Monday, May 25, 2015

Writing every day . . . including holidays

For the last year or so I've been doing library and other events, talking about my two mystery series and the life of a writer. I expect and get the usual questions. How do you write? With a computer or a typewriter or pen and paper? Do you write every day? Even on holidays? Where do you get your ideas? Do you have an agent? These and other questions come so often and so predictably that I barely think about the answers, but this weekend I found myself thinking about one in particular. Do you write every day? What exactly does that mean, to write every day? And what does it mean to the non-writer in the audience asking the question? Does it mean the same thing?

This is Memorial Day and a holiday on Monday for those with jobs that require someone to show up at
an office or worksite. But I'm a writer, and I work at home. I have a ten-second commute from the kitchen to my desk in the next room. Do I have to show up?

Every year, on the day before Memorial Day and Fourth of July, I pull out my great-grandmother's flag and promise myself I will hang it up on the porch in honor of those who fought to defend our country. Sometimes I forget and the flag sits on the chair in my bedroom until late at night, when I put it away, gnashing my teeth. But today, in 2015, I remembered, and got the flag up there soon after nine o'clock. The flag has 39 stars, and my mother recalled watching my great-grandmother sew on the last star when she was a little girl, before World War I. The flag is fragile, so I don't put it out on windy or stormy days.

Getting the flag up this year bodes well for my working memory because it's the first on my list of things to do today. Writing this blog is the second.

This blog fulfills the requirement of writing every day, but what about the days when I never write a word, in a blog or story or novel? What else counts as "writing every day"?

At the beginning of a new work I make a list of the main characters I think will appear in the novel, usually about four or five, not including the series and support characters. When I have my list, I think about names and pull out naming books as well as lists of names I've developed over the years. The characters start to take shape in my imagination and I jot down physical or psychological characteristics that intrigue me. Is this writing?

When I was first starting out, years ago, I was well aware of my weaknesses. I could capture the emotional content of a character, and depict the behavior of children, but I doubted my abilities in writing dialogue. With that in mind, I read writers who could carry an entire story in dialogue, and read them to see how they did it? Is that writing?

I have published thirteen short stories featuring Anita Ray, the Indian-American photographer sleuth in my India series. After a particularly successful panel, a member of the audience will ask where they can buy a copy of the stories. All the stories were published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine or Level Best Books anthologies, so I have the rights to them if I want to compile them for a book of my own. I've looked at the stories and considered possible arrangements, and searched among my own photographs for a cover image. Is that writing?

The fourth book in the Anita Ray series will be coming out in spring 2016. I've just finished reviewing the copy-edited manuscript, accepting the corrections of my editor and adding a few things here and there. Is that writing?

One of my longstanding habits is to clean off the top of my desk after I finish a story or novel. This means going through all the papers and books and notes that accumulate while I'm composing, keeping some, returning the borrowed items, and filing the rest. If I didn't do this, I'd have my own stand-up desk, situating my computer atop stacks of paper two-feet thick. Is this writing?

When I was in graduate school, working on my dissertation, a colleague used to call all this "other"
work "fussing." He likened it to a dog circling a spot on the floor before it falls down in a heap to sleep. Perhaps. But whatever it is I'm doing when I'm not composing on my computer, it feels necessary in order to get the project finished and out the door (or into cyberspace) to my editor. All the activities I engage in may not be what someone else would consider writing, but I wouldn't be able to finish a project without them.

So, on this glorious Memorial Day, I will be writing in some way. And I hope you will also be doing something you love.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Posterity or . . .

In an earlier post I talked about clearing out old mss that I was pretty sure wouldn't be published. I asked readers to let me know what they did with their mss that were moldering in a drawer or on a disk. One replied that she was saving them for posterity. This was one comment I hadn't thought of.

Like any other writer, I love opening the box from the publisher that contains the first copies of my new
book. The books sit there, pristine, perfect, and full of promise. Surely this book is the one that others will find special, brilliant, ground-breaking--if you're a writer, you recognize the fantasy. Each step in the writing/publishing process triggers the standard dreams. After my heart settles down and my feet touch the ground again, I'm just happy to know that libraries will be buying my book and standing them up on a shelf, for readers to find and, I hope, enjoy. That's the only posterity I've thought about. After that, I assume it's over for me, and I take my place in the graveyard. I even find it hard to continue after the last sentence, but I'll keep at it.

