Saturday, June 27, 2009

The internal editor

I originally posted this on the Kepler's writers' blog last week. But I find myself talking about this topic with friends and thought I'd repost here:

“Bash it out now. Tart it up later.”

This has become my mantra since my buddy and fellow writer Brett Milano first passed it along several years ago. The phrase originates with pubrocker Nick Lowe (who also penned the deathless “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?”), he tells me. All I know for sure is that those eight words have saved my writing life.

Bash it out. That’s the essence of this advice, and the reason it is key is that this is the single most difficult part of writing. Bashing it out. Getting the words on paper. Putting word after word to make a sentence, a paragraph. A scene.

Apply butt to chair, I frequently tell prospective writers. Start typing (or scribbling). Just (to paraphrase a shoe ad) do it. That’s the first hurdle, the threshold into being a writer. And it is both high and hard to overcome.

Why is this simple first step so horribly difficult for so many of us? I blame the internal editor. Face it. There is nothing so wonderful as the book you are about to write. We are dreamers. Storytellers. Idealists – or we wouldn’t want to write at all. In our heads, before we’ve committed anything to paper, our ideas are quicksilver. Starlight. Translucent. But as soon as they appear in the light of day, they become fixed in the physical world with all that implies: They become leaden, earthbound. Not fun. It’s a terrifying transition from limitless possibility to concrete immobility, and it is enough to freeze up even the most experienced author. Whatever we write cannot compare to what we imagine. And so to our internal editors – our writing superego or our internalized mothers or high school teachers – it isn’t good enough. We aren’t good enough. And so we don’t write.

We tell ourselves that we are writing. That we are just searching for the right word. The right phrase. The opening scene that will spark everything off. But in truth we procrastinate. We fiddle. We cook. When I’m trying to start a project, I do more loads of laundry than a two-person household demands. I know this about myself now and accept it as part of my process – and then, I sit down and start the work.

Because if we are going to write, if we are going to be writers, then at some point we have to do the deed. We have to actually set words down and build them up, scene by scene, into something that others can read. We have to overcome the horrible, crippling doubt and dare to make it real.

Over the years, I’ve learned various techniques to get me over the threshold. One of those is, of course, fear of deadline. When you earn your rent by what you write, fear is a great motivator. This often works for students, too, and explains why so many assignments are penned only hours before deadline. This fear can be useful, and I confess I’ve allowed myself to wallow on occasion on a more nebulous, existential variety: Maybe I don’t have any more books in me. Maybe I’ve done it all and should simply teach full-time or take up PR. For while there is absolutely nothing wrong with either profession, the idea of not writing terrifies me – and gets me back to work.

I’ve said before that I believe the ability to write is like a muscle, and keeping the muscle in shape helps, too. All those years doing journalism have given me some fall-back techniques – surefire “ledes” to start a story that I can use in fiction, too, if need be. I’ll also assign myself fairly arbitrary word lengths – say, 1,000 words a day – and make myself do them.

But basically these techniques only work because of the second part of the mantra, the “tart it up later.” I can use a hackneyed device (“start with a quote”) or bash out 1,000 words of transitional sentences because I know I can fix it later. I tell myself that in a month or two, whenever I have a draft, I can choose to rewrite the entire work – or toss half of it. I can bash it out now, because (as I remind myself), I will have the opportunity to tart it up later. That’s the promise I make myself and to my internal editor. In exchange, she lets me write.

That sounds a little like a trick, doesn’t it? But it’s not so much outwitting the internal editor, as it is buying her off. I’m just typing, I tell her. You’ll get your turn later. And for a little while, she leaves me in peace.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Thank you, January Magazine!

"We engage with the work of the authors we love on many levels." So begins today's January Magazine Author Snapshot. It then goes on to say incredibly nice things – concluding: "Mystery, music, nightclubs, animals in danger: on a certain level, it’s an unlikely combination, yet, somehow, it works very well. And why? That special blend, I think: passion, heart, understanding and voice, voice, voice. Simon’s is as strong and clear as the passion she brings to the stories she tells."

January Magazine is a must-read, a 12-year-old online journal of the arts, with news, reviews, and interviews updated daily. I check in whenever I can, for information and just plain fun. But still, somehow, when editor (and fab author) Linda L. Richards asked me a few months ago if I wanted to be "snapshot," I said, sure and filled out an email interview. I never expected something as nice as this. Thank you, Linda! Thank you, January Magazine!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson, RIP

The weird face. The pedophilia, I know, I know...

But watching the coverage – especially those amazing early clips of the Jackson 5 and those Thriller videos – is making me sad. I grew up with Michael (well, I grew up, anyway). He was two years older than I was, which makes seeing him so young doubly poignant. I think for folks my age, he was like our Elvis: a great, seminal musician and force in music who had faded into sad irrelevance or worse. But we still didn't expect to lose him just yet.

RIP, Michael.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

This explains a lot

Turns out, Severn House never got the manuscript of "Grey Matters" that I worked so hard to get in by the May 31 deadline! Am experiencing waves of relief and annoyance as I re-send. Am asking for confirmation, and if I don't hear by tomorrow will send again. Phew. I guess. You'd have thought they'd have asked, no? Only found out because agent sent out a "so?" query.

Anyway, my UCLA class starts today and I'm working on another guestblog for the Kepler's website. I think I'll write more on process, maybe on outlining or not, planning... or not.

Update: just heard that editor got the re-sent "Grey Matters." Loves the blurb, will read ms. "a.s.a.p." Which means a whole new wave of anxiety. Why do we do this again?

Monday, June 22, 2009

The fallow period...

