It’s the middle of the afternoon and my Pekingese, Leo, is taking his customary nap. He’s lying with his head halfway off his bed, tongue lolling, snores audible upstairs in my office even though his bed is in the dining room.
Does my dog care what he looks and sounds like? He does not.
Does it bother him that he needs to laze around in the afternoons to rejuvenate himself before his twilight walk? Not one bit.
My dog is now 8 years old, which makes him as middle-aged as I am, and he is comfortable in his own white furry skin. I’m trying to take lessons from him. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, maybe, but this dog has plenty to teach an old writer:
1. Walks aren’t just for exercise. Sometimes a walk is all about greeting the neighbors and sniffing the flowers. Some neighbors might even invite you inside for a treat!
2. Yes, there are cold days and rainy days, but that doesn’t matter. Get outside and you’ll feel better.
3. Even on your worst days, good things can happen: people patting your head, a breezy car ride, an exciting game of tag with the cat. You just never know what’s around the corner.
4. You will learn more by watching and listening than by speaking. Don’t bark unless it’s your turn.
5. Rejections hurt, but they don’t make you less unique or talented. Make the most of what you have.
6. Children are more fun than adults, because you never know what they’ll say or do next. Act extra friendly when they’re around, so they’ll visit often.
7. Not everyone will love you. Some people will be afraid of you. Others will be so allergic to your presence that they won’t even try to shake your paw. A few people might even be mean and try to kick you or tease you. Just ignore them. Life is too short to spend it with liars, betrayers, and people who keep making you do the same tricks over and over again.
Whether you’re writing a mystery series or fantasy, so-called “literary fiction” or romances, the common view is that writers must brand themselves as one thing or another to market their books. While there’s a certain amount of truth to this–you don’t want to search the cereal aisle when you’re looking for canned tomatoes, right?–the best fiction pushes those genre boundaries. Stop worrying about your brand long enough to write the best damn book possible.
For instance, my publisher, New American Library, a division of Penguin Random House, markets my novels as women’s fiction. That’s a fairly wide catch-all phrase. Some writers and book sellers love it because it’s a convenient tag line. Basically, if you like reading about contemporary women in conflicts that are about more than just their romantic relationships, this label probably applies to the books you read. However, as a writer who’s always striving to grow, my goal is to keep testing and pushing the genre stereotypes that seem to be popping up all around us as more and more authors are playing a bigger role in marketing their own work, whether they’re indie published or with traditional houses.
I have gobbled down mystery novels like chocolate-drenched pretzels since I was a child, when my grandfather would bring home stacks of paperbacks from the library to read while he smoked his pipe after dinner. He had a pile of “already read” mysteries on one side of his chair, and on the other were the “don’t you dare touch them until I read them first” books. I stole from both piles.
Because of my grandfather, I grew up with a hefty appetite for plots featuring stabbings, shootings, kidnappings, burglaries, rapes, criminal syndicates, and terrorist attacks. I learned to especially love noir books—Raymond Chandler novels were my favorite—and anything with a savvy female sleuth, from Nancy Drew to Miss Marple, or the more contemporary Lisbeth Salander and Barbara Havers.
After getting a biology degree, I discovered that writing fiction was more fun than dissecting frogs, and earned an MFA in creative writing. That degree required me to not only read the literary greats—James Joyce, Henry James, Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf, among others—but to analyze them. As I did, I discovered something about myself: I actually prefer fiction that not only has a tensely-paced plot, but characters with emotional depth. I also love lush settings and sentences with enough imagery to make them sing.
Where did that leave me? As a reader, I stopped having the patience to read mystery novels without at least a modicum of character development. Robert Parker’s crime series featuring Spenser, for instance, bores me silly. I admire his wit but hate how Spenser never lets up on his bad boy quips and his girlfriend Susan rarely eats more than a lettuce leaf. I don’t really care about what happens to any of the characters, because I’m not emotionally invested in them. And if I can’t bring myself to care, what’s the point of reading the books?
On the other hand, literary tomes that are all about the language, with introspective characters but little to no action or plot tension, try my patience. That’s why I was so delighted when I discovered Toby Neal’s LEI CRIME SERIES, where we have a dandy female sleuth with a dark past, lots of emotional tension, romance galore, and a setting that makes me want to get on a plane to Hawaii right now.
I tried writing a detective novel once, I confess, and I was bad at it. Really bad. I also tried writing literary novels, exercising my chops on characters who were so emotionally complex that even I, their creator, couldn’t understand them.
Then I hit my stride: I began writing what I call “dysfunctional family mysteries.” By this, I mean books with the same tense narrative pace as a page-turning mystery, but the plot line isn’t about an unsolved murder or a crime mob. The question to be answered must be about something that happened in the main character’s family before the book opens and has been kept secret. The main characters must confront new challenges as they unravel the clues leading them to answers they never could have imagined before this crisis in their lives. Along the way, they learn and grow and form new emotional relationships, romantic and otherwise.
