Have an affair - book, that is

There's nothing quite like falling in love with a new idea.

file0001781362730A lot of times it will happen when you are in the middle of another book. A book that has gone from pure pleasure to write to a kind of muddy slog.

And then a voice will whisper inside of you:  "Your current book sucks. It's fat and constantly scratches its belly, and frankly, sometimes it smells. But I'm a new idea!  I would make a wonderful book. I would practically write myself. "

Do not give into temptation.  Do not divorce your current book to run off and hastily marry your new idea. Because one day you will wake up and you'll realize you are stuck in the same muddy slog, only now it's with your once shiny new idea.

Does that mean you should give up on your wonderful, sexy new idea?

No. But what you should do is make it your affair book. Yes, sneak off every now and then to write it. Write with passion. Leave when it starts suggesting you need to do the dishes or take out the garbage. Come back to it with presents of energy and excitement and insight.  Repeat as necessary.

Two of the best books I've ever written were not under contract, and I really shouldn't have been writing them. But I snuck out every now and then to meet up with them secretly. And I'm so glad I did.
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What do you already have in the cupboard?

I'm close to finishing a murder mystery. But I realized I needed more suspects for the reader to consider.

While I had presented a number of theories about who did it, several of them weren't concrete enough for the reader to grab onto. For example, the amateur sleuth in the story, Olivia, thinks a hitchhiker might have been the one who killed her parents years ago, or a crazed person they met in the woods. While those are both good possibilities, they're not suspects she can meet now and speculate about.

file5101281691371So I came up with two new suspects. One is Nick, a businessman who is a real estate mogul now, but who back then was a drug dealer. I'm partially modeling him on someone I went to school with, a guy who looked like a success on paper but who hadn't left his past behind. (When I googled him, he turned up in an article about prisoners making wooden toys for children.)

I also decided I wanted to have Ben, a homeless man whose descent into alcoholism and homelessness began around the time of the murders.

Now I could have gone back to the book and thought of places to force Nick and Ben into the narrative, but it turns out they already kind of exist. I had briefly mentioned a guy in a suit and tie at a gathering.  He has become Nick and now has a longer description. And I had a homeless guy hanging around in a cemetery in a scene that, now that I think about it, wasn't doing enough anyway. Now he's Ben and he's going to pass on some information.

The businessman can show up at a party I've half written, and the homeless guy can bring in cans to the grocery store where my main character works.

HOMELESSWhat I'm doing is called reincorporation. Basically, it means bringing back people, places, and things you’ve previously mentioned in your story. It makes your plot feel more organic.

So if you get stuck in your story, read back what you have already written and see what you have to work with. I truly believe we subconsciously leave our future selves clues. That canoe you mentioned your characters walking by? That bus driver your character talks to every morning? The nosy neighbor who only pretends to be watering the flowers? They might just be there for a reason.

What does your story already have that can be reincorporated now? What clues did you leave yourself?
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Three days in Missouri

2014-10-08 08.19.392014-10-09 08.10.12I spent four days in Desoto and Herculeneum Missouri last week, speaking to about 3,000 students. I signed hundreds of books.

I also taught a couple of writing classes, including an exercise in which we built a character and a story together.

That's always a bit of a highwire act. Once the students came up with a five-year-old named Max who lived in a treehouse and liked to knit clothes for his ferrets. And we made it work!

At the schools, they had made giant versions of two of my book covers, one in pastels and one in oil. They also had the students post tweets in the hallways from the point of view of various characters in The Night She Disappeared.


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I even got to see the Scholastic Book Fair display with Girl, Stolen and The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die, next to another Portland author's book - Cat Winter's In the Shadow of Blackbirds.
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Don't give up on your dreams

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This week I'm talking to a couple thousand students in Missouri. And I think the most important message I have for them isn't about reading, writing or research. It's about not giving up on your dreams.

I'm not the best writer out there. But - and this is an important but - I one of the most tenacious. I think in most things in life, tenacity can be just as important as talent.

When I first started writing, I took a class with two people named Jane and Tom. They were both better writers than I was. (In fact, Tom used this one clever framing device to describe a character that I have since borrowed a couple of times.) They both approached a few agents, and both got rejection letters.

And both, at least the last I heard, gave up writing.

The thing is, those agents didn't really have the power to tell Tom or Jane they weren't good writers. All they could say was that they did not want to represent those particular books.

The only one who can really take you out of the game - whether that game is writing or acting or dancing or whatever - is you.