When the Houghton Library of Harvard University announced that it was acquiring John Updike's papers soon after his death, I thought, of course. He's a famous writer, perhaps the most important American writer of his generation, and a graduate of Harvard University (Class of 54). Learning how he composed and shaped his fiction and nonfiction would certainly be interesting to young writers and literary scholars. But my papers? Would a library actually want them? I don't think so, but I'm beginning to wonder if my perspective is the exception.

Over the years I have read the juvenilia of writers I have admired, but you only have to do this once, with one writer, to glean the important lesson. The early writings will show both promise and ineptness, and often throw the reader back in her chair as she marvels at how far the writer had to travel to reach his or her current heights. My reactions to early, youthful writings of later prominent voices are similar to my feelings about first novels. I might enjoy them, but I privately hope that the writer improves with experience. I have a number of favorite mystery writers who did just that.

Perhaps my lack of interest in leaving work behind for others to study and evaluate comes from an innate desire to be known for the best I can do, and not for my failures. Is it ego or vanity? Possibly one or the other, or both. Is it fear of having my old notes and unpublished mss leading to eternal humiliation? Probably. Is it laziness in not wanting to spend time organizing this old, rejected pile of material in some system that can facilitate the transfer of ownership to someone else? Definitely. Laziness for sure plays a role.

Perhaps the lack of interest in posterity has to do with a lack of ambition. I don't want to be famous. I don't want to give up privacy and freedom to move through my life, in and out of stores or restaurants, without being noticed. I don't want strangers becoming my "best new friend." One of the staff at the post office (yes, the one I wrote about recently) stood at the counter when John Updike walked in to mail something. She had waited on him before, but this time she was so flustered that she forgot several steps in the process and had to redo everything after he left. Embarrassing. For her, of course. And for a shy man, like John Updike, even more so.

I will never face these problems, and I don't want to. I have what I regard as a perfect life, and after I'm gone, my departure will make room for someone else. If anyone wants to know something about me after I'm gone, read the books.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Writer's Habits--To Save or not to Save

Over the years I have accumulated a number of manuscripts that will never be published. Sometimes the story just doesn’t work, or the ms has been turned down so many times that I give up on it. For a long time I saved these old mss, thinking that one day I would use a part in another story. After reading a mystery novel by Julian Symons (and I can no longer remember which one), however, I have changed my practices.

A prolific writer with many interests in fiction and nonfiction and one of my favorite writers, Symons
wrote 29 mystery novels; 33 works of nonfiction; including biography, autobiography, history, and criticism; 2 collections of poetry; 9 collections of short fiction; and edited 8 collections of fiction or nonfiction. His history of crime fiction, Bloody Murder, is a classic and an original perspective on the genre. But in addition to his many mysteries, I remember him for something that was probably not meant to be memorable.

In a mystery novel about an architect (I apologize for not being able to identify the title), Symons describes everything in the novel in terms of angles, sharp corners, flat planes, stark floors and ceilings, and the like. There is no softness, warmth, or curving in this story, except for one character. As I recall, the character was named something like Uncle Puffer, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the description of this sweet, warm-hearted, soft and round-shouldered fellow with the lopsided smile was the antithesis of everything else in the novel. I mentioned this to another writer, and we both jumped on the only explanation. At some point Symons had written a description of a character, not found a use for it at the time, and kept it. He popped it into this particular novel, where it stood out like a glass of milk at a sports bar.

Symons was a great writer who came up with stories and ideas that will continue to entertain and surprise readers. But he taught me something unexpected in that novel. Everything in a piece of fiction has to belong, has to have its organic place in the story. This description of Uncle Puffer, as I’ve named him, did not fit, and the dissonance between that description and the rest of the novel is what I remember. Perhaps this is a case of failing to “kill your darlings,” as Oscar Wilde, William Faulkner, and many other writers have advised. Perhaps Symons merely didn’t want to waste a fine character description—and it was vivid—but either way, he should have left it out.

I have interpreted this reading experience differently from what might have been expected. If I write a novel or short story and later feel that it doesn’t work, I might keep the plot or the title, but the rest of it goes. I don’t keep passages to rework into something new. When I write a story I believe the experience has to be fresh for me or it won’t feel fresh and new to the reader. As hard as it is, and it’s actually not as hard as I thought it would be, I toss any ms that didn’t work. I delete it from my computer, and I recycle the printed pages. When I begin a new ms, I want a fresh start every time.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Artist as Detective

Almost every mystery I pick up these days includes a nugget of information I haven't encountered before, or a window into something that is new to me. I enjoy these aspects of crime fiction, and often pick a book based on the jacket promising me an unusual perspective or discovery. I especially like mysteries featuring artists in any medium, and I always look for those who use their artistic skills to solve the crime. But these mysteries are hard to find.