What do you do while you're waiting for to start your next project? How do you replenish the creative juices? How do you stand it? That's the topic in my guest blog today at Kepler's Well-Read Donkey, a blog for writers and all who love books, sponsored by the great SF indie bookstore. Please drop by and share your thoughts!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

I am creeped out...

by Helen Oyeyemi's "White is for Witching." As I hope my review in today's Boston Globe makes clear, I didn't love it. But it did get under my skin!

Happy Saturday.

Friday, June 19, 2009

She likes it!!

Just heard from my darling, beloved agent. The delay was because she was in fact re-reading Dogs Don't Lie and ...

she likes it! "A lot" (why doesn't she love it?). She found the characters "extremely appealing" and thinks readers "will connect with them." (So, why doesn't she love it again?)

Nevermind, I'm happy. I'm more than happy. I'm thrilled. I'm chortling with joy. And she is putting a list together so the thing can go out to editors next week. And then I can be on tenterhooks once again, waiting....

am seizing this moment of joy with both hands, boys and girls. Both hands.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

No news

... still no news, except a quickie note from my agent saying she'll "get back to me as soon as possible." Am trying to focus on other things: my UCLA course starts next week, I'll be guestblogging at Kepler's Well-Read Donkey, too. Hard to concentrate on anything else right now though.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The wait begins...

Two weeks ago, I sent off to my agent the manuscript of my second Dulcie Schwartz mystery, Grey Matters. Today, I sent her the ms. for Dogs Don't Lie. Now, the waiting begins.

No, I didn't write a book in two weeks. I had written Dogs Don't Lie for fun, starting about a year ago. The basic premise - of a hard-boiled tough gal who just happens to be able to hear what animals are thinking - comes from a short story I wrote for Dead Fall, an anthology of New England crime writers. I'd been reading a lot of noir (Megan Abbott, Linda L. Richards) and thinking about the whole cutesy "animal psychic" thing and, voila, Pru Marlowe and her irascible tabby Wallis were born. If it takes off, I want to call the genre "pet noir," as in "bete noir." Of course, we'll have to see if it takes off.

Once I had drafted Dogs Don't Lie, I got some happy news. My editor at Severn House wanted a sequel to Shades of Grey - and wrote it into the contract. And so in January, I set Dogs Don't Lie aside and threw myself into writing Grey Matters. I wrote it pretty quickly, for me. I'm sure it will need revisions, but I think I turned in a pretty strong mystery, so I have reason to believe she'll like it. And once that was sent off, I could go back to revise Dogs Don't Lie. It was sort of perfect timing – I still loved the book, but enough time had passed so I could see its flaws. Dogs Don't Lie is not under contract to anyone, and so next week my agent will just start sending it out.

Sounds good, right? I actually like being this busy and despite a sense of growing fatigue (and growing disgust with the state of my office), I've been happy these past few months. It's the new part - the waiting - that I can't stand. This part of the process just wrecks me. As soon as I'd sent off DDL, I started worrying that I hadn't hidden a crucial clue well enough. And then that I'd hidden it so well that it wouldn't make sense. Now I've even started worrying that my Severn House editor won't want Grey Matters. Basically, I'm swinging between wild optimism (these are my best works ever... Dogs Don't Lie will be my breakout book) and despair (you can fill in the blanks).

I am tired. I need to clean my office and catch up on my outside assignments. The waiting has begun.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

April Smith interview

Two of April Smith's smart, subtle Ana Grey thrillers were recently reissued. I grabbed the author as she was on assignment in New York... read more here.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Goodbye, Readerville

Readerville, an early online home for many of us writers, readers, and book lovers, closed down today. I confess, I hadn't visited in a while, seduced away by newer social media and by my own work. But for nine years, Readerville was home, an online watercooler where I could count on emotional refreshment during the day. I met several friends there, who remain friends in the real (as well as the virtual) world, and I'm sorry it won't be around for others. Major kudos to founder/creator Karen Templer for keeping it going as long as she did. Thank you, Karen, and best of luck with all future ventures. Readerville, RIP.

FYI - I had the honor of writing about one aspect of Readerville for The New York Times a few years ago.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Lesa Holstine on "Probable Claws"

Librarian and critic Lesa Holstine reviews Probable Claws today. I won't quote the entire review here, but I can't resist:

"Once again, Clea Simon skillfully brings together the various aspects of Theda Krakow's complicated life. Not every author can intertwine cats, the rock music scene, and the problems at today's newspapers. Over the course of this series, though, Simon has managed to build sympathy for Theda, a woman who often alienates even the people who love her, as she gets so caught up in her current story or passion, whether it's cats or rock music, that she neglects her personal life. Readers who appreciate complicated characters, and intricate plots, will appreciate Simon's latest crime novel,
Probable Claws."
– from Lesa's Book Critiques

Thank you, Lesa!

Real-life drama

Does anyone else remember Stan Mack's "Real Life Comics"? As cell phones have become omnipresent, the possibilities are not only everywhere, they're hard to ignore. I just spent ten minutes behind a good-looking, well groomed youngish man in line at the pharmacy. It was quiet in there, and the following one-sided conversation was quite audible to everyone. As were, I'm afraid, his romantic woes:

"Yeah, I know, I know. If she were a man– I mean, I've been talking to people and everyone feels that if she were a man, it would be different. Yup, she's getting a free pass."
"No, it's not just the thrill of the chase."
"So it seems I'm a nice guy, but I'm just not very exciting."
(long pause)
Uh huh, uh huh." (Short pause) "To be honest, I find that borderline insulting."
(long pause)
"It's all right. I'm so out of it from lack of sleep and from 'The Deal' that I almost don't care. Oh, gotta go."
Hangs up and tells the woman at the counter. "I didn't want to be one of those people on a cell phone."

And people ask me where we get our ideas.