A creative wish for the new year

Whether you make New Year’s resolutions, set goals, or eschew the whole idea, I am confident that you have hopes and dreams for the year to come. And if you’re reading this — first, thank you, and second, there’s a good chance you are following your creative urges, through writing, painting, gardening, cooking, or some other form of creative work and communication. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to think about what you’d like to accomplish artistically in the coming year. I’m not talking solely about manuscripts written or paintings completed, though I do find it useful to line out specific projects I plan to give my attention to, always subject to change. What I hope you’ll focus on for just a bit is what your creativity means to you and how you can best fulfill it. It’s an interior process, a spiritual one for many of us, part of our purpose in being in this world. It doesn’t require galleries or stages or publishers or sales to be important, even necessary.

As Joseph Campbell said, in what I’ve often called my personal motto, “Never underestimate the value to the Universe of the fully realized life.”

May your creative journey in this coming year bring you peace, joy, and personal fulfillment. May it light the dark corners and feed your spirit. Only then can it shed light for the rest of us or feed our spirits. I look forward to continuing on this journey together.

Writing Wednesday — reading like a reader

Many writers take a break from writing in the last week or two of the year. Quite a few of us spend that time reading — essentially filling the creative well and helping recover some of the spark and energy that can be lost in the shuffle of sentences, edits, promotion, and all the other aspects of being a professional writer. I’m a big proponent of reading like a writer, that is, honing the ability to identify what another author is doing on the page, whether it works for you or not, and what lessons you can learn. And I often urge writers to “read up,” choosing as your next read the latest by an author your admire or a book by a writer who gets a lot of accolades but whom you’ve somehow missed.

Sometimes, though, we should all read just for fun. If you learn something, great. If the author gives you an idea for how to handle a tricky subplot, make a note. But maybe the best gift you can give yourself these last few days of yet another particularly trying year is to read like a reader. Get caught up in the story, the poetry, the setting. Reread a favorite or pull something frivolous off the shelf. Get in touch with your inner ten-year-old, the one who read Harriet the Spy by the glow of the street light or snuck a flashlight into bed. Because a writer must first be a reader.

So grab a blankie — my gnome friend is keeping them warm for you — and curl up with a book. And I’ll see you back here next year.

Writing Wednesday — “Read What You Like”

In mid July, I participated in the “More Than Malice” online literary festival, created by the organizers of the annual Malice Domestic convention celebrating the traditional mystery as a way to bring readers together with authors for a conversation. Some of the authors usually attend “Malice,” as I do, while others don’t, because they write other types of mystery or crime fiction. My panel was moderated by BOLO blogger and reviewer Kristopher Zgorski and featured Carol Goodman, Rachel Howzell Hall, Wm. Kent Krueger, PJ Vernon, and me. What we have in common is that each of us writes in multiple subgenres — the list Kris read off was amazing, and amusing!

The conversation kicked off with a question about what we read — and alphabetical order put me first! Writers, I pointed out, don’t read like readers who don’t write. We’re always studying, noticing what an author does, how well it works, whether it fails and why and how could the problem have been solved or avoided. “Reading forensically,” Rachel called it. When we first start writing, this can take some of the joy out of reading. “Ruined for reading,” as Carol said.

But now, after thirteen published books, I realize that for me, the noticing has become part of the joy. I can both relish what I read and notice what insights it prompts for me, for my own work.

My co-panelists all agreed. There can be moments of jealousy — “premise envy,” as its sometimes called. (I felt that when I read Kent’s This Tender Land — oh, what a terrific story and lead character!) Envy of a fluidity with language, a comfort with metaphor and description, an ability to make a setting pop or set a mood that keeps us glued to the page long after we should turn out the light. Rachel glowed when she described a rare afternoon home alone, her day job work done, when she simply sat and read. And PJ talked about the importance of “cross-pollenization,” when you read, for example, a literary mystery like Kent’s and see a few things you can borrow for your suspense novel, or how an approach to portraying one underrepresented community can influence writing about another.

I also quoted a piece of advice from Elizabeth George, who is as great a teacher as she is a writer. She says “read up.” That is, read writers who are working at a level or in a style or genre you aspire to. While I try to follow that bit of wisdom, I’ve also discovered I can learn something from almost anything I read. And learning is part of the joy.

