Monday, July 25, 2011

Teach Me How to Write.

I'm just getting back my life after the Book Passage Mystery Writing Conference that takes place every summer at my fabulous local bookstore Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA.

It's always an intensive three days of workshops, lectures and private consultations during which around 80 hopeful mystery writers want to find the magic bean that will turn them into published authors. The success rate for this conference is rather impressive: Sheldon Siegel, Cara Black , Cornelia Read,Tony Broadbent, Tim Maleeny are a few of the graduates who not only made it to print but have won awards for their writing.
But every year I come away with ambivolent thoughts. Can anybody really be taught to write?

Some of the attendees I see clearly have the spark and all they need is some suggestion on pacing or focus or plot development. For others no amount of writing classes will ever make them a published author. It's rather like me and painting. I love to paint. I can create a pretty good picture if I copy reality or somebody shows me what to do, but my painting instructor can look at a scene, give a few magic flourishes with her brush and suddenly there it is in living color with an whole new twist to it.

Every year I am asked what writing courses I took before I started out. The answer, none. I taught myself to be a writer by writing. As a small child I lived in a world of pretend. I played the part of princess, good fairy, girl lost in the woods, even queen of my own country. Later I wrote down stories with myself as heroine. I wrote movie scripts I wanted to star in. And during my professional writing career I have usually written a book that I want to read but is not already on the shelf.

What I see at conferences is that everybody probably has one book in them--everyone's life has one riveting moment that makes a good story. But not everybody has the ability to leap from their own life into someone else's world. And certainly not everybody has the ability to tell a story so that it comes alive, so that we ask, "And what happens next?"

So are writing classes a waste of time?  I think they can be beneficial, especially for the writer who needs feedback and positive reinforcement as they work. It's hard writing into a vacuum and the writer needs to know that he or she is heading in the right direction. It's also useful to hone skills, find flaws. But to say to someone else, "This is how you create a character" is something I find difficult. I've never created a character. I think of a story I'd like to tackle and a character appears saying "Hello, here I am."  It's all an extention of that pretending world I lived in when I was four.

So my one piece of advice that I've given several times this weekend--if you want to be a writer WRITE. Learn to use words as a potter learns to use clay. Practice putting words down on a page. Learn to develop a plot over 300 pages, to describe people and places so that we know them and we are there. And unfortunately the only clear mantra for success is to write the book that nobody has written before.

What are your experience of writing classes? Good? Bad? Do they help?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Romance of the Rails

I have always loved rail travel, ever since my parents put me on a train in London when I was TWELVE, and sent me to stay with friends in Vienna. When I think about my 12 year old grandson doing this, I just can't believe that I accomplished this alone. I had to find the right ship across the channel, the right train in Ostend, and then spend a day and a night on it. When I arrived in Vienna I remember writing a postcard to my parents to say I'd arrived. Not even a phone call.

Since then I have criss crossed Europe many times by train--and there is something about the magic of being invisible in a train carriage, being able to peek in through lighted windows, to see daily life played out for a second before we are whisked away to the next village and town. I love going to sleep to the gentle rhythm of a train and waking in a new landscape, a new country. I love that feel of crossing borders. In the past it meant customs and border control coming down the train, stamping passports, looking for smuggled goods. Now it's all so easy within the EU, 

I've had plenty of adventures on trains--the time we shared our sleeping compartment with the most disgusting old man who wanted to borrow my hair brush for his greasy, shoulder length hair, and had the most awful habits. The time I helped a girl escape from East Germany. The time (recent) when a clever thief stole John's bag. But mostly I've enjoyed striking up conversations with complete strangers, finding a common language to converse in, sharing their sliced salami and cheese and fruit and setting the world to rights between us.

I haven't traveled by train much in the US. Only the corridor between Boston, NY and DC. So it was with great pleasure that I accepted an invitation to be part of a new venture called MYSTERY RAILS. (  I'll be joining Laurie R. King in mid October aboard a vintage rail car on a journey from Los Angeles to San Louis Obsipo and back. During the journey we'll speak to our fellow travelers and they'll have a chance to socialize with us. Gourmet meals will be served and we'll enjoy the spectacular coastal scenery.

If you're interested in joining us, please check out the Mystery Rails website. Reservations have to be made by mid August.

Friday, July 15, 2011

IN the news today: a Jane Austen manuscript sold for $1.6 million.  Poor old Jane, who was always desperate to make money from her books, must be turning in her grave in frustration.
And I'm feeling frustrated too, because I don't have any manscripts to sell for one point six million. In my early days of writing I wrote the book long hand, then I typed it out because nobody except me could read my handwriting, then I paid someone to type it without mistakes, then it went to my editor.
But for the past twenty years I've written straight to a computer. I save a copy to an external hard drive but that's that. Even my edits are now done electronically. Penguin sends me the manuscript with queries and comments and I go through in the Word review mode and answer them. It's all so painless and quick. But it leaves no paper trail. No more manuscripts in the world to be auctioned off to future generations for enourmous sums.

