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Recently, while offering advice to a young friend, I blathered to a halt and recalled advice offered to me when I was growing up. I didn’t ask for most of it, but that never stopped adults from handing it out. It seemed almost as if spouting words of wisdom and/or warning was a requirement for being a parent or grandparent, aunt, uncle, or friend of the family.
Some advice made sense. (Take along an umbrella if it looks like rain. Don’t dive into a stream until you know where the rocks are. Don’t play with snakes with triangular heads. Don’t pet skunks.)
Some I didn’t see the logic for until I was older. (Always keep a fund of walking-away money. Learn to drive a stick shift. Be careful who you step on as you go up the ladder, because you might meet them when you come down.)
And some seemed suspicious and unreliable—then and now. (Never go out in old or torn underwear because you might be in a car accident. Clean your plate because people in India or China or Africa are starving. Always respect your elders.) I regularly pondered questions like: Would doctors and nurses pause in their efforts to save me in order to comment on the sad state of my undies? If I ate more, how would that help a hungry person in another country? Did I have to respect criminals and disgraced politicians simply because they were older?
When I started taking writing classes in the early 90s, I got an avalanche of fresh advice. My mentors explained the logic for bits of wisdom they dished out, but I soon discovered that every writer walks a different path. What works for one, might not work for another. So, while I took advice about the importance of characterization, plot, and trimming dead language, I ignored several other snippets.
Here are some suggestions I considered and discarded.
Set a daily word-count goal and stick to it. No excuses. I like goals and I love meeting them, but I knew there would be days when I couldn’t crank out enough words to hit the mark. I also knew I’d try to make up for that “failure” and put too much pressure on myself. I decided I would write at least five days a week, but write only what I could, not what I “had to.” Sometimes that’s 3,000 words. Sometimes it’s 300.
Don’t start writing until you have a complete outline. If I adhered to this piece of advice I’d have exactly NO novels in print. Having been chastised in elementary school for getting my Roman numerals and capital letters in all the wrong places, the thought of outlining makes my stomach clench and my creativity go AWOL. Give me a pack of file cards and I recover and start plotting.
Know everything about your characters before you begin. My characters have a way of growing and changing as they come into contact with others. Emotion, conflict, and a need to take action have an impact. Characters may be altered in ways I couldn’t foresee in the plotting stage. So, I establish basic physical characteristics, a bit of back story, and a few notes about their unique outlooks and voices. Then I go for it and see what they’ll say and do.
Over-the-top characters won’t sell. Hmmm. Tell that to Carl Hiaasen or Tim Dorsey. As a reader, I don’t much care for mundane characters with blah lives, so I no longer hold my characters back—except to keep them from tossing the F-bomb.
Write what you know. What I know is that I don’t know much. Writing only what I know would be a limiting experience. So I altered that advice to: “Write what you can imagine. But do research.”
How about you?
What advice have you taken or rejected, cherished or laughed at, passed on or passed over?
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, No Substitute for Maturity, and No Substitute for Myth), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and The Devil’s Tombstone). Other works include An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, and projects written with her husband, Mike Nettleton (The Hard Karma Shuffle, The Crushed Velvet Miasma, Drum Warrior, Death at Devil’s Harbor, Deception at Devil’s Harbor, and the short story collection Sucker Punches).
She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She’s now a substitute teacher in Vancouver, Washington, and her interests are reading, swimming, walking, gardening, and NOT cooking. http://www.deadlyduomysteries.com
I admit it. I’m a fan of TV shows and Internet articles about the bizarre, the unexplained, and the weird. I’ll happily sit for hours, munching popcorn and watching programs about UFOs, creatures lurking in lakes and rivers, beasts prowling the jungle, and, of course, Bigfoot.
Mostly I watch those programs alone. My husband—no, make that my long-suffering husband—checks out after about 25 minutes, rolling his eyes as he departs for his man cave. What I find intriguing or amusing, he finds ridiculous.
