You Only THINK I’m Teaching You

One of the crazier classrooms I’ve taught in

From time to time, when my schedule allows, I teach classes for Grub Street in Boston. I teach a couple of different classes with interesting titles such as: “I’ve Always Wanted to Write, But …”, or “Imagine This”, or “Six Easy Pieces.” I’ve Always . . . and Six Easy Pieces are both a response to my many years of teaching writing and reviewing manuscripts, and they are designed to give beginning writers some awareness of the basic elements of the craft.

Because these are self-selected adult writers, my classes may range in age from the twenties to the mid-sixties, with the occasional high school student allowed in by special permission. Obviously, along with that range of ages come a wide range of life experience, employment experience, and world views. I’ve had students from many different parts of the world, some of whom struggled to write in English.

The class is billed as  class for beginners. I’ve sometimes jokingly called it the “training wheels” class because students tend to take it who don’t feel ready for one of the more advanced classes. Or they take it because it’s only six weeks, and anyone can get through a six week class, while ten weeks might feel daunting. For those six weeks, I focus not only on giving writing prompts and having everyone read their work aloud, but also on how they approach their writing. Are they cookers who carry it around in their heads until it is nearly finished. Do they quickly do a first draft and then keep revising it. Are they a combination of these, depending on the exercise.

And I focus on all of the different ways someone who truly wants to write keeps coming between herself and the page. Are they treating it like homework? Does their dream of doing some creative writing keep getting backburnered by work, by friends who want them to come out and play? By family or laundry or something else. Then I tell them that only they are going to respect their passion for writing, and therefore, they need to carve out writing time and  protect that time. Honor their desire to practice the craft. Then I surprise them: Just give it a dedicated two hour block of time each week, I say. Two hours a week. Maybe 500 words. And yet it will add up.

Stephen Kelner – Motivate Your Writing

I send them to find a copy of Kenneth Atchity’s book, A Writer’s Time. I suggest they read Stephen Kelner’s book about different writers’ types, Motivate Your Writing, and suggest they look at Robert McKee’s Story. Sometimes I read to them; every week, they read to me.

Another class ended recently. As soon as they are gone, I miss them. They get their first assignment before the first class, so they hit the ground, or my classroom, already enmeshed in their first writing exercise. Each week, they’ve tackled something new. Isolating their senses and using each single sense to dig deeply into the world around them, learning how limited our language of description can sometimes be, and how rich even the simplest world is when seen through a close lense. They’ve written dialogue without any business or even the simple “he said, she said” tags. They’ve practiced writing about emotional events through the eyes of characters very different from themselves. They’ve practiced “telling through indirection,” showing how a character feels without actually saying it. And they’ve branched out into a longer piece that in many cases turned into a complete story.

I close every class with Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules for Writing, or Easy on the Hooptedoodle,” because it has both good advice and a delightful voice.

Now they are gone, off to their own worlds and desks again. But while each class believes that I am teaching them, they are always also teaching me. About how each writer, however unschooled and unconfident, has a distinct voice, special individual strengths, particular insights, ways of conveying character or using language uniquely theirs and with the power to attach a reader to their writing. And I am back at my desk, hoping that I’ve given them the confidence to keep writing, and knowing that over the next weeks and months, bits of their voices will keep singing in my head, and I will send strong wishes their way that they will believe in themselves, and keep writing.

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When Modesty is NOT a Virtue . . .

  There is a strong belief in New England   that you don’t “put yourself forward.” Especially, in a small town, the way I grew up, especially if you are a woman. Being proud is a sin. Being modest is a virtue. Talking about your accomplishments is simply not done.

This idea that praise goes to one’s head, that tooting your own horn is unseemly, makes it extremely difficult to perform those tasks that every writer these days must perform. Our publishers, our publicists, our colleagues, and everything in the blogosphere, the twittersphere, and the Facebook universe tells us that we must amass friends, followers, and fans, and constantly work those people so they’re primed to buy our books when those books appear.

Modestly, though. Subtly. While speaking softly. Join the conversation, we’re told. Comment on other people’s blogs. Twitter with the other birds gathered on an interesting branch, and many will flock to your branch as well. Because of my upbringing, because the strictures about not calling attention to myself are so deeply imbedded, I feel sometimes as though I am trying to make the leap into the current world of book promotion with a 500 pound weight attached. I try to jump and the weight snaps me back down.

