HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: We all love to soak up the knowledge of successful writers … right? We madly attend classes in plotting, and character development and setting, in suspense and editing and structure and genre, and figure that if we could just learn this stuff, we, too, could write a bestseller.
But what we don’t often see at conferences is a discussion of flat-out nuts and bolts. Not “how to” when it comes to writing a book—but “how to” when it comes to being a real writer, living the writing life, taking that mental and emotional journey.
So in this series of interviews, we’re exploring how we work. The basics. Our personal internal dialogues. The structure of our writing lives.
And as I read these answers, I am overjoyed, each time, by how different we are—and yet how similar. And how much we can learn from each other.
I can just hear Cathy Pickens chortling now … she’s so low-key and modest about her success. And so generous. But you know what? She’s brilliant at thinking about thinking. About creativity, too–and at understanding how she works, and what works for her and why. Will it work for you?
Her answers to these eleven questions (plus two really difficult ones for extra credit) are thought-provoking, inspirational, and I have to say, unexpected.
1. When you need to do your writing for the day, how difficult is it to get yourself to begin? Why?
Any difficulty is related to how confident I am in what I’m working on that day. Rewriting a difficult passage? Something I haven’t quite processed in my head? The hard stuff? That takes longer. The best solution? To just get to work.
Research into the concept of flow [being delightfully engaged in a project to the point that time passes unnoticed] says the secret is simple:
- Show up at the same place
- The same time
- Every day.
Do that, and the work has a better chance of flowing well even on those days I don’t want to show up at all.
2. Is there something you say to yourself every day? Whether it has to do with responsibility, or deadlines, or commitment, or fear, or optimism, or creativity?
Nope. I don’t have to cheer myself on to brush my teeth in the morning either. I just do it.
3. When you sit down to work, what’s the first thing you think?
See the above. No cheering, no thinking, just work. Sounds boring. For me, it’s how things get done.
4. What’s the first thing you do? Really? Do you check your email, or Facebook, or Twitter FIRST?
Julie Morgenstern wrote a time-management book called “Never Check Email in the Morning.” Wise advice. That also includes not compulsively checking your email or succumbing to other temptations (wired or wireless) throughout the day.
Because I work full-time, email contact is important. When I’m not expecting an issue with work or family, I just start writing and save the emails until late morning, when I can catch people before they leave for lunch. Segmenting that activity means I can concentrate and knock it out faster.
At times when things are popping at my other job, I check emails first to get that out of the way so I can concentrate. Sometimes that backfires—something explodes in my inbox and that takes my attention and energy. But most days, I can move on with my writing for the day.
5. How do you handle the temptations of the internet?
If I need to do research, I mark the spot in the manuscript or on a notepad as I go and do all the research at once, after my brain is drained from a stint of writing. Research requires a different part of my brain and not as much concentration as writing or editing, so I can do that when I need to change things up. It can serve to refresh me – or at least let me squeeze a little more productivity into my time, even though I’m tired.
Segmenting my work is important. As everyone’s mother said, one thing at a time and that done well. Brain science now tells us that’s very true—we’re more productive when we concentrate on one thing at a time, rather than skipping randomly about. Multitasking is a myth. Brains don’t work that way—no one’s brain does. Concentrating is more productive.
Recognizing my own work rhythms can also keep me working longer, if I do the things that require a fresh brain first (especially the hardest things!).
6. When you begin writing, are you optimistic or pessimistic about where you’ll be two hours later?
I don’t know that I have any judgment about what I expect. I’ll have accomplished the work I set out for that day (or sometimes I won’t), but I’ll have worked. Judgment of the merits of that day’s work come later, when I’m rewriting.
A remarkable discovery was when I realized, during an initial rewrite, that I couldn’t tell which days the writing came easily and which were difficult. Respecting—and enjoying—the process are the keys.
7. Do you have a daily word of page quota? How committed to that are you?
Absolutely. My dad once worked as a time-and-motion studies expert. (Remember the father in “Cheaper by the Dozen”?! Is it faster to button your vest starting at the top or the bottom? Like that guy!) Achievable quotas or goals are the tried-and-true secret to productivity in any field.
The number of pages I set for myself depends on where I am in the book—the first draft moves at a different pace than the twelfth draft, so I set different quotas at each stage.
Ideally, I write in the morning. If I know the day will be busy or chopped up, I try to plan for that, carrying a notebook or pages with me to work on between appointments.
If I don’t make the quota in my morning writing time or at other times during the day, I don’t add it to my quota the next day. That’s a sure-fire way to demoralize myself because it just can’t work.
Instead, I give myself a page quota for the week that I should be able to do in five days; that gives me a couple of extra days each week to do the pages I didn’t get done on one or more of the days. That’s worked well.
