VISITING THE AUSTIN DPS – AN EXERCISE IS PATIENCE AND ENDURANCE

Francine Paino

 

 

 

 

 

By Francine Paino

A few weeks ago, I was forced to visit the Austin Department of Public Safety, where I spent four long, long hours. Let me be clear, however, I’m not slamming the Austin DPS. It’s a factor of population vs. the number of employees. In fact, I found the agents polite and friendly, as opposed to the Department of Motor Vehicles in New York (DMV) where friendly and courteous are not in their vocabulary. To be fair, (maybe) they too suffer from the imbalance balance of employees vs. the population.

Thank God, I don’t visit every DMV, DPS or departments throughout the country that issue, renew, replace and take care of every function concerning drivers licenses. I can only guess that it will almost always be the same. Population vs. the number of employees.

So, I arrived at the DPS with my 96-year-old mother, who had her wallet stolen. TWICE IN ONE WEEK! (Another story for another blog.)We arrived at 9:30 a.m. Can’t get this nonagenarian out of bed much earlier than 9. People lined up outside the door; a police deputy watched the exit then let us in, one-at-a-time. First stop, the information desk.

Ten ahead of us.

When it was our turn, I explained the reason for our visit: mother needed a new license.

Her only identification (remember her wallet had been stolen – TWICE) was her old, expired temporary license. The young woman nodded, put it in an envelope, made a few notes, handed us the envelope and another number, and told us to take a seat.

In the waiting area, the seats were all filled. People were sitting on the floor. Mother cannot sit on the floor. She leaned on her cane and sighed. To our delight, a lovely lady, sitting in the front row, saw her number come up before it was called. She gave my mother her seat. Then a very nice gentleman insisted that I take his. (my age must be showing, too!?!)

I looked at the board, and my heart sank. It was 9:50 a.m. The active letters were L, S, and N. Our number was S 3097. The highest S number on the board was 3009. I thought an “S” word. It was going to be a very, very long day.

So, trying not to lose my cool, I fidgeted in the hard plastic seat castigating myself for not bringing something to read. Instead, I decided to think about what could be accomplished while enduring a wait that could make an overly stressed person wig out.

Beside launching one into antiquity, if used effectively, the time spent at the DPS can be constructive.

One could improve one’s Spanish since all announcements, written notices and billboards are bilingual. If one sits there long enough, one becomes proficient in short phrases, such as: Now, the number being served is_____, A ora, serviendo numero____, at station _____. a la stacion ____Or, Children must be accompanied by an adult at all times. Los niños deben estar acompañados por un adulto en todo momento. 

A  few more hours and I might have achieved some decent conversational skills.

One could, of course, read a book for pleasure, but A-type personalities who feel they must accomplish something could make lists. Shopping lists, chores, e-mails to be sent, phone calls to be made, lists of things to do to make up for lost time when one finally leaves the DPS.

If one is really proactive, one could begin writing envelopes for Christmas cards, or draft the terms of a last will and testament, since the wait might thrust one to the brink of the next world.

So, how did I spend my time?

I drafted this blog, made a list of chores and tasks to be completed by the end of the day, and outlined two chapters for my next book. All of this, however, had to be written on a very little notepad because I didn’t have the foresight to bring along a decent size writing pad or my tablet – dumb!

I’m sure you’re wondering why, with at least 100 people ahead of us, we didn’t leave and come back. The first, most important reason was the uneven progress at the stations. It reminded me of what it was like learning to drive a stick-shift car. Stop, start, and jerk the vehicle. The digital board stopped, started, crawled then hit overdrive, posting numbers in rapid succession. Thus, the risk of missing our number and starting over was unthinkable!

The second reason, to stay put and allow one’s butt to fuse into the comfortless chair is, as soon as you get out of it, someone else takes it—and rightfully.

So, I sat there muttering curses and scribbling cramped little notes in my cramped little notebook. Finally, four hours later, number S 3,097 was flashed on the board, followed by the announcement in English and Spanish.

“At last! Come, mother,” I said and literally had to pull her out of the chair. I think her butt had melded to the plastic.

We proceeded to the assigned station. Then disaster!

“Where is your application?” asked the agent.

“Application!? What application?” My voice was on the edge of hysteria. I broke out in a sweat. “I wasn’t told to fill out an application.”

