You Can’t Bulls**it a Baby:Kids and the Writing Life


“When people say they don’t have time to write with small children, well, for me it was the opposite. I didn’t write anything before I had them. They gave me that.” —Toni Morrison

By PJ Parrish

I don’t have kids. Would I be a better writer if I did?

Let’s leave that one for you shrinks out there for the moment. I have my own ideas about it, which I will answer at the end. Normally, a topic this personal wouldn’t even be on my writer radar; you guys know I prefer stomping around in the weeds of craft. But I read an interesting blog over the weekend by the novelist Lev Grossman called “Fatherhood Ruined My Life Plan – And Made Me The Writer I Am.” Here’s the money quote:

 When I came back to my book, after Lily was born, I saw it for what it was: cold, dull, lifeless, massively overthought – a labyrinth with no minotaur inside. I told myself I was just taking a break from it, but the truth was I binned it and started something new. I picked up an idea I’d had years before but hadn’t taken seriously at the time, because it was fresh and weird and risky and different from anything I’d ever tried before. Six months after Lily was born, I took a week off from work to explore it, and I wound up writing 25,000 words in five days. I’d hit an artery, and the story came surging out hot and strong. Not only was it the most productive week I’d ever had, I enjoyed it more than I’d enjoyed doing anything for literally years. I was more proud of it than anything I’d done in my entire life.

Something was afoot. I was waking up. Somewhere inside me the emotional pack ice was cracking and melting, ice that had formed long ago in the Fimbulwinter of my childhood, and feelings that I’d been avoiding for decades were thawing out and leaking through, both good and bad: joy, grief, anger, hope, longing. I was like some frozen extrasolar planet, where even gases exist only in neat, handy solid forms. But now I was warming up, and buried things were surfacing.

Interesting stuff. And it poses a question for writers. But not the obvious one about how do you find the time and energy to write when you have kids? But rather:  How do life experiences mold our fiction? Grossman’s essay is part of a book called When I First Held You: 22 Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood. In it, writers such as Dennis Lehane, Rick Moody and Justin Cronin talk about the transforming power of parenthood. To be honest, most of it is of the pedestrian “you can’t be cool with drool on your jacket” variety. But there is the occasional insight about the writing life. And it turns out that perhaps playing pretend and singing along silly songs is what every writer needs to bring some emotional depth to their characters.

What interests me most about this topic is the deeper question that Grossman is getting at: What are the primal forces that make us open a vein and bleed our emotions onto the page?

I used to work in the newspaper business. Every reporter and editor I knew either wanted to write a novel or already had tried to.  After I got published, I read quite a few manuscripts as favors to friends. For the most part, they weren’t bad. But something was always missing. For a long time I couldn’t figure out what it was then it hit me: The writers were not willing to expose themselves emotionally on the page. Journalism trains you to be detached and impartial. And you can’t be that way with fiction. Unless you are willing to crawl inside another person’s head and heart — and muck about in all the messiness, gore, grief and passion that is there — you can’t make characters come alive on the page.

For some, becoming a parent might be the catalyst to make this happen. Years ago, I read an essay by Michael Connelly in which he said that having a daughter made him a better writer. (Sorry, I can’t find it). It also changed his character Harry Bosch. Nine books into the series, in Lost Light, Connelly gave Bosch a daughter he didn’t know about: Here’s Connelly on the why:

Up until Bosch became a father, I had been creating a character who viewed himself as being on a mission. He was someone who was skilled enough and tough enough to go into the abyss and seek out human evil. To carry out this mission, he knew he had to be relentless and bulletproof. By bulletproof, I mean he had to be invulnerable. Nobody could get to him. It was the only way to be relentless. And this idea or belief bled into all aspects of his life. He lived alone, had no friends, and didn’t even know his neighbors. He built a solitary life so that no one could get to him. All that suddenly changed in one moment (one page) when he locked eyes with his daughter in Lost Light. Harry suddenly knew he could be gotten to.

