HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: What does someone’s face look like when they’re telling you their dream has come true?
I saw that look, I really did, on Sheila Connolly. She’ll be able to tell us how long ago it was—it was certainly at least seven years ago, which in writing world is both forever and the blink of an eye.
We were at a SinC meeting at someone’s house, Sheila, help me here, and I said something like—How’s it going?
(I’m a great small-talker.)
And Shelia said well, fine, I guess. I’m not sure what to say, she said. I just got—and she kind of gulped. A three book deal.
Her face was –lit from within. A wonderful combination of baffled and delighted and awestruck and thrilled.
Because I’m editing a book of essays for Sisters in Crime (you’ll see it soon) I know that Shelia wrote more than a million words before a publisher bought her first novel. When I heard that I could not fathom the level of determination she must have embraced.
And she is now a New York Times bestselling author. There is no story—none—that is more important than that for us to hear.
How does she do it? Continuing our nuts-and-bolts questions, here is the queen of talent plus persistence, Sheila Connolly.
1. When you need to do your writing for the day, how difficult is it to get yourself to begin? Why?
After thirteen years of writing (when did that happen?), I still feel like the new kid at school. I’m amazed and grateful that anybody lets me write full time, much less buys what I write. So I still get a little thrill when I sit down in front of a blank screen and say, what’s going to happen next? (I don’t outline, so I don’t always know!)
But I’m also conscious that my brain works better in the morning, so it’s important to capture whatever is going on in there before it gets lost in the sludge.
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?
I haven’t missed a deadline yet, and that’s always in the back of my mind. But it’s not a driving force. Mostly it’s like sitting down with old friends. I see the story in my head; I hear the characters’ voices. No, not literally—I can still distinguish reality from fantasy. But the writing process for me is like stepping into another world (one that I’ve created) and just listening to what’s going on. Looking at details. What’s the weather, what’s for breakfast? I know, that sounds rather boring—I could say, “who’s dead this time?” But life is made up of a lot of boring small details, and most of us won’t trip over a body. That body has to be placed in a context that people will recognize. (Notice that I don’t write thrillers set in Hong Kong!)
3. When you sit down to work, what’s the first thing you think?
Business first. Take care of the pressing emails, check the online news to see if anything has blown up overnight, take a look at a few of my favorite blogs (and make sure any posts I’m responsible for look all right). Then I make a list, or look at the endless to-do list (why are those never finished?). Then I let myself write.
4. What’s the first thing you do? Really? Do you check your email, or Facebook, or Twitter FIRST?
Drink coffee and read the (real) paper. Drink some more coffee. Then emails. I rarely look at Facebook for fun in the morning, although if someone has a new book out I’ll push that. Facebook is more like a guilty indulgence for the end of the day. Also the best way to keep track of what my daughter is doing! (My Twitter account was hijacked years ago, and I haven’t missed it.)
5. How do you handle the temptations of the internet?
I love the Internet! I use it a lot for research. I started out as an academic, so I’ve always done research for whatever I’m pursuing. The good side of that is that I’m skeptical of any single source, which means I have to look at a range of sources and fit them together and decide what’s true and what’s questionable and how I’m going to use the information. And sometimes I intersperse that with useful things like finding custom millwork for my Victorian house or checking out upcoming local events. But I get my main internet “fix” by looking for writing-related material. I love to learn almost anything new.
6. When you begin writing, are you optimistic or pessimistic about where you’ll be two hours later?
I’ve been doing this long enough that I know how long it takes me to accomplish something. Sometimes the spark just isn’t there, but that doesn’t panic me—the words will come when they’re ready, and I can’t force the process, so I might as well sort my pencils while I’m waiting. Or chase down dustbunnies. Or (gasp) file.