So, when I mentioned that Bigfoot would feature in the 4th Subbing isn’t for Sissies mystery, I wasn’t surprised by the expression on his face. It implied that I had yet another screw loose.
Undaunted, I plunged ahead with No Substitute for Myth. As the title suggests, the story deals with myths—not stories of gods, goddesses, flying horses, and heroic deeds from ancient times—but mundane and fairly modern stories and sayings and traditions. Often we accept them without question.
For example, when I was young I was told that if I kept popping my knuckles, I’d get painful arthritis. I stopped popping. But guess what? Recently I read about a study that indicated I could pop all I wanted. Granted, the study looked at only a small group, but it led me to conclude that the knuckle-popping warning from my grandmother was another way of telling me to “knock off that annoying habit.”
But, like I said, No Substitute for Myth also involves Bigfoot, less in a reviewing-the-evidence way than in presenting him as a symbol for the unexplained and unknown, for all we wonder about. I’m no Bigfoot expert. And I don’t intend to try to become one.
I admire people with the courage to venture deep into the forest in search of something large and perhaps dangerous. But I’m never going into the backcountry in search of proof. I believe in Bigfoot just enough not to hunt for him. I’d rather take on a crush of shoppers at clearance-sale day or tell a friend her new jeans make her look fat.
And, quite honestly, if I came across a set of giant footprints, I’d walk briskly in the opposite direction of where they were headed. And if I heard what I thought might be Bigfoot, or saw him, I’d run. If I could. I’m more likely to be paralyzed with fright, gibbering with fear, wetting my pants, or all of the above.
If Bigfoot isn’t in the forests of the Pacific Northwest where I live, other not-so-friendly creatures are—bears and wolves and cougars. To trim the odds of running across them, I’ll stay on the sofa with my popcorn and the TV remote.
What about you? Are there myths you hold near and dear? Myths you’d like to see busted? And do you believe Bigfoot exists?
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, No Substitute for Maturity, and No Substitute for Myth), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and The Devil’s Tombstone), and other works. She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She’s now a substitute teacher in Vancouver, Washington, and her interests are reading, swimming, walking, gardening, and NOT cooking.
When I wrote my first TV newsroom mystery (now out of print and going to stay that way), I called it Face Time. The title referred to the amount of time viewers would see a news anchor’s face during a newscast. Over the years, I’d worked with several anchors reeled through tapes of news programs and literally counted the seconds their faces filled the screen. If their co-anchors got more time, they’d complain to the producer and news director.
The title spoke to me. But not to others. I argued with everyone (including writing coach Elizabeth Lyon) who said they didn’t get it, didn’t think much of it after I explained it, and felt it wouldn’t sell books. Eventually they wore me down and I went with Consulted to Death because the death of a media consultant sets the plot in motion and the title signals that the story is a murder mystery.
Although I felt like I was the only writer ever to go to war over a title, I wasn’t. Here’s what Lyon says in her just-released booklet, Crafting Titles:
In my years as a book editor, I’ve seldom seen an early title make the final cut. Critique groups, family, friends, and editors may passionately insist that you change your title. . . Because every novel can have many good titles, set your sights on finding one that captures the essence of your novel, has the right “sound,” and reflects its genre.
In the first section of Crafting Titles (available from Amazon, Crafting Titles by Elizabeth Lyon, Nook, and Kobo), Lyon reviews the many benefits of using a character’s name, like Lolita, or The Great Gatsby. After that, she examines the possibility of using the name of a place:
A setting may become a major character. If place sends seismic waves throughout your story, consider . . . compelling reasons for selecting it as a title.
One of those reasons has to do with the theme of the book, so I pat myself on the back that I used Hemlock Lake as the title for the first of my Catskill Mountains Mysteries. For the protagonist, the remote lake and the small town beside it are poisoned by past events and memories, and those poisonous feelings shape the story and his future.