In setting quota, I push myself but not so hard that it becomes frustrating. What you can produce changes with your skill level and other responsibilities. So those goals have to be recalculated periodically—and with every new project.
8. Do you work on the book every day? How do you feel when you have a day where you don’t write? How often do you think–“I should be writing!”?
Every day is my goal. It took me a while to quit beating myself up when life intrudes. Lots goes into writing a book besides just putting words on the page or moving them around. That’s important—but so is thinking, reading, researching, planning, re-visioning. All of it fits together. So on the days when I can’t (for whatever reason) add or move actual words, I deliberately find even a small amount of thinking space to work on what will make it easier the next time I can sit down.
As with physical exercise, keeping up the momentum is important … every day.
9. Are there things you have given up as a result of your–well, okay. What have you given up to allow yourself to write?
This is a question people don’t tend to ask – maybe because we don’t really want to think about giving things up as a necessity. Years ago, when I decided to get serious about writing, I realized I needed to put aside lots of other things.
My life is relatively streamlined. No kids, no pets, no houseplants. A self-sufficient husband. I (quite literally) boxed up my other creative interests: painting, needlework, woodworking, dancing, and others. Separate boxes for each. And the lids have been closed for many years now.
I limit social obligations; as an introvert, I have to manage my energy levels and pay attention to my productive rhythms. My job as a professor and consultant demands most of that external energy, so social activities have to be limited.
We all must make choices, and each of us makes different choices. But creative work demands the primo parts of your brain and energy. Protect those parts.
10. Do you actually drink the wine or champagne your friends gave you when you succeeded at something? Or do you save it for a more special occasion?
For me, it’s an ice cream sundae. Celebrations are important—as are reasons for eating ice cream. (BTW, celebrating makes ice cream a perfectly acceptable meal substitute. That saves calories otherwise spent on healthy alternatives.)
11. Think of your last success. When it happened … how long did you float? How soon after did you start focusing on the next success?
Floating? Hmm, interesting. I’m terrible at remembering to take time to celebrate or acknowledge a good event. Celebrating is important—as is allowing yourself to lick your wounds and lament. (Just not too long.) I’m quick—maybe too quick—to move on to the next thing. Floating, you say? Sounds nice. Should try it.
12. For extra credit: what do you wish someone had told you? (Something personal and specific. Not like how wonderful Sisters in Crime is, or how supportive everyone is, or how wonderful librarians and bookstores are. We agree.) What is something you really–learned?
My first agent told me that, whatever my professional goal when I started, it’ll keep moving. Ah, I got a personalized rejection rather than a form! Oo, an agent asked to see the full manuscript! Wow, I got published! Reviewed in PW! Starred review in PW! Dreams should keep growing. I needed to recognize that we all need things to aim for, and those things should be realistic given where we’re standing right now. And we’ll never be satisfied.
The other thing that surprised me was how much “community” there is in the “mystery community.” When I was young and wanted to be a writer, I pictured a cabin in the woods, far from anything [note: see “introvert” mention earlier]. Turns out, I don’t live in a cabin far back in the mountains—and it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as much fun as finding out that mystery readers and writers alike belong to a big, wonderful family. A family with a fair number of introverts, of course, which makes it all the more pleasant. But a family nonetheless. An unexpected and pleasant surprise.
12+. For double-duty extra credit: because this is a very important question which may be difficult to answer but may be very helpful to others. Do you think you are a good writer?
Yet another question no one ever asks out loud. In a happy collision of the two sides of my life, as a business school professor/consultant and a mystery writer, I’ve spent several years recently immersed in researching how creative people work.
Before I started that work, had you asked me, “Do you consider yourself creative?,” I would have answered with a puzzled look. I would’ve said I’m a good artisan, a good worker bee. Just like my parents and grandparents. But creative? I know so-oo many people who are startlingly, delightfully creative, who write amazing books. I’m not in that league. I rarely delight myself.
Then I looked at other artists, not just writers. According to a study done by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of art students, the best among them were never satisfied. They wanted to fix it, play with it, tweak it, right up until someone took it away. That sounds familiar to most writers I know. We aren’t satisfied.
Can we be? If we ever once created THE PERFECT book, the one that matched the perfection we’d envisioned in our heads when we started, one that others lauded as magnificent, would we have the courage to ever try it again?
That’s one of the gifts given to writers and other creative people, I think. That we’re never satisfied. That way, we have the opportunity to happily keep working toward perfection, on that next project, and the next one, and the next …
A good writer? Not nearly as good as I want to be, which is what keeps me working at it.
