Mise en place (pour les écrivains)

I want to do some blog entries around writing craft this month, in support of my writerly sisters and brothers immersed in NaNoWriMo, where you try and bang out a 50,000-word novel in a month. For this entry, forget all the fancy artistic stuff about plot and character and symbolism, and let’s focus instead on the French expression mise en place, which is a culinary term literally meaning “putting in place,” but which I translate as “being on top of your shit.”

If you’re a chef or a cook you know what mise en place is, and you live by it. It’s the range of careful work that is required before service begins: all the chopping of raw ingredients, all the checking and double-checking of prep lists, all the sharpening of knives and arranging of utensils so they are in easy reach. It’s the tons of mental and physical preparation required before the work itself can begin.

Cutting carrots on the bias is NOT something most writers have to do, most days.
Cutting carrots on the bias is NOT something most writers have to do, most days.

I don’t think I got to be any good as a writer until I learned to embrace the notion of mise en place.

So much of what happens during the writing day can’t be planned or controlled. You have a vague idea, or maybe even a good idea, of what is going to happen in the chapter or scene you’re working on, but you don’t know for sure. You discover as you go, and this uncertainty is thrilling but also terrifying and overwhelming—the idea of sitting down before the blank page ,or the page covered in your own scribbled notes, or the page covered in a first draft that you know isn’t working yet.

So to counter that sense of the unknown—which can lead to a feeling of helplessness, which can lead to going to check your email or whatever you do to throw time down the gutter—the counterweight to that weightlessness and wildness is controlling as much as can possibly be controlled.

Meaning, don’t just sit down and say “I’m going to write today. Here I go!” And then, what, you lean and loaf under a tree like Whitman and wait for the muse to start singing?

No way. You sit down with a goddamn plan.

“For 45 minutes today, from 9:15 to 10, I’m going to work on the first chapter. Then, from 10:05 to 11:30, I’m going to revise my outline. From 11:30 to 12 I am going to do some research on oil rigs, because I am writing a scene about a roustabout.”

That’s mise en place. Time is one of your ingredients, right? It’s your resource. Use it with intention.

And yes, of course, if at 10:00 there’s more you want to do on the first chapter, if you’ve caught the spark of the idea and your fingers are on fire, you keep going. That’s the beauty of being your own boss! But start with walls, and let the walls fall away when you hit them. That’s a lot better than spending 9:15 to 10:00 asking yourself where to start, trying to gin yourself up to get going, and then checking Facebook…and then checking Twitter…and then putting in a laundry…

Know, too, before you begin, all the nitty-gritty mundane details of the writing process. Where are you going to work tomorrow? Library? Home office? Starbucks? Is there an outlet there, or do you have enough battery power? Is there a bathroom you feel comfortable with? Do people talk too much there? Are you going to run into a friend who wants to (God forbid) settle in for a chat?

Make your plan. Start the day exactly where you want to be. That’s mise en place! Preparation. Intention. Control—control in this case of your physical environment. Know where you’re going to be, so that there will be no unwelcome distractions (which are really welcome distractions, because by trying to write in a bad place, you have probably purposefully sabotaged yourself so as not to do the hard thing, which is sit and actually write.)

It’s weird, but there is always a part of your brain, when you sit down to write, that wants to be doing something else. Something easier, emotionally and intellectually. Something you might get paid for, in some immediate logical salary-based way. One of your jobs as a writer—not as a fancy-pants artiste, but as a real serious day-to-day craftsperson Writer— is to find strategies to trick that shifty, nervous, terrified person and keep her at her desk.

So that’s today’s strategy: mise en place.

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“They always assumed I was writing a children’s book” — Laura McHugh on writing while parenting

My fellow midwesterner Laura McHugh just published her debut novel, a wickedly dark murder novel called The Weight of BloodI thought she was a perfect person to invite on the Reverse Blog Tour to talk about something I think about all the time: how to reconcile the writing side of one’s life with the parenting side. Because you do, if you’re a dad or a mom and also a writer—especially a mystery writer—then you’ve got these two parts, the part that imagines bloody scenarios and broods over complicated crimes, and the part that changes diapers and carefully applies sunscreen. 