In Lyon’s words: Titles that telegraph themes may unite many levels of the novel: plot, character development, an image or concrete thing, a place and era, an emotional tone, an atmosphere.
Elsewhere in her booklet, Lyon discusses the use of important things or meaningful objects as titles, the use of quotations and literary references, and titles that fit specific genres. She also considers the ideal length of a title, and branding for sequels and series.
Reader recognition of your book is particularly important if you decide to write a sequel, a prequel, or a series. Publishers—and fans—often hope, or even expect, sequels or series. Novels destined to be sequels or part of a series typically have similar titles. A handy way to accomplish this is by repeating a pattern of words in every book title.
I probably should have done that with my Catskill Mountains Mysteries, but I got carried away with other ideas and—okay, I admit it—didn’t ask for advice. Without conscious thought, however, I set up a pattern for the Subbing isn’t for Sissies Series. The fourth in the series, No Substitute for Myth, is just out.
If you’ve struggled with a title in the past or are struggling now, share your pain with a comment. Elizabeth and I will be happy to respond.
A writing teacher and book editor since 1988, Elizabeth Lyon is the author of half a dozen books on how to write, revise, and market novels and nonfiction. In 2013, she launched a booklet series to explore one topic at a time in greater depth. Booklet #1 is Writing Subtext. Booklet #2 is Crafting Titles.
A reviewer for The Writer magazine selected Manuscript Makeover as one of “8 Great Writing Books in 2008,” and described it as “perhaps the most comprehensive book on revising fiction.” Lyon is also the author of The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit, Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write, and others.
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, No Substitute for Maturity, and No Substitute for Myth), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and The Devil’s Tombstone). Other works include An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, and projects written with her husband, Mike Nettleton (The Hard Karma Shuffle, The Crushed Velvet Miasma, Drum Warrior, Death at Devil’s Harbor, Deception at Devil’s Harbor, and the short story collection Sucker Punches). She lives in Vancouver, Washington, and her interests are reading, swimming, walking, gardening, and NOT cooking. Website www.deadlyduomysteries.com
To my fellow writers: please don’t be the lone wolf in a tough world. I know that many of us are introverted artists, myself included. We would love nothing more than to have that cabin in the woods or solitary beach house where we could do nothing but write. Then, with no trouble at all, we simply send our wonderful prose to a publisher who is anxiously awaiting our newest submission. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work the way it does in the movies.
One of the greatest discoveries I’ve made as an author is that I do not have to bear the rough road to publishing alone. I don’t have to take the hit of a rejection letter without the support of those who understand what I am going through. There are people who not only encourage me and share their experiences, but who provide the opportunity for me to learn how to be a better writer.
Who are these super heroes of prose you ask? They are your genres writers’ associations. That’s correct. There are organizations that support writers in your particular genre.
In my case, I am a mystery author. When I finally decided to write that first novel, I had no idea where to start. I didn’t know anyone in the publishing business. I didn’t know what was required in order to contact publishers. Did I need an agent? How would I get one of those?
One day, I decided to do an internet search and came across an organization called Sisters in Crime. This organization was the brainchild of Sara Paretsky whom you may know as the author of a popular series which features Private Investigator, V. I. Warshawski. Sara felt women mystery writers weren’t taken seriously, so she thought there should be an organization to support them. Of course, unlike the names implies, members are male as well as female.
When I joined this group in 2008, my first meeting for the local chapter in the Chicago area was their annual writers’ workshop. I learned so much in that one day that it inspired me to keep moving forward and to never give up. At regular chapter meetings, we have special guests and experts in the fields of publicity, law enforcement, private investigation, crime scene clean up, and more.
At this time, I have the honor of being Chicagoland’s Vice President and Program Chair. I am also a member of the Speed City Chapter in Indianapolis, which is my hometown and the site where my Circle City Mystery Series takes place. With the generosity of a grant for the National organization, the combined efforts of these two chapters, and assistance from the Iowa chapter, they were able to participate at the 2015 Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago. There they spread the word about the Sisters in Crime organization and introduce some of their Midwest authors to readers.
