Friday, April 11, 2014

Thank You for That Question

I learned something important this week. I was invited to speak during Library Week at a public library in a nearby city. The invitation came from a mystery discussion group that I've spoken to before, and I was delighted to be invited back again. Or, as delighted as a night owl who really wants to do something can be when told that the invitation is for mid-morning when mouth is not necessarily connecting with brain yet.

But what gave me more pause than needing to be up, dressed, and on time with functioning brain was what the group leader had said in her e-mail. She mentioned that the group would be interested in hearing about my characters and the writing process and how I got my ideas. Actually, her questions were more specific. The questions that writers often are asked at talks or following panels. What gave me pause was that my first thought was, "What else can I say about that?" I had the feeling that I had said it all before, and I would try again to explain my writing process and be no better at conveying what I do than I usually am. And they would be bored because I was muddled and lackluster, and we would all have a less than sparkling morning.

Now, in truth, I knew it wouldn't be that bad. After years of being an "author," we all learn how to rise to the occasion. To tell interesting stories -- or, at least, stories that we've told often enough so that we've gotten them down and can pause for the laughter. But this time, I wanted to just say, "My writing process is messy and disorganized" (something I've said before) and this time actually demonstrate (something I've never done before). For my own amusement, I decided to document the scatterbrained way in which I get to what eventually appears on the page.

Looking for "my show and tell" documents, I went into the closet in my office and started pulling out boxes. Maybe, I thought, I could find and copy two unpolished pages from different drafts of a manuscript. Since it was morning when I had this thought, it didn't occur to me to go to my computer and print out these two pages from different drafts. I'm glad it didn't because while I was digging around in boxes, I came across an exhibit that captured what I wanted to convey. I found a small spiral-leaf notebook. Flipping through it I find I'd written two versions of what I had apparently intended to be the title of my first published mystery. I'd scribbled these versions of the title at the top of a page on which I'd listed the stages of the hero's journey (Joseph Campbell). Apparently I'd been to my RWA chapter meeting (where Campbell is sometimes discussed) and then come home and tried using the stages to think through what was happening with my protagonist. Her journey began when lightning struck a street in the backyard of her grandmother's house in Kentucky. Finding my notebook page, I thought, "Wonderful, I'll copy the page from the journey and the page from my published book and tell them what inspired the incident" (a friend telling me about a windstorm that had come out of nowhere and knocked down a tree that she had been admiring a few minutes earlier).

So I had the beginning of my talk. I intended to point out that the title I had thought of using was nothing like what I had ended up with.

Then I flipped to the next page in the notebook. There at the top of the page was the title of my book -- Death's Favorite Child. Below that was a summary of a scene that occurred in the book but involved a different character. And below that a line from a poem -- about betrayal. My book's title appeared in that line that I had apparently intended to have one of my characters said. And, I thought -- "Aha! The title really did come from a poem." But when I Googled the line nothing turned up but my own book title and fragments of what I'd seen in various places when I searched for lines about death. So, it seems I cobbled together bits and pieces for my fake line of poetry and took my title from something I'd made up. Which didn't surprise me when I thought about it because I ended up doing that for the title of my fourth book You Should Have Died on Monday and for the faux blues song with those words in the lyrics that my femme fatale sings. I was concerned about copyright -- and rather pleased when a few reviewers thought it was a real song. The interesting part is that no one ever utters that line of poetry in the first book. Good thing because it was bad.

But the most important thing I discovered was that the title that hadn't worked for my first book was now perfect for my 1939 historical thriller. Not as a title for the book I'm working on, but as a phrase that one my characters -- the villain -- writes in his journal. Those five words capture who he is and how he sees himself.

Getting back to my talk -- I also decided to tell them about my frustrating experience with my current nonfiction book. I've mentioned this book before. It's about dress, appearance, and crime. My agent is waiting for the proposal and the sample chapters. But I've been stuck -- table of contents done, know what I want to write, have tons of material, but unable to write the two chapters I need. As I was thinking about how to explain why I couldn't do what I've done before, I suddenly understood my problem. My agent has asked me to be sure to include the last chapter in the book because it deals with a case that has been in the news. But what I suddenly realized is that I have never done that before. I am all over the place when I'm brain mapping and doing research and reading and doing all the prep work for a nonfiction book. But when I sit down to write -- whether fiction or nonfiction -- I write in a linear fashion. As the King in Alice advises, I start at the beginning and go on to the end, then stop. If I'm writing a mystery, I can't skip to the next scene. If I'm writing nonfiction, I write the chapters in order. Being asked to write the last chapter had thrown my mind into turmoil. That's not the way it should be done, my stubborn unconscious has been telling me.

But, I think -- I hope -- I may have solved the problem. I remembered -- something I had forgotten -- what I normally do when I'm writing nonfiction. I collect the articles and other material I need to refer to and create a file box for each chapter. Then I work my way through the boxes. I have to follow this process because my brain needs order and system.. I need to get the piles of paper off my desk and the floor and corralled. So what I'm going to do is pretend that I'm about to write the book. Buy my boxes, sort the chapters -- looking through the material again as I go -- then write the first chapter, sort through the boxes for the next ten, making notes, and then write the last chapter. I will still have to re-write the last chapter when I write the entire book, but maybe this will allow me to finish the proposal.

After I shared this problem during my talk, a woman in the audience came up and suggested I move the last box to the front of the queue, dress it up in colored paper and keep looking at it. And my mind will begin to think of it as the first chapter. I think I need to leave it at the end, but maybe dressing up both the first box and the last will work.

And that is the tale of how in the process of digging deeper for my morning book group talk, I made some fascinating discoveries about my untidy brain. I related another story to them about an idea I'd once had and written down and forgotten that I'd written down and then years later discovered on a piece of paper after having what I thought was a new idea. That was the lead-in to sharing some findings from Dr. Nancy Anderson, PhD, from her research on the creative process shared by artists, writers, and scientists. She describes the four stages of the process -- which I would share with you here if only I could find the folder that contains the title of the article so that I could get to the link. Anyway, what resonated with me was Dr. Anderson's description of the incubation stage in the creative process. What struck me was her description of the probably chaotic, but elegant manner in which the unconscious puts together the pieces and delivers them to us in that "eureka" moment we get in the shower or while out taking a walk. Coincidentally, as I was driving to the library, a short story writer being interviewed on public radio was talking about "the wisdom" of the unconscious mind and how he has learned to rely on it.

What I've learned is to say "thank you" for being asked questions often enough that I feel obliged to really dig for new ways to answer them. I am also thankful that I have been reminded to go through my old boxes, flip through notebooks, and think more about my process.

Now if I could only remember not to jot down notes to myself on paper napkins that I end up accidentally tossing in the trash . . .


Donis Casey said...

What a great idea! I may steal the concept the next time I have to come up with a topic for a talk. Another thing authors do...give each other ideas.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...


Feel free to steal. They seemed to enjoy it.


Eileen Goudge said...

"What's your process?" is the question I get asked most when I do author events. I think this is true for most authors. What I find interesting is that the answer for each of us is different. That reminds me: I recently had an opportunity to ask author John Gray ("Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus")what question he gets asked so frequently it's become annoying. His answer: "The one you just asked."

Frankie Y. Bailey said...


That comment from John Gray made me laugh.