Writing, by its very nature, is a solitary occupation. Because of that, it suits my nature – while I enjoy spending time with people, I am a true introvert, which doesn’t necessarily mean I’m shy, but it does mean that I get my energy from being by myself, and from going inward, rather than from being around a lot of people. However, balance is important, and I believe it’s not only fun, but necessary, for writers to get out and mingle with other writers. I was delighted when mystery writer and neighbor Alan Orloff told me about yesterday’s workshop at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. Sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America’s MWA University, the program was, of course, designed for mystery writers, and I write non-fiction, but I figured writing is writing and I’d probably still learn something. Besides, I’m an avid mystery reader and I thought it would be fun to get a look at the craft of writing them from some of the masters in the genre. I was not disappointed.
The day started with a presentation by Jess Lourey on how to turn a good idea into a great novel. In addition to a great lecture on her topic, Jess used the funniest term ever for what she called a memoir thinly disguised as a novel: chickenshitography! The term reminded me of my own struggle during the writing of Buckley’s Story about revealing and sharing personal information about me with the world. Now why didn’t I think about writing my book as a novel! But I digress. The day continued with Hallie Ephron’s lecture on dramatic structure and plot. As a reader of mysteries, I found this fascinating because it really showed me how much work goes into writing them. Next, Daniel Stashower presented a segment on the process and pitfalls of choosing a setting and the ways in which descriptive passages can be honed to illuminate characters and themes. After lunch, Donna Andrews talked about character development and dialogue, followed by a segment on editing presented by Reed Farrel Coleman.
But for me, the highlight of the day was Hank Phillippi Ryan’s presentation on The Writing Life. Hank’s talk focused on the realities of being a writer – everyone has doubts, your first draft will always be terrible, you will face rejection – without making it sound depressing. Hank told us to keep an open mind for criticism, but to not let it stampede us. Ultimately, we have to listen to our inner voice, and not everyone else’s. She admonished us to not lose sight of celebrating in the face of the challenges the writing life brings: celebrate that moment when that first box of books arrives on your doorstep! Celebrate that first fan e-mail! Celebrate that first really great review! She also reminded us to celebrate our fellow writers’ successes instead of being envious and wondering “why not me.” Next time, it will be you. She reminded us that writing doesn’t end when we turn in the manusript, as writers, we have to promote and market and sell our books, too. She said the reality is simple: there’s never enough time to get it all done. She suggested to organize our promotional activities into three lists: must do, nice to do, and would do if I had time. But most importantly, Hank told us that we have a choice. We can choose to be successful, or we can choose not to be. With a positive mindset, nothing is impossible.
I found Hank’s presentation so uplifting and inspirational, it actually brought tears to my eyes a couple of times. I felt grateful and humbled for having discovered this wonderful writing life, and for belonging to the community of writers. And even though I have a TBR pile that is out of control and had definitely not intended to buy any more books at this workshop, after listening to Hank’s talk, I just had to buy one of the last three copies of Drive Time, the 4th book in Hank’s Charlotte McNally series, and Hank graciously autographed it for me. I’ll treasure it as a reminder of how her talk inspired and moved me.