As an active member of the Mystery Writers of America, I have found another excellent organization of which to be a part. They too support members in their efforts to write the best novel possible through workshops, meetings with experts, and the occasional fun and fabulous networking party. The Midwest Chapter was also a great presence at Printers Row Lit Fest this year providing speakers for Lit Fest panels as well as featuring authors in the Mystery Writers of America tent. They conducted fun contests with excellent Edgar Allan Poe prizes and held a flash fiction contest, which was won by a 16-year-old “future Edgar nominee.” The national organization also has writers’ workshops called MWA University, which takes place in various parts of the country. This is a great opportunity for writers—published or not—to hone their skills.
The camaraderie I have found in these two groups is inspiring and irreplaceable. That is the point of my blog today. It is so much easier to bear the disappointments when people who understand what you are going through surround you. It is also more joyous when you can share your successes with them.
I strongly suggest you find your “pack.” Don’t be the lone wolf, because often they “starve.” Being around writers from your genre is so stimulating that it is well worth being a part of it.
If you are a mystery writer, you can find out more about Sisters in Crime at http://www.sistersincrime.org and Mystery Writers of America at https://mysterywriters.org . If you write in another genre, you can find a list of organizations on a website called Writers Relief at http://writersrelief.com/writers-associations-organizations .
You contact me with any questions regarding today’s blog, or find out more about my novels and me through my website at www.memay-mysteries.com. Thank you and Happy Writing!
Michele (M.E.) May attended Indiana University in Kokomo, Indiana, studying Social and Behavioral Sciences. Her interest in the psychology of humans sparked the curiosity to ask why they commit such heinous acts upon one another. Other interests in such areas as criminology and forensics have moved her to put her vast imagination to work writing crime fiction that is as accurate as possible. In doing so, she depicts societal struggles that pit those who understand humanity with those who are lost in a strange and dangerous world of their own making.
In creating the Circle City Mystery Series, she brings to life fictional characters who work diligently to bring justice to victims of crime in the city of Indianapolis. Michele also hopes her readers will witness through her eyes, the wonderful city she calls her hometown. Learn more about Michele at www.memay-mysteries.com.
For some writers, the process of crafting a novel gets easier with each work.
Unfortunately, I’m not a member of that group.
Counting one that I tossed, three that are out of print and will stay that way, and five written with my husband, I just finished novel number 19 (No Substitute for Myth, to be released in June—or so I hope). Even though I knew the characters well because it’s the fourth in the series, and even though I had a clear idea of the plot, I struggled through the middle. Some of that struggle was due to elements I decided to add. Some was due to a feeling of being “held hostage” by my characters and wanting to be out of my office and living a life of my own.
In the previous substitute book, the beginning gave me fits. For number four, that was a cakewalk. Sometimes the ending is elusive, and sometimes I visualize the conclusion long before anything else.
Recently, while waiting for inspiration to deliver a perfect simile, I made a list of what I find most difficult about crafting a novel.
Getting an Idea. Because I’m afraid every idea will be the last, I treat a new one like the discovery of a rare plant. I record my “find” on a file card, post the card on a bulletin board, and then watch it, waiting for fresh shoots and leaves. Meanwhile, other ideas may be passing me by.
Plotting. The planning writers do is equivalent to that huge percentage of an iceberg beneath the surface. It supports your story. But the process of plot-building can be slow, and I’ve found that once characters interact, things can change. So, while I know how a book will start and how it will end, my plans for everything in between are often vague until I get there.
Crafting the Opening Sentences. Unless they come to me in a cheesy-snack-fueled dream, these are tough. So tough, in fact, that I often leave a blank space. When I reach the end, I have a better idea of how to plant the seeds of theme and plot on the first page.