7. Do you have a daily word or page quota? How committed to that are you?
When I started writing I had no idea how long a book was supposed to be, either in pages or in fictitious time. I just sat down and started spewing words. After a while I learned that I’m most comfortable writing books in the 75,000-80,000 word range, and most of my plots take about two weeks to resolve themselves. I like to write a chapter a day, and most of my chapters are around 2,500 words. But that’s not always just length—a chapter is a self-contained unit that moves the story forward or provides a piece of essential information (or bemoans the lack of information if the investigation is stalled) and opens the door for the next step. So it may be longer or shorter than 2,500 words. And knowing that, I can estimate pretty well how far from finishing I am. I keep a basic table with word and chapter counts, and if I’ve reached Chapter 15 and we still haven’t seen the corpse, I know I have to fix something.
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!”?
As far as I can tell, there’s no time when I’m not writing. I usually work on the WIP every day (hands on keyboard, pixels on screen, whatever), but there’s also a lot of thinking time involved, sometimes for more than one book at a time. Car trips are good for that—I can work out plot elements, and I’ve found that saying some things out loud helps to make them clearer or reveals the flaws. But there are times when I’ll be minding my own business and my subconscious will lob a thought at me, which is a very odd sensation. In Monument to the Dead, it was “She knows how to shoot.” It came out of nowhere, and was something that I’d never even thought about.
When I travel, it’s usually either to conferences, which is writing-related, or it’s for research (which I call the best of all possible worlds—I was very strategic about setting my series in places I love to revisit!).
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?
Play time? I don’t go to a lot of movies, or take long lunches with friends (they’re so scattered geographically that a lunch is an all-day commitment), or visit the beach, or go whale-watching. But I miss things like that more as an afterthought—you know, “goodness, it’s been three years since I visited a museum!” I have no children at home and my husband is a homebody, so not a lot has changed.
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?
Most of my friends take me out to lunch (with wine), which works for me. My husband has learned to give me champagne when a book hits a Big List, but if it’s only the two of us, it’s a challenge to finish the bottle.
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?
It’s such a double edged sword kind of thing. The first time I hit the New York Times mass market bestseller list, it was like, “What? Me? Cozies don’t make that list, Nora Roberts does, or James Patterson. Not me.” And then people start complimenting you and you realize they’re paying attention and it matters to them. It’s good for about a week—until the next list comes out and you’re not on it. And then you start worrying, will the next one make it? Was that first time a mistake and it will never happen again? You can never assume that any success will last (you’re only as good as your last book). So every time that bleeping list comes out the week after a new release, you’re chewing your nails and checking the internet listing every three minutes.
It does put some pressure on making the next book as good as possible (as if we don’t already?). And of course we get just a little greedy: hey, let’s see if we can stay on that list for two weeks, or three this time around, although we have no control over that. And there are always those people who have been in the top twenty for 87 weeks in a row (curse you, George R. R. Martin!) to keep you humble.
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?
Shoot your inner editor. When you start writing you’re going to churn out a lot of crap, but that’s how you learn. It’s harder than it looks, isn’t it? Give yourself permission to be lousy, and keep trying. You may not see it, but you’re improving, bit by bit. And choose your critiquers carefully. Forget family—they have to live with you, so of course they’ll be kind. But at the same time, a harsh if honest comment can be devastating if you’re just starting out.
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?
That is tough. I think I’m a dependable mid-list writer. I write what I love and I respect my readers: what I tell them is true, at least for me, and I’m very happy when they “get” what I’m trying to say, which they all won’t. But there are writers, living and dead, who I admire greatly and who I can’t imagine surpassing, not matter how hard I try. I am happy writing what I write, and I’m glad other people enjoy my books.
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Sheila Connolly writes three series. The latest in the County Cork Mysteries (featuring Maura Donovan) is SCANDAL IN SKIBBEREEN. The Orchard series features Meg Corey. PICKED TO DEATH is due out in October 2014. The Museum series features Nell Pratt, and takes place in Philadelphia. RAZING THE DEAD will be out in June 2014. http://sheilaconnolly.com/
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/