Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Writing Life

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.


Unknown said...

This was great information. Thank you so much. I have decided to put my memoirs into a book and it is difficult to do because at times I find myself stuck because I'm trying to write it in chronological order. Instead I am pushing myself to just write whatever I think of and can put it all together later. Not easy at all. At least I know I'm not alone!!

Linda Benson said...

Laura - Thank your son for the nice review! I'm so glad he liked THE HORSE JAR. One of the reasons I love writing for young people is to share a bit of hope in this world.

As far as writing advice, yes, I also think it's important to press on until you finish, and worry about revisions later. Many beginning writers get so bogged down perfecting the first few chapters that they never finish, and never get anywhere. Finishing a book (even a first draft - and writers give themselves high-fives for finishing a first draft) is a great accomplishment, and gives you confidence that you can, indeed, be a writer.

Good luck to all of you working on projects. Write whenever you can, and those words will add up!

Laura Crum said...

Barb--I think you've got the right sort of approach. Just push on and get that material out there. That really is the hardest part.

Linda--Thanks again for sending my kid your book. He really enjoyed it and I second his opinion that all children of roughly the same age with an interest in horses would certainly like "The Horse Jar."

Laura Crum said...

Oh, and oops, Alison, I did not mean to "steal" your title. I only just now noticed that you had done a post called "The Writerly Life". Ah well, perhaps no one else will notice that I more or less copied you.

Susan said...

Laura-Although I don't really consider myself an experienced author, yet, I agree with what you say about pushing on and finishing a ms. I am still working at finding my own voice. I think I did fairly well in A Story of the West, but in this next book I am working on it even more. As far as how much of myself to put into a book, I mainly write what I know know about, as does any author, so that makes it personal. I think that's what makes anyone like a particular author's writing. It's their take on life and the way they express it that a reader finds satisfying and enjoyable.

Susan said...

And Alison- Thanks so much for the pep talk. What would it take to have an encouraging message from you guys in my inbox every morning?

Shanster said...

Nice post! Very interesting...

Laura Crum said...

Susan--I totally relate to how discouraging it can be to "be" an author. You would think that after eleven books published--eight with a big NY house, three with a legitimate mystery press, and a contract for the twelfth, I'd feel pretty good about my career. But nope, I get discouraged, too, and feel as though my books are largely ignored, and I often have a hard time getting motivated to write another. I think all authors who are not big time best sellers feel this way at times, just as Alison said. So, we're all in the same boat in that sense. Just like you, there are so many days when I could really use a pep talk.

Anyway, keep at it! I think the greatest satisfaction of all is to look at the body of written work that you've produced--work that truly reflects you and your view of the world.

Oh, and you'd be suprised. I know quite a few authors who write on subjects they know absolutely nothing about--other than researching said subject in a book. Needless to say, I am not a big fan of this approach. Like you, I try to write of what I know.

Shanster--You know that I think you are a very talented writer. Maybe a novel would be the ticket. What do you think?

Mikey said...

That was an excellent post. I would love to write a full ms, but get stuck and then give up. You're absolutely right to push to the end and then fiddle with it. Perhaps you'll inspire me to FINISH one!

Laura Crum said...

Mikey--I very much enjoy your writing on your blog and feel sure that you can/will produce a terrific book. Go for it! (I know, I know, it ain't easy, but you can do it.)

Leslie said...

Sometimes we just need a swift kick to wake us up! How could I have overlooked the "just do it" part?I get caught up in too much revising of my short projects so wondered how in the world I'd get along with longer...well,you just gave me the proverbial kick. Maybe more of a tap, but you know what I mean. Enjoyed reading the post, Laura. I do enjoy Gail's adventures!

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Leslie--I have enjoyed reading about your adventures with your two horses also. I strongly encourage you (and anyone else who is interested) to persevere and finish a ms. It really is a very satisfying feeling to complete a "book", whether you get it published or not.