Did having kids (fictional and real) make Connelly a more humane writer? I don’t know. It made him a different one at least.

I might be wrong about this (and I hope you all will weigh in), but I think this question is different for women writers. I think women look at the effects of children on their creative life more practically. Some claim it forces discipline. P.D. James, mother of two, got up at 5 a.m. every morning to find time to write. The novelist Candia McWilliam once said, “Every baby costs four books.”  I asked my sister and co-author Kelly if having kids (she has three) makes you a better writer. “Only if you write tragedy,” she said. (she was joking. But barely.)

I do think the fiction of women writers is maybe uniquely shaped by motherhood. Jane Hamilton’s novel A Map of the World is about the effects of the drowning of a child on a family and a community. Jacquelyn Mitchard’s bestseller The Deep End of the Ocean is about a kidnapping. Both were written after the authors had their children. Who can say if the stories were possible before that?

Abby Fruch’s novel Polly’s Ghost is about a woman who dies in childbirth and returns as a ghost to guide her son. Fruch has said she “softened” after her daughter was born and couldn’t read anything violent. She rewrote her novel Blue Water to change its theme from betrayal to forgiveness.

The poet A. Manette Ansay wrote a fascinating essay called “Drowning the Children: To a Writer, Interruptions Are Life. Yes, she talks about the time suck that kids create. But like Lev Grossman, she taps into a larger realization. After having kids, she says…

…I found myself louder and more unkempt than I used to be, more interested in food, physical activity and sexual pleasure, more interested in the physical pleasure of words, their sound and sensation in the mouth and throat. The poems I had written before were tentative and cerebral; the new ones were confident, maybe funny, and full of physicality. Being with children made me matter-of-fact. Like dogs, babies and small children don’t swerve from their attention to the present moment and they take no shame in the expression of strong feeling. They have an undisciplined sense of humor. Having children didn’t give me confidence in my writing but I learned to write whether the result would be good or not — as parents, too, we learn to abandon hopeless perfectionism.

Boy, I can relate to that — the idea that writers need to live in the moment and give up the idea that they can make everything perfect. Like I said, I don’t have kids but after I adopted two stray mutts, I did learn to slow down and savor a nap in the sun. (That’s my snoop doggies above) And where once I couldn’t go to bed if there was a dirty glass in the sink, now I don’t sweat dog barf on the sofa. I write faster, enjoy the process for what it is, and I no long try to torture each sentence into perfection.

A couple years ago, Amanda Craig created a dust-up when she wrote in the Telegraph that bestselling Irish author Maeve Bichey would have been a better novelist if she had kids. It was a snarky thing to write and I don’t agree.  Because here is where I come down on this whole thing:

Having kids might make you a more honest writer. As Lev Grossman says in his essay, “You can’t bullshit a baby.” (Or your readers). But I don’t think making a baby will make you a better writer.

I truly believe that your unique voice is the sum of all your life experiences, but that what really makes you a good writer is being able to tap deep into your powers of empathy and observation.  Then having the courage to cut open your vein.

____________________

Postscript: I hope you all will indulge me and allow for a little BSP.  I got word a couple days ago that our book Heart of Ice has been nominated for the Shamus Award. (Private Eye Writers of America). Just made my rezzie to go to Bouchercon…haven’t been there in years. Kelly and I are thrilled, needless to say.

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You Can’t Bulls**it a Baby:Kids and the Writing Life


“When people say they don’t have time to write with small children, well, for me it was the opposite. I didn’t write anything before I had them. They gave me that.” —Toni Morrison

By PJ Parrish

I don’t have kids. Would I be a better writer if I did?

