Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Why the advice "write what you know" is overrated

For all you writers out there: I wrote this piece for the writers' forum, Backspace. It's in answer to the question I often get: "How can you possibly write a main character who is a male Puerto Rican homicide detective?"
     Writers are often advised to, “write what you know.” The thinking goes that only by experiencing something yourself can you portray it authentically. Here’s what I know:
1.     A child’s need for a bathroom is inversely proportional to the distance from one.
2.     If you want to discuss something really important with a man, hide the remote.
3.     Never enter a swimming pool after a bunch of preschoolers have used it. The same goes for teenagers and your car.
     If I had to write solely from personal experience, my novels would have all the excitement of a C-span budget hearing. I’m no Hemingway. I don’t run with the bulls. I type with my hand wrapped around one. Most writers I know are the same. We don’t write what we know so much as what we want to know. In my four published books, I’ve collectively written through the eyes of New York City firefighters, small town detectives, arsonists, high school students and undocumented day laborers. They’ve been of different faiths, nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. Some are men; some are women. Some don’t even speak English.
     Don’t get me wrong—writing from personal experience can make a book feel richer, more nuanced and more self-assured. When you’ve walked a terrain, you instinctively know how the ground feels beneath your feet. You have the rock-hard assurance of truth to grab onto when you find yourself lost in the depths of a manuscript. But not every writer has a personal story to tell. And some stories would never find their way onto the page if they had to rely on an eyewitness to set them down. That’s where imagination comes in. And curiosity.
     If you want to write outside your own experience, you shouldn’t feel intimidated about doing so. Still, there are some key things to consider:
1.    Some imaginative leaps are easier than others
    I started my first novel at seventeen, got thirty pages into it and quit. The main reason? I tried to write about a forty-year-old. I still believe that one of the hardest things to do is write authentically for an adult audience about someone in a vastly different age bracket. Most writers who do it well succeed by going backwards. The larger the age difference between author and character, the less likely, I believe, that a character is going to feel authentic.
     Conversely, it’s maddeningly difficult in my opinion, to narrate from the point of view of a character younger than about fourteen. Children think concretely. They don’t analyze cause and effect the way adults do. They work through problems and situations without self-pity. Even when they’re victims, they often don’t recognize themselves as such. When new writers fail to achieve authentic voice, I think it most often comes from this “age” problem more than gender or ethnicity.
    Another divide that I think is hard to conquer is the parenthood divide. I’ve found that most writers who write believably about parents with children have been parents themselves. I know that before I was a parent, I couldn’t get into the sleep-deprived mindset that would make you weep with tenderness over your toddler one moment and want to kill him the next. Almost all of the characters I narrate through are parents. Whatever else we don’t have in common, we share the same fierce and fundamental connection to our children.
2.    Learn everything you can
     If you’re going to write about characters and situations that aren’t your own, you’ll need to spend a ton of time on research and interviews. Read blogs. Get on chat sites. Go on field trips. Look for the little stories and details that give a character credibility.
     For my new series about a suburban detective navigating the world of the undocumented, I interviewed almost two dozen undocumented men and women and spoke informally to many others. One small story always stayed with me. A Bolivian man went back home after many years of separation to visit his mother and sister. One day he was sitting at his mother’s kitchen table. His mother fixed his sister’s coffee then turned to him and asked: “How do you take your coffee?” The man broke down and cried. He realized from her question that she didn’t know him anymore. It was such a small situation, but such a moving example of the estrangement that takes place in families separated by immigration. While that story didn’t make it into my book, the feelings it evoked infused my writing.
3.    Inject personal experience wherever possible
    I’m the daughter of immigrants. I’ve gone through the death of both parents. I love Twizzlers. I hate tattoos. My personality comes into play in large ways and small through my characters—even characters who are otherwise nothing like me. They wrestle with questions I wrestle with—the demands of parenthood, the obligations of family, questions of identity and faith. The main character in my new series is a Puerto Rican police detective who has become estranged from his culture. His ex-wife is Jewish. His teenage daughter speaks no Spanish. The cops he works with are mostly Irish and Italian in heritage. I’ve never lived through his particular experience of displacement but I’ve lived through my own. I grew up as the only child in a mixed-faith marriage at a time when that was uncommon. Regularly, I got the question: “what are you?” I never knew how to answer that. I always felt like I was on the outside looking in so I tried to capture that same sense in my main character.
4.    Have fun
     You’ll be living with these people for months—possibly years (especially in the case of a series). Just as in real life, you’ll want to surround yourself with compelling, inspiring and occasionally humorous people whose exploits surprise and delight you. If you have that cast already inside of you—great! If not, you shouldn’t feel inhibited about going out and finding them. Writers are curious people. Indulge your curiosity.
     “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, my fun comes, not from looking into a mirror, but from peeking into someone else’s window.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Writing What Matters