Here’s Laura:

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Look at Laura McHugh’s enigmatic smile. Is she planning a playdate or a murder?

I didn’t tell many people that I was writing a book. I had recently lost my longtime job as a software developer and given birth to my second daughter, and I dreaded the pitying looks people would give me if I admitted that I spent every spare moment working on a novel that would probably never be published

At that point in my life, everyone saw me as a stay-at-home mom. Some of the other stay-at-home moms did not even know I’d had a full-time career writing software, and I was hesitant to tell them that my children were not my sole focus—that the moment my daughters fell asleep each night, I opened a seemingly innocuous Word document that began with the discovery of a girl’s dismembered body in a tree.

Once I let people in on my secret writing life, they almost always assumed that I was writing a children’s book. Oh, that’s great! Have you read it to your kids? (No, they’re not quite old enough for stories about backwoods human traffickers.)

I was surprised that everyone expected me to write stories for children. I wondered if I should be insulted that no one assumed I wrote werewolf erotica or biographies or hardboiled crime fiction. I mean, I did have children, and I read lots of kiddie books, but just because I spent every waking minute immersed in diapers and sippy cups and Barney songs didn’t mean that was all I thought about. Perhaps, on the surface, I didn’t appear to be the type of person who would write something so dark. What many of my acquaintances didn’t know was that I’ve always had a penchant for twisted tales. I grew up reading Stephen King and Shirley Jackson. Even when it comes to kids’ books, I tend to favor stories about monsters and ghosts and witches. I’ve read Goodnight Goon to my kids more times than Goodnight Moon.

This is not a sippy cup.

To my amazement, the book that I wrote while my children slept was published. It went out into the world, where anyone could read it. People saw that I hadn’t written a picture book. They knew that The Weight of Blood was dark, and unsettling, and that these dark, unsettling things had come out of me, the mother of two sweet little girls. There were a few awkward moments, like when you realize that your in-laws, your kids’ teachers and babysitters, and the priest at your church have all read a sex scene you wrote. I had to own it. Yes, this is me, this is the sort of thing that lurks in my head and demands to be put down on paper.

I can write about horrible crimes and still chat about potty training and playdates with all the other mommies.

***

Thanks, Laura!

I actually think this is a pretty gendered aspect of our profession; as cheerful and goofy a dad as I am, I doubt anyone is shocked, exactly, to discover that I write very dark stories—I think women, and especially moms, are just assumed by society to be cheerful and nurturing, inside and out.  

Interestingly, women have ALWAYS been notably proficient and successful at this business—I’m not an expert, but I bet there are more famous female names in mystery and crime fiction than other literary forms. (From Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers to PD James and Patricia Highsmith to Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, right on down to Gillian Flynn.) 

I’d love thoughts on this from my fellow writers and parents, of all genders—meanwhile, get to know Laura McHugh, and come meet me on tour, starting in Indianapolis on July 12. 

 

 

 

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MORE things that changed my life

The nice folks at Crimespree magazine asked for five cultural artifacts (books, movies, music, etc.) that “changed my life,” and the list I came up with will surprise no one who has known me for any length of time: Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Ira Levin, John Le Carré.

Wolf Hall
this book will make your head fall off, it’s so good.

The only thing is, I’m a little mortified, reviewing the piece, at its conspicuous maleness. For the record, I could and probably should have included Patricia Highsmith (“The Talented Mr. Ripley” and its sequels), Hilary Mantel (“Wolf Hall”, “Bring up the Bodies”), Lucinda Williams (“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”), George Eliot (“Middlemarch,” “Silas Marner”) and yes, Jane Austen (uh, “Sense and Sensibility”)

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The great Ms. Austen, sans sea monsters.

It’s a fun thing to think about, for sure, works of art that changed your life, or at least changed your perception of yourself or of the world.

Anyway—shit, I forgot P.D. James. I gotta go back and add P.D. James!