Let’s leave that one for you shrinks out there for the moment. I have my own ideas about it, which I will answer at the end. Normally, a topic this personal wouldn’t even be on my writer radar; you guys know I prefer stomping around in the weeds of craft. But I read an interesting blog over the weekend by the novelist Lev Grossman called “Fatherhood Ruined My Life Plan – And Made Me The Writer I Am.” Here’s the money quote:

 When I came back to my book, after Lily was born, I saw it for what it was: cold, dull, lifeless, massively overthought – a labyrinth with no minotaur inside. I told myself I was just taking a break from it, but the truth was I binned it and started something new. I picked up an idea I’d had years before but hadn’t taken seriously at the time, because it was fresh and weird and risky and different from anything I’d ever tried before. Six months after Lily was born, I took a week off from work to explore it, and I wound up writing 25,000 words in five days. I’d hit an artery, and the story came surging out hot and strong. Not only was it the most productive week I’d ever had, I enjoyed it more than I’d enjoyed doing anything for literally years. I was more proud of it than anything I’d done in my entire life.

Something was afoot. I was waking up. Somewhere inside me the emotional pack ice was cracking and melting, ice that had formed long ago in the Fimbulwinter of my childhood, and feelings that I’d been avoiding for decades were thawing out and leaking through, both good and bad: joy, grief, anger, hope, longing. I was like some frozen extrasolar planet, where even gases exist only in neat, handy solid forms. But now I was warming up, and buried things were surfacing.

Interesting stuff. And it poses a question for writers. But not the obvious one about how do you find the time and energy to write when you have kids? But rather:  How do life experiences mold our fiction? Grossman’s essay is part of a book called When I First Held You: 22 Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood. In it, writers such as Dennis Lehane, Rick Moody and Justin Cronin talk about the transforming power of parenthood. To be honest, most of it is of the pedestrian “you can’t be cool with drool on your jacket” variety. But there is the occasional insight about the writing life.

What interests me most about this topic is the deeper question that Grossman is getting at: What are the primal forces that make us open a vein and bleed our emotions onto the page?

I used to work in the newspaper business. Every reporter and editor I knew either wanted to write a novel or already had tried to.  After I got published, I read quite a few manuscripts as favors to friends. For the most part, they weren’t bad. But something was always missing. For a long time I couldn’t figure out what it was then it hit me: The writers were not willing to expose themselves emotionally on the page. Journalism trains you to be detached and impartial. And you can’t be that way with fiction. Unless you are willing to crawl inside another person’s head and heart — and muck about in all the messiness, gore, grief and passion that is there — you can’t make characters come alive on the page.

For some, becoming a parent might be the catalyst to make this happen. Years ago, I read an essay by Michael Connelly in which he said that having a daughter made him a better writer. (Sorry, I can’t find it). It also changed his character Harry Bosch. Nine books into the series, in Lost Light, Connelly gave Bosch a daughter he didn’t know about: Here’s Connelly on the why:

Up until Bosch became a father, I had been creating a character who viewed himself as being on a mission. He was someone who was skilled enough and tough enough to go into the abyss and seek out human evil. To carry out this mission, he knew he had to be relentless and bulletproof. By bulletproof, I mean he had to be invulnerable. Nobody could get to him. It was the only way to be relentless. And this idea or belief bled into all aspects of his life. He lived alone, had no friends, and didn’t even know his neighbors. He built a solitary life so that no one could get to him. All that suddenly changed in one moment (one page) when he locked eyes with his daughter in Lost Light. Harry suddenly knew he could be gotten to.

Did having kids (fictional and real) make Connelly a more humane writer? I don’t know. It made him a different one at least.

I might be wrong about this (and I hope you all will weigh in), but I think this question is different for women writers. I think women look at the effects of children on their creative life more practically. Some claim it forces discipline. P.D. James, mother of two, got up at 5 a.m. every morning to find time to write. The novelist Candia McWilliam once said, “Every baby costs four books.”  I asked my sister and co-author Kelly if having kids (she has three) makes you a better writer. “Only if you write tragedy,” she said. (she was joking. But barely.)

