Friday, May 29, 2015

What I Know for Sure

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    13Nothing 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.


  1. Thank you, Rachel, for those very wise words and congratulations on your new book.
    Something I’ve learned about life? Kindness counts. Friends are a gift to be cherished and laughter is the smile of the soul.

  2. RACHELLLLLLLLL!!! HAAAAAAAAANK!!! Damn! I would've won the Billings Preaching Prize with this blog today. On Sunday my altar call would've scared the cross off the wall! And nobody woulda snuck off to help the collation ladies downstairs in the kitchen. Nope. Nope. Nope, nope, nope. Wow. And thank you.

  3. Wow, Rachel. Great tips, great writing. Thank you. I clearly need to add your books to my TBR pile. What I've learned? Corollary to Joan's: don't be a jerk. Also, live with no regrets. I took a big risk to leave my day job two years ago to write crime fiction full time - and now I have three multi-book contracts and am loving it. But it was scary!

  4. Wonderful Rachel, thanks for visiting to let us share what you've learned!

  5. Wise words, Rachel. Posting this on my fridge for whenever I take myself too seriously or fall into the pit of despond. Right now feels like I'm flying without, not sure what the book will end up being. And my advice is always the same: just hold your nose and write.

  6. Rachel, thank you.
    What a wise woman you are, and I appreciate you sharing your wisdom with us.

    I'm printing this out and intend to keep it close by. Like in the very front of the notebook I use to jot down ideas and information about my characters.

    A life's lesson I've learned and try very hard to live by - "Take time to do what makes your soul happy."

    A writing lesson I've learned - you're not going to please everyone, don't try. Write for yourself first, foremost and always.

    I cannot wait to "meet" Detective Elouise Norton, so I'm off to order Land of Shadows.

  7. Oh I love this sooo much, Rachel and Hank. I just shared it on my FB page (with a warning that I may stalk you at Bouchercon until Hank introduces us!) Just kidding. Well sort of. Would love to meet you and have you sign one of your books if you go to B'con this year.
    Like Kaye, I'm tempted to print this out and carry it around with me!

  8. Welcome, Rachel! That post is the best — I'm going to bookmark it and come back to it often. Now off to get Land of Shadows!

  9. Awesome post! You're like the cheerleader for the damned.

    I'm sharing this everywhere.

  10. I love this with the heat of a thousand suns (yes, Ramona - I'm still using that phrase). Pardon me for a second while I go off to add you to my TBR pile. That snippet alone is enough.

    This is such great advice. All of it. I will definitely save it for those "fraud" moments when I think I suck and no one will ever read anything I wrote.

    I've picked up "If not now, when?" and "Just hold your nose and write" from Hank and Hallie. And I'm a firm believer in "if you want to do it, you'll find the time." What have I learned? Every day that I wake up and get to write is a gift. Don't waste it!

  11. Sometimes it's like the Jungle Reds can read my mind.

    I am in the middle of Rachel's first book right now, and let me tell you, you all want to read this book. It's so very good.

    As for life lessons: Life is a journey, not a destination.

  12. What a great list, Rachel. And Ramona: cheerleader for the damned. Is that a good thing, or not?

    The most important thing I've learned is "let it be". Things, even really bad things, happen for a reason. We may not know or understand the reason right now, but it will eventually come clear, and if we are open to it we'll see that the Higher Power knows better than we do. Trying to force our square peg lives into round holes is an exercise in futility.

  13. Thanks for reading, y'all, and for sharing things you also know. We always hear how writing is a solo thing, introverts, and all the rest. While this is true, I've started to notice that writing is also like the Great Barrier Reef. We all learn and share and take what we've learned and shared to build these incredible things called Books.

  14. Wow, it's like you've read my mind! I'm heading straight to Amazon to look up your books! What have I learned about life? Remember the good parts and forget the rest. Going over and over something that made you angry/sad/unhappy will only ruin the moment you could be enjoying right now.

  15. Ah, Rachel, this post makes me love you even more than I already do. I am printing it out and hanging it on my bulletin board. Loved Lou the first time around, and I'm champing at the bit to read SKIES OF ASH, which is sitting on my bedside table. Wishing you a lifetime full of terrific book deals!!

  16. What a great commentary on writing. I am going to print it off and re-read it whenever I get blue. Thanks, Rachel. Time to check out your books!

  17. "Cheerleader for the damned".... Ramona, that's fantastic!

  18. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful post. Thanks to Rachel, whose books I will now go order, and thanks to Reds for bringing it to us. What have I learned? In the writing life, it's the one Rachel and everyone else knows: books get written by gluing fingers to keyboard and butt to desk chair. There is no other way. IN life? I'd go with never pass up a chance to celebrate, to do something that makes you happy, to do something kind. Because the time when you can't comes along no matter what.

  19. Rachel, you had me at "Resentments are quiet, evil things--like snails in a vegetable garden." Fabulous. And isn't it great that reading someone else's perfect sentence can make us want to jump up and down with delight???

    Your whole list is fabulous. Printing it, putting it next to the computer. (And let me tell you about my whole box of Pentel EnerGel VIOLET liquid gel pens...)

    AND ordering your book!

    Just one life thing, Hank? That's so hard. But--read books. Reading makes bad days bearable, and good days fabulous. Books are always your friends. You can meet new ones, and you can go back to old ones. And books keep us human.

  20. Oh, hell yes! If this post doesn't fire you up and get you shouting hallelujah, then you must be devoid of breath or brain activity. Rachel Howzell Hall, I have officially fallen in love with you. The only possible next step is to order your books and read them. Oh, and I will be joining Kristi in stalking you at Bouchercon this fall. I have already begun my stalking by checking the Bouchercon attendee list, and I'm not worried that your name is listed yet, because there is no way that you are going to disappoint me and other by not attending. Powering up my super will ray. I think that the number of people here, including me, who want to print out this post today indicates what an effective writer and personality you are, Rachel. Heck, I'm even going to go out and finally buy the new printer I need just to be able to keep this post close.

    The snippet that Hank offers up to us is one of those moments in reading that you just have to stop and marvel at the perfection of words, their beauty and power. As Hank says, "Ah." It's a reaction that expresses the supreme satisfaction of a reader, the same reaction I had at the end of your post, Rachel.

    A lesson learned in life? Life's teachers often come in the guise of the seemingly most ordinary of individuals in the most ordinary of situations. Writing lesson for me is to write honestly, being myself and not someone I think I should be.

  21. Loved reading this post after a morning from hell doing my other job, which is the best reality check I have to motivate my writing. One thing popped out at me. It is so comforting to know others share this affliction called writing. #9 reminds me that there are others out there who would prefer a shopping trip at Staples to one at Sephoria. We may all be weird, but we are kindred.

  22. This is a fabulous post, Rachel. Thank you, thank you. I needed to read and internalize a bunch of this stuff today.

    I absolutely am going to get my hands on your books.


  23. I was just at lunch with Rachel's editor--and mine!--she's swooning over Ramona's cheerleader for the damned. Swooning! And it may go on the cover... :-)

  24. All I can say ----- is --- I agree with ALL of the comments and hope we can all take a lesson from this wonderful author and be more frank and open in our own writing!!! Thelma Straw in Manhattan - where you have to be somewhat open and frank just to exist 24 hours any day!!!!!

  25. Spectacular, Rachel. Thank you for making me laugh and making me remember I just freaking love words.

  26. Your beautifully crafted words have motivated me to find your books. Thanks for the work and wisdom!

  27. I didn't get to see this until today, and oh, Rachel, thank you! I plan to print out this blog post.