Here is a post I wrote this week for the wonderful website: Jungle Red Writers, a site hosted by a terrific group of fabulous authors: Julia Spencer-Fleming, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Lucy Burdette, Hallie Ephron, Rhys Bowen and Deborah Crombie. I wrote basically to explain how I decided to write Land of Careful Shadows and what I learned by taking an 11 year hiatus between writing my last series and writing this one:

     First, a confession: I turned my back on novel writing before I wrote this book, convinced I’d never publish another novel again.

     In the early 2000s, I was laid off as an editor at Reader’s Digest. At the time I was working on my first mystery series about the FDNY, based on my husband’s work as a New York City firefighter. I went on to publish three books in that series. Then my mom suffered a series of strokes and died, my second child was born and my new novel couldn’t find a publisher. I felt lost in every part of my being, convinced that the only way to get ahead was to write, write, write.

     I started on another novel. Half way through, I put it down. The problem, I decided, was that I was writing because I wanted to publish again rather than because I thought I had something to say. What I needed was to step back, think about something that mattered to me and do it. If that meant never publishing again, so be it.

     I already had an idea what mattered to me. I also knew that it had nothing to do with novel writing.

     I live in northern Westchester County, NY, a lush, wooded region about forty miles north of New York City. It’s an area where great wealth and great need exist side by side. In the 1990s, Latin Americans, many of them undocumented, began to settle in the area. They mowed the lawns, cleaned the houses and bussed the restaurant tables of the more affluent in the county. At the train station, I often saw them huddled on cold winter mornings, rubbing their hands together to stay warm while they waited for contractors to drive by and offer them work.

     As the daughter of immigrants (my father was from Russia, my mother was born and raised in England), I admired their grit and resilience. I knew from watching my parents that it took a lot of guts to make it in a strange land. There was one big difference however: my parents were able to acquire the legal status that allowed them to work their way into the middle class, further their educations and eventually own their own home. The people I saw would never get that chance, no matter how hard they worked because of their undocumented status.

     I’m not political, but I felt moved by their situation. I began volunteering at a local outreach center that provided English lessons and other services to new immigrants. I got to know some of the people and began to hear their heart-rending accounts of near-death journeys and tearful family separations. The writer in me began to wonder: was there some way to share their stories so that others in the community could be as inspired as I was by them?

     I contacted several local Hispanic organizations and suddenly found myself talking to people who, in many cases, had never shared their stories with anyone before. I interviewed almost twenty people—men and women of all ages from countries throughout Latin America. I began the project in the hopes that the people I interviewed would eventually be able to step out of the shadows. But our immigration policies have shifted very little in the past two decades. My subjects’ stories could not be told without exposing them to undue risk. The project ground to a halt. Once again, I felt the sting of disappointment and defeat.

     Months went by and still I couldn’t get their stories out of my mind. These people had risked so much to share them with me. I knew I had to find a way to keep them alive. And suddenly, after saying I’d probably never write another novel again, I knew I had to. It was the only way to tell their stories. I took what I knew and loved about writing mysteries and married it to something I cared about deeply. And Land of Careful Shadows was born. I hope readers love the twists and turns that come with every good mystery novel. But I hope too, that they come away with a sense of the real people behind it.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

First, kill all the adverbs...

I wrote this a while back for Figured I'd post it here too. Hope it helps quell the nerves of writers facing their first draft of a new book:  

                                      First-Draft Terror
(Alternately titled: "First, kill all the  adverbs...")