In most mysteries featuring artists, the description of the detective or suspect as an artist is little more than window-dressing. The skill of the artist doesn't serve the mystery. In Artists in Crime by Ngaio Marsh, a group of painters at a summer workshop are suspects in a murder that happens right in front of them. But their skills as artists don't influence the investigation or solve the crime. In M.M. Kaye's Death in Kashmir the solution to the mystery depends on one character's artistic talent, which the sleuth has to recognize to solve the crime. 

Two more recent books inform the reader about art forgery but the skill of the artists involved are not essential to solving the crime. In The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro, an artist shunned by the art world is drawn into the underground world of art forgery, and describes in detail how a painting is created to pass tests of authenticity. Inspector Diamond also deals with forgery in The Vault by Peter Lovesey. But only standard modes of detection lead to the guilty party.

In the Anita Ray series, one of my goals is to use Anita's talent and life as a photographer to understand and solve crime. Sometimes this means little more than questioning someone who walks into her photography gallery in the resort where she lives and works. In Under the Eye of Kali, a character sees something in the gallery that upsets her, and Anita tracks this down to help solve the crime.

Anita is concerned about art theft in The Wrath of Shiva, and this leads her more deeply into other unexpected circumstances. Her commitment to a life as an artist is part of her zeal to uncover the theft of family art but her eye as a photographer doesn't help solve the crime.

In For the Love of Parvati, Anita visits relatives who live in the hills. During a break in the monsoon, she takes a walk with her camera and discovers a body washed down in a flood. She photographs the corpse to record suspicious marks on his body, and relies on these photographs when the police later tell her that the man died from drowning during the monsoon.

As the series progresses I plan to do more with Anita's way of looking at the world, her eye as a photographer-artist. Her talent and career as an artist give her a freedom not available to other women, and a curiosity that leads her into unusual situations.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Beta Readers

I recently gave a short story to a friend to critique, and because it involved an activity her husband enjoys, sailing, she gave it to him to read also. Both came back with useful and pertinent suggestions, and I felt fortunate to have their reviews. As I finish an Anita Ray story, I'm getting ready to send it to someone who has also lived in India and will warn me when I conflate the ways Indian and Americans think.

These particular readers are among the three or four I rely on to comment on my work, and I have always felt comfortable with that group because their critiques are spot on and precise. But when I look at the acknowledgments in some of the books I've been reading lately, I notice the author often includes a long list of names of people who have read and commented on or helped with the book. The list includes friends and relatives as well as editors and a large number of beta readers. Sometimes the number of people in the last category can reach forty or more.

At a writers' conference I listened to another mystery writer describe her process. She sent out her ms to four writers, read their comments and edited her ms accordingly, and then retyped from word one the entire ms. Then she sent it out again. She did this until she had sixteen reviews, retyping the book each time. (Yes, that's a lot of typing, and a topic for another time.)

When I was writing my first mystery and learning about structure and character and plot and clues and all the rest of it, I read chapters of the book that would become Murder in Mellingham to my writers' group and sent opening chapters to friends in the publishing world. I learned from all the comments, but the total number of beta readers did not number more than ten.

How many beta readers do you need? I don't know the answer but I am wondering. A quick Google search for "Beta readers" brings up 55,400 entries, including a call for beta readers, a listing for a group on Goodreads, advice on how to apply to be one, things to do and not do, what to expect if you become one, and more. It there has been an explosion of writers in the marketplace, there has also been an explosion of beta readers and posts about them.

But there is one big difference between today, 2015, and the 1980s, when I began writing my first mystery novel. When I began I knew all my readers, and asked them for their views because I knew, first, that they liked to read and, second, they read carefully and often made astute comments about a story line or character. I wanted the benefit of their expertise. I didn't know about anyone who served as a beta reader for a writer they didn't know personally, and I didn't know any writers who sent their mss to readers they didn't know personally.

Today, in many case, beta readers are strangers to the writer seeking feedback. We have no idea if the people who post reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, or any other site can read well or easily, like reading, or even care about books.

I don't know how many beta readers are considered enough, but I know that a good one is worth every effort it takes to find him or her. I consider myself fortunate to have several who have supported and guided me over the years.

But as I watch the writing and publishing world evolve, I wonder how the institution of the beta reader will also develop. How many will be considered enough? Will a group spring up to set standards for becoming a beta reader? Will we formalize the process? Will writers be expected to find strangers to serve as readers? I don't have any answers but I'm curious to hear what others think.