Mother stood there in her best fragile little-old-lady posture, which she is not, and thankfully kept quiet.

“Please,” I begged. “We’ve been here for four hours. I wasn’t told to fill anything out.”

This kind agent smiled, handed me the application, told us to step aside, and fill it out while she serviced the next person on the line. For this, I believe she’ll have a place in heaven—or perhaps she was afraid I’d go postal.

I filled it out as fast as I could, controlling my serial killer handwriting so that it would be legible. The kind agent waved us back to her station, and fifteen minutes later, mother had a new temporary license.

So, what have I learned? The next time I must visit the DPS, I’ll have a supply of pencils, a legal pad, and a book. Perhaps a pillow too.

No matter how you look at it, spending four hours in a bad chair, waiting to be called for a process that takes only minutes is an exercise in patience, endurance, determination, and a sense of humor – which I did not have.

My Unconventional Writing Partner

–By Laura Oles

Writing, as we all know, is a solitary process. You’re the only one who can get words on the page, edits turned in on time, and new projects out in the world.  Because of this, it helps to have a support network to help you get out of your own head. I don’t subscribe to the idea that being alone all the time makes my writing any stronger.  In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite.  I’m grateful to have several talented writers as friends, and I know I’ve become a stronger writer because of their guidance and support. 

I also have someone in my life who contributes in a different way.  She doesn’t get to our critique meetings and harbors no opinion on the plotter/pantser debate.  

This is Amber.  She’s part of my writing support group.

Her words per minute score on the laptop is pretty abysmal, she naps for hours and she always wants me to write stories about dogs in swimming pools. 

But she has other skills.

She gets me outside for a walk each day, which it turns out, is really important when I’m spending my days at my desk or inside the house.  I tend to overthink things–big things, small things, you name it–so the fact that she needs to get out to stretch those Labrador legs comes in very handy. When I find myself wrapped up in something that I can’t figure out, it’s time for us to go outside.

The temperatures in Texas are topping triple digits on the regular, so this means we have to get our two-mile walk down pretty early in the morning.  After a few hours of wrestling with a project, I’m ready for a break and a short walk around the neighborhood.  Amber is always ready for a stroll.  Her dependence on me makes me a better writer. It forces me to go outside and get a different perspective. Dogs plus nature equal happiness in my book.

Sometimes I talk to myself, trying to work out a plot point or a scene, and Amber is the perfect partner in this situation.  She lets me talk it out without looking at me like I’m crazy.  She walks alongside, searching for deer to chase and brush to walk under for back scratches.  Those brief outings help me shake things loose in my mind, not to mention my back.  

One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received is to “keep your butt in the chair.”  I remind myself of this during those times when I’m feeling challenged and want nothing more than to get up and distract myself. So, in those situations, I sit and wrestle with the task at hand.  Well, not all the time. There are times that I go get a cup of coffee and a snack. Or two snacks. Maybe do some productive procrastination (housework, email). However, sometimes Amber needs me to get my butt OUT of the chair, and this responsibility is what helps me get back IN the chair later. 

So, dogs are good for writers.  

Cats may disagree. 

 Not sure.

I’ve never had a cat willing to go on a walk with me.  

Murdercon, 2019–The Perfect Ménage à Trois!

By K.P. Gresham

I’m talking about the recent crime writer’s convention recently held in Raleigh, NC. What did you think I was referring to?

To create this perfect threesome, you combine Lee Lofland and his crew at The Writers Police Academy with Sirchie—the leading manufacturer of criminal investigation, forensic and law enforcement products, and add a few crazy crime writers who want to learn new and innovative ways to kill people. Then you title it, Murdercon, 2019, and put all those three elements together in Raleigh, NC for four fantastic days of murder and mayhem. More importantly, the goal of the conference is to teach the mystery writers what REALLY happens in the world of criminal investigation. What we see on TV or the big screen is often a far cry from what really happens at a crime scene and beyond.

For example, I love watching NCIS and NCIS New Orleans (shout out to Captain Archer, A.K.A. Scott Bacula), but let’s be real.  DNA identifications don’t happen in less than a day, nor do face ID’s, fingerprint analyses, or hook-ups to every street camera in the known universe.

