Friday, May 16, 2014

The Book That Didn’t Want to be Written, a guest blog bt Reba White Williams

 JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: "Write what you know" is a truism many authors follow, but few of them are as knowledgeable about their subjects as Reba White Williams. When she wrote Restrike, the first in a series about gallery owner Dinah Greene and her art-magazine-editor cousin, Coleman, Reba didn't just take a stroll through the Met and download a copy of ARTnews.  She tackled her art-world mysteries after a lifetime of collecting American prints, writing scholarly articles and earning a PhD. in Art History. (She also has an MBA and a masters in fiction writing. Talk about overachieving!)

Her first book did well, she got picked up by a larger publisher, and her second book, Fatal Impressions, came out less than a month ago to excellent reviews. The picture of contentment, right? turns out even the most well-prepared author isn't immune from struggling with The Book That Will Not Be Written...

          I enjoyed writing my first two novels. The words flowed swiftly and easily like butter melting on a hot plate. I told my friends how easy it was to write. How much I enjoyed the experience. That I laughed out loud at the antics of my characters and couldn’t imagine having any problems writing. I was ever so smug.

I began my third book in January, and within days I knew this book was different.  The words wouldn’t come. The sentences weren’t there. I lost a completed section and had to rewrite it. I was constantly interrupted by trivia. I caught a hideous cold with drippy eyes and nose that led to an infection that led to something worse, and finally, minor surgery. I couldn’t see to read or write and I struggled to get words on paper.  My deadline was April 1. I feared that I couldn't make it. 

          We had a series of electrical blackouts and after the second one the refrigerator went insane.  It began to make horrible noises and we couldn’t turn it off (it was built in).  For two days it screeched at me.  I could hear in every room. I couldn’t escape it.  My friend Susan wrote that she had a vision of me shooting the refrigerator, making headlines all over the country.  I sent it to my editor but accidentally sent an old version and had to send again.  When the book was finally finished, I was exhausted and drained.  I felt that the book and I had been at war.  I wondered if the book tucked on a shelf somewhere was rewriting itself. Is my book an escaped Stephen King novel?

          Have other writers had this experience?  What can I do if the next book challenges me?  A friend suggests hanging garlic near where I am writing to fend off witches.  Any better ideas?

How about you, dear readers? Do you have any superstitions or charms to make your writing go smoothly? And what do you do when the work just won't come? We have three copies of Fatal Impressions to give away to some lucky commentors, so be sure to join in the discussion!

You can find out more on Reba White Williams' remarkable career, and read excerpts of her Coleman and Dinah Greene mysteries on her website. You can friend Reba on Facebook, follow her on Twitter as @RebaWWilliams, and include her in your circle at Google+.


  1. I suspect that every writer has, at some time or other, struggled to complete a book. I'm curious to know if, after so much struggle, you are happy with how the book turned out . . . or are you simply happy that it's done?

  2. Having the right desk screen photo is key. When bad things are happening to my writing routine or in my work, I change my screen photo to something refreshing -- currently a nice Antoine Blanchard oil of Paris streets. If my work's going too well and I need a dose of reality, I plug in a dark Van Gogh with crows and dying corn stalks. Mood adaptation, I call it. And yes I know it's crazy, but it's working a lot better than booze and nicotine.

  3. Having a dual career (not to mention a life), I sometimes have to put down a book to tackle pressing legal matters. Or personal ones.

    I wrote my first novel in two months, with a month-long gap in the middle to be a lawyer. The second one took about twice as long because I had to do a lot of research-- and when I got to the end, I found I had written myself into a corner, so I stopped writing and went back to the beginning and read it-- and discovered that the key to getting out of that corner was a throw-away reference in chapter two (trust your subconscious).

    The third novel also took three months, but the gab in the middle was 8 or 9 months long, and only an absolute, no more extensions deadline got me to "bells and weddings," (as Chelsea Quinn Yarbro once referred to one's
    final chapter.)

    Life-- sick dogs, other obligations,failed appliances-- intrudes. That said, I have discovered (on the internet!) that modern refrigerators sometimes require a reboot after a power outage. Do they have a button for that? Of course not. You have to pull the thing out, remove the plug, wait 30 seconds, and plug it back in. Who designs these things?

  4. That was "GAP in the middle." BAD computer posted before I could proofread.

  5. Whenever I fail to recognize my hubris and self-correct, the universe does it for me big time. Hopefully you have paid your pound of flesh with novel number three and all your future works will be back to flowing easily.

    I am "fortunate" that I write to my own timetable, so when I am struggling with something I put it down and pick up something else to work on. Eventually my subconscious works out the problem.

    ~ Jim

  6. Welcome, Reba!

    So sorry you had such a tough time. It's especially hard when it's your health.

    Sometimes with illness, you just have to focus on getting well. That said, when I'm really struggling, a change of scene does wonders — finding a new cafe or going to the library often does the trick....

  7. Reba, I DO think your refrigerator escaped from a Stephen King novel. Yikes! Sounds like a short story...

    My desk screen photos (Yup, Jack - I agree, it's important) are images of my granddaughter. She makes me smile and keeps things in perspective.

    Ellen, you wrote a novel in two months??

  8. Hallie, yes, that first one was easy, because I could draw on (and make fun of) all my legal experience, and it was set on a sexist planet (I had a lot of experience with that, too!) The one set on the waterworld was harder, because I had to learn a lot (more than a lot) about oceans and dolphins; the one set on the medieval planet was even worse, because I not only had to learn all about heraldry, but the plot kept vanishing.

