Saturday Creativity Quote — accepting self-criticism

I’m deep in a first draft, at that stage where I’m not sure that anything I’m doing makes any sense, that I’ll be able to make it make sense, or that readers will care. Whether you write, paint, make music, or create in any of countless other ways, I am confident that you know the feeling.

partially open door of a weathered cabin

And that’s about the only thing I’m confident of write — er, right — now. So I like these words from my favorite blogs on writing, one of the contributors I always read because I always know she’ll give me useful, practical insights.

Accept that your work will never feel satisfactory, because without that self-critical element, we’d never try to improve. Our yearning to accomplish more is what makes it possible to endure a learning process that for quite some time may offer little promise of external reward.
. . .
[I]t isn’t up to us to believe in ourselves, it’s up to us to do the work.
– Kathryn Craft, on Writer Unboxed

Saturday Creativity Quote — more on the value of a schedule

I’ve been emphasizing the value of a schedule, of a regular commitment to writing. One more quote to bolster that:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.”
— Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life

What’s my routine? After decades working as a lawyer in firms and courts, now that I’m pretty much writing fulltime, I still keep office hours. Ideally, I’m “on the page” — that is, writing or editing — by 8:30, sometimes 9:00. I work until just after noon, eat lunch, and tackle promotion and writing business, along with personal stuff, in the afternoons. When I’m researching, or pondering, scouting the world and my brain for the story, that can get thrown off. I don’t make appointments on Mondays unless absolutely necessary, so I can start the week focused and protect my time.

Your life is probably more complicated than mine, but think about your schedule, a routine you can create and keep. Protect it. Honor it, and your creative spirit will shine. I promise.

Saturday Creativity Quote — keeping a routine

You’ve all heard me talk about intentional creativity and the importance of making a commitment to do the work, whatever your work is. It’s easy to start the year excited about our creative plans, but sometimes we need a little help making them become reality.

An open box of colored pencils
Pencils (photo by the author)

That’s where a creative routine comes in. As my writer pal Mark Hummel, who also writes as Mark Leichliter, says,

The trick is to put writing first even if it isn’t literally the first thing you do, and if it’s not, then creating a ironclad routine to which you adhere . . . That can be to write an hour before bedtime or for half an hour in your car at lunch, a set number of pages produced while hiding out in your secretive place so that you can be undisturbed. Whatever it is, I am convinced that routine matters.”

Some people say you have to write every day. You don’t. It’s ideal, but life isn’t always like that. I wrote my first three manuscripts on Fridays, because that was the time I had. My muse, or creative voice, or subconscious, showed up and we did the work–because she knew I would be there, sitting in my office in the back bedroom of a little white stucco farmhouse at the foot of the Mission Mountains.

As the man says, “routine matters.”


The Saturday Creativity Quote — stuck on what happens next?

“If you are stuck and asking what should happen next, head straight for what cannot happen. That’s the direction you want to go. The goal is not to play within the rules, but to break them. Story is not about what is realistic, reasonable, safe and ordinary. It is about the extreme things that happen to people who are not ready. It’s about the dramatic things that people like you and me might do-but do not-under duress.”

– Don Maass, Writer Unboxed: It Can’t Happen Here, 3/4/2020

I first heard Don say this years ago when he spoke at the Flathead River Writers Conference held by the Authors of the Flathead, a multi-genre writers’ group based in Kalispell, Montana. I remember the moment clearly. “What is one thing your main character would never do?” he asked. “Wear lipstick,” I wrote in my notebook, clueless enough not to realize what he would say next. “Now make them do it.”

photo of welded sculpture of a heron, with a mountain lake in the background

And that’s become one of my most important tools for unfolding plot from the characters themselves. Not wearing lipstick might seem trivial, but in that unpublished manuscript, it led me to think about where my MC, a deputy sheriff, might feel she had to wear lipstick. Another character is a national news reporter who’s just been fired from her job and retreats to her summer home in Montana where, naturally, she responds to her lover’s unsolved murder by filming a television segment, including an interview with the deputy sheriff.

In my Spice Shop mysteries, Pepper Reece would never ask her ex-husband, a Seattle cop on the bike patrol, for help — until she has to.

What would your character never do? Betray a friend? Betray a confidence? Fire a gun? Run into a burning building? Run from a burning building? Take a welding class? Wear pink? Eat a sweet potato? Make it matter. Make her do it.

Well, except maybe for that the sweet potato.

The Saturday Creativity Quote — the importance of writing from within

“Good writing is remembering detail. Most people want to forget. Don’t forget things that were painful or embarrassing or silly. Turn them into a story that tells the truth.” — Paula Danziger

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.” — Virginia Woolf

“You are a writer. You have a story to tell. You have something worthwhile to say. What you’ve already learned on your journey will play a part in what you write, one way or another. And your writing has a job to do: entertainment, teaching, healing, passing on wisdom or passion or comfort.” – Juliet Marillier, on Writer Unboxed

“You need to claim the events of your life to make yourself yours.” – Anne Wilson Schaef, who wrote extensively about addiction and popularized the concept of co-dependence

I think you catch my drift.