I have had four times in my career as a writer where it looked like I might never be published, or published again. I still have a big fat file that stinks of sadness that I labelled submissions/rejections. There are probably over 100 letters or notes with the word "no" in that file.  But I did not take no for an answer. Or at least not "the" answer. I kept pushing, writing new books, tweaking old ones, looking for as much advice and inspiration as I could get.

So if you really want something, be tenacious!

(When I spoke at a school in February, a teacher came up to me afterward and said that after listening to me, she had decided to go to massage school!)
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Facing big changes

I thought as I got older that things would become more static. After all, I've been married for 28 years (and it's still growing strong). I left my job nearly seven years ago. I thought things would go along more or less the same.

But the whole static thing - that's not happening.

Nora
Mom red hatFirst of all, this week marks the first anniversary of my mother's death. I guess I had known theoretically that my mom could die. But she had been around all my life, been there long before me.

But when she really did die, it rocked my world. After my dad died in 2003, we had become close friends, talked on the phone daily.

I spent the last three weeks of her life with her after she chose to go on hospice. I passed many long hours in the quiet house while she lay on her bed, not really napping, not really anything. The clocks ticked in unison, then opposite each other, then back again.

Toward the end the hospice nurse had me buy diapers, and later mom told me that by the time she needed them, she hoped she wouldn't give a shit. And then we both laughed. She was sharp and funny. The last sound she ever made was a laugh, after my brother claimed I was trying to kill him when the cot I had set up in her room collapsed under him.

There was a lot of laughter. Also I ate and ate and ate, chips, ice cream, weird frozen dinners from Grocery Outlet. And I hid in the laundry room or my old room and wept. I went for runs with tears streaming down my face.

When she died, she was the first person I wanted to tell.

Knees
2014-08-25 09.06.33In March, I ran to my kung fu weapons class. And then I attempted to run back again. But my right leg hurt, like someone had jammed my knee backward. (The class had not involved anything that hurt.)

And then I started having a pain run down my leg. So bad I wasn't sure how I would go to Detroit, make it through airports, sleep in a hotel bed, and do a ton of school visits. I managed it, but since then my leg and knee have been not been good.

When I first went to PT back in March, I was told my insurance would cover 77 visits a year. I laughed.  Who needs 77 visits? I was sure it would be cleared up in three or four.

That pain down my leg? Not my IT band like I thought. Pinched sciatic nerve. Finally got on top of that after some sleepless nights and many, many sessions of PT.

And I haven't run since that day six or seven months ago. When I tried, my knee always hurt to some degree. I kept asking about when I could run again, ignoring wrinkled noses, suggestions of taking up swimming or cycling, or maybe sticking with walking, or if I got really lucky possibly running on a cushioned track. I had been logging a thousand miles a year running in my neighborhood, and I didn't want to change.

I had an X-ray, then recently an MRI. I started asking questions about that MRI. Then wished I hadn't. Arthritis in all three compartments of the right knee. Moderately bad in two. More severe behind the knee cap. But, my doctor said, both knees looked the same in the X-ray (which was news to me, and not good news), so who knew? And he had seen people with bone-on-bone knees, the cartilage completely gone, who didn't feel pain.

Kyle Young Flying Kick Kung FuI made the mistake of asking about my own knees in that regard. I'm only 55, so I figured the answer couldn't be bad. But it turns out I'm close to bone on bone. My PT and my doctor have talked of trekking poles and canes and even knee replacements. Only I barely heard them because I was mentally curled up in a fetal position. Down the line, I'm thinking, because it hardly hurts now.  I'm doing all the exercises, taking all the supplements anyone has ever suggested: turmeric, fish oil, ginger, Vitamin D, Move Free, tart cherry juice, and pectin dissolved in grape juice.

And I'm definitely not asking about Brazilian jiujitsu or kung fu. Because while I can substitute walking for running, I'm not interested in substituting tai chi for more active martial arts.

Working at home
I've been lucky enough to work at home since February 1, 2008. Before that I had worked in a cubicle or a shared office and written a book a year (while also parenting, cooking, exercising, housekeeping, and wife-ing. I learned that while you will be always be crappy at something, the trick is to rotate your area of crappiness). To a large degree, this was made possible by my husband bringing home a paycheck every two weeks and covering our health insurance.

Working at home is a real luxury, if at times a lonely one. I talk to myself a lot. If I feel really tired, I'll allow myself a short nap. My husband works llong hours, so he's usually gone from the house for over 12 hours at a time.

But Friday is his last day on the job. He's going to do freelance graphic design. Luckily, our kid is going to college in LA, so he can have an office and I can use her room as an office.  But what about talking to myself? Will he look down on me if I nap? Will we drive each other crazy?

