Hallie Ephron on the writing life
Today, our Bouchercon author posts deal with the craft -- and art -- of writing. Leading off is Hallie Ephron, author of Never Tell a Lie (for all author posts, click here). Here's Hallie: I'll be on a panel revealing the inside scoop -- what we wish someone had told us about this writing business, back when we weren’t too deep into the woods to turn back.
So, here’s my scoop: It doesn’t get easier. Even with seven published books and my first standalone psychological suspense novel, Never Tell a Lie, due out in January, writing a novel is still the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do.
Sure, I no longer struggle with the mechanics of writing. Point of view and internal dialogue are no longer my enemies.
But one thing doesn’t go away. Somewhere in the middle of each manuscript (and often more than once) I get stuck for weeks, sometimes months, in a “what happens next” rut. I know because I’m stuck there now with my current work-in-progress.
When I was writing Never Tell a Lie, I’d gotten my nine-months-pregnant protagonist locked in a windowless attic. For months she languished there while I tried in vain to write her out.
I was determined that her means of escape would not require “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God” (all prohibited by the esteemed Detection Club oath). She could not scale the wall and burst through the roof because, though she was that desperate, it had to be in character and believable (remember, she’s nine months pregnant). No white knight (police, neighbor, husband, friend) could gallop in on horseback; she had to save herself.
The only good news was that whatever escape I finally managed to engineer, it was going to surprise the hell out of the reader because it was going to surprise the hell out of me.
Outlining should have helped, right? Wrong. I had outlines. Synopses. They told me what was supposed to happen next. But what had looked perfectly plausible at 4,000 feet when I was planning felt preposterous at ground level when I went to write. The characters just refused to go there.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s trust the rut: When a character won’t do what’s in that plan, there’s usually a good reason for it. Sadly, there’s no nice, neat twelve-step plan to recovery. Just trial and error, with precisely one fewer of the latter than the former.
With poor Ivy waiting in the attic for me to figure out how she was going to rescue herself, I tried to bull my way forward. I forced out pages and pages that I ended up trashing. I tried backing up and revising, but that got us right back in the same rut.
I tried transferring my outline to colored index cards and creating mind maps like they teach in creative writing classes. All of which got me precisely nowhere. I tortured fellow writers, friends, and my long-suffering husband—if they really loved me they’d medevac me and Ivy out of the attic.
Eight weeks in, I was driving to Connecticut (AKA not writing) and, for some reason, thinking about a game I loved as a kid, Chutes and Ladders. I won’t say whether it’s a chute or a ladder that became Ivy’s escape route, but the answer came to me like a bolt from the blue. I pulled over at a rest stop and wrote pages that had been eluding me.
And just like that, I was out of the rut and my story was on its way…to the next rut.
At least now I recognize a rut when I see it. Rather than experience sheer panic, I groan and hunker down to some serious wheel-spinning.
Looking back to 12 years ago when I started writing fiction, if someone had painted “It Doesn’t Get Easier” on a sign post as I entered these woods, would I have turned back? Definitely not.
Ephron is a novelist and award-winning book reviewer for The Boston Globe, whose Never Tell a Lie, is coming out in January from HarperCollins. Laura Lippman calls it “Unputdownable. A great discovery, compelling and chilling and all too credible.” Hallie teaches at writing workshops all across the country. Her Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel was nominated for Edgar and Anthony awards. She is also the author of 1001 Books for Every Mood and co-author of a series of five psychological thrillers by G. H. Ephron.