The Saturday Creativity Quote — outlining a book you admire

One of the best tools for improving our writing is to analyze what we read. I mentioned this last week when I talked about reading. Let’s take that to the next level.

“The ability to see our own work clearly is one of the greatest challenges of writing. Authors fill in the blanks of their characters and world and stories in their heads without realizing whether it’s coming across effectively on the page to readers. It’s almost impossible to assess our own work as objectively as we can with other people’s.” — editor and novelist Tiffany Yates Martin, writing on publishing guru Jane Friedman’s blog

An open box of colored pencils
Pencils (photo by the author)

Start, Martin says, with yourself. Your reaction. Then dive in, analyzing more deeply.

I’ve suggested this before, offering specific suggestions for outlining a book you want to learn from. Yes, colored pencils or highlighters are involved. I’m actually gearing up to do this myself, reading several books by an author I admire, then choosing one to outline deeply to watch how she handles story. Heck, I might do two. She’s doing something readers love and respond to, and I want to grasp it more fully. There’s no better way than breaking it down, scene by scene, element by element.

Sharpen your pencils — or your highlighters — and go!

The Saturday Creativity Quote — simple tools for improving our work

I’ve been talking a lot here lately about the importance of diving in, of getting started. Of moving past our fears and doubts and into the work. Sometimes that means pausing to look more deeply at those fears and doubts, investigating what is holding us back from actually doing the work. Sometimes it means finding tools that help us deepen and improve our work. I’ll be talking about a few of those tools over the next few weeks.

First up, reading. Reading like a writer. In On Writing, Stephen King famously wrote “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Schedule it. Ten minutes a night before you fall asleep won’t do. You can’t fully dive into a story and connect with it unless you’ve given yourself the time. Mystery writer Catriona McPherson says reading is as much a part of our job as writers as putting words on the page.

Read up. I got this tip from Elizabeth George, at a fabulous week-long workshop when I was a beginning writer. (I reconnected with her at the New England Crime Bake in 2015, when this photo was taken.) Read the authors whose work you most enjoy, who are writing what you write or want to write, whose careers and success you admire. The writers who inspire you. If you’re already published, reading authors in your genre who are publishing at the same level as you may not teach you much about craft, but if they’re stretching the genre in some way, striking readers in a way you want to emulate, or in a way you don’t quite grasp, read them, too. Choose what you read with a purpose.

Analyze what you read. I’ve written about “reading like a writer” before, and I still believe it’s a critical skill. Sum up a book by writing a review, just for yourself. (If you want to write a review on BookBub or another site, that’s great, but it’s a very different type of review!) Reread my earlier post for a few tips on what to note as you write your own reviews. (We’ll talk about more in-depth analysis later.)

Find more tools for reading like a writer in Francine Prose’s book of the same name.

“Reading superior novels arouses the mind in a way that nothing else quite does,” wrote Joseph Epstein in The Novel, Who Needs It?, quoted by Jacob Brogan in the Washington Post.

He’s right. And it will improve your writing like nothing else, too.


Murder on the Nile — The Continued Influence of Agatha Christie, born this day in 1890

Originally published March 5, 2017; reprinted today, in honor of Dame Agatha’s birthday, September 15, 1890. 

A few weeks ago, I was asked to introduce the Bigfork Community Players’ production of “Murder on the Nile,” Agatha Christie’s stage play based on her book, Death on the Nile. That got me thinking about Dame Agatha’s continued influence on readers and writers. The play is great fun—different from both book and movie—and it was a delight to be a part of the show for a night. My comments:

Thank you.

I’m Leslie Budewitz, author of the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, set in a fictional version of Bigfork, and the Seattle Spice Shop mysteries.

When Karen Koler asked me to join the fun tonight, we chatted a bit about the play, and our amazement at how widely read – and watched – Agatha Christie remains today.

And that got me thinking about Agatha Christie and her continued influence on mystery writers and readers.

For many of us, her books were the gateway into adult literature. When we’d had enough of Nancy Drew, we gravitated naturally to Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and my favorites, Tommy and Tuppence. I still remember buying my first Agatha Christie, a paperback, in a dime store in Burlington, Iowa when I was ten or twelve. With my own money. I read it by the pool and begged my mother to let me go back and buy more.