 

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Let’s call it the Plot/Pants Fallacy

For those of you who are preparing for this year’s NANOWRIMO  (National Novel Writing Month, where participants are given tools and tips and encouragement to bang out a book-length work of fiction in just one month) I have just a quick piece of advice, which is that this whole “plotter versus pantser” thing is just a big pile of horseshit.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I say “plotter versus pantser”, you’re probably better off. There is this supposed dichotomy between plotters on the one hand, who decide in advance, in detail, what they’re going to write, and then write it; and, on the other hand, pantsers, who fly by the seat of their guess-whats, opening up their golden conduit to the muse and letting the ideas come willy nilly and then just slapping them into place.

My awareness of this distinction comes from doing blog interviews, where people ask with apparent seriousness, “which kind of writer are you? A plotter or a pantser?”

The question is flawed. The question is not, “are you a plotter or a pantser?”, the question is “how do you develop and maintain a healthy balance between these two complementary and crucial components of your process?”

For me, I start by writing a shitload.

Let me say that better: I get an idea I’m excited about, and I launch in, sailing on the wind of the idea for as long as the wind holds—maybe it’s a chapter, maybe it’s twenty pages, maybe it’s just a few exhilarating hours where the force is strong in me, the idea keeps racing forward, and I am just galloping along trying to keep up with it.

burton-heated-pants
Some pants.

If you are a writer for whom that exhilarating white-hot feeling lasts long enough to write a whole novel, then I say peace to you and godspeed—and I will tell you what the pediatrician told my wife when she reported that our daughter was sleeping through the night at three months: Don’t tell the others, because they will burn you for a witch. 

But usually, you feel lucky when the white-heat-exhilaration segment of the program lasts long enough to get that great idea on paper, to establish the opening scenes, to get a good strong sense of what this world is and where it might go. And, crucially, this is where a lot of people stop. How many marvelous ideas have been abandoned somewhere at the end of chapter three? At that moment where self-styled “pantsers” run out of steam, where their metaphorical pants fall off, and they figure they’ll go and check their email real quick, and leave their great idea to die, forgotten, on a fallow field.

So here’s what you do: you stop, there, and you outline. (By the way, I’m using a form I call the pretend-second-person, where you say “you” instead of “I”, to presume that your own preferences and habits are universal). But it’s not a solid rock, carve it in stone outline. You can’t know yet everything that will happen in the entire story,and you shouldn’t try and force yourself to know. It’s loose. It’s bare bones. It’s “here are ten basic story beats, here are three moments of conflict, here are one-sentence descriptions of each of the, oh, let’s say, 25 chapters”.

WHITEHEAT
I’m talking about the inimitable sensation of writerly exuberance, not the Cagney movie.

While you are making the outline, though, you will make discoveries—you will find new ideas—you will get flickers of the white heat, and one of them will drive you back to the draft with a revived passion.

You make discoveries in the outline and bring them into the draft, and then when you are working on the draft you make discoveries which you then build into the outline. Both documents are provisional, both are rough drafts, both grow together.

Because, look, when you get that white-hot feeling that says I have to write that’s when you know you want to be a writer. When you implement a set of  strategies (i.e. building a provisional outline and then tacking back and forth between it and the draft), strategies that allow you to write in the absence of the white-hot feeling, that’s when you are a writer.

 

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Countdown Cities

The Countdown City book tour, just concluded, was my first time doing a book tour of any sort, and I found the experience to be exhilarating, exhausting, ego-boosting, mortifying, boring, joyful, all sorts of different things. It was definitely mostly a positive experience, and even the negative aspects—I’m not the best traveler, for one thing, and not all of the events were jam-packed, which can be anxiety-provoking—even with those negatives, it’s the sort of life experience (much like publishing a book in the first place) that for such a long time seemed completely unattainable, that I’d be a fool to  dwell on the negatives. A book tour! Holy moly! You dig what I’m saying?

 

images-1Highlights include watching the Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn movie The Watch, late at night in my Portland hotel room, abiding by the universal law that demands that one must watch a shitty comedy that one would not normally watch, when alone in a hotel room late at night. Although, you know what? It wasn’t half bad—although not nearly as good as the cup of Stumptown coffee I had the next morning, at 5:45, when I woke up and wandered around the city, taking advantage of being on East Coast time, internally, to get an eyeful of a beautiful place.

