Today I got to volunteer for an organization that was seemingly tailor-made for me. Kids Book Bank is a brand new organization in Cleveland; it has been around for about 6-8 weeks. In February, the organization received over 40,000 books. Since then, the amount of books has increased to over 78,000. These books range from board books (books for infants that are difficult to destroy) all the way to books for adults, and everything in between: picture books, easy reader chapter books, young adult, etc.
A couple of weeks ago, I finished my book. My friend Mark read the last chapter and made many comments (though overall he liked it) and this week, I will work on polishing it. Next, I’ll send the chapter to my Four Readers. But in the mean time, I’m moving on to the next major step, and that is to find a publisher for my book.
I’ve never written a book for publication before, so even though I have attended a workshop on how to write a query letter, and two of my friends have shared their query letters with me, this is a new and somewhat scary process. Over the years, I have learned some good lessons. The first is that I am more of a reviser then a writer. I get better with each draft, so multiple drafts of a piece actually buoy me as a writer rather than discourage me. No matter how bad the initial draft, I know that I can make it better.
The other lesson I’ve learned is to get help in the form of feedback and models for whatever I am doing. Today, I am going to write my query letter and post the crappy and incomplete draft on the blog. When I write the final version of the query letter, I will have the correct stats and email addresses and such (information that is difficult for me to reach today). On Tuesday, I am meeting with two good friends, Casey Daniels (AKA Kylie Logan) and Shelley Costa (AKA Shelley Costa Bloomfield). These are both talented, multi-published, and founding mothers of the North East Ohio Sisters in Crime. I’m taking them to lunch and sharing with them my query letter. I fully expect them to take it apart and make strong suggestions as to changes and additions. I am so looking forward to their expertise. I want my book to be published, and without a good query letter, that’s not going to happen.
So, I will share my crappy version of the letter today, and after my meeting with them, I will tell you what they liked and what they didn’t like, and then I will share their suggestions for changes. After much debate with myself, I’ve decided to leave in all the awful sentences poorly stated and seemingly badly thought out. I want this to be a real crappy draft. I promise I’ll make it better for real. After the newest and best version is done, I’ll share that with you, Dear Reader.
Note–In the actual query letter, I won’t have bolded subheadings. At the end of this crappy draft, I do have some remarks for things I’ve learned and questions I have just in the initial writing of this draft.
April 10, 2016
Re: Query about What Is a Cozy?
Lead Paragraph–The Essence of the Book
I would like to submit a proposal that is a discussion about the history and exploration of the overall success of the cozy up to the present day. In five chapters and an introduction (my book runs approximately 175 pages) I explain the value of the much maligned cozy subgenre to the mystery, its checkered history, which continues somewhat to this day. I’ve found when talking to groups of mystery writers and readers that most people who love the mystery genre, will read anything, and that includes the sweetest and gentlest cozy to darkest noir. Even readers who prefer the harder edged books will read cozies as a palette cleanser. And, even with so many cozy lines being shut down recently, cozies are among the best-selling and most popularly loved subgenres. When Penguin announced the cutting of several series, immediately a Facebook group was formed called “Save Our Cozies” which in a manner of days had over 1000 members, all of whom pledged to buy more cozies, ask libraries to order more, and to write to the various publishers. My book explores the passion of the cozy readers and why this has been such a successful subgenre. (Also, in THIS WOULD GO SOMEWHERE IN FIRST PARAGRAPH. THE VALUE OF CATEGORIZATION AND TONE)
Paragraph 2–Round out initial description. Can be longer than lead par.
Chapter 1 does, Chapter 2 does, etc.
Paragraph 3–The Market for the Book
The market for this book is manifold (word choice). I distributed a survey for the dissertation and received over 700 responses to a 50 question survey. The information is gold. One of the questions I asked was if I could contact the survey taker again. X percent said yes. I also conducted Y number of focus groups in three states over several years, and I interviewed z number of book store owners and librarians. When my dissertation was finished, it was made electronic, as all dissertation were made at CWRU after x. Over y number of people have downloaded my dissertation. This number is unheard of. People tend not to read dissertations, so I think this is an indication that this is a topic people are interested in. I have also been to mystery conferences, including Malice Domestic which has thousands of attendees to find panelists quoting from my dissertation. I see this primarily as a book for mystery writers who want to and need to understand what a subgenre is, and how to write a successful cozy. To the groups that I’ve spoken to, this is something that is often misunderstood. This is also for mystery readers. In the years since I started doing my research for my dissertation, I have seen mystery readers become far more sophisticated in their understanding of subgenre. I’ve had readers ask me what they should read and how to know what they’ll like. When I’ve taught subgenre, writers and readers a like have said this was a valuable tool. I interviewed many bookstore owners and librarians in preparation for the dissertation, and they contributed to the value of categorization. Also, I could see this used in the college English class, both for fiction and and non-fiction as a book which explains subgenre simply with examples. The book has been completed except for an introduction and a preface.