I do think the fiction of women writers is maybe uniquely shaped by motherhood. Jane Hamilton’s novel A Map of the World is about the effects of the drowning of a child on a family and a community. Jacquelyn Mitchard’s bestseller The Deep End of the Ocean is about a kidnapping. Both were written after the authors had their children. Who can say if the stories were possible before that?

Abby Fruch’s novel Polly’s Ghost is about a woman who dies in childbirth and returns as a ghost to guide her son. Fruch has said she “softened” after her daughter was born and couldn’t read anything violent. She rewrote her novel Blue Water to change its theme from betrayal to forgiveness.

The poet A. Manette Ansay wrote a fascinating essay called “Drowning the Children: To a Writer, Interruptions Are Life. Yes, she talks about the time suck that kids create. But like Lev Grossman, she taps into a larger realization. After having kids, she says…

…I found myself louder and more unkempt than I used to be, more interested in food, physical activity and sexual pleasure, more interested in the physical pleasure of words, their sound and sensation in the mouth and throat. The poems I had written before were tentative and cerebral; the new ones were confident, maybe funny, and full of physicality. Being with children made me matter-of-fact. Like dogs, babies and small children don’t swerve from their attention to the present moment and they take no shame in the expression of strong feeling. They have an undisciplined sense of humor. Having children didn’t give me confidence in my writing but I learned to write whether the result would be good or not — as parents, too, we learn to abandon hopeless perfectionism.

Boy, I can relate to that — the idea that writers need to live in the moment and give up the idea that they can make everything perfect. Like I said, I don’t have kids but after I adopted two stray mutts, I did learn to slow down and savor a nap in the sun. (That’s my snoop doggies above) And where once I couldn’t go to bed if there was a dirty glass in the sink, now I don’t sweat dog barf on the sofa. I write faster, enjoy the process for what it is, and I no long try to torture each sentence into perfection.

A couple years ago, Amanda Craig created a dust-up when she wrote in the Telegraph that bestselling Irish author Maeve Bichey would have been a better novelist if she had kids. It was a snarky thing to write and I don’t agree.  Because here is where I come down on this whole thing:

Having kids might make you a more honest writer. As Lev Grossman says in his essay, “You can’t bullshit a baby.” (Or your readers). But I don’t think making a baby will make you a better writer.

I truly believe that your unique voice is the sum of all your life experiences, but that what really makes you a good writer is being able to tap deep into your powers of empathy and observation.  Then having the courage to cut open your vein.

____________________

Postscript: I hope you all will indulge me and allow for a little BSP.  I got word a couple days ago that our book Heart of Ice has been nominated for the Shamus Award. (Private Eye Writers of America). Just made my rezzie to go to Bouchercon…haven’t been there in years. Kelly and I are thrilled, needless to say.

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THE VENGEANCE ANTHOLOGY

by Michelle Gagnon

I hope you’ll excuse a little BSP today. I have a short story out in the new Mystery Writers of America Anthology, VENGEANCE, edited by the wonderful Lee Child. Plus I think there’s a lesson to be learned from the long, occasionally tortuous journey this story has had over the past twelve years…

Some background first. This was the first real piece of crime fiction I ever wrote. I composed it while working with the San Francisco Writers’ Workshop back in 2000. I’ve never been much of a short story writer, but at the time I was just diving back into fiction, and figured that playing around with briefer pieces might help me find my voice. So this was one of the first (and only) stories I ever wrote. Shortly afterward, I started working on my first book (the one that never sold), and then, eventually, moved on to writing THE TUNNELS.

I always had a soft spot for this story, but had no idea what to do with it. Filled with hope, I submitted it to a few literary magazines. After it was roundly rejected by them, I shrugged and put it away in a drawer.

Fast forward to 2004. Lee Child was headlining the Book Passage Mystery Writers’ Conference, and at the last minute I scraped together enough money to attend. On the last night of the conference, all the participants were invited to read a short piece of fiction, kind of an informal critique exercise. I wasn’t happy with the opening of my novel yet, and was considering skipping the event entirely until I remembered this story. So I pulled it out of the drawer, dusted it off, and read it that night. All in all, it was well received; Lee attended the reading, and spoke with me afterward about how much he’d liked it. Which was terribly flattering, but again, I had no idea what to do with it. So back in the drawer it went.