The experts at Murdercon absolutely know what they are talking about. In fact, this year’s conference was held at the actual Sirchie headquarters in Raleigh. Okay, so who or what is Sirchie?

Sirchie, founded in 1927 by Francis Sirchie, supplies law enforcement agencies with fingerprinting supplies, advanced equipment, customized vehicles, and kitting services. He got his big break in World War II with his state of the art fingerprinting technology. The U.S. Government awarded Sirchie’s company the contract to fingerprint every World War II soldier, munitions worker, medical personnel—the list goes on. That contract rocketed Sirchie into the forensic investigation giant that it is today.

They “manufacture high-quality criminal investigation, tactical, surveillance, and other police-related solutions including customized special purpose vehicles as well as delivering industry-leading training for public safety, medical, and education communities featuring hands-on learning techniques.” That came straight from their website,  https://www.sirchie.com/. Check out what this incredible company does to keep our country and our world safe.

So, back to Murdercon. The conference was nonstop from dawn to way after sunset. I attended sessions on latent fingerprint development, fire arms and ballistics, an impromptu talk given by David Alford, one of the FBI’s lead Crime Scene Investigators of the Unibomber’s cabin, and a session on “Weapons of Mass Destruction”. (Scared the pants off of me, and yes, I’m going to use the info in a book!) We got to touch, use, experience some of the equipment Sirchie develops, and we even got a tour of their factory.

But the one-on-one interactions between the experts and writers was the best part for me.  Thanks to the patience of James Reynolds, a Sirchie guru who helped lead the conference, I was able to get my crime scene for an upcoming book “just right”. For two hours he helped me line up who had to be where, what evidence would be left, how the investigators would find it—the entire experience was off the charts. By the time we finished mocking up the crime scene in the hotel lounge, I think we’d scared some folks away—were we really planning a crime?

Hats off to those who put together this incredible conference. A perfect ménage à trois ? More like a match made in heaven!

An Interview with Elizabeth Buhmann, Author of BLUE LAKE

by M.K. Waller

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When I began Elizabeth Buhmann’s BLUE LAKE, I was—I’m ashamed to say—afraid I would be disappointed. Her first novel,LAY DEATH AT HER DOOR, was so well constructed, clues so obviously placed, that I should have been able to predict the ending—but so deftly woven into the plot that the last chapter was a complete surprise. More than a surprise—a shock. That novel was so good, I knew BLUE LAKE couldn’t match it.

I was wrong. BLUE LAKE is different from its predecessor, of course, but just as well written and just as suspenseful.  And when I reached the end, I said, “I should have known.”

BLUE LAKE does not disappoint.

Buhmann hides things in plain sight—the mark of a good mystery writer, and the delight of every mystery reader.

*

“Rural Virginia, 1945. The Second World War had just ended when Alice Hannon found the lifeless body of her five-year-old daughter, Eugenie, floating in Blue Lake. The tragedy of the little girl’s death destroyed the Hannon family.

“More than twenty years later, Alice’s youngest daughter, Regina, returns home after a long estrangement because her father is dying. She is shocked to discover, quite by accident, that her sister’s drowning was briefly investigated as a murder at the time. . . . 

Click here to read the original post on Ink-Stained Wretches.

 

PLAYING FOR PIZZA – by John Grisham

Written by Francine Paino

  The master of suspense took a break from his usual mystery, crime, and thriller books to write Playing for Pizza; a football story hatched as he researched settings for another novel.  

Playing for Pizza tracks a third-string quarterback for the Cleveland Browns in what turns out to be a life lesson – the question is, will he learn?

Poor Rick Dockery. With only minutes left to play, in the AFC Championship game, Dockery comes in as Quarterback with a 17- point lead and snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.  Rick ends up in a hospital, recovering from the concussion he suffered along with the loss. His agent, Arnie, and the duty nurse discourage him from remembering too much of what had happened, but eventually, poor Rick does remember and then learns that virulent Cleveland fans want to storm the hospital and dismember him – or at least run him out of town on a rail. In addition to the disaster, his agent informs him that the Browns have released him and no other team wants him – he is unemployable in the NFL, but Rick isn’t done with football – he can’t be; it’s all he knows.