How to be a more productive writer

The first half of this year, I was amazingly productive. I turned in one book February 19, started writing a second book February 20, and turned that book in June 1. Each book was prounounced by the respective editor to be the best book I had ever written for them.

Since June 1, I've made some progress on a new book, but not nearly at the level of the first five months of the year. I was lamenting that fact, but then I realized the first five months of this year sucked. I would lie awake every night doing the math, dividing the number of words I had yet to write by the ever smaller number of days I had left to write those words in. I worked evenings and weekends. I wrote in hotel rooms, on airplanes, and in the passenger seat of cars. I wrote on "vacation." I wrote when I was in the hospital for that misdianosed kung fu injury.

Yoda_SWSBSo, I don't want to repeat that, but I do want to try to write more. But as Yoda said,"Do. Or do not. There is no try."

Some things that work for me:


  • Pomodoro method. Write for 25 minutes, take a five-minute break, write for 25, 5-minute break, repeat for a total of two hours. Then take a longer break.

  • Turn off the Internet using MacFreedom. (You can use this to help you with the Pomodoro method.) The longest I can consistently go is 45 minutes without a break.

  • Go to a coffee shop without Internet (or if it has Internet, don’t ask for the password and stick you fingers in your ears if someone else asks for it).

  • Go to a hotel - someplace where there is little to do but write. Writing on planes can also be good, especially if you are like me and too cheap to pay for inflight Internet.

  • Turn down the screen brightness until you can’t see it or cover the display with a tea towel. This forces you to write without editing.

  • Tell yourself, I’m not really writing right now, I’m just getting ready to write. It might seem less stressful and less scary.

  • Write when you first wake up. Harder still: No coffee until you’ve written a certain number of words.

  • Use writeordie.com to meet a goal of X words in X minutes. I usually set it for 500 in 15 minutes. Half of it will be crap, and some of it will be brilliant.

Methods other people swear by:


  • Write in long hand.

  • Write with a friend or in group. Be serious about not talking.

  • Put on a CD without lyrics and do not get out of the chair until it’s over.

  • Do 1k1hour sprints on Twitter.

  • Time yourself and see how much you can do. Set a stretch goal for yourself.

  • Stop writing and talk through it. Read out loud what you’ve just written, then step away from your and start talking out loud about your topic, as if you are in front of a class room.

  • Limit how much you write. Allow yourself to write only for a half hour. Stop as soon as the half hour is over, even if you are in mid-sentence.

  • If you don’t know something, do not stop to research it. Write TK or make something up and fix it later.

  • Begin each day with a furious 500.

  • Before you go to sleep, take five minutes to write down a few notes about what you might write the next day. Feel stuck? Ask this question: “How can I make things worse for my characters?”

  • Write a 200 word nightcap.

  • Break off in the middle of a sentence.

  • Write the easy parts. As soon as you feel you have worked a scene as much as you can, move on to another section that is appealing.  And repeat.

  • Try doing a mind map on a page of paper turned on its side to help you see new directions to go.

What works for you?
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The martial and literary arts have more in common than you might think

My kung fu school now offically offers Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Today I spent my lunch hour doing BJJ with one guy who weighs 225 and has a green belt in judo and our sifu, who weighs less but knows more.

2014-09-21 12.17.55So far, these have been my stages in doing BJJ:

  • I don’t know what this guy is doing and it might hurt. Better tap.

  • I know what this guy is doing and it hurts. Better tap.

  • I know what this guy is doing and I try to get away. But he just cinches in tighter. I tap.

  • I know what this guy is doing and I try to get away. But he gets me in a different position. I end up tapping.

  • I know what this guy is doing but I have a game of my own. I try something. He gets away. He tries something. I get away. But eventually I can't escape, and I tap.

  • Just like the above, only sometimes I get the other guy to tap!

As in kung fu, sometimes the best thing seems like the worst idea. Like getting closer to the guy holding the knife can be the best thing, or rolling toward the person who was just behind you choking you.

After class, Sifu asked me how many books I had written and how the process has changed over time. The answer was 17 published + 2 done but not yet published + 1 half-done + the 3 I wrote before I got published + the 4 I wrote after I got published but that never found a home (none were mysteries or thrillers, which might explain why. Maybe).

That equals 27 books! Which explains why I can now write a book in a compressed timeline and without a super-clear idea of where it's going and still pull it off. So the more you write, the more you know about writing. And the more you grapple or do kung fu, the more you know about grappling or kung fu down in your marrow, deep down past thought. The more you trust the process.

