Writers at Work: Hank Phillippi Ryan Welcomes Clea Simon


Hank Phillippi Ryan welcomes ...

Hank Phillippi Ryan welcomes …

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I just finished my thousand words for the day—yay—and I cannot being to tell you what a struggle it was. Every second, my monkey brain was suggesting I do something else. Check your email! Someone might have sent you something important! Check your Facebook—what if you’re missing something? Jungle Red, you haven’t commented yet, that’s a must-do. Wonder if the mail came? Maybe I should do laundry. What’s for dinner? My Channel 7 messages—yikes! I’m behind.

I have a speech tomorrow—is that ready? And what am I going to wear? I need to remember bookmarks—write that down. Where’s the to-do list? Maybe I need a new to-do list pad. Maybe I should go to Amazon and choose a new to-do list pad. AMAZON! No, I will not check the pre-orders for TRUTH BE TOLD. Hey, did the UPS box come?

Oh. Maybe it did. Hang on.

Nope. It didn’t. And isn’t it a WONDER that we accomplish anything at all?

I read somewhere that Isaac Asimov had four typewriters. He’d write a different book on each of them, and get himself into the mode of each one because he’d be facing a different direction. Okay, whatever works.

So what works for Clea Simon: If ever there was a renaissance woman, she’s it—she’s got an astonishingly rich imagination, knows about music, and literature, and art, and cooking and popular culture, and gothic novels, and cats, and writes three? Is it three? Different series. And non-fiction. (Go to her website. You may be surprised.)

She obviously is an incredibly hard worker, and what makes it additionally impressive is that she’s kept this level of commitment and intention for so many years.

Her answers to our nuts and bolts questions are fascinating—there are some ideas and processes that I’d never considered. She seems to have a little Zen-like attitude about some things—and damn the torpedoes about others. See what you think.

... Clea Simon and Musetta

… Clea Simon and Musetta

  1. When you need to do your writing for the day, how difficult is it to get yourself to begin? Why?

It’s not difficult at all. Why do you ask? As soon as I’ve checked Twitter and Facebook, and then gone back because maybe I’ve missed a few Tweets. And then looked at my email and responded to my email, and then responded to new postings on Facebook and looked through the latest cat videos … sorry, what was the question again?

2. So um, how do you handle the temptations of the internet?

 It’s always email first with me. I do a fair amount of freelance copy-editing to pay the bills, and that comes in via email. Then the problem is staying off the other social media.

3. Right. I’m with you. But okay, 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?

Seriously, yes. I love to quote the great pub rocker, Nick Lowe, who said, “Bash it out now, tart it up later.” Well, that doesn’t work for when I’m in revisions, because then it’s more like “tart it up now or live with the consequences.”


Nick Lowe

But when I’m in drafting mode, as I am now, I tell myself: just get something down on paper. You can cut it later, but it’s easier to work with existing text than with no text. Repeat: Bash it out now…

4. I do that, too! I say: Just Go On. But when you do sit down to work, what’s the first thing you think? 

On good days, I think, “and then she…” because my mind is teeming with ideas. On bad days, I think, “just write something. Write something awful.” Actually, I guess that’s my other mantra: “Write Badly.” Because at least I’ll be writing.

5. After you begin writing, are you optimistic or pessimistic about where you’ll be two hours later? 

I am determined. My writing day, when I’m banging out a draft, is defined by my word count. So I know I am not going to quit until I have my 2,000 words. On good days, I am optimistic that this will be before “The Daily Show” comes on.

6.  Do you have a daily word or page quota?  How committed to that are you?

I do—and very. Right now, it is 2,000 words a day, five days a week, but at times, when I’ve not dawdled so much getting started, it will be less. (And as I get more into a project I invariably find myself writing more and more each day.) I am currently writing two series, which comes to either two or three books a year. I need to have time to revise and re-read, so I have to be disciplined about churning out the rough first draft.Panthers_Play_for_Keeps_h480

7. 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!” ?

