Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Bulls I

I've done a lot of mental meta about writing. This is a separate exercise from actually putting down words and making some sort of coherent (and being me, sort of funny with an edge) narrative. I think that if you don't do the meta part of it, then a lot of the horrible, mean reds part of writing remains inexplicable. It does help a little when you desperately need perspective. Because writing is so personal. And reading is so personal. Sometimes, there just isn't a groove there. Insert frustrated grunt. So, you know things. But a lot of the time that means that the knowing isn't anything more than just a tacit acknowledgment that you write, you try to say something somewhat meaningful, you put stuff down on the page, and then you wait for the arrow to puncture the small of your back.

Being an extremely practical person at heart, I never really understood the concept of art as a form of self-flagellation until I started writing. Because I'd always been in the world of the concrete. As a pastry chef, you can completely quantify whether this is a good apple pie or a bad apple pie. Really, there's no contest. I can make an apple pie that's better than sex. I wish I had that sort of confidence with my writing.

As I said today to friend, art (and for me that means writing) is more or less about putting a gigantic bulls-eye on your back. Because art is not a one-way street. The reader brings their baggage. You bring your baggage. And pretty soon we need an entire contingent of Sky Caps to cart this shit around. When it works, your baggage (as the writer) meshes nicely with the reader's baggage so that you're basically opening up your suitcases and laughing hysterically and tossing all your shit that goes bump in your night into the air so that it co-mingles with their shit that goes bump in the night. And it's sort of the same color. Lots of scarves. Heavy on the red.

But how to ensure the contents of the suitcases match? You can't. You just HOPE that they have lots of red scarves because you've done your best and you can't say it any other way. Writing is based a lot on hope.

When you don't connect with your reader, then there is the opening of suitcases and they haul out suits with matching spectator pumps and you haul out jeans with a humongous rip in the right knee and tee shirts foisted on you for your generous donations to your local blood bank. And although they are both technically defined as clothes, the similarity ends there. Book is shut, author is consigned to the resale pile, sale is resented. You have not connected and you will never connect because we are literally casting pearls before swine. Or, more to the point, casting words before those who think you are swine.

The point I'm making is that as artists, whether it's with words or pen, we are so vulnerable. I'd like to think that what makes my writing appealing is that I share with you, the reader, my inner secrets. Okay, I'm not about to blab that Ive got some closet fetish for pink underwear covered with garish hearts (I do not), but in the book that's about to come out, I have my protagonist admit that she'd rather write checks than admit to car mechanics that she's stupid. THAT'S ME! I'd rather write a check (fortunately, my husband understands cars so this isn't my reality) than admit I'm stupid about cars. I am profoundly stupid about cars. Machinery is the anti-christ as far as I am concerned. I am a complete and total Luddite. That I happen to be profoundlly smart about a lot of other things sort of balances out this disability, but I couldn't help but put that silly, stupid tidbit about me down in words. Because I recognize that it's stupid, but it's profoundly human as well.

The best writing is the bravest writing. When you do sort of silently bleed on the page. But then you have this sharing of baggage that happens between the writer and the reader and if the contents of the suitcases don't work? You've just bared your soul as an idiot who would rather write checks than admit to stupidity to someone who took four years of auto-shop.

It's a gamble. One that I obviously make. But I cringe at the thought that someone's lining up the arrow and positioning the bow. And then letting go.


Monday, January 28, 2008

Flails hands

I have just heard from publisher (Poisoned Pen Press) that Roux Morgue will be a pick for their Mystery of the Month Club for July. HUZZAH!

Aside from the general all-purpose squeal of delight that this elicited, this is yet another instance where you (or I mean me) suffer from complete whiplash. The really egotistical side of you (or me, rather) says, "Well, of course, your book was picked, it's a decent book," and then the naysayer, the snarky voice of fail, sneers, "Why your book?" Why indeed.

Most of the writers I know suffer from varying degrees of this narcissistic lack of self-esteem or this self-denying narcissism. You enter a book store and look in one direction, and sniff, your book is certainly as good as that lot there, but hey! A glance down the opposite aisle and All THOSE books are so much better than yours. It's a seesaw, one that I try not to ride, because of all the deadly sins, envy is the one I'm easily guilty of, and it's the most self-destructive emotion I know. It paralyzes me every time. I can't help but compare my writing to others, and while I might actually have the chutzpah to believe that I'm better than 80% of the general writing population (okay, maybe 70% on a good day), that doesn't matter. It's the 30% who are better than me that make me want to hit the delete button.