Fast forward another seven years, to 2011. Lee emailed me out of the blue and asked if I’d ever done anything with that story from the Book Passage reading. He explained that he was putting together an anthology for the MWA centered around the theme of vigilante justice, and thought my piece might fit in perfectly. He asked if it would be all right to include it. Once I finished turning cartwheels across the room, I said yes.

So this week my little story, the first piece of crime fiction I ever wrote, was published alongside the work of some of my idols, including Lee, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, and Zoe Sharp. To say that I was honored to be part of this anthology would be a tremendous understatement. It really is a dream come true.

And from it, I’ve learned a few things:

a) It’s impossible to judge the true value of a writing conference. Sometimes they might seem like a waste of time and money, but you never know what may come of the contacts you make there.

b) Never empty that drawer. The story that can’t find a home today might bear fruit years down the road (or even decades!)

c) Never give up. I have to confess, when those literary magazines first snubbed my work, I was disheartened and almost tossed in the towel. I really thought the story was pretty great, and discovering that not everyone agreed was crushing. It was hard to go on when it felt like what I was writing might never be appreciated, or even read, by anyone outside my critique group. Eight published or soon-to-be-published novels (and one short story) later, I’m really happy that I decided to forge ahead.

What follows is an excerpt from my story, IT AIN’T RIGHT. The VENGEANCE Anthology is currently on sale at bookstores and online.

IT AIN’T RIGHT


“It ain’t right, is all I’m saying.”

Joe just kept walking the way he always did, shovel over his shoulder, cigarette clinging to his bottom lip.

“You hear me?”

He stopped and turned, lifting his head inch by inch until his eyes found my hips then my breasts then my eyes. A dustdevil whirred away behind him, making the bottom branches of the tree dance like girls on Mayday, up and down. He stared at me long and hard, and I felt the last heat of the day seeping into my skin and down through my bones, reaching inside to meet the cold that burrowed in my stomach early that morning.

“She’s dead, ain’t she?” With his free hand he scratched his belly where the bottom of his ‘Joe’s Diner’ shirt had pulled away.

“Yeah, but just cause she’s dead don’t mean she should be put down like this.”

He looked past me, towards where the road met the hill and dove behind it, wheat tips glowing pink in the twilight. “What else we gonna do with her?”

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Writing and Basic Human Needs

By: Kathleen Pickering

A shudder ran up my spine when Clare Langley-Hawthorne asked in her last blog, “When is it time to stop writing if you haven’t sold a book?” I could not imagine never writing again.

That, of course, got me thinking, well why not? Not writing wouldn’t kill me. I’d feel less pressure to perform, my days would free up and I could enjoy all those characters in my head as imaginary playmates. But, then I realized why I reacted so uncomfortably to Clare’s question. Simply put, we all have basic human needs. For me, writing fulfills all six of the basic human needs Anthony Robbins says every person craves for personal happiness. No wonder we authors are addicted to the craft!

Here are the needs as Tony Robbins lists them. I’ve shown how they fulfill my need to write:

1. Certainty – We all want to feel safe in our world. As a writer, I know the world I create is my own, no one can hurt it, change it, take it. I feel safe in my writing cocoon.

2. Uncertainty – We all crave variety, surprise and spontaneity or we’d get bored. Well, heck, do we or do we not get uncertainty and surprise from our characters? They always take us somewhere we don’t expect. Also, the uncertainty of the publishing industry and reader/editor opinion offers no small adrenaline rush in working towards success.

3. Significance – We all need to feel important in our world and often carry a fear of “not being enough.” Writing offers me a sense of significance, in that I feel unique in my craft and how I tell my stories. Being an author gives me a sense of worth.

