Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Q&A With Mystery Author Nancy Pickard

One of the joys of this here internet thing is that you get to meet some really cool people, often in venues unrelated to what you might otherwise expect. One of my favorite writing friends was met while hanging out at a political site for example.

Nancy Pickard is a noted mystery author with a pile of awards and other achievements. She is the author of many short stories and 17 novels, including the Jenny Cain series, the Marie Lightfoot series, and three books in the Eugenia Potter series. She is the co-author of Seven Steps on the Writer's Path. Her latest novel, The Virgin of Small Plains, won the Agatha, Macavity, and Lovey awards and was a finalist for the Edgar, Anthony, and Dilys awards. It is in production with a cable network. She is a founding member and former president of Sisters in Crime, and a former board member of the Mystery Writers of America. She lives near Kansas City. She's also a genuinely lovely person.

When I was talking about my Loft class over at her blog she made me an offer I couldn't refuse. Each of my students could ask one writing question and she would attempt to answer them. This Q&A is the result of that very generous offer and some pretty damn good questions from my students.

Here's Nancy:

1) Which is more important for you, the beginning (hooking the reader into the mystery) or the end of the novel (solving the mystery and satisfying the reader)?

I think of them as being all of one piece. The beginning makes the promise and the ending fulfills it. So they are equally important to me. But I wrote a lot of books before I knew that was true. At some point, I went back to see if the beginnings of my books really do foreshadow the endings, and in every case, they do, which was a shock to me, because I hadn't known I was doing that when I did it! Now I look at the beginnings to see what they "promise," and I'm not satisfied with an ending unless it feels to me as if it delivers in a satisfying way on that initial promise.

2) What is the best way to deal with 'rejection' (or indifference) from trusted family and friends with whom you might share your writing (either pre- or post-publishing)?

Ah. This is why the best-selling writer Lawrence Block only half-jokingly advises, "Never show your book to anybody who calls you Dear." Yeah, those are the toughest ones to take, I think. And there are only two cures. One is--don't show them your stuff. And the second is, I'm sorry to tell you, developing a thick skin that comes with time, age, and a lot of rejections. And even then, they still hurt.

Indifference--especially from our loved ones--is really painful. But you have to know that the only enthusiasm that matters is yours. The hell with 'em. Maybe they're jealous, maybe they're selfish, maybe they're idiots, maybe they're afraid of your reaction, maybe they want to like your writing but the truth is that even though they love YOU, they don't love it. There can be people who like us a lot, but who don't happen to like the kind of thing we like to read and write. And there can be people who love us, but who don't "get" fiction, for instance. Not their fault; it's just how they're built. Or, maybe some of the people in your life wouldn't know good writing if it sat on them. The only enthusiasm that matters in the long run is yours.

3) Do you think it's important to have a consistent workspace, and if so what are some things a good workspace should not have?

That depends entirely on the writer, truly. I used to require a separate office, yadda yadda. But now I write in libraries, cafes, coffee shops, and on park benches. I have written in airplanes and hotels, at the edge of soccer fields and in the middle of car pools. If there is distracting noise, I turn on my portable CD player and stick on the headphones. The only important thing to consider is. . . what kind of environment will encourage YOU to write? If you need quiet and isolation, then you really do have to create that, somehow, for yourself. If it's hustle and bustle you need, then you're lucky, because you can write anywhere.

4) What are your biggest motivators?

Well, I guess it's not money or fame, because I'm always late on my book deadlines so I don't get paid on time. And fame is a hideous temptation to the ego. So it must be the need to tell a story. When I get an idea, it nudges at me until I write it. And I have no interest in writing only for myself. I do want to be published, so that's a motivator to rewrite, lol.

I don't love to write novels, because they're so hard, but I do love to write short stories, so I think I write them out of love of the form.

5) What tricks do you use to build suspense and a bit of nervousness/fear on the part of the reader?

