Monday, April 11, 2011

Are We Ever REAL Writers?

DEB: The next few weeks we'll be celebrating "Awards Month" here on Jungle Red, with special attention to the Agathas and the Edgars. Julia Spencer-Fleming will be interviewing the Agatha Best First Novel nominees over the next two weeks, and Hallie Ephron will be filling us in on juicy tidbits from the Edgars.

AND--drum roll here!!--our very own
Hank Phillipi Ryan's Drive Time is an Agatha nominee for Best Novel. I'll be talking to Hank about Drive Time this Thursday, so stay tuned.

AND--cymbals this time--this Tuesday, Jungle Red's
Julia Spencer-Fleming and Rosemary Harris both have new books out, One Was a Soldier from Julia and Slugfest from Ro. I'm expecting both in my mailbox on Tuesday morning--Hope you are, too!

But with all the well-deserved acclaim accorded our authors and the other nominees this months, I've kept thinking about something
Maya Angelou said a good many years ago--"Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written eleven books, but each time I think, 'Uh, oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody and they're going to find me out.'"

And I wondered--do any of us, no matter how many awards or nominations or any other kind of public acclaim we receive, ever feel like
"real" writers?

I know I don't. Once upon a time I thought that once you had written
"a" book, writing another would surely be easy. Ha. I have written a good few books since those naive days, and I've discovered that, in fact, it never gets easier. And while for the most part I like the books I've written, I always wonder if I'll be able to pull off the next one, or if, like Maya Angelou, I'll be "found out."

Then I realized that the only time I ever feel like a
"real writer" is when I'm actually writing, when I'm in the "zone" and the words are pouring out faster than I can type them. But when that's happening, whether or not I'm a "real writer" is the last thing I think about.

So while we
LOVE awards and recognition--and we hope they encourage lots and lots of people to buy our books--they don't fundamentally change our job. It's still the writer and the blank page, and as Stefanie Pintoff so aptly quoted SJ Rozan last week, Chop Wood/Carry Water.
How about you,
Jungle Reds? Have awards changed how you feel about writing or about yourself as a writer?

ROBERTA/LUCY: (Trying to get used to the new name:)...Deb, you're right, awards don't do a thing when you're sitting in front of the screen or the notebook.

Although anything that boosts a writer's confidence a little helps grease the cogs, don't you think?

Writing is very hard. I find first drafts particularly so--lots of voices suggesting that the story or the way I've written it are ridiculous! I think the one thing we learn as we go along is to set the voices aside and patiently remind ourselves that it probably isn't as bad as we thought. And even if it is, it can be fixed!

I loved the chop wood/carry water reference too. SJ is such a smart lady!

JAN: It seems to me that most writers are always looking for ways to minimize their achievements, so awards and reviews help us feel legitimate. But I think the thing that helps me write best when I'm staring at the screen to is giving myself license to write poorly -- knowing full well, correcting writing is where the fun is.

RHYS: Like many writers I am completely fragile about what I'm writing. As I write each book I go through a few flashing highs of "this is brilliant" to many despairing lows of "this is rubbish. Nobody will like it. My sales will plummet and I'll never get another contract."

So I keep my awards on a shelf halfway down the stairs. I have to pass it every time I come up from my office to the kitchen for more coffee/cookies etc. And it's a great reminder and morale booster that I can write books that people like.

ROSEMARY: I do have my awards certificates framed - one is next to a plastic plug-in angel and the other is....somewhere, so they definitely mean something to me. But I have to say it was the comment of a longtime publishing executive who actually used the words "you're a real writer" that made me feel like one.

Yes, the first box of books is thrilling and passing by a shop window that has some of my titles on display is wonderful, but it was that gentleman's remark that did the trick because he had worked with so many legendary writers.

HANK: Heck yes, it matters to me. Oh, I'm too..something. My parents were always saying things like-you got an A-? How come you didn't get an A? But the wonderful outcome of that is that I try my best ALL the time, in whatever I do. And writing is the most challenging. SO to have the pats on the back from my peers, and from readers? Gee. It honestly brings tears to my eyes.

JULIA: Jan, I agree with you; giving myself permission to write crap is sometimes the only thing that frees me the paralyzing fear of...well, writing crap.

Also, like Rhys, I see-saw wildly throughout the process of completing the book - except my "nobody will like it" boogyman is "therefore, I'll have to go back to being a
LAWYER!!" So no, sadly, winning or being nominated for awards does jack-all for the actual process of writing.

However, it is a sweet thing to be appreciated, whether that comes in the form of a teapot or a piece of paper or a reader who drove two hours to come to your library talk. And ultimately, I think that's what drives us, don't you? Having someone say,
"I loved your story?" I mean, if there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that no one pursues a writing career for the money!

DEB: I'm with Jan and Julia on the permission to write crap. My daily motto is Nora Roberts's "Bad pages are better than no pages." It's enormously liberating to give yourself permission not to be perfect. And what's amazing is that the crap pages usually--with a good bit of work--turn out to be not so bad after all.

As for being
REAL writers, I have a suspicion that writers are a bit like the Velveteen Rabbit--we only become real when we're read.

So here's to reading, and to adding many, many fabulous books to our
"To Read" stacks from the next few weeks' blogs!


  1. Oh, yea, Deb, exactly--it's such a transaction--how what we write "comes alive" when others read it. And when somne asks me about a character, it's as if they KNOW them. And isn't that amazing?

  2. I found out on Sunday that the first chapter of my unpublished WW2 mystery won 3rd place in my local writing group's first chapter contest. I got beat out by two multi-published authors, so I'm feeling pretty good with 3rd. I didn't win an award or a prize, but just knowing fellow writers liked my story and I received some great feedback.

  3. I am in the process of weeding out books to donate to the local libraries...and knowing I have to do this before they fall on me and my body is found clutching the latest Charles Todd. I know I'm a writer on most days, even when I can't get a word on the screen. "Real?" Well, when I'm published and the authors I know can see me as something other than a "fan"...maybe then.

  4. Maryann--what's your secret? I have to do just the same thing--and it's someitmes so difficult to decide what to keep.

  5. I think we make our lives that much harder when we decide to write mysteries, because then we have to deal with internal comments like, "the killer is sooo obvious, everyone's going to see through him by page 47," or, "OMG, I have to add at least two more red herrings--but where?"

  6. Sheila, we could instead write books about middle-class, middle-aged, white males suffering angst over their sex lives, their failing marriages, their lack of communication with their children, and their lack of accomplishment in their careers--and then it would be LITRATURE (sic)!

    Give me mysteries any day:-)

  7. Oh, Deb,why didn't I think of that!

  8. Such an interesting discussion. You got that right, Sheila -- you've got to make the most outlandish stuff feel credible and compelling.

    Laughing, Deb - why DON'T men write about that stuff.

    I find first draft gruesome. Oh, Deborah, Hank talks about being in that zone, too. Wish I could hang out there with you two?

  9. Hallie, I think baths are the secret:-) I can sit with my butt in the chair all day, staring at the blank screen. Then, when I give up in disgust and get in the bath, all of a sudden scenes are playing out and characters are talking to each other and the plot issue has solved itself...

    Now, if I could just figure out how to make that work all the time, without turning into a prune . . .

  10. I keep trying to convince spouse and accountant that a hot tub could be considered a business expense . . .

  11. Deb, don't we wish! It's the most luxurious..

    But really, I think it's the act of letting go that makes your mind start again, you know?

  12. Right, Hank. Walks work, too, and sometimes doing mindless things like housework or gardening. And naps . . . or at least that's my excuse.

  13. Loived Deb's definition of literature...must remember that!