     I recently started 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 my choice of vehicle.
      First drafts are scary. There’s so much expectation—and so much disappointment. Scenes lumber off in the wrong direction. The writing feels clumsy and artless. The story confuses. Or worse, it bores. I compare the well-dressed prose of authors I admire and cringe at my own naked and brutish words.
     And I want to hit “delete.”
     It’s easy to lose faith. I should know: my first attempt at a novel still sits—half-finished—in my file cabinet. I’ve since published three novels. Yet I have never been able to summon the courage to go back to that manuscript.
     I know a lot more about writing first drafts than I did then but I still struggle on every page. Through trial and error, I’ve found a few things that have helped me get over the rough spots:
1.Write a book the same way you would enter a relationship
     You and your characters are going to be together for a long, long time. (If it’s a series as my first three novels were, it could end up lasting longer than many marriages). You’ll probably end up dreaming about your characters, driving around with them—and yes, even showering with them. So it’s worth spending a few weeks getting to know them before you commit to a long-term relationship. If you have to dump somebody, it’s a lot easier to do it before they’ve taken up residence in your novel (or your apartment, for that matter).
     I was a journalist before I became a novelist and I would never have considered writing a profile of someone before I followed them around for several days and asked a lot of annoying and deeply personal questions. Why should fictional characters be any different? At least a third of my own dilemmas in first drafts spring up because I’m not quite sure what a character would do in a given situation.
2. Loose lips sink manuscripts
     Try not to talk about your ideas until you’ve finished a first draft. Ideas are fragile and tenuous at this stage. Even well meaning friends and family members can sink them with off-handed comments (“I saw that same idea in a movie last year”) or unsolicited advice (You know what you should write about…”)
     The only thing worse than having friends hate your idea is having them love it. Remember, they don’t love what you’ve written; they love what they think you are about to write. In other words, you’ve just gone from being the architect of your manuscript to the contractor—building to someone else’s specifications. Let them react to what you’ve written, not to what you intend to write.
3. Tread softly into the black hole of “research”
     It is so deliciously tempting to Google some minor point in a first draft and two hours later find that you have read three articles and four Wikipedia entries on stuff that will never find its way into your book. Internet research can gobble up your time in unproductive ways. So can answering mail. And writing your blog. If you have to do them, tack them on when you are just about ready to close down for the day. Never kid yourself into thinking that you’ve worked on your book when all you’ve done is Google whether the Kardashian sisters have had plastic surgery.
 4. Write like you’re going to train your dog on it
     I like to trick my inner editor when I start a new novel. I tell my inner editor I’m not writing a book at all. I’m just “playing around.” It doesn’t matter if it’s bad because it’s not “for real.”
     To keep up the ruse, I don’t begin novels when I have three hours to write. I begin when I have twenty minutes (this applies whenever I get stuck on a first draft as well.) I try to write as much as I can in that time frame without reading it.
      I don’t create a new word document. I write on an existing one. Or better yet, an index card or the back of a flyer advertising $50 off plumbing services (all the better to dispose of).
     Of course, this presumes you can distinguish your “bad” work from your “good.” But perhaps not. 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 next 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.” So this is another argument for not concentrating too much on the quality of your work: you may be a bad judge of it anyway.
5.Remember that all problems are fixable—just not in the first draft
     How many times have you read a book and said, “there’s no way the protagonist can get out of this mess.” And then he or she does. Sometimes, the writer comes up with a very clever solution (I hate those writers). Most times, the solutions are more prosaic. But they help to remind me that when I feel that my manuscript’s problems are intractable, they aren’t. I just haven’t figured out the solution yet. It always comes—but usually not in the first draft. That’s why I need to finish the first draft. I will never get it right until I first get it down.
     Above all, have faith in yourself. You started this. You can finish it. Don’t worry about what comes in between. To build a smooth road, you always have to start with a pile of rocks.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Hi everyone,

    For a while I was doing these 1,000-word blogs. And then I realized that was a 1,000 words I could be putting onto my next novel.

    So now I do short, sweet tweets EVERY SINGLE WEEKDAY. That seems to work better for most people.

    If I have something REALLY WORTHWHILE to say and it's worth your time to read 1,000 words, I will post here. But if not, please visit:

 There, you can get a dose of inspiration every weekday (all the value with none of the fat). Or find the same posts on my professional facebook page:

     It's called "Word Caffeine," and here is the new announcement for it I just had printed up:

Monday, February 17, 2014

In case you were wondering why I have not been blogging, as you can see, I've been extremely busy!