(The More Than Malice panel discussions were recorded and are available at the Malice website to conference registrants.)

Writing Wednesday — writing about different generations

A while back, I attended a video webinar sponsored by the Washington State Bar Association on bridging generational differences in the workplace. The theory was that boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Z approach work differently, have different expectations about the work environment, and take a different approach to leadership.

While working on the next Spice Shop mystery, I pulled up the handout — and because I’m a Boomer, albeit a late one, I printed it out. :) Pepper’s employees range from 22 to past 60; she’s 43. Her friends in the Market are equally spread across the age categories. A major new character was 24. I wanted to understand the differences. Obviously, comfort with technology is one — Sandra and Vinny aren’t going to be 24/7 with their cell phones the way Reed and Jamie are. What else? Generally speaking, Boomers want to be recognized for their experience, want to be motivated to make a difference, and want to be part of a team — perfect for retail. Gen Xers prefer a casual atmosphere and a hands-off manager — works for me, as it gives Pepper lots of freedom to leave her shop on investigations! Milennials want a fun workplace, a positive contribution to the world, and both a challenge and flexibility. All those are easy traits to work with in creating, or discovering, our characters.

Then I read an opinion piece in the Washington Post by a sociologist challenging the use of these terms. Generational labels have “no basis in social reality,” Philip Cohen writes, and should be retired; they lead to stereotypes and caricatures. Donald Trump (born 1946) and Michelle Obama (born 1964) are both Boomers — and two more different people you could not find. That they were both born in a post-WW II population boom is pretty much coincidental. Sociologists and demographers recently sent a plea to the Pew Research Center, responsible for much of the generational labeling and research, to use alternative categories, and Cohen says the response has been encouraging. Cohen stresses that there are other ways to describe groups of people that are more useful, such as decades, or issues, like “2020 school kids.” There are so many more influences than simple generations, such as race, gender, home access to technology, and immigrant status. I’d add a urban/suburban/rural background, parental education, growing up in a religious or nonreligious family, and more.

We’re writing characters who can be characterized in specific ways, but must always remain individuals. Stereotypes are bad for fiction! In the WIP, for example, a brother and sister were raised apart — and oh, the differences! Calling one a Millennial and the other Gen X may be a good way to start, but that’s all it is.

BOTTOM LINE: Use categories like generational labels to start your character analysis, but go beyond them. Make your characters individuals, who may share common experiences with others their age, but are always influenced by so much more than when they were born.

Writing Wednesday — doubt and the book journal

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.”

The Solace of Bay Leaves by Leslie Budewitz

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.

Writing Wednesday — staying on the page with a timer

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.

Reading Martin Luther King, Jr. as a writer

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I often talk here about the importance to writers of reading as a writer, of developing the ability to identify why a book or essay or poem has a particular effect. When you begin to understand the power of certain tools, you can decide how, or whether, to use them in your own work.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the US. We’ve all heard recordings of Dr. King’s speeches and we know that part of their power came from his delivery—his voice, his use of dynamics, his pauses and gestures. But you can feel the power even when you read the words on the page, as my college rhetoric professor, a wonderful old Jesuit, showed me 40 years ago. Smarter people than I have dissected King’s use of rhetorical devices—the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech is particularly noteworthy—and their research is worth a closer look. Let me pique your interest with a quick look at three commonly-quoted lines.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” — The two key phrases, “injustice anywhere” and “justice anywhere,” are parallel in structure, but justice is contrasted against injustice, and the change from anywhere to everywhere uses parallel, rhyme, and contrast, emphasized by the potent phrase “a threat” in between.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” — Another powerful example of parallels and contrast.
“The time is always right to do what is right.” — This short line combines two cliches, but takes its power from contrast, through the use of the wo different meanings of the simple word “right.”

Think about how you use contrast and parallel structure in your sentences. Dialogue and scene and chapter endings offer lots of opportunities to use these tools. A common tool in revision is to identify the strongest line of dialogue and make sure everything else leads to it. Can you give that line even more punch with rhetorical devices—the ones I’ve mentioned or others? What about the last line in a scene or chapter, which sums up the action and creates a turning point? How can you use rhetorical structure to make sure the reader keeps reading? As you read or listen to Dr. King’s speeches today, and as you hear other speeches in the days ahead, listen as a writer.

Go forth, and do good.