Dubbed by an unforgiving and vicious press as “the greatest goat in the history of professional sports,” Rick has hit rock bottom.  His agent suggests that it might be time to find another profession; Dockery, however, refuses to give up. Arnie is running out of patience and ideas, not to mention the fact that he isn’t making any money representing the disgraced Quarterback, yet he makes “one more call,” to an old buddy.

Coach Russo is looking for a QB for the Panthers—of Parma, Italy. They play at a Division 3 level – maybe. Russo wants an American QB to lead his team of tough Italians, whose professions range from truck drivers to airline pilots and everything in-between. These men hold full-time jobs and play for love of the game, and pizza!  As one of the three Americans allowed on any team in Italy, Rick will be provided with a car, rent money and a very small salary – nowhere near the pay scale in the NFL.

With no other options available, feeling the pressure to get out of the States, filled with resentment and self-pity, Rick Dockery accepts the job. He flies off to a country he barely knows exists and a city he’d never heard of before.

The coach meets him at the airport and immediately realizes that Dockery is in for a few shocks. Coach Russo crash courses Rick in Italian football. The Panthers are on an eight-game schedule with play-offs and a shot at the Italian Super Bowl. At the same time, Rick must cope with stick-shift small cars, bumper-to-bumper parking, and the culture of food, wine, and opera– things about which Rick Dockery knows nothing. By his own admission, his education consisted of football, Phys. Ed., more football, and cheerleaders. 

Rick begins the process of adjusting to his new circumstances and his new team. Secretly, he believes he would be hiding out in Parma for a while and would return to the States after other NFL teams forgot his humiliation and offered him a spot.

One vicious reporter from Cleveland, however, finds out where Dockery is and has no intention of allowing him any salvation in football. The reporter stalks him and reports back to the Cleveland Post on Dockery’s progress, turning anything Dockery does well into a series of “lucky breaks.”

Throughout, we watch Dockery cope with the culture shock of a completely alien environment while melding with teammates who are unlike any he’d ever encountered in the States and somehow, play his best football.

Sometimes the story feels like a travel guide through northern Italy and a play-by-play in football, but it’s told through the eyes of a lost soul on a life journey. Dockery learns that in Italy, although “it (footfall) was just a club sport, winning meant something – commitment meant even more.”

By the end of Rick’s story, we see a man emerge from the immature self-absorbed, culturally deficient boy/man who’d arrived in a foreign country only a few weeks before. Moreover, if you are a football fan, the last game is a heart-stopper.

There’s no fairy-tale ending here. Dockery has choices to make, but he finds confidence, becomes comfortable in his own skin, and learns the real meaning of playing for pizza.

It’s not a new release, but it’s still a great summer read.

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rules

Alpine 2014 137

Last week I attended the Writers’ League of Texas Summer Retreat in Kerrville, Texas. I was in the Write Away section–didn’t take a class but spent all day writing–and I got a lot done. The week was pleasant. But I’d been to WLT retreats before, and this one just wasn’t what the others had been. Something was off. 

It took me four days to figure out what was missing: Gale.

Austin Mystery Writer Gale Albright and I were retreat and workshop junkies, and we attended them together whenever we could. The highlight was the 2014 WLT retreat in Alpine. We took the class in That Damned Rough Draft, where novelist Karleen Koen told us she couldn’t teach us to write, but she could teach us to play. We spent the entire week engaged in activities designed to stimulate creativity–in other words, playing.

Gale didn’t really need to be taught to play. She was already an expert. Under her direction, we played all over the greater Alpine area–Marfa, Terlingua, Fort Davis, the MacDonald Observatory, Big Bend. We considered taking a side trip through Del Rio on the way home, but absence of a gasoline station in Marathon (I think we were looking in the wrong place) turned us around and sent us back the way we’d come. We enjoyed being crazy, but we weren’t stupid.

Gale died in 2016. Without her, retreats just aren’t the same.

This week, AMW repeats the post Gale wrote about that WLT Summer Retreat in Alpine in 2014 and some of the things we learned while Karleen taught us to play. ~ M.K. Waller

***

Rules for writing?

Outline? No outline? Seat of the pants?

