in “Anne.”
Time to write (revise, finish) the damn book!
So heads up, writing group. If I get my act together, you’ll be reading a new (improved?) version of “The Intruder” this week. If I don’t, well…I’ll just have to blame it on technology.
I’m still hard at work on the short story (“The Intruder”) that takes place in my daughter’s house in Virginia. I reduced the word count and simplified the convoluted plot line and am now ready to smooth the rough edges, increase the word count, and add complexity to the plot line. I plan to have a draft to submit to my writing group “soon” after we arrive in Arizona. Warning to my group: do not expect it the week we arrive (next week).
Recently I read on a writing blog (not certain which one) that a writer (obviously) keeps a journal for each writing project that she works on. I promptly went to Barnes and Noble, purchased one of their ubiquitous,
always “reduced price,” journals, and started recording my experience revising my short story. I have two entries.
This is the year (I hope) that we get FaceTime functioning so that I can participate in our Thursday night writing group from Arizona. Even if we are only able to communicate via the phone, I will be satisfied. Without the structure of my group to motivate me, I spend my time there basking in the sunshine, resting, and exploring. Add being a spectator at the numerous sports and activities that our three active grandchildren participate in and you can see why I haven’t gotten much writing done these past two winters.
Something that has limited my writing in Virginia is that, as a Christmas present to myself, I renewed my subscription to Ancestry.com. My daughter and I have been researching rabidly various branches of my husband’s family. She’s traced his paternal grandfather’s ancestors back to hanging out with William Bradford, a Pilgrim governor of Massachusetts. (I thought I had done well to determine my fifth great-grandfather was a Minuteman!) It’s an addictive–and at times frustrating–hobby.
Last year in Arizona I participated in an online support group for writers, “Creative Monsters Club,” with other members from around the world. Our mentor, Marcy Mason McKay, has published (among other writings) an award-winning novel, “Pennies from Burger Heaven.” She soon plans to start work on the second book in the Burger Heaven series. I am going to post a review of her book on Goodreads and Amazon, which I have never done before. The quality and detail of the reviews I have read prior to deciding to purchase a book have deterred me from contributing my own paltry review. But I’m going to take the plunge and submit a brief review of this book. Please read her book–my review is optional!
The September 2015 issue of the “Harvard Business Review” (creativity section) included an Interview with Salman Rushdie by Alison Beard. Thank you to Heidi, who admits to being obsessed with Rushdie, for sharing this inspiring article.
This is how I interpreted some of the interview in relation to how I write (I know, how arrogant to compare myself to a writing giant such as Rushdie):
Rushdie states that he evolved from a plotter to a pantser. He appears to write in a linear fashion, composing only 400 to 500 words a day—mostly complete scenes, requiring minimal, if any, revision. It’s perfect the first time.
I have never succeeded as a plotter. I attempted to outline my current novel, “Claire,” using a storyboard and post-its. Instead of sticking to my outline I ended up writing an island for our most recent writing group and then I determined where it would fit in the plot. (I was told that’s the definition of an island!) I was surprised to find that it closely matched an existing post-it. However, it was neither perfect nor the next unwritten scene.
Rushdie does not share his writing until it is finished. That is hard to pull off in a writing group as the expectation is that you will submit your work on a regular basis. And since I tend not to finish anything—you can see where this is headed!
Undisciplined: me. Disciplined: Salman Rushdie. He treats his writing as though it were a job with a regular schedule—no waiting for inspiration to strike.
I am nowhere near that point in my writing progression. I write when I have committed to submit to my writing group and when it is my turn to post on our blog. That’s not much. Heidi (who else) has suggested that we resurrect our group writing project centered on a bridal shop. Why not? At least I’d have a third reason for writing.
Would Rushdie ever delay publication of one of his works because he had to paint a bedroom to match a quilt? Or even just not write for the same excuse—I mean reason? Certainly not. For one thing, he most likely hires out his painting. Does he realize he’s missing out on the pleasure of a sore back, of putting on the same smelly painting tee shirt every time he paints, of putting Vaseline on his elbow where he scrubbed too hard with a pumice stone to remove stuck-on paint?
Yet I am a day late with this blog post so that I could assist my husband with just such a task. Further proof that I am not Salman Rushdie. As though any further proof were needed….
We’ve been back in New Hampshire for a little over a week now. Last night was my first writing group meeting since December. And I actually jumped right back into the fray and submitted a revision of my “Jamie” story.
I suppose I could be accused of creating the fray when, following all of the insightful comments from my fellow writers, I took my copy of my story and tossed it into the air. Some might say I flung it across the room but no one can claim that it hit them. So much for saving my ranting and raving for the drive home…..
My husband was appalled when I told him what I had done. He feels that now no one will be honest with their comments in the future, fearful that they will provoke a similar reaction. Not my writing group. Not after five years of sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly. (That’s my writing–everyone else’s is good to outstanding in my mind.)
I am hopeful that they are still happy to have me back after my winter away……I certainly am thankful to be back with my “muses”!