One example of this is BEACH PLUM ISLAND, my newest novel, which opens with a daughter whose dying father has just told her that she must find her brother and tell him the truth. There’s just one problem: She never knew she had a brother, so where is he? And what’s the truth?
This deathbed confession necessarily sparks a series of complicated events and emotional interactions between family members—some of whom have been estranged from each other–as they unravel clues to discover their father’s secret and why it was guarded so closely.
Is my novel a mystery? Is it literary fiction? Yes, and yes. But it’s still considered women’s fiction in the marketplace.
I’m not alone in thinking I’m writing this new crossover fiction that straddles the line between “domestic” women’s fiction and mysteries, and I’m glad, since this category is my absolute favorite new find. Check out THE HUSBAND’S SECRET, the runaway bestseller by Liane Moriarty; the smash hit GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn; and BEFORE WE MET by Lucie Whitehouse. These are all about relationships gone wrong–in a thrilling way–and involve mysteries that the reader must uncover along the way, giving these books depth of character but tense, breathless pacing. Brava!
The more I read and write, the more I think genres were made to be busted wide open. As readers and writers, we owe it to ourselves to explore the infinite possibilities in how good stories are told.
Any woman who works knows there isn’t enough time in the day to get everything done. Even before we start our paid jobs, we’ve put in hours of labor: tossing in a load of laundry, going online to pay the mortgage, making breakfasts and lunches, cleaning the kitchen, pulling chicken (again) out of the freezer for dinner. At night it’s the same damn hamster wheel.
For women artists, there’s the added challenge of finding the time—and energy—to pursue creative work. If we’re lucky, we make a little money from the passions we pursue, but most of us are forced by finances to tuck creativity in around the edges of paid work and household responsibilities. As a novelist with a day job, I have become an expert at shoehorning my passion for telling stories into a finite number of minutes each day. This means writing in the car while I wait for a kid to emerge from school and carrying cups of peppermint tea to my desk when I’ve finished the daily chores. I also sneak off to libraries and cafes on weekends for my fiction fix. Otherwise, it’s too difficult to ignore the fact that everybody seems to need me at once.
The media portrays female artists as cat fighting and competitive. We all saw the movie “Black Swan,” right? We also expect artists to be unstable: Sylvia Plath gassed herself, for instance, and Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and stumbled into a river to drown.
I have never thought of turning on the oven or drowning myself. But I have been sad enough about rejections to lie on a couch with Grand Marnier in one hand and a chocolate truffle in the other. I have also had enough crises in confidence to nearly swear off writing fiction altogether. What keeps me in the game are my writer friends—especially those who are also balancing motherhood and paid work as they ponder plots, create believable characters, and wrestle with back story and imagery.
Some of these writers have been my friends from the very start, like Susan Straight, who I met in graduate school and liked immediately, despite the fact that she’s younger, thinner, blonder, and—not least of all—wins way more literary awards than I do. Novelist Elisabeth Elo and I were in workshops together for years and now meet for monthly dinners to talk shop. Others are new writer friends, like mystery novelist Toby Neal in Hawaii and Amy Sue Nathan from the Chicago area. I met both of them through social media; our correspondence led to us to form friendships that have enriched our work as well as our ability to survive the vagaries of the publishing industry.
Then there is my friendship with Maddie Dawson, who I met because she was good enough to blurb my first book. Ironically, Maddie and I had actually been appearing together in print for years, sharing a humor column in a national magazine. This month, Maddie is celebrating the launch of her wonderful new novel, The Opposite of Maybe, at the same time that I’m launching my new book, Beach Plum Island. We’ve decided our main characters should be friends, too, because they look like sisters on the covers of our books.
Writing fiction–or making any sort of public art, I imagine—is so personal that it renders you vulnerable, as if you’re parading around the public square in your bathing suit in the dead of winter, before you’ve done that intensive month of Pilates and gotten a tan in your back yard. You are wobbly and white, fleshy and uncomfortable, dying to cover yourself.
Luckily, you have your friends in their bathing suits walking beside you, saying, “You’re beautiful from the inside out, and very brave. Come on. You can do it. Just put one foot in front of the other. I’ll be with you all the way.”
Remember “Romper Room,” that classic children’s TV show? There was this giant bee that would come on, cautioning kids to mind their manners and be a “Good Do Bee.”
This week I feel like that giant bumblebee is sitting on my shoulder while I launch my new novel, BEACH PLUM ISLAND. I’m doing everything a Good Do Bee should: social media, radio interviews, library and bookstore readings, even TV. I’m also trying not to play the Don’t Bee by avoiding the constant temptation to Google my Amazon numbers. The song playing in my head goes like this: “Do bee a book tweeter! Don’t bee a review reader!”