I've often thought the same about email correspondence. Sometimes I'll be corresponding via email with an important writer and it will suddenly hit me--when I hit the delete key this will all be lost. No more books of the collected correspondence between Rhys Bowen and Jacqueline Winspear or Laurie R King. No future PhD candidates will be able to delve into our characters through our letters.  In fact the art of letter writing has vanished. All those bundles of long letters between Victorians and Edwardians will never happen again. I suppose one can say that we now connect via the phone so have no reason to write letters, but I find them so interesting, so poignant. John has letters written by his grandmother to his father,away at school. She signs them Your Affectionate mother, B. Quin-Harkin.  Very formal when writing to a little boy, and full of news of activities. No message that she loves and misses him. No wonder the Brits grew up cold in those days.

Anyway, I'm off to the closet under the stairs to see if any old scribbles in notebooks might be suitable to be auctioned off--or prepared for the Rhys Bowen collection at a university library some day!

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Great Day for Real Soccer Moms

I don't actually blog about sports every often, although I'm a big sports fan. However I just had to write about the USA women's soccer victory yesterday, which was so amazing and so emotional that it had me leaping around with tears running down my face.

For those of you who didn't see it: horrible referee gave completely unfair calls against US. Bralilian women very good at falling over and making it look as if they were pushed (which in slow mo replays they weren't). Anyway, one unfair call after another. US player sent off. Had to play most of the game with ten players against 11.US goalie saved a penalty shot saved then made to take it over again (again a wrong call). And then the worst thing. A Brazlian player acts as if she is hurt. Lies motionless on grass while medics attend to her for 4 minutes. The aim--to see if those four minutes do not get added to the clock. She's carried off on stretcher and the moment she's off the field she jumps up and trots back into the game.

Then right began to triumph. The crowd, not only Americans, were angry about the bad calls and especialldy this last piece of trickery. Every time Brazil got the ball they booed. Especially Marta, whos pretend fall had caused the penalty. And then their own tricks came back to haunt them. There were three extra minutes of injury time given. And during those three minutes the US scored brilliantly to even the match. Had the Brazilian player not pulled the fake injury the game would have been over.

And the last piece of justification: the penalty against the US got re-taken because they said the goalie moved (which she didn't). So during the penalty shoot out their goalie came right out of the goal and of course they now had to make her retake the shot (which the US scored on)

So total justification.

I had intended to write about Wimbledon at some stage and why there are no US men or women in the top ranks any longer. I was going to say we no longer breed champions, that we're too soft on kids over here. Nobody is allowed to fail. We get happy faces and are all made to feel good and equal and that it's not necessary to try too hard. But I take back every word of what I was thinking. Those soccer women showed grit, incredible endurance, depth of character, team spirit, patience and perseverance. They showed the best of what America is made of.

I wish I could have written this on the Fourth of July!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Why do we love the Royals?

It's Independence Day and the news broadcasts are featuring Kate and Will's tour of Canada. Feature segments are discussing her inate fashion sense (she picks all her own clothes and she did her own make-up for the wedding), how easily she converses with people as if she was born to the role. We are lapping it up in prime time and yet...
we abandoned all this to be a republic.
So why do are we still so fascinated with the royals? They are celebrities to be sure. But if Lady Gaga did a tour of Canada she wouldn't draw those crowds and she certainly wouldn't make news headlines.
Why do ordinary people wait for hours in the rain for a chance to see them pass by in a flash in a big car?
There must be something in our genes that needs ceremony and pagentry. Rousing marches, troops in uniform, flags, somehow stir our humdrum breasts.
And the king/god figure has been around since the dawn of mythology. Clearly those early nomads needed a strong personality to guide them past the wooly mammoths and sabre toothed tigers but when did that figure take on god-like qualities? And have to be accompanied by ceremony?  Since the earliest of recorded time if we read the stories on the tombs of the Pharoes.
The worship of royalty also seems to be in our genes. All those little girls playing princesses in a time when none of them can aspire to the role some day (unless their name was Kate?). Or maybe it's just a wish to live a fairy tale life, in a palace, waited on hand and foot, ones every whim obeyed.

Having done a few book tours in my life I can tell you that I would not envy their lives one bit. When I am on the road for two weeks, meeting new people every day, having to give speeches, greet fans, do media interviews it is very, very tiring. I fall into bed exhausted at the end of each day. And that's for a few days.
The royals, especially the queen, do that every day of their lives. Endlessly shaking hands, endlessly smiling, being gracious, never looking bored, never looking as if they wished they were somewhere else. This is a demanding job, folks. And a dangerous one. You never know when a crackpot might decide to assasinate a royal person. (Look what started World War 1)

But I'll share a story about the power of royalty. The queen was coming to my college to open a new building. Another student and I were chosen to welcome her and present her with a bouquet. My fellow student was an ardent socialist. For weeks before the event she griped that this was a waste of money and why should one person be treated as if they were superior to another person. The day arrived. The big black car drew up and out stepped the queen, petite, elegant and with the most radiant smile you have ever seen. My socialist friend breathed only two words.... "She's real!"

They are magic for us and this new generation shows all indications of living up to our expectations.