Monday, September 12, 2016

Hallie Ephron: Learning from failing

HALLIE EPHRON: Welcome back to Reds on Writing Week.

I have the great pleasure of teaching at many writing conferences, and often I get to read and review writers works-in-progress.

I try to refrain from my writing-is-a-steep-learning-curve lecture. And I always marvel at how its so easy for us to see whats wrong in other peoples work when were so blind to the same faults in our own.

And although a writer who is being raked over the coals doesnt want to hear it, you really can learn from your failures and near-misses. Most published authors have one, if not many, unpublished manuscripts to document their own struggle to get to good enough.

I'm a case in point. I did not see myself as a writer back in the fall of 1992 when the brother of one of my best friends was murdered.

Rose (not my friend's real name) was a single mother working in her family business. Her brother Bill (also not his name), who worked with her, was a young father with three daughters, under the age of 10, and very much a father figure to Rose’s two sons. The killer was a man who was unhappy with some work Julie had done for his family. Angry and armed, he showed up at their office. Rose wasn’t there; instead he confronted Bill and shot him to death.

Grief-stricken and guilt-ridden, Rose was so traumatized that for months after that she was physically unable to leave her house alone. She and her family and co-workers were terrified that the killer would come back and kill them all. Just stepping out her front door to pick up the mail triggered a panic attack.

A few months later he was arrested. Eventually he was tried and found guilty and sentenced to prison for 85 years.

Six months after the murder, I paid a series of visits to my friend. Every time we got together, she talked. And talked. And I listened and recorded her memories. First she told me about the day of the murderit started out as an ordinary morning when she’d taken her son to the doctor instead of going into the office. She talked about the funeral. And on to what it had been like after for every member of that extended family in the days and weeks that followed.
I’d return home and transcribe the tape. Eventually I wove the anecdotes together into a book-length narrative. It was about story of the aftermath of a murder.

Heres an excerpt from when Julia arrives at work.

Time seemed to slow down as Rose turned in the driveway and pulled into her spot next to Bill’s green Saab.  She climbed out.  Seemed like an awful lot of flashing lights for a car accident in a parking lot.  There were slashes of yellow tape across the entrance.  Maybe a break-in?  But why was there an ambulance at the building entrance, it’s rear doors thrown open?  And why were so many people standing around, watching?  Among them, she recognized the couple who owned the Chinese restaurant on the first floor and the young girl who worked at the dry cleaner. 

A man taking notes in a spiral pad was talking to a policeman.  A newspaper reporter?  At a parking lot car accident?  Rose tried tamp down the sparks of fear that was threatening to ignite in the pit of her stomach. 

There was Al Murphy, one of the brokers who worked for them.  He was staring up at their office windows, rolls of pink neck bunched at his suit jacket collar. 

"Al?" she said, coming up behind him. 

As she said it, he turned to face her.  He’d been crying.  Something had happened.  Something she didn't want to know. 

"What?" she asked, unable to stopper the words. 

For a few seconds, his eyes searched hers.  Looking for ... what?

Finally, he said, "There's been a shooting." His voice was flat

"A shooting."  She heard herself repeat the words with the same lack of intonation.

He nodded.  "Bill."

“Bill what?”

“Bill’s been shot.”

No.  Not possible.  It was as if Rose was hit in the face with a wall. A car accident or a robbery—that had to be what happened.

She heard herself asking, "He’s okay, isn't he?"

Al reached out and put his hand on her shoulder.  "I’m sorry." 

Rose’s vision telescoped.  Her purse went flying.  She watched its arc, as if she were watching from atop a roof of one of the buildings that flanked the parking lot.

"No!" she screamed, the sound faraway and empty. 

Al backed away, palms up, his mouth making words she couldn't hear while she pressed forward, driving her fists into his chest, trying to make herself feel something, anything. 

Then, somehow it wasn’t Al she was beating on.  It was a police officer.  He put his hands on her shoulders, the pressure gentle.