    The hardest book was the nonfiction book about the Constitution because it had been 40 years since I'd studied Constitutional Law, and I had to bring myself up to speed, and to do that, I had to FIND the right books. And I had a ridiculously short deadline. And the editor refused to give me any input. But thirteen weeks later, I had 85,000 words and a new area of expertise. (I wouldn't recommend it, but I'd bet this kind of experience is better than crossword puzzles for the aging brain).

    I think this was only possible because I had sarcastic Barry Ulanov for that required junior year course for English majors, the one that demanded a research paper every week. Class was on Wednesdays, and I stayed up all night every Tuesday typing, but it turns out to have been good practice at fast composition.

  9. When you say a few months, do you mean 8 hour days? 12? 20?

  10. Reba, my heart goes out to you. I just put a stake through the heart of the book that would not die myself. Now, I'm waiting for beta reader's comments before rereading to revise. Terrible illness and the other commitments that piled up with that kept interrupting. It felt like I told my agent, "The book is almost done," a million times. At our recent book launch, Sally Goldenbaum said, "After 20 books, I suddenly forgot how to write a book." I think we all stumble into that nightmare sooner or later.

    Here's hoping the next book comes a lot easier--for all of us!

  11. Reba, I can sympathize with life conspiring to drag you down. But like Jim above, I too write on my own schedule, and I am writing two books at the same time, which means I move from one to the other - for me, it's the best method possible. I like to write, and then take breaks for my subconscious to have a turn while I'm working on something else, then return to the piece fresh and inspired. That said, I do write every day - and I try to stay as disciplined as possible.

    As for when I'm writing and stuck, I read poetry. The flow and rhythm of the language often helps me move forward.

    Your series looks wonderful - I love the art world, and I look forward to digging reading your books!

  12. Denise Ann, was that for me? Four a.m. till maybe ten or eleven a.m., then into the office (now I work from home, which is both good and bad) for articles and/or law stuff, meetings, etc. Then an hour or so of proofing the morning's printout late at night. But only weekdays.

    For me it's a progression. I can only write fiction (and be other people) early in the morning before I am "me." I can write articles after fiction, but not after law. So, fiction first, articles second, law (stuffy, precise) third.

    For the Constitution book, it was pretty much eight hours a day, seven days a week, because I was on (actually, a little bit over) such a tight deadline. When I finished it, I told my friends I felt like I'd been through finals, and I wanted another degree.

    I have great respect for people who can finish a book without an imposed deadline. I will find ANYTHING else to do (including cleaning the kitchen cupboards) if I don't have a deadline from my publisher.

  13. Lawrence Block, in his go-to book on writing, TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT, says writers block is sometimes your creative mind stalling you while it works the story out. He advises letting go, not pressuring your - I think he calls it a muse, and Stephen King calls it the Boys in the Basement - and pursue the kinds of activities that allow your creative mind to flow: exercise, trying something new, switching to another creative task like drawing or playing music.

    I like to organize things when I'm feeling good and stuck. I put on some music, tackle the pantry or the breakfront, and sure enough, I often have the next scene when I return to work. There's something about organizing; it takes a certain type of low-lever concentration that seems to free up the higher mind.

  14. This is my worst nightmare, trying to write a series but running out of ideas after one or two books.

    I don't know how you all do it, consistently turning out interesting, creative, intriguing, and just plain fun books, one after another, and at the same time creating believable story lines, tension and character development. Thank you all for sharing the amazing production of your nimble minds.

  15. Hi Reba, welcome! Glad to meet you and your novels here.

    I'm in a similar bad place with my current WIP (excluding health and demonic fridge issues, thankfully)--I'm in revision mode and the WIP is such a mess I barely know what to do. What is currently helping me is backing off a little and rereading the manuscript (printed out, crucial). This helps because I do see that the story has merit, which buoys me up.

    Also, when I'm snarled up, I open up Excel and get analytical--get that old left braining working. I love my Excel spreadsheet -- lists the scenes, all pertinent info, and ideas for revision.

  16. Reba, that refrigerator does sound quite scary, and what a distraction it would be. Your series sounds wonderful. Art and murder. What a great combination! I'm glad everything is back on track with you, and I wish you much success with what appears to be a winning formula.

    Although I don't write novels, I do write book reviews, and, believe it or not, book reviewers can also get writer's block. There have been times when I just have to put a review to the side and come back to it. Often the best books are the hardest to review, as I so want to convey how truly special the book is and am afraid it won't come across.

  17. OH, Reba, forgive me--but maybe you are trying to be too good. Just write ANYTHING. And then, as you do that, just let go. It'll be fine, it's not a test, it's just--a first draft.

    Sometimes it helps me to tell the story to Jonathan. I'll say--here's what happens..and then talk.And as I talk, what happens next just comes out of my mouth..

    And finally--ask yourself: "Why do I care?" about his scene, this character, this sentence. If you figure that out, you'l see what comes next.

    Is it a little bit helpful to know it happens to EVERYONE???


  18. Garlic for witches? 1-How do you know it's witches that are the problem and 2-Why garlic? I thought that was for vampires. Maybe, if it IS a witch, she is Italian and LIKES garlic. Then what?
    Hm, this could be a whole other storyline...

  19. I had the same experience with my third book, Reba. Everything that could go wrong did. I was never so happy to hit send! Glad you made it. I'm sure it will be great!

  20. Thank you so much for all your wonderful comments! Joan, thankfully I'm very happy with how Fatal Impressions turned out.

    Perhaps I'll tackle the refrigerator short story soon!

  21. loved restrike, can't wait to read fatal impressions. it's always nice when an author writes multiple books with characters i like............