I work Monday through Friday. I’ll take notes on the weekend, but I usually make myself take those off — builds up steam for Monday.

8. Taking weekends off! Whoa. I never thought of that. Huh. Well, are there things you have given up as a result of your–well, okay. What have you given up to allow yourself to write?

It’s more like what I have to enforce. I used to be a lot more social, and I’ve learned that, no, I can’t do lunch. I can’t meet friends for drinks after work — after their work. My best writing time is really 4 to 8 p.m., and I have to protect that time.

It’s funny because now my husband is writing at home too (after the closure of the Boston Phoenix), and someone he knows asked him for coffee — but then forgot the appointment. The friend called, all apologetic after my husband had been waiting for a half hour, and asked “what the rest of his day looked like,” and “did he have to pick up the kids or anything.” Well, no, but he had to write. My husband just shook his head in wonder. I said, “welcome to my world.”Grey+Howl

9. 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?

I do. I believe in celebrating any success, and we’ve discovered that Champagne goes great with take-out Korean. Manuscripts sent, favorable reviews received…. any excuse for bubbly.

10. Think of your last success. When it happened…how long did you float? How soon after did you start focusing on the next success?    

I think the celebration lasted through a night of bi bim bap and the Veuve. Then it was back to work.

11. 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?

What I said above about being protective of my time. I think non-writers don’t understand what we do. They think we swan around all day eating bonbons. And since we’re just at home swanning, we would love to meet them for social events. Well, yes, maybe we would, but we can’t – not and get our work done. I wish someone had told me early on that I had to protect my best writing time. That I probably couldn’t change when my particular muse liked to visit, and that this was as important as anything else in my life. That I had to guard my writing time like a rabid dog.

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?

On my good days, I do. I confess, I just finished going through the copy edits of one manuscript and I was quite tickled by my own work. But not every day. What I do focus on is that I am getting better. I am always getting better.

HANK: Protecting the writing time! That is so key! But I never thought about it that way. (I’m really rolling at about 10 pm—I wonder if it’s from all the years of being on the 11 pm news. In the morning? Forget it.)

How about you—do you have a certain time of day (or night) that you know you’re brain will work at its top skill level? When is that? And what do you do to protect that time?

* * *

from Clea Simon’s website, www.cleasimon.com: I’m the author of three nonfiction books and three mystery series. The nonfiction books are Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings (published as a Doubleday hardcover in 1997, released as a Penguin paperback in 1998), Fatherless Women: How We Change After We Lose Our Dads (Wiley, 2001) and The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats (St. Martin’s Press, 2002). My Theda Krakow mystery series was launched with Mew is for Murder and continued with Cattery Row and Cries and Whiskers, and Probable Claws (Poisoned Pen Press). My Dulcie Schwartz series launched with Shades of Grey, and continues with Grey Matters, Grey Zone, Grey Expectations, True Grey, and the upcoming Grey Dawn (Severn House). My Pru Marlowe pet noir series started with Dogs Don’t Lie and continues with Cats Can’t Shoot, Parrots Prove Deadly, and Panthers Play for Keeps (Poisoned Pen Press).

* * *

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

About bethkanellbooks

My life is always a three-strand braid: love for Vermont, love of reading, and the need to write (and write better and better). Come visit and chat at any of my blogs and posts -- there's a big wonderful world of writing and reading, and we're in it together.
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19 Responses to Writers at Work: Hank Phillippi Ryan Welcomes Clea Simon

  1. Clea Simon says:

    Thank you so much, Hank! I’m tickled that you found a photo of me at my typewriter, too 🙂 One thing though – I’m now writing two series, not three. The Theda Krakow series is, for now, on hiatus. I’m not that much of a superwoman: you’ll have to go to Sheila Connolly for that!

