Artists are here to disturb the peace.
— James Baldwin
Artists are here to disturb the peace.
— James Baldwin
Join me and my partners in crime, Debbie Burke and Christine Carbo, at 3 pm Mtn time this Wednesday, Feb 24, for a lively Zoom discussion about our mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels, the writing process, and more. Our gathering is sponsored by the Buffalo Hill Terrace senior living community in Kalispell; open to the public. Zoom link
I hope you can join us for fun, secrets, and laughter with Debbie, Christine and me.
(The downside of Zoom? You’ll have to bring your own snacks. But check the back of my books for recipes!)
Books are a form of political action. Books are knowledge. Books are reflection. Books change your mind.
I’m just starting a new project and with it, the book journal. It’s an idea that was new to me when I first heard the late Sue Grafton talk about it, lo these many years, and it was, as many things about writing were to me then, A Revelation.
She described it simply: Create a journal document on your computer for each project. (Mine is called Notes, or Notes + some descriptive word from the title, e.g., Notes Spice #6.) Open each session with that document. Date the entry and jot a line or two about what’s going on in your life. Then, use this place to capture ideas, story questions, worries, research to be done later. I often add my goals for the writing session.
Here are a couple of typical entries, from The Solace of Bay Leaves:
“Tues 7/16 Not quite awake yet, but I can’t get on line, so – to the page! When last we saw our faithful but worried scribe at her desk pondering this ms., she was struggling. Looking for the joy in the writing process, but bogged down by worry and fear, and uncertain where this ms would go. Picture in the corner, a leeetle beety creature – or maybe an angel descending on a spider’s thread, to tell her: It’s all part of the process. Doubt and fear? Let them go. The unknowing? Know that it will resolve itself ON THE PAGE. Each book teaches you how to write THAT BOOK. GO LEARN!
Today’s goal: Cruise. Get to the end of what’s already written. Don’t try to Fix Everything.
What a struggle. But think how proud I’ll feel when I pull it off!
Can I really name a woman Kimberly Clark and get away with it??? (In a story sense, not a legal sense.) Yes, though I might want to reconsider if she turns out to be the killer.”
“Fri 7/26 Did a short stint Wed before we headed to Missoula, then in the car, I realized I DON’T NEED THE SOCCER MOM story line and the whole thing will be much better. Instead of trying to cram a problematic story line in, GET RID OF IT! And follow the Maddie-Pepper thread, wherever IT goes.
Maybe it was Maddie who Pat stayed home to meet – a secret meeting to work out a compromise? Wouldn’t he have made notes? Maybe she took them.
Deanna as killer? I wanted a man…
And what about ghost signs?
WHAT IF – an old bldg had been torn down in the 1970s and replaced with an icky one; now it was going to be replaced again and the neighborhood wanted it to fit in better…
A new theme is emerging: A not-so-perfect Maddie.”
Grafton often told a story on herself that illustrated the usefulness of her book journal. She got to a particular point in that year’s book when she was sure she couldn’t pull it off. She told her husband, who said “you said that last year at this point.” “Well, maybe, but this not time. This might be the time when I really can’t figure it out.” “You said that last year, too.” And when she opened the previous year’s book journal, by golly, he was right. She laughed at herself, got back to work, and with the help of her book journal, pulled it off.
So did I. You can, too.
The celebration of Black History Month continues.
“What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”
— Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give (2017)
In honor of Black History Month, the February quotes will all come from famous Black authors.
“One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.”
— James Baldwin, American novelist (1924-87), Notes of a Native Son
Last fall, before we got COVID and my brain turned to mush, I read a fun and handy guide by mystery writer Becky Clark called Eight Weeks to a Complete Novel: Writer Faster, Write Better, Be More Organized (March 2020), available in paperback and ebook. It’s half (or more) a guide to outlining and half (or less) a guide to time management for writers. The basic premise of the first half (ish) — and it’s one I’ve long endorsed — is that knowing the overall shape of the story you want to tell and identifying as much as you can about the key scenes will make the writing process smoother and faster.
I’ve met Becky several times and we’re Facebook friends. She’s hilarious, both in person and on the page. More than that, she’s a smart guide to working more efficiently, because it makes our books and lives better. I know some writers run screaming from the mere suggestion of outlining — when I hear some of the comments, I always wonder what happened to that budding author in the third grade. Becky discusses various options and approaches; it wasn’t all new info to me, but review is always useful.
One of the most useful aspects for me was the (re)encouragement to be very focused on the daily schedule, which for me means writing in the morning, set an hour or two aside in the afternoon for promotion. For me, the amount of time focused on promo depends on where I am in the process, but I really needed the push to set a block of time and not be so random. I also like her idea of “word banks,” consciously looking for and recording phrases and images that will fit your current project. (If this sounds like my “three things” idea, you get why it attracted me, though it’s a little different, and she’s so smart to suggest making it a daily practice.)
No, you can’t read this and automatically be smarter, funnier, and more efficient. You actually have to do the work. But if you do, voila! You might actually have time for the rest of your life. Pretty appealing when you think of it like that, right?
“Self-consciousness is the enemy of all art, be it acting, writing, painting or living itself, which is the greatest art of all. Creativity, at heart, is the essence of man’s being.”
– Ray Bradbury, The Writer, Nov 1965, quoted Nov 2014
“In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm…in the real world all rests on perseverance.”
– attributed to Goethe, quoted in Julia Cameron with Emma Lively, Prosperity Every Day: A Daily Companion on Your Journey to Greater Wealth and Happiness (2015)
It’s an odd thing, but one of the best techniques I know for keeping my bottom in the chair and my mind on the page is setting a timer. It’s as if my brain knows it doesn’t have to think about or do anything else for that short burst of time, that its only job is to write.
And by golly, it works.
These days, I set the timer on my iPhone for 30 minutes, and I am almost always surprised when it buzzes, because I’m so deep in the work. If you’re prone to distraction from your phone’s beeps and buzzes, turn it off or tuck it in a drawer and use a kitchen timer. I landed on 25 minutes almost by accident—20 seemed too short, 30 too long—and only later discovered that the time management expert who developed the Pomodoro Technique advocates 25 minute sessions. (Why pomodoro? It’s Italian for tomato and he uses, and sells, a tomato-shaped timer.) Now that I’ve done this for a while, 30 minutes is just right.
Give yourself no more than 5 minutes for a break. Do a few deliberate stretches, pee, refill your coffee or water, sit back down, set the timer, and forget it. Don’t go online until your day’s writing session is over. Any longer break, or one that engages your attention in any significant way, will break the connection between your conscious and subconscious minds and disrupt the flow.
Flow, baby. That’s the ticket.