 

Most of the highlights, though, are from the bookstores, themselves; which, just by the way, all seem to be doing amazingly. Powell’s in Portland was packed with shoppers.  Eliot Bay, in Seattle, has this gorgeous space in a super hip and bustling neighborhood, where I ate artisanal ice cream served by hipsters, and briefly fantasized that I had moved back to Brooklyn. Gibson’s, in my beloved Concord, New Hampshire, is in the process of expanding to a bigger space.

So, all of which is to say that the death of independent booksellers, at least in my very limited sample, has been greatly exaggerated. And thank you to all the super-nice store owners and store clerks…especially at Anderson’s, in Naperville, where store policy is to give one free book to every visiting author—a policy I ruthlessly exploited by getting the new fourth volume in Robert Caro’s massive, and expensive, multivolume biography of LBJ.

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While I’m thanking people: thank you, Patrick, the kid in Cincinnati to whom I hand sold a copy of The Last Policeman while he was getting coffee and I was working on book three in the trilogy at the Joseph-Beth cafe before my reading. Good luck at college, Patrick, and I think things will work out with your girlfriend, even though she lives in Texas.

 

Thanks to the family of five who came to see me in Seattle because mom liked Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, but who ended up buying copies of Policeman and Countdown City AND my middle-grade mysteries for their charming nine year old. Dig it, big sister.

Thanks to basically everybody in the city of Concord, New Hampshire, where I got to read at the great Gibson’s, eat at the Corner View Restaurant (the model for the Somerset Diner, in the books), and talk on the radio with Brady Carlson at the local public radio station, who plays with his little boy in West Park, the playground where McConnell chases down the smirking kid and yells “stop, motherfucker” in The Last Policeman.

And yes, I did go to the McDonald’s and use the bathroom where Peter Zell’s body was found. I didn’t intend to, I just had to go and I remembered it was there.

Gibson's

But now I’m home, where my family is, and where I have a lot of work left to do on The Last Policeman book III (as yet untitled, so don’t ask—seriously, don’t, I’m really anxious about it.). This fall I’m going to be popping up here and there here at home in Indianapolis—at the fall book festival, at a Butler University charity event called the Harvest of Writers, and a couple other things. So if you’re in Indy, come say hi. If you’re not, hope to see you next summer.

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This just in from Luddite Land

So let me just add, further to my post about the Puddy Principle, that my antipathy to the internet, as distinct from all the other forms of distraction that plague writers, is founded on more than a recognition that by its natural depths—links leading on to links—it has a special power to pull us further and further from our work.

There is in addition an insidiousness about the internet that is easy, at this point, to forget about, because we have all so thoroughly integrated it into our lives. The insidiousness I’m referring to has to do with the simple fact—positive, negative, or neutral—that much (most?) of what you see online is backed by capitalist interests: whether it’s the website of the New York Times or someone’s blog about vegan cooking or a site using pictures of attractive women to sell funny t-shirts, someone stands to make money every time you click on the site. A site is more or less successful, more or less valuable to potential advertisers, depending on how often people look at it.

bearwithme
I told you there was a bear with me.

Who cares, right? You should, if you’re a writer, professional, quasi-, aspiring, or otherwise. Because your product—bear with me here—is not the work that you create, it is your focus & attention.

Ultimately, of course, you transform that focus & attention into short stories or novels or memoirs. But your natural resource, the thing which you possess which is worth money to you, is your ability to focus and get something done. You can tell me that the thing which you possess which is worth money to you is your ideas, but ask anybody on the street—ask a four-year-old—ask your mailman or the lifeguard at the pool—everybody has an idea.

The thing you possess which is worth money to you is your ability to turn your idea into a finished product, and that requires focus & attention.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ledger, what Internet companies are selling—keep bearing with me—are not the products you see advertised. What Facebook, for example, is selling, is your focus & attention. They are saying to other companies, “this person is going to spend forty-five minutes today on our site, and we would love to sell you that forty-five minutes.”