Karleen Koen, instructor for That Damned Rough Draft at the Writers’ League of Texas summer writing retreat at Sul Ross University in Alpine, says there are no rules for writing. And she never said the phrase, “We don’t need no stinkin’ rules.” That’s my inner child cutting up.

She said she wouldn’t teach us to write, but would help us learn how to play. If you play, your inner child, your subconscious, will make itself known and your writing will be the richer for it.

And another thing. Writing a novel is hard–real hard.

We are adventurers, embarking on the quest of a lifetime, daring everything on a wild, reckless throw of the dice. Fame and fortune. Or maybe no one will pay attention at all.

According to Koen, a writer’s tools are her words. An artist has brushes and canvas, a sculptor his clay. We have only words to bring a whole new world to life, a world of our own creation. We must lure and seduce readers to enter our world with our use of words.

Not Rules but Suggestions:

Don’t talk your story away. Energy you need for the story goes out at the mouth.

Writers are looking for affirmation. We never get enough.

Grant yourself permission to write badly. The point is to be writing.

Poetry helps writers with their voice. Karleen Koen always reads poems before class begins.

Writing the rough draft is not a time to perfect your prose. Let your subconscious work with you. A rough draft is not linear. The novel is hard. You have to willing to commit to the marathon. Not the sprint.

Alpine 2014 135You have to pay attention to anything that excites you as a writer.

Nobody can see our hard work if we’ve done our work right. It looks slick. Bumps come with writing novels.

Our suffering is invisible to everyone but us.

Magic and alchemy are part of a story. They take the reader to another world.

You need time and space to create.

Don’t compare. Everybody feels bad when you compete

I need to know what I don’t know. I want to get the story finished. Have I bitten off more than I can chew?

What makes a novel? Hook, plot, tension, character, dialogue, scenes, ending, middle, beginning–magic.

Painters have color

Sculptors have clay.

All writers have are words.

Karleen suggests these daily exercises to tempt forth your magic, muse, subconscious, inner child, whatever makes you tick.

Keep a writer’s diary and write about your writing self every day.

Write three longhand morning pages first thing when you wake up every day, no editing. Don’t think. Just write whatever comes into your  head.

Alpine 2014 114Take photographs and write about them. Take pictures of whatever “pings” in  your gut. Write about why.

Don’t let your editor subdue your creator, even in revision.

Don’t share writing with just anyone. Writing is part of our inner child. Too much criticism shuts you down.

Your first reader is very important. All you want to ask the first reader are three questions about your manuscript:

  1. What did you like?
  2. What do you want to know more about?
  3. Where did I lose you?

This will help shape the novel and show where you are off pace.

Cool down between drafts.

Learn to play with words. Be creative and loose.

Find a niche that’s well calibrated to your interests and your talent.

You can only develop your voice by writing.

Enter your story and take us with you.

Know how your hero/heroine is going to be transformed by the end of the novel.

Sometimes revision can lead to beating a dead dog. You’ve been to the well too many times.

You adventurer,  you.

Alpine 2014 206My inner child likes murals. Is there a novel in them?

By Gale Albright

How Did She Think of That? And How Did Adamsberg Figure It Out?: Thoughts on Fred Vargas and her Policiers

by Helen Currie Foster

Fred Vargas by Marcello Casal/ABr, licensed under CC BY-3.0 BR. Via Wikipedia

Her sheer imagination, her complex and nearly crazy—yet convincing—plots, have won Fred Vargas three International Dagger Awards from the Crime Writers Associationfor her policiers, or police procedurals. Vargas is the nom de plume of Fréderique Audoin-Rouzeau, a French medieval historian and archeologist (born in Paris 1952) who worked at the Institut Pasteur. Vargas provides a vividly unusual police environment with her Paris-based Serious Crime Squad, headed by Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. I immediately fell for her idiosyncratic protagonist—Adamsberg is Pyrenees born, left handed, a water-colorist who paints in order to puzzle out murder inquiries, and who alternately frustrates and mesmerizes his staff through his unconventional thinking. Vargas has steadily added a cadre of interesting characters to Adamsberg’s team, each quite odd in his or her own way (not forgetting the large white cat which sleeps atop the copier and must be carried to its food bowl—a cat which demonstrates great heroism in This Night’s Foul Work) (tr. 2008).

Click here to read the original post at Ink-Stained Wretches.

