Friday, May 31, 2013

First-draft Terror

  I’m about to start the first draft of a new novel. This instills in me all the self-confidence of two virgins in a MINI Cooper. I’m sweaty and awkward. I don’t have a clue where anything goes. And I’m already questioning whether this was the right vehicle for attempting this in the first place.
      I don’t know why first drafts scare me so much. It’s not as if I don’t know by now that I’ll be rewriting it all in a few months anyway. You’d think, with three published novels and a finished fourth manuscript behind me, I’d be like Larry King at the altar: ring in one pocket, attorney on speed dial in the other. I know what’s coming—the revisions, the tossed scenes, the killed characters, the discoveries I won’t make until I’m practically finished with the draft. And yet I will do almost anything to delay the process. This past week alone, I have:
1.     transferred all of my children’s baby pictures to DVD
2.     volunteered to be on the interview committee for the new principal of my daughter’s middle school
3.     Filled out my bank’s customer satisfaction survey (probably a first in the history of my bank)
4.     Actually listened to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door.
     I’m so desperate I called up GEICO to see if I could save money on my car insurance. (Don’t let the Cockney accent fool you; the lizard is a liar).
     I’m really starting to panic.
     I’m stalling by researching stuff I will never, ever need to know. The Internet is great for this. I can start off with a simple question about common Honduran surnames for my new mystery series about a Latino detective in suburban New York and end up two hours later reading the history of the Indian ruler Lempira who fought the Spanish and now has the Honduran currency named after him. (Pause to reflect: would the U.S. be in any better shape if our bills were called “Geronimos”?)
     My first mystery series, set in the New York City Fire Department, provided loads of fun researching how to start fires and blow up things. There is nothing like watching a video of a room turning into a solid wall of flame in under three minutes to give one an Old Testament appreciation for how fast things can get jacked up. Makes that unexplained clunk in my car and the untraceable leak beneath my kitchen sink feel like good Karma by comparison.
     Here’s where a well-conceived outline would come in handy. I love outlines. I really do. Wish I could write one. Typically I start out with three pages of notes for the first chapter and by chapter five, I’m down to descriptions like, “someone dies here” and “they have good sex.” (Is there any other kind in fiction?) The truth is, I just don’t know what’s going to happen until it does. I write great outlines for my second drafts. But that’s like waiting for the medical examiner when what you really needed was the doctor. It’s so much more convenient to catch the problem before the patient stops having a pulse.
     I know what I have to do. I have to write something awful—something I would only show to my mother when she was alive, and only then, after she’d had a couple of glasses of good red wine. And then I have to believe that it will get much, much better as I lay down more of the story. To build a smooth road, you always have to start with a pile of rocks.
     Chinese Fortune-cookie stuff, I know. But it also happens to be true. I had an art teacher at Northwestern University named George Cohen who once instructed every student to paint the “best” painting he or she could create. In the second class, Cohen asked every student to paint the “worst” painting. Then Cohen papered the room with all of our artwork and asked students to vote on the best pieces. About 75 percent of the pieces voted as “best” were the ones we had painted as our “worsts.” (Makes me wonder about my other decisions in life.)
     So I will try to be fearless and not worry about what’s “best” and what’s “worst.” I will try to have faith that over time, there will be a road through the wilderness.
     Then again, I could always start another entry in my blog…

Monday, May 20, 2013

Break the Mirror

     Everybody tells a writer to “write what you know.” I’ve given that advice myself to students. The thinking goes that only by experiencing something personally can you portray it authentically.
     In other words, the only world we’re “allowed” to write about is the one we see in the mirror.
     Really? Since when did J.K. Rowling wave a wand and have anything other than a pile of money magically appear? How about Lewis Carroll? Granted, he smoked opium, but I doubt it conjured up much more than a wicked hangover.  I once congratulated a New York Times bestselling author on his excellent depiction of the Arizona desert for one of his novels. “I’ve never been to Arizona,” he informed me. “I just watched a lot of Wild West movies as a boy.”
     Don’t get me wrong—writing from experience makes a book feel richer, more nuanced and more self-assured. Ernest Hemingway was a big believer in writers writing what they know. (Then again, he ran with the bulls and I hike with the girl scouts). I have never navigated through a hurricane unless you count the floor of my son’s bedroom.
     Here’s the extent of my personal knowledge:

1.     A child’s need to go to the bathroom is inversely proportional to the distance from one
2.     A contractor is only helpful and reachable before you sign the contract
3.     If you want to discuss something really important with your husband, hide the remote
4.     Your first attempt at anything will suck. That’s what second attempts are for. And graduate school.
5.     Never enter a swimming pool after a bunch of preschoolers have used it. The same goes for teenagers and your car.