So let me put two and two together (and thank you for bearing with me)—you, writer or would-be writer, have a precious natural resource: your focus & attention. Your goal is to monetize that resource, by using focus & attention to turn ideas into stories, which you can then turn into money.

The internet’s goal is to take that natural resource from you and monetize it for themselves. 

In conclusion: don’t let them do that.

 

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Counterintuitive truth of the day: have kids, write more

There is an unwritten rule that if you have three days to take a final pass at the copyedited manuscript of your newest novel before it is printed and any errors become permanent and irrevocable (sort of), then your daughter will vomit at school for no particular reason, and need to be picked up, so she can hang out in your office with you and promise promise not to be annoying, but she just wants to play on your computer for just, like, a half hour?

I’ve told the story before about how while writing The Last Policeman I had this huge, late-in-the-game revelation (i.e. that the novel should be told in the first person present tense, not in the closely observed third-person that I had been doing), started excitedly on what was going to be a huge difficult rewrite, and then my daughter (a different daughter than the one who is downstairs now eating toast and reading a mystery chapter book) was born the next day, somewhat delaying my progress.

But I can’t complain—I’m not complaining. When I was younger and single and childless, I would always tell myself, I’ll write later, because there  always was a later. After work—at night—I would drink a beer and stare at my computer for endless useless hours, pretending to be a writer. Now, with a busy family and endless calls on my time, I can little afford to let any spare minute lie fallow. Give me a random half hour, give me a full day (that never happens), and I will use it, somehow. That’s the gift that my beautiful children have given me.

Along with countless unnameable small joys and innumerable communicable illnesses.

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the puddy principle

Asked by student writers for one piece of advice, I always say “turn off the Internet while you’re writing.”  To explain why, I invoke what I call the Puddy Principal.

Patrick_Warburton_by_Gage_Skidmore
Patrick Warburton, aka David Puddy

Those of us who were active television watchers in the Seinfeld era will recall Elaine’s on-again-off-again boyfriend, a saturnine dimwit named David Puddy.

In one of my favorite scenes, Elaine (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, of course) has broken up with Puddy for the zillionth time, and is now sitting in her apartment trying not to call him. The scene is basically a short play that’s Elaine thinking in voice-over. She’s thinking about how glad she is to have broken up with Puddy; and then she thinks “oh, no, I think I left my glove at Puddy’s…I better call him”. And as she reaches for the phone, she goes—with a slight-but-obvious disappointment—“oh, there’s my glove.” Then: “That is so funny, I almost called Puddy about my glove, but then I found it!” Quick beat, then: “You know who loves funny stories?” [reaching for the phone] “David Puddy.”

EastGraySquirrel
A squirrel.

We’re all like that, now, with the Internet: try as we might to stay away, we take any excuse to return to go back. I’ll start in rough-drafting a scene, and I write a squirrel scampering across a lawn and I’ll think I better make sure squirrels are native to the part of New England where this scene takes place, and click on Safari. It’s insane, of course, the idea that I can’t proceed with my piece of fiction until I’m sure that I’ve got the fauna properly geolocated—it’s just that I’d rather be doing something easy (reading about squirrels on Wikipedia) than something difficult and emotionally draining (pressing on with my writing).

The real problem is that once you’ve given in and called Puddy—i.e. gone onto the web—you don’t just look up the squirrels and then log off. Of course not! You click on the full list of Woodland Creatures Native to Vermont, then you email your brother a fun factoid about beavers, and then you click on a banner ad about Funny T-shirts (because who doesn’t like a  funny T-shirt) and then suddenly it’s an hour and a half later, and you’re checking your Facebook status and your novel is where you left it, softly weeping, wishing you would come back and finish the part about the squirrel.

Bottom line: writing is extremely difficult, and because writers are human beings, we would prefer to do something easy to something difficult. The Internet is, for all its benefits, the greatest distraction machine ever built by mankind. And this great and terrible machine is not just in the room with you, it is the thing you write on.

So take Step One, admit you have a problem, because everybody does, and invest the in a netblocking program.