Writing Wednesday — Free Writing

In my Building Character class, one of the tools I describe is the free write, an exercise to delve deeper into a character. Use it with a character who is not forthcoming about their experiences, one who is very different from you, or even one you know well. In writing the stand-alone currently circulating with publishers, I used a free-write session with the main character who is in many ways much like me but whose particular motivation wasn’t clear on the page. I’ve also used it in revision, as with the forthcoming Bitterroot Lake, when my editor suggested that the killer’s motivation needed more depth. I combined a free-write with some emotional research to delve deeper and even found the basis for another scene I knew I needed but had resisted adding because I didn’t know what the story needed.

A student new to the concept asked how to get started. The keys are to write by hand, write in first person, and open yourself to the voice and experience of that character.

Why by hand? Grapho-therapist Jamie Mason Cohen said in an interview that “[w]hen you write by hand, the act itself slows you down, resulting in single-tasking and focused concentration on what you’re doing in the moment and fully present.”

Alicia Beckman's Bitterroot Lake

I believe that free-writing these snippets of our characters’ inner lives by hand frees our creativity by creating a direct link to the subconscious. It frees us from judgment. This same effect comes from writing in first person, in the voice of the character we’re exploring, even if the story itself is in third, or in first but in the voice of a different character. For a few minutes—five to twenty—you’re giving that character a chance to speak directly to you. To tell you their story. You may not use it all on the page, but you’ll learn details and detect emotions that will help you understand that character, their emotional responses to the story events, and what they do as a result. In other words, this simple exercise will advance both characterization and plot

Try asking yourself a some questions, almost like a guided meditation. One of my favorites for mystery and crime writers comes from my friend Ramona DeFelice Long, a writer and editor, who called it channeling your inner OJ. You’ll remember that after OJ Simpson was acquitted of double murder, he claimed to be in search of the real killer and wrote a book called If I Did It, giving a hypothetical description of the murders and how and why they might have occurred. Talk to your suspect and let him or her tell you how and why they might have done it. Pay particular attention to the why, their motivation, and see what surprises they reveal.

Other prompts to ask your character, writing for at least five minutes:
What I most want is…
If I don’t get this, I will …
The thing that stands in my way is…
What I am most afraid of is…

Now pick up your pen and go!



Writing Wednesday — reading for the love of reading

I wrote about the importance of reading like a writer a few months ago, but today I want to suggest that over the next week or two, you should just read because you love it. Read because it feeds your soul and reminds you why you write. Read because you’ve been reading since you were five or six years old and few things connect you to who you really, truly are than a good book. Read not because you want to learn how Elizabeth George handles shifts in POV (masterfully), how Laura Lippman writes the modern noir in Sunburn, or how Ken Follett makes building a cathedral fascinating—although it’s perfectly fine to notice those things, and even to make a few notes for your own WIP. Read to get lost in a book, to forget what time of day it is or where you are. Read to meet new people, eat new food, explore a new community, and find out what happens, as my friend Barbara Ross says in her “cozy covenant.”

I promise, if you take a little extra time during this holiday season to read for pure joy, you’ll return to the WIP invigorated and inspired.

Writing Wednesday — Writer Unboxed

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My favorite writing blog—it may be the only one I still subscribe to—is a group blog called Writer Unboxed, subtitled “about the craft and business of fiction.” Founded by novelists Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton, it’s a group blog with more than thirty regular contributors along with a cast of occasional contributors and guests, offering posts on craft, business, and inspiration. The craft posts are detailed—agent and teacher Don Maass, for example, raises a provocative topic then offers specific questions for you to ask yourself about your WIP. Novelist and teacher David Corbett writes often about character, and I’ve come to value craft posts from Kathryn Craft, Barbara Linn Probst, Barbara O’Neal, Heather Webb, and others. Editor Dave King, co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, often posts snippets from manuscripts he’s worked on, showing his edits and annotating them with his thinking. Editor and novelist Ray Rhamey dissects the opening pages of NY Times best-sellers in his “Flog A Pro” segment. Other posts give a practical look at the business of writing. I was particularly inspired by a Barbara O’Neal post on using collage to better visualize a WIP, and drink in posts on refilling the well and nurturing the creative spirit. Dialogue often erupts in the comments, giving additional suggestions and ideas.

Give it a try.