When Tech Takes Over

-Laura Oles

A few years ago, Microsoft released a study that claimed the average American had the attention span of a goldfish.  

Eight seconds. 

I can relate.

While this study has been hotly debated–some sources claim we are simply becoming more adept at filtering out unimportant content designed to grab out attention–I remain undecided. Some days I’m Dory from Finding Nemo. “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…ooh, what’s that? A new project?”

And I’m off on a tangent.

This has become particularly more challenging now that summer is here and our kids have no fixed daily schedule.  I love this part of parenthood–my kids are older now and time is fleeting–but I also realize that I have to carve out a set schedule even though others are coming in and out all day.  Working from home is a wonderful gift but also brings its own challenges.

And don’t get me started on the time suck that is social media. I know some truly productive people who are on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter all the time, and I marvel at how they manage it all.

I’m not one of those people.  

So, as someone who was in search of solutions, I was thrilled to come across Cal Newport’s latest book titled Digital Minimalism.  I had read his previous book, Deep Work, and found some very compelling arguments for ignoring most things that demand our attention in order to accomplish our top priorities.  Cal Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, but he isn’t on social media.  He’s a prolific author and an example of what one can accomplish when treating our attention and time as our most valuable resources.  One of Newport’s most powerful contentions is that so few people possess the ability to focus on a single task for long periods of time that this skill will soon become a huge competitive advantage. 

I decided to experiment with some of the lessons I learned to see which ones, if any, might help improve my focus and reclaim some lost time.  Here are a few that are working for me:

No Morning Social Media:  With the exception of my publisher’s FB group and a writers’ sprint thread, I try not to be on social media unless there is a specific reason (book promotions, etc).  Working from home can be fraught with distractions, but I feel this is one thing I can control.  This rule helps me turn my attention to my daily priorities sooner instead of squandering minutes and energy on social media procrastination.  

Scheduled Email:  Having my email accessible on my phone has been a mixed blessing.  I can quickly respond to requests and inquiries, but then again, like social media, before long I’m down a rabbit hole of other people’s priorities. I now check in three times a day–early morning, lunch, and end of day–and this seems to work well.  If there’s an urgent concern, that’s usually when I get a phone call. People know how to reach me if needed. 

OSX Daily

Do Not Disturb is Your Friend:  Did you know that studies show that we check our phones several times per hour even when we aren’t receiving notifications?  And when our phones are blowing up with non-critical messages and demands for our attention, it takes us 20 minutes to refocus completely on the task at hand? There are so many ways for technology to intrude that it has required me to rethink my constant accessibility.  I now put my phone on Do Not Disturb for certain hours in the day when I know I will need uninterrupted time.  That doesn’t mean my time remains completely uninterrupted, but at least I’ve narrowed down the ways in which my time gets fractured into smaller segments.

I realized that I sometimes allow technology to determine which priorities receive my attention rather than using technology first and foremost for my own benefit in pursuit of my goals.  Pushing my correspondence and social media to the late afternoons/evenings has helped open my creativity and allowed the space my mind needs to work out plot issues and character motivations.  By not filling in small bits of time with other distractions, I’m returning to those earlier days when our minds were allowed to wander and ponder.  

I still fall off track now and then–usually, when I’m struggling with a particular aspect of a writing project–but I now catch myself more quickly and return to the task at hand.  Being more mindful of my attention has also helped me better identify why I’m procrastinating in a certain situation.  Once I can name it, I can figure out how to fix it.  I still fall short sometimes, and that’s okay.  Small improvements can mean big results over the long term. Not perfect, but better.  

I’ll take better. 

Well-Rounded Thrillers? Naw…Really?

By K.P. Gresham

Sara Paretsky’s letter to the editor of the New York Times (June 14, 2019) has created quite a stir in the mystery writing community. This actually surprised me a little.

Sara Paretsky by Mark Coggins, licensed under CC BY-2.0, via Wikipedia.

For years the majority of U.S. publishers, editors and booksellers have preferred male-authored novels in the mystery thriller genre. Let’s define our terms here. Hard thrillers are generally male-oriented in intended audience, protagonist sex, and author generation while cozy mysteries are intellectually gender-neutral and character- and puzzle-inclined) The New York Times put out an op-ed that said female authors are finally breaking into this male-dominated genre.