For the record, I use (and feel sort of in love with) a program called Freedom. It costs ten bucks.

 

 

 

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on writing; or, the lively art of self-delusion

I think most often this blog will deal with writing.

So here’s the process I go through, when I think of an idea for a book.

First I get tremendously excited. I feel like I have come up with the best idea of all time. In my mind I skip past all the complicated and difficult work and imagine the finished product. I imagine the astonishment that will greet the book, the critical praise to be heaped upon it. I am certain, in this first flush of possibility, that the book resulting from this new idea will make my name—my career—my fortune.

Then, second—this is usually between half an hour and a couple days later—I chastise myself for such baseless enthusiasm. How stupid, how narcissistic, how frankly ludicrous, to think so highly of oneself, and especially to think so highly of this bare wisp of an idea still requiring hours, weeks, months, years of effort. That is if I don’t discover in the meantime that someone else has already written such a book. And that’s all before this (still purely theoretical) book has to navigate the marketplace, crowded as it is with lots of lots of very very good books that have sprung from ideas much better than mine. Your audacity (I tell myself in this second phase) is obnoxious and counterproductive. Most of your ideas aren’t that clever, and even the clever ones don’t usually make it all the way to being full-fledged finished projects. You vainglorious dipshit. 

But then, in the third and final phase, I chastise myself for having chastised myself so severely in the second phase. Because here’s what I’ve realized over however long I’ve been trying to make art: at a certain level, you have to think it’s amazing. To get started, and then later to keep going, with something as a) difficult and b) uncertain as writing a book-length piece of fiction, your own insane belief in the merit of what you are writing is a necessary component of writing it.

Once we were in rehearsal for a musical for which I had written book & lyrics, and I got annoyed at an actor, because I was trying to give him new lines, and he kept arguing to keep the old ones. My composer and co-lyricist, Stephen Sislen, always wise in such matters, pointed out that that’s the actor’s job when he’s creating a role: to fall in love with the words and commit to them.

So, too, with writing. You’re allowed—encouraged!—to consider your new idea as a  shining pearl that has emerged from the mysterious depths of your self-conscious. Time will tell whether that’s true, but only your love will keep that idea alive long enough to find out. It’s your job. 

P.S. Totally unrelated: I’ve got an AMAZING idea for a new book.

 

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What’s in a name? Has anyone asked that before? I feel like maybe somebody has.

OK, so first of all, if you’re the Last Policeman superfan who created this lovingly detailed Wikipedia entry on the book, my hat is off to you to such an extent that I may never wear a hat again. There is nothing so gratifying to an author as the feeling that people are reading his work carefully, and now I know that at least one person has read this book very carefully indeed; I love that this anonymous encyclopedist correctly transcribed the name of my fictitious asteroid, 2011GV1, subscript and all.

The only thing inaccurate in this lovely entry, so far as I can tell, is the title of the forthcoming sequel, which Wikipedia now lists as Disasterland—which, to be totally fair, is sourced from this very blog, and an entry I made last week. Point is, since that time it has been brought to our (meaning mine and my publisher’s) attention that there was already a book by that title, and though you can’t copyright a title (ask Alison Bechdel, author of last year’s Are you My Mother?, which although a picture book is definitely not about a curious and melancholy baby bird, or the great Thomas Frank, who very purposefully borrowed the title of What’s the Matter With Kansas? from a much older book of the same name), we decided to switch to another title—which we then all decided we liked better anyway.

Point being, the actual title of the forthcoming second novel in The Last Policeman trilogy is (drumroll…) Countdown City. 

Now I’ll sit back and see how long it takes the masked Wikipedia writer to change it.  (Or maybe I’ll get antsy and change it myself.)

 

asteroid-2012-da14

P.S. Yes, I know there’s an asteroid coming within 75,000 miles of the Earth tis week, and if I had not been so busy the last few days doing a furious final pass on the aforementioned Countdown City I would have written an elegant and attention-grabbing essay for someone’s editorial page about the metaphorical implications of Near Earth Objects, and in particular what they can teach us about the constant unspoken nearness of death. I’ll get the next one!

 

 

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