4. Growth – If we don’t grow, we die. The richness of every book experience, from creating the work to selling, to networking, to celebrating and sharing, all contribute to my personal growth as an author. I feel an internal shift upwards with every book I write.

5. Connection/Love – We all need to bond and feel grounded with others. We all understand this. A perfect example for me was at this year’s Sleuthfest conference. I asked Dennis Lehane what inspired him to write Shutter Island and how he conducted his research. I was rewarded with a smile, an in-depth and heartfelt explanation that ended with, “this book describes me the best.” We all need connection and welcome the recognition in others.

6. Contribution – We act to make the world a better place. I’m not alone when I say I am an author with more than just a story to tell. (My brand.) Every book I write has a purpose, a theme, and mine is redemption. My world view is that we were born perfect onto a perfect planet, and somewhere along the line we lost that understanding. I write hoping my stories will get folks thinking towards shifting our perceptions back to a place of dancing and joy and connection with ourselves, each other and our precious world. I tell you, writing rocks!

My urban fantasy, Mythological Sam – The Call, embodies all six basic human needs of which Robbins speaks. That’s why I love writing and could never stop. Who else gets the opportunity to get their message across with a hilarious, demon-busting call to adventure while meeting their own human needs?

So, I ask you, as an author and a reader . . . how does writing/reading meet your human needs? And which two are most important?

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I Like Complex, Competent Villains

By John Gilstrap

There comes a point in most stories where the villain and the hero face off and have a Dramatic Moment with each other. As many times as not, I find that beat of the story to be the nadir of the dramatic arc. In that moment resides definitive evidence of the writer’s strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller. I cannot count the number of times I’ve read some version of this: “Well, Detective Huffnagle, since I’m going to kill you anyway, there’s no reason for me not to explain all of the things that the author who created me couldn’t figure out a way to clarify more elegantly. . .”

I spent fifteen years of my life as a firefighter and EMT, cleaning up after the handiwork of killers. Figure a couple, three murders a year, and they add up over time. Never once did I process a witness report of a dramatic speech preceding the fatal blow, shot or stab wound. Real bad guys pretty much just step out of the shadows and do what they’re out to do in as lop-sided a manner as they can. They point the gun, pull the trigger, and the rest plays out at 9,000 feet per second.

In my own writing, I find that the most vexing challenge can be to find the motivation for my bad guy not to pop the good guy on sight and get it over with. Motivating him to take the shot is easy; explaining his last-minute collapse in marksmanship skill is tough. Remember that scene in Behind Enemy Lines when Lt. Burnett is sitting on the rock taking a break? Our enemy sniper has for freaking ever to zero in on his shot . . . and then he misses! WTF?! How am I supposed to respect a bad guy who’s so ridiculously incompetent?

Not to run counter to the opinions of my colleagues here on The Kill Zone, but in the creepy worlds created by Thomas Harris (one of the two greatest thriller writers of all time, in my opinion), Hannibal Lecter is a lightweight compared to Francis Dolarhyde (Red Dragon) or Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs). Those guys are ninth-degree nut jobs who don’t even realize that they’re being evil. Man, that’s scary.

The other best thriller writer of all time on my list is Frederick Forsythe, whose book, The Day of the Jackal, is The Perfect Thriller. In it, the whole villain thing becomes a bit murky–just the way I like it. On the one hand we’ve got an assassin out to murder the French president, while on the other we have state security forces who torture citizens to death in their zeal to prevent the murder from occurring. I defy you to point with one finger at the bad guy in that story.

As I write this, I think I’m deciding that maybe bad guys are over-rated, and serial killers are overdone. In the wrong hands, it becomes too easy to create a character who’s bad simply because he’s crazy. There’s no moral complexity. All else being equal, I’ll take a Dennis Lehane character any day over a serial killer: a morally-centered cop, for example, who shoots a child molester simply because he has the opportunity.

Maybe morality matters less when it feels so good.

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