I’m lucky to have such wonderful friends and a supportive husband who have been propping me up and hauling me off the ledge during this head-spinning time. Those of us who are writers, or friends of writers, know that writing a book is a lot like the first weeks of motherhood, where you’re binge eating, weeping, laughing hysterically, and want to sleep but can’t. You admire your little miracle but are terrified to take it anywhere; you mostly want to hole up alone in the house, but there are all of those darn doctor’s visits and people dropping in unexpectedly. Some people say things that help you get through the day, but others make you cry all over again.
For anyone who knows a writer launching a book, therefore, I have compiled a list of things NOT to say if you want to avoid provoking a tearful outburst:
1. “You’ve got a book coming out? Congratulations! I sure wish I had time to read.”
2. “So you’re publishing a book, huh? Good to know. I could use your help. My book’s only halfway done, but I’ve already got over a thousand pages.”
3. “I’ve heard that bad reviews are better than no reviews at all.”
4. “Where’s your publisher sending you on tour? That must be so cool to ride in a limo.”
5. “I’d never have the free time to write a book.”
6. “Hey, now that you’ve published a book, can you give me a blurb for mine?”
7. “I’m surprised the publishing industry hasn’t gone under. You know, with video games and NetFlix. Oh, and did you hear they’re closing that bookstore downtown?”
8. “I’ll have to look for your book on Amazon. It’s amazing how many books I’ve downloaded for free on my Kindle.”
9. “I’ve heard that to make money writing, you really should try erotica.”
10. “When’s the movie coming out?”
My friend Susan Straight and I have been swapping manuscripts-in-progress since graduating from the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst over two decades ago. Since then, she has published nine books and earned buckets of prestigious literary awards. I’ve been dogging her since grad school and am only now starting to keep pace. My fourth book, BEACH PLUM ISLAND, is about to be released by NAL/Penguin and I have a contract for two more. I’ve also written half a dozen novels that never saw the light of day. If you’re keeping track, that’s a wheelbarrow full of books between us.
But you know what? We both agree that writing fiction doesn’t get easier with time, and only a few things stay the same from book to book:
1. Wherever You Start Your Novel Probably Isn’t the Beginning
Even if you’re following a synopsis or an outline, the place you start your novel probably isn’t—and shouldn’t be—the true beginning of the book. You’re going to write a lot of exposition and flashbacks, especially in the first few chapters, because you have to know the back story even if you’re not sharing that with readers. After you’ve written half the book, you can move things around, ditch certain sections, and start the narrative in the place most likely to hook a reader.
2. The First Half of a Book Takes Twice as Long to Write
Thinking of a plot is only a small part of what you need to do to write a novel. You also need to work out point of view, voice, setting, imagery, pacing, etc. There will be a lot of stopping and starting in the beginning as you figure those things out. Some writers draft half a novel in first person to get to really know their characters, then find that’s too limiting and swap back to third person. Others write all of the dialogue first, to really “hear” the voices in their heads, before inserting any description. Whatever your process, expect it to feel clunky.
3. When You’re Nearly Done, You Will Believe Your Book Can’t Work
Another good friend of mine, Maddie Dawson, whose wonderful new novel, THE OPPOSITE OF MAYBE, will be released about the same time as BEACH PLUM ISLAND, has helped me relax as I’m finishing a book. “There’s always that point when you’re about two-thirds of the way through where you really think you can’t pull everything together,” she says. “It happens every time, doesn’t it?”
It does, it does. And all you can do is have enough faith in the process—and in yourself—to keep going.
4. The Magic is in the Revision
You can’t really write a novel until you’ve finished a rough draft. That first draft (no matter how many stop-start drafts it took you to get to the end, still count it as your first) will be terrible. Oh, sure, there will be moments of brilliance, but it will be a sticky, thorny, muddy mess. You will have to go back in there with your bee keeper’s suit and hip waders and maybe even a backhoe to get that thing cleaned up and find the sparkle.
5. When You’re about to Publish Your Novel, You Will Panic
“You must be so excited to be getting close to launch day!” a friend said recently.
Um, no. I am not excited. I am panicked, the way I panicked when I left my youngest child off for kindergarten and wondered whether 1) he would survive without me and 2) whether I would survive without any kids left in the house to keep me company. Oh, yes, I look forward to meeting readers and talking to people about my book, but in the meantime, there’s a small voice in my head asking, “Come on. Who will read it, really? Nobody asked you to write this book! It’ll probably sink like a stone!”
6. The Only Cure for Publishing a Novel is to Write Another One
Writers write. We do it because we love it, not because we imagine carrying home grocery sacks stuffed with dollars because we’ve published a novel (certainly not these days). We don’t really want to keep Googling ourselves to see if we’ve been reviewed or, God help us, to discover we’ve gained another thousand points or whatever those things are on Amazon. We are happiest when we’re in our native environments, scribbling in journals or tapping out love stories and action scenes and terrifying near-death experiences on our keyboards. Writing is the only cure for publishing a novel. The sooner we get back to it, the better.