This morning I reviewed the written comments from two of the members of my group. It’s always eye-opening to see my writing through their eyes. Areas that are clear to me they find confusing. Why? It’s clear in my mind what I am trying to convey–but not so much on paper it appears. How would I ever identify those deficiencies without their assistance? Once I’ve written multiple drafts of a story, it becomes harder and harder to recognize problem areas on my own. Reading it out loud helps–but after correcting any issues that jump out at that point, my writing always sounds pretty darn good. To me.
So thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your patience and support. And I suppose next time I submit you’ll be ready to duck.
I’ve moved from the bed of the dim, cozy casita to the patio adorned with blue sky and sunshine. Little birds chatter in the palo verde trees. The water fountain bubbling in the background competes with the wind chimes in the tree. Helicopters and Canada geese fly overhead while the thrum of a hummingbird draws my attention to the feeder. A ruby glitter signals this is a male. My muse, perhaps?
I have decided to read outside rather than write inside—the comfort of the bed was about to lure me to sleep at eleven in the morning. Or was it the pressure to write that caused my eyes to glaze over, my lids to droop? Yet here I am, outside, surprised to find pen and paper, rather than my Kindle, in hand. How is it that the distractions of a glorious winter morning in Arizona are allowing me to focus on my writing when I was convinced that I needed quiet and seclusion, and especially darkness, to get words, action, characters, plot, onto paper?
Excuses. I have plenty of them. The environment isn’t conducive to writing (see above), I have too many other things to do (aren’t I retired?), I don’t have the energy (it’s the medicine), my Words with Friends and Trivia Crack opponents are waiting for my next move (life or death situation to some).….you get the drift.
I can’t write on demand–the forces of the universe must be perfectly aligned before I can put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard,
with words leading to paragraphs to chapters to a book. A completed book. Yet I have won NaNoWriMo two times—a “complete” novel, 50,000 words written in the month of November! How do I reconcile this?
NaNoWriMo frees me. No inner critic sits on my shoulder or on the page. No time for self-doubt, perfection, or the fear of failure that normally trigger my procrastination. No concern over what my writing group will think. And then there’s that deadline. All I need for the other eleven months of the year is to find a way to replicate NaNoWriMo, to accept that my first draft will be a shitty first draft, and my creative juices will flow. Miraculously, I will become a published author. Though I have heard that it also takes hard work, writing every day, perseverance. Oh, and I can’t forget a dash of talent. Desire isn’t enough. And desire is all that I seem to be able to muster.
A few nights ago I was up until one in the morning reading a novel, anxious, as usual, to find out how it would end. Although it was my own 2014 NaNoWriMo submission, I had already forgotten. Now I remember how as midnight on November 30 approached those last few sentences seemingly leapt from the keyboard onto the page, surprising even me. Funny how that happens.
WordPress has my number. No sooner had I obeyed its command to “Create Your Web Site,” than it was tempting me to explore everybody else’s blog instead of writing my own. It waved a dozen links to blogs on writing under my nose, even more to book lovers’ blogs, and one called (truth in advertising) Longreads that can mess you up for days.
Then there’s Freshly Pressed, WordPress’s links to individual posts that “you might like.” How does it know? Yeah, Google tells it. The trouble is, Google is so often right. I told myself I was looking for good writing, for ideas on using WordPress well, for designing the page, blah, blah. And I did find ideas I could use.
But if I read all this stuff, when do I write?
All the wonderful How to Write books pose this same problem. Ideas about writing exist in a different universe from writing itself. Books show you nice clear roads to success: if you are writing X kind of book, and arrange your chapter in Y way, the result for your book will be Z. Those are the basic books. The tone of the more advanced comes closer to celebrity cooking shows: “you’ll be amazed how just a touch of coriander (humor/specifics/pornography) will transform your recipe!”
The actual experience of writing is more like forcing yourself to jump off a cliff, having been told by, say, an angel that you will not in fact be smashed to jam, because you can fly – as long as you think you can. Some days, just the icon for your writing program is enough to send you to Longreads.
When you do make the jump, you can fly or you can’t. You start where you left off or somewhere else in the text where you need to be. Your characters need to limber up over a few (dozen) pages. Then they stop making the kind of remark you make at dinner parties to people you don’t know why you’re talking to. And then, from somewhere behind your left ear, an earlier prop or an embedded quarrel or a potential love affair hooks around and snatches your plot. Suddenly, the conversation is making sense, but only if we assume that… and the story is writing itself. If you can keep the scene pulled up around you, and refrain from insisting that it “work out right,” you’re golden. For the time being.
And some days, you’re smashed to jam.
There is no way to avoid either the jump or the jam. I read a bit, here and there, in my pile of how-to books, and like the blogs, they add to my little store of technique. I may even recall their tips to my great profit, if I ever get to the third draft. As soon as your nose emerges from the book, you are going to have to walk back to that cliff face. So get over it, close the book, close the writing blog and jump.
That’s all for today. I gotta go write my post.