In my search for that perfect book that will make me a perfect writer, I stumbled across one book that might not keep those mean reds at bay, but it certainly explains why I get them. It's called The Midnight Disease. It's a nonfiction book about the brain and writing, and it's written by a neurologist who is also a writer (who has possibly one of the most engaging non-fiction styles I've come across in a long time). Anyway, it has lots of interesting bits about writers and ego and writer's block and just some damn fine insight into this crazy compulsion to put bits of our soul down on paper for the world to praise or deride. The wonderful thing about this book is the realization that your neurotic and obsessive compulsive traits are not unusual, and, in fact, pretty much ho hum and are shared by quite a few writers. Which somehow that made me feel a whole hell of a lot better. Safety in neurotic numbers.

Highly recommended.

On Writing, Post 1

Below are several epiphanies that I have had during my tiny, insignificant writing career that I hope will help you. I struggled and bashed myself unmercifully until there was light so that you don't have to.

(1) You should never stop writing because you think your writing is full of shit. The first draft of Beat Until Stiff was absolutely horrible. I had several people tell me this and they were right. It was AWFUL. Did I stop writing? No, I licked my wounds, and because I am rather a pugnacious and stubborn person, I said to myself, "Okay, make it better." And I did. The second draft was only sort of awful. I kept at it. Is it a great book? No. It's an okay book. It does what it set out to do, and I learned a hell of a lot about the process of writing from rewriting it, oh, say, six times. I re-wrote the first chapter 30 times. I am not making that up. And it took me five years to sell it. I was lucky, yes, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time (after going through wrong place and wrong time on numerous occasions).

(2) Keep writing. You'll get better. Half the game of writing is learning who you are as a writer. Your voice. How your brain works with the English language. This takes TIME. I mean years, not weeks, not months. So your first few attempts weren't great. Keep at it. Part of this process is voodoo. You keep on writing and gradually it will come to you that, hey, this is the way I put words together. It will feel like the shoe fits. That doesn't mean that you'll be able to write flawless prose, it just means that you now *know* what your characters are supposed to sound like. And when you've found your voice and then you can't find your voice for a specific idea, it is hell on earth.

(3) Learn basic grammar. Yeah, I mean this. Because a misplaced comma can change the ENTIRE mood of a piece, and, no, I can't be arsed to put up an example. But punctuation can make a BIG difference. And lack of it. Punctuation is the conductor of your words. It has the baton, and it gives your writing the beat. Trust me on this one. You'll find yourself debating comma choices before you know it. That doesn't mean that you let grammar strangle you. Some of it depends on your voice. I have a colloquial style and my current series is written in first person. I can get away with a lot of grammar no-nos because my narrative sounds like a person talking to you. It's one of the strengths of this series. Having said that, I need to watch it because I have a tendency to overdo it. Grammar really is the drumbeat of your writing, so don't neglect it. Make it work for you.

(3) The grammar subset. If you don't learn basic grammar and you start sending off query letters with big errors in them, then what it says to the person reading the letters is that you're not taking this very seriously. You need to start thinking of yourself as a professional, and part of that is presenting yourself as someone who knows the value of a comma.

(4) This is probably the second most important thing I am going to say. There are other writers who are better than you. For the rest of their goddamn lives they will write rings around you. Perhaps they work REALLY hard at their writing and you have kids and a job and a dog and two cats (not that I'm describing me, you understand) and you cram your writing in when the kids are asleep...okay, this is bullshit. Some people are just better writers. I can think of several people I know personally (coughcough Ann Parker for one coughcough) that make me green with envy. I am no slouch, but you know, they are just better writers. Okay. Deal with it. I can deal with it, and I have an ego the size of Montana. Take pleasure in what *you* write. How you put it together. How you want it say it YOUR way, which is unlike anyone else's way. Do I get pleasure out of reading superior fic? Sure. I also get *tons* of pleasure out of other writers who may not be Nobel Prize in Literature contenders. IT'S STILL GOOD WRITING. It scratches an itch. It might not be the best put together story, but the writer is fresh and is striving to get an idea across and does a damn fine job of it. IT'S GOOD. I LIKE IT. I WANT TO READ IT. ALL OF IT.Does this mean you can be lazy and just slop down what ever comes to mind. NO! I abhor lazy writers. There is no excuse for this. Each project should be a little better. Haven't you picked up a book and thought that the author just phoned it in? They probably just cut and pasted their previous book and changed the names and the verbs. I will NOT read people who are lazy. It shows. You can't hide it. Think about what you're writing.

