Hank Phillippi Ryan: Lee Child said Rachel Howzell Hall’s “Detective Elouise Norton is the best new character you'll meet this year.” Publishers Weekly raved:
“Dead-on dialogue and atmospheric details help propel a tale full of tormenting moral issues.”
We bonded first over our shared editor—then in person, each of us talking a mile a minute, at Bouchercon. Her new book SKIES OF ASH is just out, and it is amazing. May I just say—her voice is like nothing you’ve ever read. Here’s a snippet from an earlier book:
"Resentments are quiet, evil things--snails in a vegetable garden. They chew away at your heart and you never realize that you’re the mean old lady who never smiles and yells at kids to stay off her lawn.”
Rachel’s on book tour now—check her website to find where to meet her in person. But over the past few years, she’s had some realizations. And, happily for Jungle Reds, is letting us all in on them.
What I Know For Sure… About Writing
Skies of Ash is my fifth novel, and the second of my Detective Elouise Norton series. In addition to being a novelist, I work as a fundraising writer for City of Hope, a national leader in cancer research and treatment. So, I know some things about writing. Not everything – I’m still learning -- but enough to create a list. Here’s what I’ve discovered since picking up a pen to write as a professional so many (many) years ago.
. 1. Books (and blog posts and articles) don’t write themselves. I know, right? You can have a laptop filled to capacity with Word, Scrivener, Dramatica and Page Four; you can have diagrams and tables, generators and prompts, but none of it matters if you don’t string ‘em together into sentences, chapters, pages of coherent story.
2 2. It’s all gravy. No one has to read anything you write. No one has to buy any of your books. It’s not law. No one goes to jail for ignoring you and choosing A Shore Thing. Celebrate each time someone buys something you wrote. It can always be worse.
3 3. Cops don’t outline dead bodies with chalk. Keep up with the advances in your field—be it crime, techno-thriller, even romance. It’s your job. Even if it’s fiction, readers still want to learn. So: no chalk outlines. No smell of gunpowder in the room, pistols don’t use magazines. STDs are real, yo. Russia is no longer the Soviet Union. In Skies of Ash, I turned to friends and family to learn about fire, insurance and bad marriages (heh). Take some time to learn.
4 4. Writing will make you sad. Sometimes, folks just don’t give a fuck about your writing. Sometimes, you don’t give a fuck about your writing. Sometimes, characters die because they have to. In Skies of Ash, it broke my heart to write about dead kids. It’s okay to be sad. But then, snap out of it. Write. Don’t make the good fairy take your gift away and give it to that guy over there. That guy sucks and he doesn’t deserve it.
5 5. Writing will make you happy. Sometimes, the words will roll off your mind, gush from your fingertips onto the computer keys and onto the blank white screen. Sometimes, your characters do as you ask and you fall in love with them again. Sometimes, you’ll get a great review. Maybe you’ll even win an award. That sentence? You wrote that sentence. And yes, you are da bomb.
6 6. Taxes are a bitch. Unless you’re rolling in James Patterson money, you’ll make enough in advances or royalties to piss you off. Keep receipts. Try and pay estimated taxes.
7 7. You are a bitch. See #4. Everything sucks, huh, Cranky Mc Crankypants? How much did that guy get for his ‘book’? Who gets to be on the panel at the Times Book Festival?
8 8. Writers are weird. Embrace your strangeness—how you write down names you like, or use Evernote to save all the weird ways people die. Our Google searches are obscene, and our libraries are filled with How To [insert weird thing here]. You think normal people sit down and write 100,000+ words about a possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury? You think normal people write about human sweetbreads consumed with fava beans and a nice Chianti? I think not.
9. There is a difference between a cheap pen and a Uniball. See #8 Artists use tools-don’t be ashamed of that. Wide- or college-ruled legal pads. Yellow stickie notes or lined stickie notes. Highlighters with see-through barrels or those gel ones that seemed kinda cool but are a little strange and leave crayon-like wax on your manuscript? For Valentine’s Day, my husband gave me a $60 gift card to Office Depot because he knows.
1 10. If you really want to write, you’ll find time to do it. A pox on that, ‘I really want to write but I can’t find the time.’ Malarkey. Balderdash. Did you watch the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones? Did you eat that entire pint of Chunky Monkey? Wanna know why? Cuz you wanted to. An hour and three minutes—every episode of GOT. An hour and three minutes—how long it takes to eat a pint Chunky Monkey. An hour and three minutes—how long it takes to write a decent chapter. If you wanna do something, you’ll do it.
I 11. It’s never enough. I landed a book contract. Now, I want another book contract. I have ten book reviews, I want fifty more. I want to win a Rotary Club Certificate of Excellence, an Edgar, a National Book Prize, a Pulitzer, a Nobel Prize, and… and… God. I want to be God. Or Stephen King.
1 12. Books rule. Digital or hardcover, you don’t give an effin’ eff. Cuz words: writers dig ‘em, like for real. A sentence like Junot Diaz’s ‘The half life of love is forever,’ and you just keep reading it and reading it and whistling like it’s some amalgamation of Neil Tyson Degrasse’s mind, Derek Jeter’s body, Warren Buffet’s wealth, Richard Simmons’s spirit, Angelina Jolie’s cheekbones and sea-salt caramel bacon potato chips. Because wow… words. And to those ‘writers’ who don’t actively read? We’ll know you by your flat description, your trite and clichéd sentences and your ‘dark and stormy nights.’
1 13. Nothing beats the journey. As Dickens wrote, ‘Ride on! Rough-shod if need be, smooth-shod if that will do, but ride on!’ In this life, we lose, we win, we celebrate and mourn. Health. Jobs. Relationships. The lottery. Bankruptcy. All of this, even the bad, enriches a writer, colors every page she’ll ever write. But look up from the page sometimes. Look up and look around—and marvel and wince and laugh. Because the best writing? Comes from people who live.
HANK: Oh, Rachel, you make me cry. And that is a good thing. So Reds, tell us one thing YOU’VE learned about life. I’ll start, with something I said to Jonathan the other day as we were sitting in traffic. “Enjoy this!” I said. “It’s life, it’s hilarious.” And about writing? What I say to myself: “The next fabulous idea is just around the corner. I promise, it is.
(Now I want some of those sea salt caramel bacon potato chips. If they don’t exist, let’s make some!)
RACHELHOWZELL HALL is the author of Skies of Ash (Forge), the second in her new mystery series featuring LAPD Homicide Detective Elouise Norton. The first, Land of Shadows, received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, and was included on the Los Angeles Times’ “143 Books to Read This Summer” and the U.K Telegraph’s “Top Ten Crime Books for Summer.” Rachel was also a featured novelist on NPR’s acclaimed ‘Crime in the City’ series. Her first novel, A Quiet Storm, was a featured selection of Borders’ Original Voices program, as well as an alternate selection of the Black Expressions book club. She is a writer/assistant development director at City of Hope, a national leader in cancer research and treatment. Rachel lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.