Paragraph 4–Qualifications and Platform
I received my Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in Cleveland, OH in 2008. In order to write my dissertation, I was the first person in the English department required to participate and follow IRB guidelines since I was doing interviews, focus groups, and surveys. I have been asked to speak about my research to numerous groups including Sisters in Crime, Bouchercon, the two Popular Culture Association National Conferences, and CWRU research conference (get name). I have been a reader for Poisoned Pen Press, and I have assisted in organizing mystery conferences. I have designed and taught courses on the mystery genre as well as other topics that are closely related, and in teaching these courses have been nominated for teaching awards. I have a blog in which I discuss the mystery genre and writing in general at mysteryphd.com, and I have a weekly podcast about Buffy, the Vampire Slayer at clevelandhellmouth.org. I am a founding mother of NeoSinC and a founding board member of Literary Cleveland, a new literary arts organization in Cleveland.
Paragraph 5–Thank you
Thank you for your time in considering this query. I would be happy to send a book proposal or additional information.
Paragraph 6–Contact info
Katherine Clark, Ph.D.
address, email address, phone numbers
Query Letter comments from me:
Oops as to lead paragraph. The book I’m looking at Authors 101 Bestselling Book Proposals says that first paragraph should only be 3 -4 sentences. OK.
Also, the second paragraph is supposed to be other important info about the book. It is not to be a break down by chapter. Uh oh. At this moment, I’m guessing that some of what should go in paragraph 2 is information currently found in the lead paragraph.
I don’t know the numbers, statistics, percentages off the top of my head, and technological problems and lack of knowledge force me to wait for help from computer genius Mark to get access. Obviously, before Tuesday and before mailing this letter out, I will have that information in the letter. I fully expect my friends to point out that much of this can be cut, and that I should be including information that hasn’t even occurred to me.
Before I see Shelley and Casey, I plan on rereading my five chapters, just so I can better state what the book is about. Here are some questions for them: Should I name the courses I’ve taught, mystery and related? Do I need to explain what the IRB is? Do you think they will be put off by my constant use of the word subgenre? I want this to be a book for laypeople, not academics, and that is how I wrote the book. I’m afraid I come across as too wonky, sort of.
Of course, while I was writing this draft, a great question occurred to me to ask them, and I’ve forgotten it. Oy. I will be copying and pasting this into a Word document so I can keep playing with it before Tuesday. I know this is pretty terrible, but I’m excited. I’ve got a draft. I’ve got an organizational structure, of sorts, and I already know some of the major things that are wrong with it. I have 2 days to fix it and make it so much better. These are kind women and professional writers–they will help me succeed. I can do this. I really can do this. (I hope.)
[pullquote]I’ve chosen a hard road, and that is OK.[/pullquote]
So last night, after literally years, I finished my monograph. Many of you know that I am taking my dissertation and turning it into a monograph. The dissertation was written for an academic audience with a goal of ultimately earning me a doctorate. The monograph is being written for a lay audience, particularly for people who love mysteries and want to either write them or read them. Finally, I finished the last chapter of the book and sent it off to my friend Mark who reads all of my crappy drafts.
The thing is, what we new writers and want to be writers and would be writers often think (or at least it seems to be the case with at least a few of the workshop participants I see in my writing classes) is that writing the book is easy. All one needs to do is find the time to write, and once the book is done (as if by magic) then it will easily be picked up by a publisher and everything will be great. A really common refrain from workshop participants is the assumption that what they write will be national bestsellers and they will be set for life. The statistics on earnings for professional writers remain the same: about 5% of writers are able to support themselves completely on their writing. That means around 95% aren’t able to support themselves by writing alone. I learned this figure over 20 years ago, and it made a huge impression on me. In a strange way, I feel fortunate to know what to expect. I’ve chosen a hard road, and that is OK.