(5) So you've come to the horrible realization that you're not as good as author (A). And, sob, you'll never be as good as author (A). This is my reality. I don't mean to put up ANY roadblocks because the strides I've made in my writing over the last five years have been phenomenal. Basically from being unable to get a job writing fortune cookies to getting a book published. But still. Like I said, I'm pretty smart, but I can name names who are obviously JUST smarter than I am and are better writers to boot and do we curse them? We do not. WE LEARN FROM THEM. Take an author you admire and PICK APART her/his novel. See how the tension rises and falls, study the voice of the piece, how the characterization is done. A great writer chooses every word with care. EVERY WORD. Nothing is superfluous. IT ALL MATTERS. Whatever is there is there for a reason. Find out what makes this story work. I do this with every piece of fiction and non-fiction I read. Writing fiction has almost destroyed my love of reading because I CANNOT turn off the internal editor. Good writers either (a) just won that mental lottery and can write; (b) work their asses off to craft a story; or (c) both. You can learn from them. They are laying out their craft for you to enjoy and learn. See the bones of the story for what it's worth.

(6) Don't wallow in your mediocrity or flog yourself. I do this all the time, and it is self-destructive with a capital "S." Do not do this. This relates to No. 4 above but takes it one step further. PUSH yourself to be a better writer. Take classes. Buy books. "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott is highly recommended. Don't let your talent go to waste. Do you have talent? Yes, you do.

(7) Eliminate the verb "to feel" from your vocabulary. Yes, I do use it, but I shouldn't.

(8) And the most important thing I'll say. You get to say it your way. Relish this. This is what it is all about. You get to have a little contract with your readers that says, "I'm going to entertain you. I am the magician here." You might not have the audience of writer (A), but hey. That's the breaks. I did a signing at a mystery conference, and I got sat next to Mary Higgins Clark. Her line went out the door, and my line was, well, five people and two of them were just gawking at MHC. But my three people were fantastic and really liked my book and were so grateful that I was actually talking to them and was interested in what I had to say about mystery fiction and it was all good. Do I want 200 people at my book signing? Hell yes, but realize that your story is speaking to someone and that someone deserves your attention. They gave you theirs.

(9) Yes, your story is speaking to someone. And sad to say, it won't speak to everyone. There will be people who will not like your book. They just won't. You cannot please everyone. There will be people out there who think you're a mediocre writer, and they might be rude enough to tell you. Or they will trash cooking mystery fiction when you're in the audience (and yes that has happened to me). Of course, thirteen other people said they loved it. Focus on the thirteen that took the time to tell you how much they enjoyed it. You're doing something right.

(10) Listen to criticism. Sifting through feedback and determining what is valid for you and what is not is also an art and takes time to develop that skill. If three people say something isn't working, listen to them. You're not keeping your end of the contract to weave that magic, however, see above. At some point, you will have to make a judgment call. Or sometimes it's just, "I like this and I'm keeping it in," because, after all...

(11) You're writing for you. Write what makes you happy. This should be fun, and if it's not fun, there's something wrong. You should be your most avid fan (and harshest critic). Write what you're passionate about. The passion will come through, believe me, and will hide a lot of faults. If I were given the choice of reading a book by someone whose writing might not be uber polished versus someone who can string a sentence together like whoa but doesn't give a flying fig about what they're writing about, I'll pick-up the passionate newbie every time. The words don't lie. You can't hide. The voodoo is all powerful. So, yeah, write what you love. That love comes through as well as the ennui.


Pull up a chair. No, closer. This is my new blog page.

I'll be posting material here time to time on events, musings, thoughts about writing, your general all-purpose writing blahblahblah.First things first: my website is I hope to keep it updated, but I'm pants at that stuff, so please come here first to see what's shaking.

What's shaking, you ask?


Roux Morgue, by me
ISBN-13: 978-1590584880

Yeah, finally, I'm getting around to publishing the latest in the Mary Ryan, Pastry Chef series. The last three years have not been kind: father died and lots of health issues. Suffice it to say, I'm here, although missing several organs, but am doing great. In a fit of "OH MY GOD, I'M ALIVE," I finished the second book in something like three months.

Fortunately, my dear publisher, Poisoned Pen Press (PPP), had not forgotten me (I wouldn't have blamed them if they'd said, "Claire, who?"). Anyway, April 2008 publication date. Coinciding with the publication of Roux Morgue, PPP will be reissuing Beat Until Stiff in trade paperback. Huzzah!Mary returns to her alma mater, Ecole d'Epicure (which does not, in any way, shape, or form, resemble my old alma mater, the California Culinary Academy) to teach pastry. And much to her surprise (but not ours), people start dying. O'Connor reappears in all his sexy glory, Thom reappears, and I've added a couple of new characters.I'm definitely going to Malice Domestic at the end of April, and Boucheron in October, where my publishers will be getting a Lifetime Achievement Award. I plan on scheduling other author events, so stayed tuned.

Glad I'm back.