In the end, the story was too painful and too personal to publish, and we never did. But the process of telling the story helped my friend start to recover, physically and emotionally.  And I discovered that I could write. Not well enough (yet) to get published. But I had a knack for drama and suspense.

I also discovered that, as a writer, I had to plant
my feet firmly  in fiction. True crime is too horrific, and bringing a killer to justice doesn’t fix what a murder breaks. When I write a murder in a novel, I try to take it seriously, remembering what it means in real life.

So my question for today: What have you tried and failed at that taught you an important lesson?


  1. Goodness, the horror of the murder certainly comes through in that piece, Hallie. The gut-wrenching intensity of it leaves you shocked and breathless. How awful that the basis for the writing is a true story.
    Things tried and failed have taught me to keep moving forward, to try again, and not to give up on the important things.

  2. Oh Hallie, what a stark and painful story. I tried (and spectacularly failed) to get my first two novels published. Lesson learned? Thou shall NOT headhop!

  3. Kait, I try to tell people that and oh boy oh boy do they resist that message. The hard thing is that it takes SO long to realize that you're doing it (headhoppng) - and you have to recognize it in order to make it stop. I stop reading a book when the author does that.

  4. Joan, you must be made of hardy stock. Keep moving. That is the ticket.

  5. For anyone wondering what Kait means by 'headhop' - here's an example of what NOT to do ...

    Cecilia tiptoed to the door. She peered out and listened. All quiet. At last, she could give him a piece of her mind.

    She closed the door and addressed William with a solemn face, her voice ominous. "I know what happened. I know it all and there's no point saying otherwise."

    William tried not to show his disdain. She was so full of herself.

    Cecilia wanted to slap that smug look off his face.

    The problem? The viewpoint shifts from one character's head to another. Ask yourself, on any given line: who's narrating? First Cecilia. Then William. Then Cecilia. This doesn't seem like such a terrible thing to do but trust me, it is.

  6. One of the toughest lessons to learn, especially for us perfectionists and "good girls," is how failure is a excellent teacher in an ugly disguise.

  7. Heartwrenching story, Hallie. And all the more so because any of us could have a similar experience of losing someone dear to us. Isn't that a common fear, especially these days?

    My most spectacular failure was my first, early and disastrous marriage at age 19. It taught me a lot about living with another human being, way more than my own parents' tumultuous marriage did. Sometimes you have to live through a situation to understand what is wrong with it.

  8. This is such a powerful story, Hallie. I appreciate your point that writing fictional crime doesn't discount the horror of real crime, or dishonor the pain of those who are its victims. I am especially glad to hear going through this process helped your friend's healing, and I hope she is doing well today.

    To your point about failure feeds success, yes it does. There is no shortcut around that truth.

  9. Rhonda, well said.

    Karen, Yikes! A lot more consequences to that than writing a novel that's not very good. 19 is soooo young.

  10. OH, why is it so annoying to read? And Impossible? But yes, headhopping--disaster. And so true--people resist it , like crazy, when I try to explain why it doesn't work.

    But on the other hand--. when I spoke at at a book club a while ago, I said something like: "...and my books are told from several points of view, sometimes Jane, sometimes Jake, so you get the story as each of them sees it."

    And one attendee said: what do you mean by point of view? When I explained (simply) it's about being inside one person head at a time per scene, this big light dawned on her face. "I never thought about that."

    But you know what? As a result, in my new book SAY NO MORE (coming in November!) I label the points of view, and instead of breaking the POVs scene by scene, I pretty much give each person a chapter.

    So I learned from the READER's POV that they might be seeing my world a bit differently than I do.

    (More about SAY NO MORE tomorrow!) And Hallie, did I hear you are finished with your new manuscript?

  11. Hank, I know - I had a friend who asked me why a novel that she'd just tried to read was so confusing. I took a look. The viewpoint was sliding all over the place. Nonwriters don't know what to call it, but they do notice when viewpoint is out of control. I like that solution, Hank. Can't wait to read SAY NO MORE.

