by Laura Crum
Alison mentioned doing more posts about writing, so I gave this a little thought. I’ve been a published author for sixteen years and am working on my twelfth mystery novel, so surely I should have some useful insights? You’d think so, anyway. In truth, I find that writing is a very personal thing and there are as many ways to do it as there are writers. It never helped me a lot to hear authors describe their own writing process, though I did get the occasional “aha” moment. What helped me the most, and what I advocated to my students when I taught a class on writing mysteries (which I did for many years) at the local community college, was to focus on finding my own voice and to be persistant.
Writers need to write, as riders need to ride. The hardest thing to accomplish, far harder than getting an agent or being published by a legitimate publisher (both hard enough), is to finish that first book length manuscript. To simply put in the hours of writing that such a project requires is a first step that most writers never manage. And yet, unlike being published or acquiring an agent, it is a goal that is entirely under the writer’s control. You, and you alone, can determine whether you persevere with your writing and finish that first novel. Its an achievable goal. But suprisingly difficult.
So there would be my first piece of advice. Pesist and finish your ms. The second piece has to do with finding your own “voice”. Because many writers, and certainly I was quite guilty of this to begin with, are conciously or unconciously imitating something they’ve read, that they admire. It may be that they are trying to write the “type” of book that fits a niche, or to emulate a popular author. In my case, my first book (Cutter) was a deliberate “western” take on Dick Francis, an author I loved. Many of my reviews mentioned the resemblance, some in a positive way, some rather less flattering. At the time, I was just thrilled to be likened to the master.
As time went on, however, I was concious more and more of needing to say the thing that I had to say. This sounds kind of silly written down, but we each have our own insights and way of seeing the world to bring to the table, and our books will be as unique and interesting as we are true to ourselves. This is my belief, anyway. So I encourage all authors to look into themselves, rather than at “what sells”, and try to write the book that YOU want to write and say what you have to say in your own voice. (And no, this is not necessarily a recipe for best sellerdom, though I think that most truly memorable writers do have very unique and authentic “voices”.)
Which brings me to something that Terri brought up: how much of your own life do you allow to creep into a novel?
I think this is totally up to you as a writer, and a part of finding your own voice. For myself, I use a lot of my “real life” as background, and I find it helps to keep my books real and alive and prevents the so-common problem of novels that descend into the trite, predictable, and basically boring world of typical genre fiction, peopled with unrealistic characters. I try to base all the details of my novels on things I have really seen and experienced, and I keep my eyes open all the time for scenery, background and characters (human and animal) that would enhance and enliven my books. When I ride the trails I am alert for moments that can be part of my next novel, and when I have real life experiences that are memorable/moving, I keep them in mind to incorporate into future stories. I enjoy putting my real horses into my books, and trying to describe them as accurately as possible. When I send my heroine on a horseback chase scene, I usually try to send her over terrain I have actually covered on horseback myself. No, I may not have gone at the dead run, but at least I've been over the ground and can describe it accurately and intimately. To my thinking there is nothing duller than fiction that is not truly “felt” by the author, and my way of bringing feeling to my work is to use many things that I have experienced myself in my novels.
That said, the plots of my mysteries are all completely fictional, though some real life experience may give me the idea for a plot. But unlike Gail McCarthy, the equine veterinarian who is the protagonist of my series, I do not find a dead body a year. (Now isn’t she just someone you’d like to have out to your barn on a vet call? Sort of like inviting the Angela Lansbury character in “Murder She Wrote” to dinner.)
Finally, a lot of people have spoken about getting caught up in endless re-writes and “fiddling” before they finish even one complete ms. This is a very common trap and easy to fall into—believe me, I know the temptation. But I can tell you that one thing that separates “authors” from “writers” who have not been published is the deep-seated knowledge that you need to push on through that first draft. Its never easy—at least its always difficult at some points—and you inevitably reach a spot where you think the whole thing is absolute rubbish. I’ve reached that spot on every single one of the eleven books I’ve completed, and am quite sure I will be hitting it soon on the book I’m currently working on. The trick is not to start re-writing. Just keep going. Finish the story. When its done you can fiddle with it all you want, and most of us do quite a bit of fiddling with our first drafts. The finished book sometimes differs hugely from the first version. But you have to finish the first draft.
So I guess, in the end, my first point and my last point are the same. Finish that ms. Then you can evaluate and edit or decide its worthless and start another one (something I have done). But finishing it is the first and main thing you can do to become an author.
OK, now I’ll get off my writing soapbox (though if anyone wants encouragement or advice, feel free to ask—I’m happy to respond) and say that I have been riding far more than I’ve been writing and have had some lovely autumn trail rides. Sunday we took a two hour loop through the hills on a crisp but not chilly October afternoon where the very air just sparkled and the sun was warm. We saw some brilliant yellow leaves and Monterey Bay was a vivid, deep blue. The horses behaved perfectly, we did not see another human on the trails, and even crossing the busy road seemed relaxing and not scary. Days like this, horses are such a joy that I forget all the difficult times.
And for those who are interested, I have visited Smoky several times at his new home and he seems content and is getting tons of attention, far more than I could have given him. He’s still lame, but slowly improving and there is lots of hope he’ll have a future as a walk, trot, lope riding horse, which is all his new owners want. I am crossing my fingers that he can yet have a good life.
Happy riding and writing--Laura
PS—My 10 year old son wishes to review Linda’s book, “The Horse Jar”, which Linda very kindly sent to him after he expressed an interest. He says: “I liked this book a lot. It has a happy ending and I think any kid my age who likes horses would enjoy it.” Thanks again, Linda, for sending the book.