Sitting. I don’t think I need to elaborate on the consequences of spending too much time on your ass-et.
Not Borrowing from Others. I don’t mean plagiarizing; I mean that unconscious shift toward a style or turn of phrase brought on by admiration for the skill of the author I’m reading at the time.
Making it Through the Middle. No matter how many file cards I’ve accumulated and how much plotting I’ve done, sometimes I feel like I’ve waded through a swamp only to step into quicksand. Often I have to go back to the beginning and work forward, reintroducing myself to characters I created weeks ago and have half-forgotten. The ending, like a mirage, seems to retreat before me.
Controlling the Snacking. When I’m stressed—and being stuck in figurative quicksand is stressful—I snack. (And I’m not talking about munching on baby carrots or apple slices.)
Taking Advice. Unless I’ve asked for it, I hate getting advice. And even when I’ve asked, I hate taking suggestions. So, when I’m deep enough in a quandary that I solicit ideas, I set them aside for a week while I work past a bout of I-should-have-seen-that resentment.
Ignoring Advice. I’m referring to the unsolicited and random suggestions that come from well-meaning folks who always wanted to write but never did. “You should write about my garden club and be sure to name all the members or someone will be mad.” “Don’t forget to give your protagonist a few cats.” “You should set your stories in Bermuda.”
The Ending. I think of an ending as the perfect meal—all the good stuff on the plate in portions that are just right. Not so much that servings and flavors run together. Not so little that I close the book feeling hungry. Just enough that I’m satisfied and want more from the same chef.
The title. Titles are tough because a few words have to do a lot of heavy lifting. In fact, they have to do so much lifting that I’m going to “save my strength” and save the topic for next month, when I’ll enlist writing coach Elizabeth Lyon to help me.
In the meantime, what do you think is the most difficult phase of writing a novel and why?
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, and No Substitute for Maturity), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and The Devil’s Tombstone). Other works include An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, and projects written with her husband, Mike Nettleton. She lives in Vancouver, Washington, and her interests are reading, swimming, walking, gardening, and NOT cooking. www.deadlyduomysteries.com http://www.deadlyduoduhblog.blogspot.com/
Back in 2012 when the idea for my book series popped into my head—thanks to some late-night salsa and chips that triggered a bizarre dream—the more I researched and thought and planned and figured, the more I began to really wonder “what if?”
That’s what started my journey into our newest big project: self-sufficiency.
In spite of several so-called projects over the years, a cleaning service, an old-time photography business, even a bookstore, this new one is big. Huge. I’m wondering if we can actually do this, you know?
We bought a farm.
It’s 35 acres, out in the middle of nowhere. With WiFi, of course. Perfect, right? I think so . . .
See, while writing my books, I really got into baking our bread, canning, increasing my gardening, and cooking almost everything from scratch. I’d been doing some of this for a long time, but I stepped up my game—this year’s garden, for example, will be a full acre between our current home and the farm. That’s enough to feed the three of us for the whole year.
We stock supplies, we tromp around in the woods, we either knew how or learned how to do things like track, construct shelters, survive, shoot, and build things. I even bought some yarn and knitting needles and printed out instructions. Sadly, that’s as far as I’ve gotten at this point.
So, yeah, you could call us preppers. Or crazy. Some people do that.
But that’s okay. I can live with “crazy.”
Why do we do this? Well, it’s kinda fun to do all that pioneer-type stuff. And too, things are nuts around here lately—I live in St. Louis. Traffic is awful, all the piddly little municipal regulations are enough to drive me to drink, and crime seems to have increased a lot. I really just want to be out in the woods, away from it all.
So, over the next year (still have one kid in high school), we’ll be renovating a fairly new small house, bulldozing an older wreck of a house, finishing out a barn, and getting the farm in generally good shape to live and work there. And spending a lot of money . . .
How did we get to this point? Well, you know how, when you read a book, you sometimes absorb or take on some of the characteristics of the protagonist? Oh, wait. Maybe that’s just me? Anyway, I do this—and it was much stronger when I was writing a book . . .
