Saturday Creativity Quote — silence and purpose

Creative work often begins during a time of crisis, when we are driven to connect with something deeper inside ourselves. No wonder I like this quote from psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on finding yourself:

Learn to get in touch with silence within yourself and know that everything in this life has a purpose. There are no mistakes, no coincidences; all events are blessings given to us to learn from. There is no need to go to India or anywhere else to find peace. You will find that deep place of silence right in your room, your garden or even your bathtub.”
— quoted in Yoga Journal (h/t James Clear newsletter)

Painting: Oil on canvas by Tabby Ivy (from the collection of the author)

Writing Wednesday — Plotter or Pantser? A few things I know for sure

Leslie’s desk

When I speak to groups of writers, I’m often asked if I’m a plotter or a pantser. * In groups of readers, I’m sometimes asked if I know the end of a book before I start it.

I confess I hate this question, at least the plotter-pantser aspect of it. (Readers are curious about our process and I get that and love it.) I’m a planner. Plot flows from specific characters being put in a specific situation, so I think a lot about the scenario, the setting, and who the people are. I make notes about the characters and what might happen. I jot down snippets of conversation, bits of description, and ideas sparked by my research. Then I put my notes in a rough chronological order, filling in additional things that occur to me as I go. In the course of this process, I do usually figure out the end and the killer, although both can change, as I get to know the characters and conflicts better. There are gaps. Sometimes I simply write “more stuff happens,” or “Pepper investigates,” or make notes for what I think might happen even though I don’t yet see how it all fits together. When I feel like I know generally what the major conflicts and motivations are and generally how it might play out, then I’m ready to start writing sentences and scenes.

I call this an outline. I once heard a writer describe exactly this same process and insist that she would never outline; outlining, she insisted, kills creativity and was to be avoided at all costs. I don’t know what she did call her notes, and I don’t know what happened in the 5th grade that made her hate the very word outline so much. I know I felt, still feel, kind of sorry for her, because she seemed too stuck on her perception of process; I am all but certain that unless she can see the value in being flexible in our process, when she runs into a story that won’t behave the way she thinks it should, she’ll get stuck on the page as well.

Then I heard an account of an author at a recent conference claiming that their process—I don’t know what it was—was the only way to write, and my heart sank a little.

I’m here to suggest we do three things:

  1. Let go of absolutes. They aren’t useful and they too often turn into judgments. Saying your way is the best or the only way, or shaking your head and putting on a knowing smile that conveys your skepticism, creates hard feelings. It confuses beginners and can actually stifle or stop them. And it does you no favors. I get that it’s hard to understand how a process so different from your own can work, but clearly, it does. Brilliant and successful novels have been written with and without outlines, road maps, or whatever we call them.
  2. Acknowledge that none of us is a purist. If you consider yourself a pantser who does little if any advance work, but you write a series on proposal, you do in fact already know a lot before you start Page 1. You know your setting, your major characters, and the tone and style of your story. If you’re a plotter or planner, the term I prefer, you know you need to be flexible and let things change, as I did in my second novel when I realized that the person I thought was the killer would not kill to get what he wanted—he needed the victim alive. And yet, there was a dead body. I looked more closely and realized the real killer had been hiding from me all along.
  3. Be willing to challenge our assumptions. It’s common to hear “do whatever works for you,” and of course that is the bottom line. But I also see writers taking that truism as permission to stick with what they’ve always done. I can’t say a whole lot for sure, but after 15 published books, I can say that there will come a time when what you’ve always done is not going to work. A pantser will need to stop and write out what happens in the next three scenes or chapters, then write them, then sketch out the next few scenes and write them, before regaining the momentum that carries her to the end. A planner is going to write 60% of an outline and the ending, without knowing what happens in between, then start Chapter 1. Maybe she’ll finish that outline as she goes, maybe not; maybe she’ll get to 60% of a draft, take a break, and come back knowing what happens next and write out the rest of the outline, as I did with BLIND FAITH. Maybe she’ll write her way to the end “by the seat of her pants.”

The point is that whatever works is rarely going to be the same twice. We do ourselves and our community no favors by pretending that process is static. Different stories, different challenges may require a different approach. Our process may change over time, as we gain more confidence and as we take on bigger challenges.

We’re all discovering the story. We just do it in different ways, in different stages. Let’s practice a little grace along the way.

*Writing by the seat of the pants, that is, without an outline.