That's harder to answer than you might think it is! I think what I like to do is withhold. You drop a provocative sentence that hints at something wrong, then you leave it there to stew in the reader's mind. Then maybe a little while later, you drop another one. I haven't analyzed how I do it, so I can't really say. If I know anything at all about suspense and tension, it comes from all the other writers I have read. I think I have learned how to do it by absorbing how they do it.

6) In light of having written so many books, how do you keep things fresh, with character, plot, and theme?

I hope I do keep it fresh, though my readers are probably the better judge of that! What I try to do is not get stuck doing the same things in the same ways for years and years. I have had three series and stopped writing all of them when it was time to move onto something else. I write novels and short stories, and everything from cozy to hardboiled. I keep trying to write in ways, or about things, that challenge me. And I try to read really good stuff that makes me want to improve my game. I remember in the days when I played a lot of tennis, every time I watched one of the major tournaments on TV I played better for a little while afterward. It's like that with reading other people's novels. I try to read the best, so I have something high to aim at.

7) And, sub-question to that last: How do you insure what you do hasn't already been done before, with so many mysteries out there already, knowing it's tough to read everything?

I don't worry about it, really. Nothing is totally original, not in any novel, no matter how great. We all copy what has come before, and it's also often true that similar ideas seem to circulate in the air at the same time. I just concentrate on telling the stories I seem to need to tell, and try to write them as well as my abilities will let me. If I do catch myself using a cliché of the form, I think about it and see if a.) it's justified; or b.) it can be improved somehow.

8) I always seem to learn best from cautionary tales. In that vein, what was the worst advice that you got as a starting writer? Was there anything you did starting out that we should never ever do?

Yeah, don't assume that your writing career will proceed in a rising and straight line. Creativity ebbs and flows. Boy, does it ever. Careers ebb and flow. If you want to be a fulltime writer, but you don't want constant financial struggles, live frugally and take nothing for granted.

I didn't get any terrible advice that I recall, but the *best* advice I got was this: If you ever encounter somebody who makes you feel like not writing, run like hell in the other direction.

Oh, and there was one thing, not advice, exactly, but. . .a few times in my career, editors or agents have tried to get me to do some things that looked attractive on the surface. Once, an editor asked me to write a new series, for which she would pay me three times what I was getting for the series I was doing at that time. Problem was, I didn't want to write another series. So I listened to myself, and turned her down. It was a good choice. Another time, an agent wanted me to try what they called "romantic intrigue." But I knew that wasn't where I wanted to go, so I turned that down, too. The lesson was, listen to myself. Listen to yourself. Your creativity knows where it's going, even when it all looks foggy to you.

9) In music, no matter what masterpiece you were working on, each day's practice always started with scales, arpeggios and finger exercises. In your writing, do you have an equivalent to daily scales?

I don't, but I used to. When I started out, I did this daily:

-Sit down with pad, paper, and timer.
-Set timer for l0 minutes.
-Then look up. Use the first thing you see as your topic. Could be "drapes." Could be, "Waitress." Could be, "television set." Could be "knee." Whatever. Start writing. Forget spelling, punctuation, grammar. -Don't stop, don't edit, erase, or correct. Just write. If nothing comes, write something like, "Nothing's coming, nothing's coming, la la la, this is boring, I hate this, when is the time. . ." And you will probably surprise yourself and start writing on the topic.
-When the timer goes off, stop. Really. Stop.
-Read it a few times to please yourself.
-Then tear it up and throw it away. I mean it. Throw it away. It will help you learn that ideas will just keep coming, and so will the writing, and there are no words you can't change or throw away.


There is a great deal of wisdom here. Let me be the first to thank Nancy for her time and her thoughtful answers.


Jen @ You Would Think said...

Amazing post. Thanks Kelly & Nancy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Nancy. Despite having heard most of this before, there are a couple of things that are particularly timely for me, that struck a chord because they were being said right now, when I'm ready to hear them.

Kelly Swails said...

Thanks, Y and Nancy. Good info that's always great to hear.

Kelly McCullough said...

Hey Jen, X,

The credit really all belongs to Nancy who volunteered for this one entirely unprompted.

I really love the writing community. Nancy is an outstanding example of the way the community steps up to help new writers.