Agatha Christie was born in 1890 and died in 1976. She wrote 75 novels, not all of them mysteries, 100 short stories, more than a dozen plays – some based on her novels, and two autobiographies. She was also a prolific diarist. I’m pleased to have won two Agatha Awards, named for the great lady herself, for nonfiction and best first novel. [And later a third, for 2018 Best Short Story.] The year I was nominated for Best Nonfiction, one of the other nominees was John Curran, an Irish scholar who’s written two books looking at her secret notebooks, where she sketched out her plots and character ideas, and occasionally wrote the first drafts of her short stories. Her books are still bestsellers, and her plays still draw crowds.

Why?

Because she was first and foremost a tremendous storyteller. John Curran attributes that in part to her unconventional education. She also had a tremendous curiosity about the world. She traveled widely with her mother, with her first husband, an army officer, and with her second, an archaeologist. Those trips inspired several novels, including Murder on the Orient Express. Her trip to Egypt was no doubt the spark for her 1934 short story called “Death on the Nile,” featuring Parker Pyne, one of her lesser-known detectives. She then expanded it into the 1937 novel, featuring Hercule Poirot, and later adapted it for the stage as Murder on the Nile, making significant changes along the way.

She wrote what are typically called traditional or cozy mysteries, where a murder happens in a discrete, defined community, and has a deep ripple effect. The murder disrupts the community, and comes as a surprise – even though one happens in every book. The murder must be solved not only for justice to prevail, but to restore the community, and help the individuals get their lives back on track – something we’ll see in this story.

She also created highly memorable detectives. Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are instantly recognizable. They’re both intriguing, he for his experiences, and she for her astuteness despite her apparent lack of experience. That nosy village woman lurks in many of us, and she’s the inspiration for so many modern amateur sleuths, including my own.

Both Miss Marple and Poirot were typically outsiders, although Miss Marple did occasionally investigate an incident in her own village, St. Mary Mead, and that outsider status gave them the ability to see things and make connections others – including the police – couldn’t see. That’s very much an element of the modern traditional mystery, as is the counselor or sounding board role that each often played.

Some of her secondary characters feel like cliches now, but I think that’s the result of time and imitation. She did a brilliant job giving her minor characters the telling details that made them come alive. She also used our assumptions about certain types of characters against us, such as our belief in the innocence of a caring doctor or a devoted child.

We also love her intricate plots. She often recycled plots, or wrote variations of them, which the very prolific can do. The mystery writer Robert Barnard wrote that she could use the same trick a second time – and still fool us. She hid clues in plain sight, and she was a master of the red herring. In fact, we’ll see tonight how she used misdirection to make us think one thing while something entirely different was going on.

She was daring, as anyone who’s read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd will remember, but I won’t say anything more, for those of you who haven’t read it yet.

I admire her ability to create a world. Tonight, we’ll feel ourselves part of the group on the cruise, and feel the friendships and tensions that develop. She had an uncanny eye and ear for the subtle conflicts between people, and as one writer friend pointed out, her subtle hints of inappropriate sexual obsession were way ahead of time. Morality is a recurring theme in her work.

She had wit. The same friend recalls her describing a character’s eyes as the color of “boiled gooseberries.” My friend had no idea what a gooseberry was, but the image totally painted a picture.

And she’s inspired modern day authors quite literally. There’s a mystery set a conference on Christie’s work, another hypothesizing that she wrote a long-lost play during her mysterious 1926 disappearance, and another involving a Golden Age of Mystery book club, structured like her novels. In my books, I use a Cast of Characters, as she often did, as a way to help readers remember who’s who, but also as another form of storytelling.

Dame Agatha remains popular because her stories still tell us something about human nature, and because they’re fun.

I’ll be in the lobby at intermission and after the show, chatting about mysteries – both Dame Agatha’s and my own. And I do have books and bookmarks available.

Thank you – and enjoy your trip down the Nile.

(Thanks to Art Taylor and his article in the Washington Independent Review of Books for the origins of “Murder on the Nile,” and to my friend Ellen Byron for sharing her memories and observations.)

Festival time!

Time for the annual Bigfork Festival of the Arts, in the heart of the Village of Bigfork, Sat and Sun, Aug 5-6, from 9:00 am to 4:30. Find me on the east side of Electric Avenue, our main street, just south of FOR Fine Art Gallery. I’ll be signing and selling all my books, just for you.

Music, food, and art and craft of all kinds will fill the streets you know on the page as Jewel Bay.

Come celebrate!

Saturday Creativity Quote — on book banning

Leslie's booksehlf
Leslie’s bookshelf

“If books weren’t powerful, they wouldn’t be removed. … Books are hot objects. They belong on shelves. They belong in people’s hands,” says novelist Meg Wolitzer, who has little sympathy for the idea that people need to be protected from books. “Reading things that you’re not ready for,” she said, “gets you ready for things in the world.”

— novelist Meg Wolitzer (Washington Post book newsletter, 5/26/23)

May your words be powerful and true. May they help people see and prepare for “things in the world.”