Saturday Creativity Quote

When I talk about the creative process,* I talk about the importance of asking questions in our work, to keep ourselves growing and our work maturing. For writers, those questions often have to do with craft, but I think we should also be challenging ourselves in what we write about as well, particularly delving into emotional experience. I like how this professor put it:

“Once you have learned to ask questions – relevant and appropriate and substantial questions – you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.”
— professor and author Neil Postman on the value of questions, in Teaching as a Subversive Activity (h/t, James Clear newsletter

*Watch a few minutes of my talk on creativity as part of the book launch for BLIND FAITH, last month at the Bigfork Art & Cultural Center.

Writing Wednesday — “Sleep on it”

Leslie’s desk

When we’ve got a problem to solve, we’re often advised to “sleep on it.” And when i surveyed the writers of the Sisters in Crime Guppies chapter about brainstorming techniques,* many said they posed the problem to themselves before bed and let their subconscious mind work it out.

Turns out there’s a good reason for that sage advice.

According to Steve Calechman, writing in “Sleep to Solve a Problem” on the Harvard Health Publishing blog in May 2021, the brain is designed to find connections to problems while we are sleeping so we can act on them when we’re awake. That’s the reason we so often wake in the morning knowing what we want to do — or not do — even though we can’t necessarily articulate why; we don’t remember going through the logic, but our sleeping brain did it for us.

For some people, the process wakes them up and they find themselves regurgitating the day instead of sleeping; if that’s you, the article suggests some solutions. But we’re writers. Our goal is to use sleep to help us solve problems on the page. Sometimes ideas occur to us just as we’re falling asleep; at other times, the work is happening in the REM state of the 5:00 to 6:00 am hour. How to enhance that process? Trust it. Ask your subconscious mind to work on an issue — tell it the problem. “How does Pepper solve the conflict with Nate?” “How does my young reporter convince her editor to let her write this story?” Keep a pen and pad by your bed and write down all the ideas that wake you, without judging their merits. (Take your notepad into the bathroom if you need a light and don’t want to wake your partner!) The moment you wake up, remind yourself that you asked for help and scan your mind for its offerings. Jot them down. Build that trust. Build the process.

Way more fun than counting sheep.

*This became my article, “What Happens Next? 9 Tried-and-True Brainstorming Strategies for Fiction Writers,” in The Writer, February 2022.

The Saturday Creativity Quote

Let’s close out the month with one more quote from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

“So why does our writing matter, again,” [my students] ask.

“Because of the spirit, I say. Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. . . . It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. Yo can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

— Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Be the song, my friends. Be the song.

The Saturday Creativity Quote

Turns out it’s harder to quote from Anne Lamott’s classic Bird by Bird than I thought it would be, because Lamott doesn’t dole out her wisdom in bumper-sticker size snippets. Instead, she embeds it into stories — which is itself a great lesson. But I do love this:

“Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.”

Speaks to the importance of writing honestly and with your whole self at any time, but especially now, don’t you think?

PEPPERMINT BARKED audio out today!

I love a good audio book, and I know many of you have been waiting eagerly for the audio of Peppermint Barked, narrated once again by the fabulous Dara Rosenberg. The cover is a little different from the paperback and ebook cover, and just as much fun!

By the way, if you’re a library user and you don’t see Peppermint Barked in your library catalog, please submit a request. Library staff LOVE to know what their patrons want to read—or hear!

Find it here (these links may take you to a different format, but will lead you to the audio — I’m typing with an injured wrist and giving myself a break.)

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Books-A-Million
Bookshop.org
Indie Bound
And your local booksellers!


Writing Wednesday — All the Scentses

Leslie’s desk

When I was writing Blind Faith, my second stand-alone suspense novel, I quickly knew that a secondary character named Irene Danich was very fond of roses. Irene was a strong-willed woman, born in 1919 in a small Montana mining town. Irene lost both her husband and her daughter early, leaving her to raise two young granddaughters—one of whom, Carrie, is a major character with her own story line and POV. Beautiful and with a strong personal sense of style, but without a lot of money, Irene loved pretty things but was rarely able to indulge in them.

What, I wondered, was Irene’s signature scent? My own mother, a little younger than Irene, was not able to help me, and the only department store in the area with a perfume counter had closed. I remembered that a Sister in Crime, Angela Saunders, had once posted on the group message board about her love of perfume. I tracked her down and peppered her with questions.