Thanks to Girl Scouts, I already had a lot of knowledge and some skills, so I started building on those. I also began to stock supplies, a few sale items here and there. I dragged out the old dehydrator and dried fruits and vegetables, and froze and canned more.
I’m not a fanatic, I even eat junk food or fast food sometimes. And no, I’m not preparing for a zombie apocalypse, but what if the power goes out? Or a water main breaks? Or a tornado rips through the area? If you can get to the store, there might not be much to choose from and besides, you’ll have to fight the crowds. Why not be ready and stay put, at home, with everything you need?
Robin’s latest book in the REDUCED SERIES, REPEAT, is due out this month (slight delay as she kept playing in the garden instead of writing), and you can read more about her and her self-sufficiency project at Prep Monday, one of her weekly blog posts.
By the time I finish the first draft of a novel, my desk is awash in file cards, stacks of books, notebook pages, scraps of paper, pencil stubs, coffee mugs, and other things that don’t bear close inspection—some of which may possibly have legs.
Because everything falls by the wayside when I’m in the home stretch of a novel, there are also smudges on the computer screen, smears on the phone, crumbs in the keyboard, and spider webs in the corners. Not to mention dust, dog hair, and general disarray.
Clearly, it’s time to clean.
It’s also time to organize.
Being a Virgo, I embrace the concept of organization. Sadly, that embrace isn’t always a close or long-lasting one.
And, being a Virgo, before I take action, I prefer to have a plan. A plan, of course, requires a list. (I love making lists. I REALLY love checking off the tasks I’ve completed.)
The best list is made on a fresh, crisp, bright white sheet of paper and written in pen, never pencil. Tasks noted in ink are more difficult to erase or write over and therefore signal genuine commitment. So, pen in hand—a pen containing black ink and featuring a medium or thick point—I make a list of the steps involved in tackling the project.
#1 Assessing the Situation. Depending on the time of day, I might do this while sipping a mug of coffee, or I might have an adult beverage in hand.
#2 Gathering Materials. This part is almost as good as making lists because it involves searching through cabinets for folders and binders and colorful plastic tabs. It may also involve—oh, joy!—a trip to an office supply store where I can roam the aisles for an hour or more gazing a plastic tubs, rolling carts, clips, tacks, and tape.
#3 Deciding Where to Begin. Should I organize first and clean later? Stuff every stray bit in a garbage sack, clean, and then file and arrange those bits? Start in one corner and clean and organize as I go? Start right now? Put it off until tomorrow morning? Should I gather a few more materials first? Change the vacuum filter? Buy a new container of spray wax?
#4 Deciding What to Toss and What to Keep. Like many writers, I’ve accumulated newspaper clippings, Internet articles, and notes jotted on napkins, file cards, and grocery lists. Some are stacked at the edge of my desk and some tacked to my four bulletin boards. My fear is that I’ll toss the one note or article that might be the seed for a book, so the stacks lean like that tower in Pisa and the bulletin boards are as shaggy as the pelt of a yak. And then there are the file cabinets and those boxes in the closet under the stairs. But let’s not go there. Let’s just admit that darn few things get tossed—at least not for a few years.
#5 Getting to work. Often this requires a return to Step #1 and the fortification of a beverage.
#6 Admiring What I’ve Accomplished. Ah, the clean window, the gleaming desk, the crumb-free keyboard. Each time I enter, I pause in the doorway, gaze around, and sigh at the perfection of it all. But because of what comes next, I never capture the clean moment with a camera.
#7 Vowing Never to Sink to Such Depths Again. Notice that I don’t vow to keep my office neat and organized. I know I’ll get tunnel vision toward the end of a project and be overcome by clutter. So I stick with a promise to remain somewhere above the previous level of grunge and grubbiness. Not having that level documented in a photograph allows me to kid myself into believing I manage to do that.