    And YES, I did finish a manuscript. And revised it. And my editor is line editing. And I'm waiting. Waiting.

  12. Hallie, what a wrenching story.

    I used to have a real problem with head-hopping - usually just brief, but enough. My very thorough critique partners and a few episodes working with an editor mostly cured me. But I still find myself asking, "Can my POV character actually know that?" a lot of times.

    I have to put aside books where I can't identify a clear POV. Unless those books are very clearly an omniscient POV - which isn't very common these days.

    My first trunked novel taught me that I could actually write and finish a novel - and that I had a lot of work to do with developing that little thing known as "plot." The second sort-of-trunked novel taught that I'd come a long way with plot and structure because it got several reports of "this is really good writing, but..." And a lot of what followed that but are things out of my control (market trends, etc.).

  13. Hallie, what a horrible and heart wrenching story. I'm wondering how you made the leap from writing this non-fiction account to writing fiction? The aftermath of murder has always fascinated me, and most of my books are as much about how the characters deal with this terrible and unexpected thing as they are about solving the crime.

    Headhopping??? It is absolutely one of things I dislike most in writing, but I never knew it was called that. I've always referred to it as "sliding viewpoint" but headhopping is so much better. I know some really good and successful writers who do it, too, and it makes me want to beat my head against the wall...

    Too many personal failures to name, but don't we all give those failings to our characters? No failed novels--yet, knock wook--although some are certainly better than others and every one has been a completely new learning experience.

  14. Hallie,

    What a heartwrenching and horrible story! We can learn from our failures. If we are aware that we failed. Someone once said the point of madness is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.

    One lesson I learned when I failed a test was that it meant I had to try a different study method. I passed a test after I started using flashcards while studying. It worked for me.

  15. Mary, me too, couldn't see it early on.

    Laughed when you said your first "trunked" novel taught you that you needed to learn a lot about plot. My first one after the upublished 'true crime' taught me that I needed to work on character. I pushed them around on the page but didn't get inside.

  16. Hallie, I think the best comment I got was "I love these characters and I have no clue what they are doing." =)

  17. Hallie, how awful. My story, maybe just feels, much the same. It isn't the same, but it feels like it is.

    A man ran through my yard a few times. He looked in my window and walked around my house. He walked past me in the neighborhood near my friends house. He walked past me and my dog on the path to the wash.

    I feel so stupid. My son said he took short cuts through the yard all the time. One day he turned around at the back wall and stared at me looking out at him. I thought he was a burglar waiting for an opportunity to break in. I called my husband and son over and had them look out at him. We all stood there staring at each other. Then he jumped the wall.

    I saw his boot print on the back door and his handprints on a window that he had opened. I was sure he was a burglar and that our early return to the house had scared him off.

    But, no, that wasn't it. He'd been stalking my friend and me. When he saw that I was not alone, he went over to my friend's house and tortured and murdered her.

    I learned something, but what I learned isn't useful anymore.

  18. I'm speechless, Reine. That is beyond awful. And so not the stuff of a mystery novel.

  19. Oh my Reine, Hallie.. your comments left me breathless. I will sit with these stories for a while.

    My literary failure? I never had the guts or discipline to sit down and learn the art of creative writing. As a librarian, I read so much, and admired so much. when I tried to write my page is/was filled with my tin ear and poor word choices.. I felt would never be good enough. I think I keep assuming the published work is the same as the first draft. and yet. I dream to some day some how sit on my duff and type it out. ... and remember that Grandma Moses began painting in earnest at 78, so maybe there is still hope . For me and my run on sentence fragments.

  20. Coralee, I love run-on sentence fragments -- and they'd be YOUR run-on sentence fragments. It's the problem of being a really good reader, you know what magnificent prose sounds like and you know when yours doesn't. It's the first barrier to get past, and I don't think it's ever too late.