Like in my current WIP, The Girl I Used to Be, I needed this character Jason to be a tweaked-out trucker. And I could write him tweaked out and paranoid or I could write him talking to his ex-wife about who might have killed their old friends years ago, but I couldn't write both parts of the chapter. They refused to go together, even though it said in my outline that that should happen.2014-09-20 10.37.02 And I realized I had to listen to my characters. Like there was no way if Jason acted that crazy that Heather was going to give him the kids for the week, no matter what their custody agreement called for. Also, they wouldn't have discussed anything. They would have been at each other's throats. And once I trusted my gut and stopped thinking and stopped insisting the book had to follow my outline and just wrote, it worked itself out. Just like going into grappling and thinking I am going to do this cool butterfly choke no matter what and missing plenty of opportunities to do other great things and never even doing your butterfuly choke.

Every day or at least every month, I'm getting to be better at kung fu/BJJ/writing.  But I don't think I'll ever be this good:

How I found The Body in the Woods after a long search

TheBodyintheWoods high res cvrI got exciting news this week!  Scholastic has bought a bunch of copies of The Body in the Woods, the first in my new series. Girl, Stolen and The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die have been Scholastic bestsellers, so I'm hoping this book meets the same fate.

I got the idea in April 2012 when a friend told us her teen was a volunteer with Multnomah County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue. Our local SAR does what all SARSs do—find people lost in the wilderness—but ours is unique in two respects. First, it is an all teen-led organization.  Adults can volunteer, but they can't be elected to leadership positions. Second, about 30% of what these teens do is search for evidence at crime scenes.  Evidence they have found has been credited with helping solve dozens of murders. The more I learned, the more I was sure I had found what I had long sought: a realistic hook for a teen mystery series.

The teen volunteers receive about 300 hours of training. They meet every Wednesday evening as well as go on weekend outings once a month. I have gone to trainings with them, most recently a unit on "man tracking," which is what they call it when you follow someone's tracks. It's a real art, and the only clue that someone might have been there can be as small as a broken twig or a few grains of sand on top of a leaf.  (I told folks at my kung fu school that I was learning to man track and another lady said, "Oh, don't worry, honey, I can set you up with somebody!")
SAR guy learning trackingSAR kids responding
SAR grid blackberriesSARS GroupHow to write about something you
Kids break SAR woods
don't know much about
I stared first where I always start: at the library.  I checked out books about Search and Rescue.  I even bought a few manuals (which were expensive, even if they weren't that much bigger than a book. I don't understand why textbooks and such always priced so much higher.)

I interviewed the girl who was a volunteer, and she showed me all the things you have to carry in your pack and on your person when you are called out for SAR.  After signing a criminal background check, I started going to meetings, including an orientation meeting, where I took notes and talked to people. But the best thing I did was to make the acquintance of Jake K., a guy in his early 20s who had volunteered for SAR since he was a teen. Like many SAR volunteers, SAR is Jake's passion. But he's also willing to answer a million questions by email.

And slowly I found my way to a story.  Actually I found my way to ideas for about a dozen stories, but i picked one and worked on that.

First up: the Body in the Woods
Alexis, Nick, and Ruby have very different backgrounds: Alexis has spent her life covering for her mom’s mental illness, Nick’s bravado hides his fear of not being good enough, and Ruby just wants to pursue her eccentric interests in a world that doesn’t understand her. When the three teens join Portland County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue, they are teamed up to search for a autistic man lost in the woods. What they find instead is a dead body. In a friendship that will be forged in danger, fear, and courage, the three team up to find the girl’s killer—before he can strike one of their own.

Next in the series: Blood Will Tell
This last weekend, I turned in the final draft of the next book in the series. The working title was Blood Will Tell.  The amazing thing is I think the publisher kept it.  I think the last time that happened was 10 years ago.

In Blood Will Tell, Nick, Alexis and Ruby are well on their way to being full-fledged members of Portland’s Search and Rescue—and to being friends. When a woman is found stabbed to death, their team is called out to search for evidence. Suspicion begins to fall on a guy who lives nearbyr, an awkward kid who collects knives, loves first-person shooter video games, and doodles violent scenes in his school notebooks: Nick Walker. As the evidence against their friend mounts, Alexis and Ruby must decide where their loyalties lie—even if it puts them in danger.


Awards and honors

  • A Junior Library Guild selection.

  • Kirkus: "A fast-moving and well-constructed mystery... A quick, thrilling read that doesn’t skimp on characterization."

  • Publishers Weekly: "The author’s expertise at plotting a murder mystery and knowledge of police procedure are evident."

  • School Library Journal: "A pervading sense of threat and danger."

  • VOYA: "Henry has created not only a gripping mystery, but rich and detailed characters as well."

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