Ms. Paretsky’s point is that women have been writing thrillers for decades.  . . .

Click here to read the rest of the post at Ink-Stained Wretches.

Shattering a Vase

 

it was like taking a vase and setting it down so hard it shatters…

~  Tracy Chevalier

When I taught secondary English, grading essays was my least favorite task. I was happy to read them, but assigning letter grades? I hated that.

I hated judging. I hated trying to determine the difference between a B and an A, or, worse, between a B-plus and an A-minus.

But the worst–the part that made me want to moan like the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, “Oh, horrible, oh, horrible, most horrible!”–was listening to students who thought their work merited higher grades: “But I worked so harrrrrrrd.

Some had watched classmates complete an entire assignment during a lull in history class and then score A’s. It wasn’t fair.

Harrrrrrrrrrd” was my signal to say that no, it didn’t seem fair, but that good writing comes from more than just time sheets and sweat. It’s the words on the page that matter. 

Now, to my dismay, I sometimes find myself slipping into student mode. For example, when I submit a chapter to my critique group, or an agent, or a publisher, or a reviewer, or a family member, and they find fault or don’t mention my genius, I have to restrain myself from wailing, But I worked so harrrrrrrd…

Each time it happens, I pull out the old talk about time sheets and sweat. I add that whingeing is the hallmark of the amateur.

And I meditate upon Tracy Chevalier.

Chevalier wrote the critically acclaimed historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring. Her next (third) novel began as a draft written in third person, with small sections in first-person voices of children. The finished manuscript was a disappointment.

When I reread the first draft, she says,  I cried at the end. It was boring, dead weight, terrible. Then I looked it over and thought, there’s nothing wrong with the story except the way it’s told.

She found the solution in another contemporary novel:

I had the idea when, just as I was finishing the first draft in third person, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which uses five different voices beautifully. It’s a wonderful book, using multiple voices very successfully, and I thought, “Oh, that’s an interesting technique, I wonder if I should take the kids’ voices I’ve already written and have the three of them tell it.” It just felt right.

The revision was published as Falling Angels, a novel about a young wife and mother struggling to survive in the rigid, but rapidly changing, social structure of Edwardian England. The book is written in first person, from twelve perspectives, in twelve distinctive voices. It’s exquisite.

I came across Chevalier’s account when I was just beginning to write fiction and had become obsessed with the work. Writing an entire manuscript, setting it aside, starting all over—it had to be pure drudgery. I couldn’t imagine putting myself through that. 

Recently, though, I reread the article and a different passage caught my attention—Chevalier’s description of the rewrite:

I took the draft, and it was like taking a vase and setting it down so hard it shatters, then putting the pieces back together in a different way. I rewrote the whole thing in first person with all these different voices.

Chevalier doesn’t describe drudgery. Shattering a vase, putting the pieces back together to make something new—that’s a picture of creation, of the excitement and the pleasure and the beauty that accompany it.

I love Tracy Chevalier’s novels and admire her talent. I’m grateful to her for sharing publicly how Falling Angels made its way into print, for reminding me that hard work and drudgery aren’t synonymous, for implying it’s okay to cry over a bad draft, and that perceived failure can turn into success, and for showing that the act of writing affords as much pleasure as the spirit is willing to embrace.

And—for tacitly suggesting that no one really needs to hear me whinge about how harrrrrrrrd I work.

It’s the words on the page that matter.

*****

Confession: I love Falling Angels so much that during library duty one Saturday morning, I was so intent on finishing the book—racing toward the climax—that I unlocked the front doors but left the lights in the reading room off, and spent the next ninety minutes parked behind the circulation desk, reading and hoping no one would walk in and want something. I’m not proud of what I did, but patrons didn’t seem to notice anything different, and I finished the book.

*****
This post appeared on the Austin Mystery Writers blog on September 2, 2015.
Information about Tracy Chevalier comes from Fiction Writers Review.

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Image of Hamlet and his father’s ghost by Henry Fuseli via Wikipedia [Public domain]
Book covers via Amazon.com

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M.K. Waller’s short stories appear in AMW’s crime fiction anthologies Murder on Wheels and Lone Star Lawless, and online at Mysterical-E. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.