I used to joke that I created my fan base one reader at a time, through conversations, through library talks and bookstore talks, through the students that I teach, the aspiring writers I try to encourage. Through good works and being a good citizen of the writing community. How old New England is that? The rest of the joke, of course, was that at this pace, I’d have to live for about 500 years to build a big enough base, and so would they.

Now, writers know, that isn’t enough. Those of us lucky enough to have traditional publishers, so that we can see our row of hardcover books growing on the shelf, so we can see people on the plane, subway or train actually holding our books, so that we know they are in libraries and will be available for years to come, no longer a short shelf-life commodity like a loaf of bread, also know that there are tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of talented writers snapping at our heels, wanting our places in the publisher’s “list” and willing to do anything to get that spot. It’s no longer enough to write a good book. Now I have to work very hard to get YOU to want to read it. No. To get you, or your library, to BUY it.

So I wrestle my qualms to the mat. I silence those critical voices in my head. And I keep trying new things. Last summer, believing that there is power in sharing the podium with other talented writers I respect, I founded a blog group, MaineCrimeWriters.com, to talk about living and writing in Maine. The conversation has been fascinating. I’m sending e-mails to libraries. I’m setting up book events. Because I also write true crime, I’m arranging to speak in schools. Yesterday, I announced the “on sale” day of my newest Joe Burgess mystery to all my Facebook friends. I will learn twitter.

Last fall, I joined this group and I find myself in awe of the quality of the posts that my fellow Thalians are writing. I’m also grateful for all the sharing of ideas, opportunities, new things to try, new ways to learn. It’s awfully nice to know that Lise McClendon and Katy Munger have got my back. After I posted on Facebook, Lise sent me a quick note: include a link so they can buy the book. Marketing 101. I don’t know if I got a D or an F. But we’re all students of this brave new world. And if I look at it as an adventure, and not a chore, I may still have two left feet, but my “Buy My Book” dance will get better.

Just so you won’t feel left out, here’s the cover of Redemption, and a lovely review from Booklist. Follow this link, or ask your Indie to order it. Ask for it at your local library. Become my Facebook friend.

Redemption.  Flora, Kate (Author)   Mar 2012. 366 p.  Five Star, hardcover, $25.95. (9781594153792).

When Detective Sergeant Joe Burgess of the Portland (Maine) Police Department finds his friend Reggie Libby drowned in the harbor, he is determined to bring the killer to justice. Reggie, a Vietnam vet who was mentally ill and had fallen on hard times, had apparently started a new job recently. Joe and his colleagues work to determine his place of employment and his movements before his death by interviewing Reggie’s fellow streetpeople and his relatives, including his vindictive former wife and indifferent son. On the home front, Joe’s live-in girlfriend wants to adopt two foster children, and Joe doesn’t feel ready to be a parent. As always, Joe immerses himself in his case, causing problems in his personal life. Framed by the challenges streetpeople face in large cities, this compelling, fast-paced police procedural offers a complex plot, rich with details of conducting a murder investigation and insight into the rigors of the cop’s life. — Sue O’Brien

I Really Should Get Out More, or Should I?

If there is one truth universally to be acknowledged about the writer’s life, it is the critical importance of planting one’s butt in the chair (or in the more genteel words of my late mother, one’s seat in the seat) and keeping it there until the work gets done. In the case of those of us who write novels, that can mean a year or more, depending on how the story develops and how many rewrites it takes.

I know what you’re thinking–your tabloid minds immediately flash to stories of those people whose flesh has grown attached to their sofas, or those sad folks who’ve become one with their toilets seats after sitting there for years. No. This is not that kind of attachment. It’s more a matter of discipline than a matter of inertia. But there is a downside to being so disciplined and sitting in the chair day after day and week after week–we miss the stimulus of the outside world. We can begin to miss contact with others. Conversation. The convivial exchanges that take place with other humans.