Angie helped me focus on identifying something simple, romantic and floral that would have been available in small-town drugstores in the 1930s to 50s. Drugstore perfumes flourished in that era and some, I learned, were knock-offs of pricey Parisian scents. We settled on an eau de cologne, Yardley’s Red Roses, a good brand but not fancy, also available in soap and bath powder. She might have flirted with other brands over the years, but always returned to this one.

And oh, those lovely bottles! I remembered how much I loved my own mother’s collection, watching her choose one to wear, and being allowed to dab on a precious drop or two myself. They changed over time, and Carrie keeps three of them, each different, on a display shelf in her bungalow.

The point of the cologne was not just to characterize Irene, whom we see in action just twice, but also to characterize Carrie’s memory of Irene and of their relationship, which is pivotal. Readers can’t smell the pages, of course, and they may not have any association with a classic mid-century scent. But my hope is that the mention of it, and the reference to the bottles, will help readers create their own sense of this woman, even if the scent that emerges from their memories is nothing like what arises in mine.

Maybe you can do something similar with one of your characters. A man who wears Gray Flannel is very different from one who wears Old Spice, just as a woman who dabs on a scent created at a custom perfumerie in Paris is very different from one who gives off waves of lavender and lemon grass essential oils.

BLIND FAITH, written as Alicia Beckman, is out this week in hardcover, ebook, and audio.

Long-buried secrets come back with a vengeance in a cold case gone red-hot in Agatha Award-winning author Alicia Beckman’s second novel, perfect for fans of Laura Lippman and Greer Hendricks.

A photograph. A memory. A murdered priest.

A passion for justice.

A vow never to return.

Two women whose paths crossed in Montana years ago discover they share keys to a deadly secret that exposes a killer—and changes everything they thought they knew about themselves.

Find it here: Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Books-A-Million
Bookshop.org
Indie Bound
And your local booksellers!

Read an excerpt and early reviews on my website.

Launch Day — BLIND FAITH

Blind Faith. It’s finally here, out today in hardcover, ebook, and audio.

Believe me, the phrase “blind faith” has a lot to do with the creative process, and with publishing! I started this book in the summer of 2016, worked on it between other projects, thought it was finished in 2019, and edited it again in 2020. Along the way, I questioned my ability to bring the characters to life, to handle the multiple points of view and the dual timeline, and to find the facts that would lead to the deep emotions that drive a novel of psychological suspense.

But I’d been thinking about pieces of the story for years. When I was a senior in high school in Billings, Montana, I gave a new girl a ride home. I never saw her again. Every few years, I wondered who she was, where she’d gone, and why. Blind Faith is one answer.

The novel draws on my own experiences growing up in Billings, in its Catholic community, but also on universal themes: imperfect justice, how we continually find or recreate ourselves, how we respond to obstacles, and as in many of my books, faith and women’s friendships.

Lindsay Keller, Carrie West, Father Michael Leary, and Detective Brian Donovan are all still so real to me, long after I finished writing this book. I hope that as you travel with them, while they confront deadly secrets that force them to make decisions with irreversible consequences, you too will find yourself in the forest of possibility.

Speaking of forests, my thanks to Nicole Lecht and Crooked Lane Books for the fabulous cover. And I know you audiobook fans will love the narration of Nicol Zanzarella. It was such a joy to work with her.

Blind Faith is available in hardcover, ebook, and audio from:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Books-A-Million
Bookshop.org
Indie Bound
And your local booksellers!

If you’re in the Flathead Valley, join me this evening, Tues, Oct. 11, from 5:30 to 7:00 at the Bigfork Art & Cultural Center, in the Village (next to the library), for a party! I’ll be talking about mysteries, Blind Faith, and the creative process.

I’ll be appearing around the northwest this month and next to chat about the book, by myself and with friends. Here’s the current list. I hope to see you somewhere along the road.

Saturday Creativity Quote — Lamott and Polaroids

This month I’m sharing some of what struck me while re-reading Anne Lamott’s classic, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

“Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t—and, in fact, you’re not supposed to—know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.” But, she says, as the picture emerges, you see something else besides what you thought you were focused on. “Knowledge of your characters also emerges the way a Polaroid develops: it takes time for you to know them.”

I love this image. It’s true whether you consider yourself a planner or a pantser. Whether we start by making notes or by writing sentences, we’re all after the same thing: the images that emerge from the sticky green goo of creativity.

Friends, if you’re in the Flathead Valley, join me Tues, Oct 11, from 5:30 to 7:00 at the Bigfork Art & Cultural Center (in the Village, next to the library), for the launch of BLIND FAITH (written as Alicia Beckman) and a talk on the creative process.