What about you? Are you also prone to let things slide until you’re overtaken by a tumble of jumble? Or do you keep up with your clutter and crud? Most important, do you have a secret system for keeping up—or a creative and believable rationalization for falling behind—that you’d like to share?
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, and No Substitute for Maturity), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and The Devil’s Tombstone). Other works include An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, and projects written with her husband, Mike Nettleton (The Hard Karma Shuffle, The Crushed Velvet Miasma, Drum Warrior, Death at Devil’s Harbor, Deception at Devil’s Harbor, and the short story collection Sucker Punches).
Some writers reach the final chapters of a work in progress and get a huge burst of energy and enthusiasm. As they burn the midnight oil, their fingers become as one with the keyboard. Words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages explode onto the computer screen.
Even when I long to write THE END, have a clear idea of all facets of the conclusion, and possess the file cards to lead me there, I move like a geriatric sloth on a chilly day.
Why? Fear the project will fail? A desire to remain close to my characters and live in their fictional world longer? Poor work habits developed in childhood? All of the above?
I have no idea. But it happens every time I close in on the final 50 pages. I lounge in bed longer, read the entire paper, fill the bird feeder, let the dogs in and out and in again, add to the grocery list, etc. Once I’m in my office, I revise and rework, cut and paste, add and delete. When I hit a wall with that, I get right down to the process of wasting time. A LOT of time.
Recently—while wasting time avoiding work on the final chapters of No Substitute for Myth—I made a list of my top 10 ways to burn hours—all without leaving the room in which I write.
• Cleaning. This can range from washing the window to running the vacuum to dusting to dragging a Q-Tip between the keys to dislodge crumbs.
• Filing. Sticking receipts in their proper folders is mind-numbing, so I let them pile up for a day when I need time-wasting projects.
• Considering the merits of light bulbs. Should I try a different wattage, another brand, a new lamp? Research can stretch for hours.
• Chair adjustment. Should it be higher or lower? Do I need a cushion? A footstool? Better lumbar support? What about the armrests? More research is required.
• Rearranging. This covers the desktop, bookshelves, other furniture, contents of the drawers, items pinned to the bulletin board, and paintings on the wall. If I tackle documents and pictures saved in my computer, I can waste a day or more.
• Phone calls. Relatives? Old friends? New friends? Neighbors? Timeshare salesmen? Sure.
• Personal care. What better time to file and polish my nails than when I’m about to launch the final big scene? When I’m done applying lotion, I’ll use my reflection in the computer screen to pluck my eyebrows. Then it will be time to massage my neck, flex joints, and do a round of chair exercises before putting my head down on the desk for a restorative nap.
• Computer games. The sky’s the limit for this one, and that’s why I stick to Solitaire. Until recently I deluded myself into believing I was playing only a few games a day, but my new computer keeps track. Let’s just say that if I had a dollar for every game, I could buy a tropical island.
• Paperclip jewelry and accessories. Why stop at a necklace when I can make a belt or a tiara?
• Searching for quotes involving the wasting of time. Even Shakespeare had a few of those. And if I happen to be writing a blog about wasting time, I can call it research.
The added bonus of wasting time at or near my desk, no matter how I go about it, is that within seconds I can pop my work in progress onto the screen and appear to be doing some actual writing. This is useful if the other writer in the house passes by. “I didn’t realize you were still writing,” he’ll say. And then he’ll back out of the room and trek down the hallway to scrounge something for dinner, allowing me to play that black queen on the red king.
I’m always looking for some fresh ways to goof off, so please use the comment space to share. Remember, the time has to be wasted without leaving your workspace.
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, No Substitute for Maturity, and, coming early this summer, No Substitute for Myth), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and The Devil’s Tombstone) and other works. She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor. She’s now a substitute teacher in Vancouver, Washington, and her interests are reading, swimming, walking, gardening, and NOT cooking.