HANK: So—never being satisfied is a good thing! Delighted to hear that. I just sent in my copy edits, and it was all I could do to push “send.” I kept thinking—I know there’s something I should tweak. The wonderful and best-selling Lisa Unger, who will be here soon (watch this space!) once said to me—Everyday when I sit at my computer, I think –today I can be better than I was yesterday.
So how about you, sisters? Questions for Cathy? Does any of this speak to you?
And of course, I’ll send a book to one lucky commenter!
(Hurray–Last week’s winner is Nancy G West! Nancy, just send me your address at h ryan at whdh dot com.)
from Cathy Pickens’s website http://www.cathypickens.com: Cathy Pickens has been, under different names, a lawyer, a business professor, a university provost, a clog-dancing coach, a church organist / choir director, and a typist. The most profound influences on her life have been her family, her faith, Nancy Drew, and Perry Mason. She grew up in a small town and, forced to move to “big cities” to support herself, first as a lawyer and then as a professor, she found the only way to return to the comfortable familiarity of her childhood was by moving Avery Andrews back home [in South Carolina] and chronicling her exploits.
* * *
Hank Phillippi Ryan is the on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate. She’s won 30 Emmys and dozens of others honors for her ground-breaking journalism. The best-selling author of six mystery novels, Ryan has won multiple prestigious awards for her crime fiction: two Agathas, the Anthony and the Macavity, and for THE OTHER WOMAN, the Mary Higgins Clark award. Her newest thriller THE WRONG GIRL (now an Agatha and Left Coast Crime nominee) was dubbed “Another winner!” in a Booklist starred review. Her upcoming novel is TRUTH BE TOLD (Forge, 2014.) She is 2013 president of national Sisters in Crime. http://www.HankPhillippiRyan.com
Cathy, thank you for bringing us into your “writing life” so directly. And Hank, these are great questions; I really like the sense of conversation.
And yeah, this interview really fascinated me–I was so surprised by the answers. ANd it’s so generous of Cathy to be so–open, you know? I am so intrigued by the “never satisfied” part, too. How about you?
I love this: “I don’t have to cheer myself on to brush my teeth in the morning either.” Thanks for the words of wisdom and encouragement!
Yes, that does put it into perspective, doesn’t it? ox
I love this—love this—interview because it has the honesty about the physical act of writing that I needed. When I read this, especially the parts about segmenting the task, I had a picture of what was missing from the mind space of my writing. In my effort to accomplish the very physical act of writing in order to create out of the mind space, I had a misunderstanding of the fullness of the physical place we make for ourselves in using our minds to create stories. Segmenting a task allows a joint effort of the two dimensions. I’m glad I didn’t gloss over the concept for its simplicity, because on the surface I might have seen it only as an organizational tool.
Thank you, Hank and Cathy.
AH, Reine, you are a treasure…
I iagree with Cathy’s statement, “The other thing that surprised me was how much “community” there is in the “mystery community.” Cathy and Hank are both generous with their time and effort in sharing talent, experience and support to members of the mystery community.
Debby, so wonderful of you! Than you! And I had the greatest time at your Deadly Ink! See you at Malice, I hope!
You’ve made me smile–when people say “thanks for being direct,” I know I’ve likely revealed too much. But these are questions we should ask ourselves, no? The tough ones? Like why do I wander around the edges of my book like a dog circling its bed before nestling in. May you find the “mind space” (love that concept) and the community to settle in to your work!
NO no, never too much! It’s so valuable, don;t you think, to hear reality? 🙂
This was a revealing and grounded exchange. I had not thought about the sacrifices made when one becomes a full-time writer, let alone a successful one.
Well, thank you, Harriette. Yes, every time any of us decides to write, we’re not dong something else, correct? SO each time we make that choice, we are actively prioritizing. ANd sometimes, that’s a surprise!
Thank you Cathy! Wonderful to read about your balancing act, which you do with such grace.
Harriette and J.A.,
Thanks for your kind words. We balance all kinds of things, don’t we? Parents, children, the cat or dog that needed to be adopted, our “real” jobs, the laundry. Mostly things we enjoy, true. But we shouldn’t push all the fun, creative things away, saving them until we have more time. That robs us–and those around us–of the things that feed us.
Julie, I am laughing. YOu, too, are the queen of juggling!
Hank and Cathy,
I enjoyed this interview because the questions could only have come from another writer. I hate to give up anything, which is probably why I fall asleep reading. it’s difficult fitting everything into the writing life.
Oh, reply below…did this wrong..xo
Oh, thank you! Yes, it is difficult..but I even look at my never-ending to-do list as a joy. It’s so lovely to have such fabulous to-dos, right?