So from time to time I venture out. And too often, it seems, I’m immediately put in touch with the dark, violent side of myself. By the time I’ve driven from my little house in the woods across the highway to the other side of town and the grocery store, I’m usually ready to mount a bazooka on the front of my car. My first target? Those blonde, gym-rat suburban housewives in their enormous Suburbans who some screeching out of their driveways right in front of me, absolutely have to get there first, and then slow to a crawl as they start dialing on their cell phones. By the time we reach the first intersection, they’ve done the speed up, slow down thing half a dozen times, and then, when the light turns green, they do not go. Far too deep in animated conversation to notice that they’re keeping everyone else waiting.

Take a deep breath, I remind myself. Shelve that anger, you can give it to a character later. Everything is grist for the mill. Homicidal impulses are good so long as I don’t act on them. Eventually, the chatty little bimbette moves her behemoth and I make it to the post office.

Relief? Not exactly. In my town, it’s not the postal employees who make one want to go postal, it’s the customers. The ones who draggle up to the counter with the birthday gift in one hand and a box in the other, and proceed to pack it and address it, while the clerk, and the long line, waits. The next person wants stamps. No. Not those stamps. Pretty ones. Well. Maybe four of those. And five of that sailboat one. And some flags? And maybe just a couple of…? All of which must be paid for in change dug up from the bottom of the purse like a miner panning for gold. By now, the line is 15 people long, and I am holding books that need to be mailed. And books, as we know, are not light.

Finally, that errand is done. Now there is only the grocery store and the gas station. More lovely human contact. More opportunities for observation. More chances to pick up clues to the indelible character that will make my novel sing. The bewildered man trying to identify the right type of potato is moving back and forth like a security guard in front of the potatoes and onions, ensuring that no one gets the perfect potato until the person on the other end of the line has given him sufficient direction. I move left. He moves left. I move right. He moves right. I need to get home and put my ass in that chair. I need potatoes. Finally, remembering my soccer coaching days, I gently shoulder-check him out of the way, get my potatoes, and move on. As I turn the corner, two running 8-year-old boys crash into me and speed off without apology. I think with horror that in another 8 years, they’ll be behind the wheels of cars.

At last I arrive at the checkout, and find myself behind the elderly person who is counting out change from a small change purse. Penny by penny. Nickel by nickel. I remind myself that I will be elderly soon enough myself, and that patience is a virtue. My virtuous character is really getting a workout, though, because half way through the counting, he begins to question the prices he’s been charged, and the patient checker has to run the order all over again. Back to nickels. Dimes. Quarters. I will pay for his groceries myself if it will only get me out of here.

Then. Last, and how can this go wrong, the gas station. I turn in right behind a green Subaru wagon. Instead of pulling through to the forward pump, she stops at the back one, leaving me cooling my heels while she putters and fidgets and fusses. But this slow-mo tank filling is not enough discourtesy. When she’s done pumping her gas, instead of driving away, she comes over and bangs on my window. “You’re going to have to back up,” she says. “Because I want to back up and you’re in my way.” The space in front of her is empty. She can easily drive forward and turn onto the road.

“You know,” I say, casting virtue to the wind and curious to see what happens, “I don’t think I will.”

With a vehement shake of her ratty gray hair, the Subaru queen glares at me. “You’re not going to move?”

I smile sweetly and shake my head.

She retreats to her car, grabs a giant, ethnic handbag, and trots away down the street.

All right. For now, she’s won. She’s clearly too crazy to tangle with and I have to get home. So now I back up and drive away. But what a successful outing it has been. Getting out was a great idea. I now have four or five useful new characters to more fully imagine and stick in my book. My other characters are going to love them.

Tripping Down Memory Lane

A few months ago, I kicked myself into gear and started working on getting my backlist ready for e-readers. What started out looking like a simple task turned out to be a whole lot of work, some of it quite  unexpected. Perhaps the most unexpected part was rereading all my books and remembering how they came into being.

Like many of my Thalia cohorts, I’ve been at this crime writing business for quite a while. First there were the ten years I spent in the unpublished writer’s corner. Then I answered an ad in Writer’s Digest placed by an agent looking for clients. It seemed unlikely to pan out–after all, I had a whole box of letters from agents saying, “No thanks.” But I sent off my book and a few weeks later, I got a phone message that said, “Please don’t sign up with anyone else until we’ve had a chance to talk.” As it turned out, she’d gotten 2000 responses to the ad, and found two she wanted to represent. I was one of them. She became my agent, and a new kind of waiting game began. Continue reading “Tripping Down Memory Lane”