  2. Clea, I am a happy fan of your newest book, Panthers Play for Keeps — and I love the idea of protecting the most productive writing hours, individual as they must be. (Hank, are you going to start marking that 10 pm slot for more writing?) My hours are 6-8 a.m. and I rarely get control of them away from the breakfast seekers (note to self: try harder). But I am getting more able to write in the hours that I *can* snatch — usually 11:30 pm to 1 a.m. This conversation is terrific; I feel as though I was sitting at the next table in a restaurant, signaling my hubby to hush so I could overhear … oh yeah, that’s the mystery plotter in action, right? (Grin.)

    • hankpryan says:

      And you’re a night-writer, too, Beth? SO funny! Sometimes just before we go upstairs at night, I think–I’ll just take one last look at what I wrote today..and then, half an hour later, I’ll hear my husband’s footsteps.. “Honey?” he’ll say? “Weren’t you coming upstairs?” “Yeah,” I say. “But I forgot.”

  3. I just love this series, and find it SO HELPFUL right now. “Bash it out now, tart it up later.” So perfect and I pound out the words, and just keep trying to move it all forward. Thanks Clea, and congratulations on the recent release!! And Beth, couldn’t agree more. Thank you Hank and Clea for a wonderful conversation!!

    • hankpryan says:

      AWw..thank you! And yes, the moving forward thing helps me every day. It’s so easy to start–forgive me here–THINKING. 🙂 Or researching. And then you’re doomed. Just keep going, and fix it later. (How’s the book coming, Julie?)

  4. Clea Simon says:

    Beth – defend those hours! Those are YOURS and they are precious! So, Julie (and everyone else out there), what are your golden hours?

  5. hankpryan says:

    Oh, I am so taken with the “Protect your time” theory. When I had a work-at-home day, I used to try to get up and write first thing in the morning–and it was simply futile. It never worked. Now I say–fine. Have coffee, read the paper, do your email. And (when I have an at-home day) I make an appointment with myself to start to work at noon. It is SUCH a relief! Because now I don’t spend all that administrative time thinking–I SHOULD BE WRITING. Because I shouldn’t. Then when the clock ticks to writing time. all the other stuff is accomplished It works! for ME.

  6. Clea Simon says:

    Oh that is a great flip side – when it’s time to write, you write. But when it isn’t, no guilt! Another way of thinking of it is imagine if you were doing surgery. Nobody would say, “Oh, you can suture later… come have coffee with me.” Well, I hope they wouldn’t!

  7. beckymuth says:

    What great advice! Just write when it’s time to write. And taking off weekends? (I do take off weekdays now and then. Does that count?)

    When I first started writing, I pictured myself getting up in the morning, taking my laptop and coffee to the deck, and bashing out thousands of eloquent text as the fog rolled up the side of the mountain from the river, deer and rabbits foraged in the back yard…you get the idea. The only way I’m an early-morning writer now is if I started at around 2am and am up writing until sunrise.

    I love the idea of setting aside time to write and just doing it. And the Nick Lowe quote is genius. I’m going to try it! (But I’m not holding out any hopes for that early morning bliss.)

    Lovely interview! 🙂

  8. Mary Sutton says:

    My prime time is afternoons, starting about noon. But – I have a day job. So that time is not available, unless it’s a weekend (and then there are kids, chores, etc.). So I write on my lunch hour. Every day between 12 and 1. I take my personal laptop to work and all my coworkers know, “Don’t bother her, she’s writing.” No wonder they never ask me to go to lunch with them!

  9. My best time used to be late at night, from about 10 to midnight. I would sit at the table and write a new scene in longhand, leave it unfinished, take it to the computer the next day, copy (and probably revise slightly), and that would lead me on into the next scene. I’d print out the last page and start with it that night. But somehow I’ve now drifted into an early-to-bed, early-to-rise schedule, which wreaks havoc with my late nights (hard to write when you’re asleep…), and unfortunately at 4 a.m. I’m unable for anything more creative than sudoku. Aaarrggh! Am looking for a NEW best time!

  10. hankpryan says:

    Oh, MAry I love the longhand to computer technique. I bet that’s so effective, in many ways! It also means you can read your own handwriting–always a good thing. (I know this from experience, because I cannot read mine.) Good luck finding your new time–you will!

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