      If I tried writing solely from my own experience, I’d put readers to sleep faster than C-span during a budget discussion.    
     My first three novels were set in the New York City Fire Department and yes, my husband is a chief there. But it’s also true that my stories were about a woman fire investigator and my husband had never been an investigator (or a woman, for that matter). My new novel switches between three points of view, all of them Latino, two of them men. I have even less that would qualify as “experience” here—except a passion for my characters and an abiding interest in the issues that affect them. In all my books, my characters have parts of me, but they are not me. They have not lived my life and I have not lived theirs. And that’s what makes it exciting and makes me want to keep writing about them. It’s like falling in love. You can’t wait to find out more about the other person.
     “I write because I want to have more than one life,” novelist Anne Tyler was once quoted as saying. I agree. When I sit down to write, I don’t want to look into a mirror, I want to peek through someone else’s window. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

I Killed Liza Canaan

     I’m beginning my first official blog post with a confession: I killed Liza Canaan. Not that anyone knew her except for a writer I much admire, my agent, my family and a few close friends. Her life was very short. She lived just long enough to obtain a website, a gmail address, a professional Facebook page, a twitter account and a flickr account. And then I killed her.

     Well, first I disliked her on Facebook. Then I tried to block her from getting access to my personal account. And THEN, I killed her.

     I hadn’t intended to kill her. You see, about ten years ago, I published three pretty successful mystery novels about the New York City Fire Department under my real name (the name you see above. Yes, my passport and driver’s license are in that name and when people deliver pizzas to me, that name generally gets the pie to my door).

     After a 10-year hiatus raising kids, coaching soccer and leading a girl scout troop, I began a brand-new mystery series which my agent is shopping now. But it has nothing to do with the FDNY. It’s about a Puerto Rican homicide detective navigating the world of undocumented immigrants in suburban New York. I felt conflicted about going out for the first time on social media under my real name. So SJ Rozan, a wonderful and successful novelist friend, came up with a great suggestion: why not use a pseudonym?

     I loved the idea. Who doesn’t want to reinvent themselves? I got to pick my name: Liza Canaan (the “Liza” from my middle name: Elizabeth, the “Canaan,” a last name people wouldn’t mispronounce.) My real last name rhymes with “raisin” but is usually mangled into something approximating a sneeze. I missed accepting a high school writing award once because the principal called “Susan Shazam,” from the stage and I figured that couldn’t possibly be me. More like Gomer Pyle’s sister.

     Best of all, Liza could pick any birth date she wanted on social media and voila!—I was ten years younger. I went around a for two days pretending there were whole decades I had only read about in history books.

      Then I made the fatal mistake of “liking” myself on Facebook and suddenly, friends were asking why my picture (you’d think I’d have changed the picture) was appearing under two different names. Had I gone insane?

     So I unliked myself. That didn’t work so I blocked my professional Facebook page from talking to my personal one. We had spent two days together and we already hated each other. And then I decided to tell my agent about my brilliant idea.

     “It will kill your backstory,” she said.

     Until that moment, I wasn’t sure what a “backstory” was. It’s not like I have a rap sheet or anything.

     “People won’t know it’s you,” she said patiently. I need patience in anything dealing with social media. “You can’t talk about your work with real immigrants. Or your previous books. You’ll lose access to your story.”

     And I guess that’s the lesson here: we all have a story. Mine is going to have to be a part of me after all, like that uncle at your wedding who tells long stories but who remembers what you looked like at six. So Liza Canaan is dead—all except for her flickr account. I sort of wanted to keep some little part of her, you know?