Cathy, when I took your course at last year’s pre-Bouchercon, it made me so happy to hear that NOT being satisfied when things are in print is more common than I’d thought. Even now when I’m reading a passage from one of my earlier books, I find myself thinking things like: “Why did I choose that word?” or “I should have explained that even better!”
It also took me a while to understand that each writer must find her own rhythm when she’s most creative. For me, I break the mold: I have nights of horrid insomnia, so my best writing time is in the afternoons, when house, dog, husband and errands are satisfied and my brain feels most awake. One thing I use those wakeful periods for is planning what I’m going to work on the next day. And since I enjoy research so much, I treat myself to that after I’ve done my day’s writing~
Hank, thanks for the great questions!
Well, thank you so much! It’s such a treat to hear the answers. DId you err read the NYT essay by–someone like EL Doctorow but that could be wrong–about how he even struggles to write an excuse note for his daughter? Please excuse Sally..well, no, I don’t really to ask the teacher to EXCUSE her, she didn’t do anything wrong… and on and on!
Could that be from Doctorow’s book, Andrew’s Brain?
Thank you all for sharing your bumps and successes. Helps remind each of us that we aren’t crazy–or else we’re in good company with other crazies! Whichever it is, it’s the best job ever, isn’t it?!
I really enjoyed hearing about your writing process, Cathy – and, Hank, thanks for asking great questions (your investigative reporting background serves you well!). One other question I’d love to hear Cathy address is, to what degree do you rely on external feedback on your writing, and how does it work in your case? Some people are addicted to writing groups, others fear outside will unduly influence their creative process, etc. Some want story development criticism early in the process, some just want to bring people in when they start the editing process. I’m very curious about where other writers stand on this subject!
Lisa, I too would like to know how or when others use feedback. I’ve worked with three other crime writer friends for 15 or 20 years now. I value their feedback. When I was working on a nonfiction project, their recommendations meshed almost completely with those of a professional editor I worked with–so I know they’re good! (I just don’t always know how to fix the places where they stumble :>)
I only share with them when the work is complete and as good as I can get it. That’s the most useful time for me. To me, it’s also important that we “grew up” in our writing together, that we write and read the same kinds of books, and that we all bring certain skills to the table. I agree, some folks can get addicted to writers groups–and groups can be either too supportive and kind OR too snarky and damaging. Neither extreme is good. But we all need feedback. Translating the stories in our heads into squiggles on paper, then uploading them into another human’s brain is bound to result in translation errors. I want to tell the story in my head, but I’d also rather learn about any translation errors while I still have a chance to fix them! At the end of it all, though, it’s my story. I appreciate and consider feedback, but then I have to exercise judgment. (And I didn’t join the group until I’d been writing long enough that I felt confident in my own choices. Not that my choices are always the best–but that’s another conversation.)
That said, I’m now at a stage in a project where I could use some feedback earlier in the process. I need to bounce story development or conceptual ideas around. Those writer friends helped. My agent helped. I still need some other perspectives as I develop this project. I’d love to hear how other writers handle this. Good question!
SUCH a goodquestion! I have two independent editors who lok at my work AFTER the whole thing is done. I have no critique group, nor would I rally want one. But that is just me! I treasure those reactions, though, from my professional editors, and process them, and then decide whether I agree. Sometimes what they offer is brilliant! And I am all to happy to take it and run with it. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned is: I am not always right. 🙂 And the corollary: Someone else might have a good idea. But! I dont have to do what they say. I trust myself, when it gets right down to it. It just may take a while to get right down to it.
So interesting to hear both your and Hank’s thoughts on this. I joined a writers group waaaay too soon, and was actually kicked out of my first writers group for not being “advanced” enough. That turned out to be a good thing for reasons I’d rather not get into here 😉
And I totally agree with you, Hank, about the need to balance not being right all the time, and trusting yourself.
For my first mystery, I had to learn how to ask people for the right thing at the right time: ‘story’ feedback from a screenwriter friend who really understands arcs and acts, ‘line’ feedback from two trusted writer friends who caught all the weird sentences and word choices. And I consulted a tango instructor to keep me honest on technical questions like, can you really attack someone on the dance floor doing THAT? And how does an Argentine curse? Then I test marketed the book with friends to see how it played with normal human beings. Finally, my publisher and editor had other really smart suggestions which really improved the book. It sounds like overkill now that I see it. Am I alone/crazy doing all this?
Lisa, that’s what makes good books. Wouldn’t most readers be surprised to see all the eyes that go into making a book? I know I used to have a fantasy about a lone writer, hidden away in a mountain cabin. It takes a village, though, huh?
Hank, I love what you say about trusting yourself. xo