In addition to recognizing that my book will probably not be a bestseller (and this term has so many different meanings–I’ll talk about that in another post), I also know that while writing the book is the most important part of the process, it is really in some ways, only the beginning. In addition to revising and editing my book, which I’m doing with the help of The Four Readers and The Crappy Draft Reader, I also need to do a whole slew of other things. While I’ve been researching and writing this book, I’ve been collecting tasks that need to be done.
Let’s say I’ve written the greatest non-fiction text on the mystery genre ever. Yay! That alone will not make this book a success, because if publishers aren’t aware I’ve done this wonderful thing, nobody is going to publish it. In order to let the world know this book has arrived, I need to write a query letter. I’ve got a couple of books that show me what to do, and I’ve attended a couple of workshops put on by Northeast Ohio Sisters in Crime (NEO SinC) on how to write one, so that is a huge help. But I’m lucky in that I have several friends who have published, and three of them have agreed to help me with the letter. After reading up on it, and teaching it to my English class today, I feel ready to write my own query letter. My plan is to take two Sisters in Crime members out to lunch and share my letter with them. I will be thrilled to death if they tear up my letter because that will mean that what I send will be all the better.
But to what publishers and/or literary agents am I sending this letter to? Well, I’ve given that some thought. One of the reasons some people fail when it comes to getting published is because they’ve sent the manuscript to the wrong place. If you have written a romance novel, don’t send it to a publisher of scientific works. That sounds pretty obvious, but some people do not study the market. My clever plan is to make a list of writers who have been nominated or who have won the Agatha and Edgar awards for non-fiction mystery and find out who their publishers were. I will then narrow down that search to the books that most closely resemble mine. I already know from previous research that my book is unique, which is part of the reason I want to get it out of my hands soon before someone else produces a too similar book. When I see my Sisters in Crime, I will share with them the list of possible publishers. I’m hoping they’ll both approve of my list and perhaps have some further suggestions for places to send my query letter.
A very important part of the query letter is a paragraph (or more) on my qualifications for having written the book and information on my author platform. I have a Ph.D. in English from a notable institution; I have taught courses on the mystery genre at a few different schools; I have won teaching awards; and I have lectured to different groups about subgenres in the mystery field. Those are my qualifications. As for the author platform, I’m feeling almost cocky about that. For the dissertation, I collected information from over 700 mystery readers, over 90% of whom said that I could contact them again. I’ve set up this blog, and I started a Buffy, the Vampire Slayer podcast. I am active in my Neo SinC group and I am also active in the National Sisters in Crime. I am slowly but surely getting my name out into the world. There is a lot more that I need to do in this area, and I am each week adding another arrow to the quiver.
We are at a time in publishing where we are responsible for our own marketing. Publishing companies will do very little for midlist writers, much less for newbies like me. This is where the author platform can be incredibly useful as a basis for a marketing campaign. I have a lot of ideas, and I will share this with my blog audience as I experiment with them.
I am really pleased about finishing the book, and if you’d asked me months ago, I would have told you that I would be feeling elated and overjoyed. I’m actually not feeling that way though, which I guess is strange. I’m pleasantly content. I’m feeling good about this achievement (and did feel really good when students in my second class cheered for me today when I told them I’d finished. That was nice.) I think what is going on is that I know that the journey is only beginning, and that there is a lot of work ahead, most of which I’ve never done before. I think I’ll do it well, in part because I’ve been planning it for so long, but who knows? I’m assuming I’ll make a ton of mistakes. This is part of why I decided to keep this blog. I’ll share with you all the successes and travails as I navigate the world of publishing and marketing. I’m so glad that there will be some others who will witness the journey.
I have a lot to do this week and month. Maybe the key thing is that I am interviewing a major mystery writer, S. J. Rozan, for a Northeast Ohio Sisters in Crime (NEOSinC) conference called Death March on March 12. I am so lucky to get to do this. Last year, I interviewed multi-Edgar award winner, Daniel Stashower, and the year before that, Agatha award winner, Hank Phillipi Ryan. I am asked to conduct these interviews because I am a scholar of the mystery genre, in a group made up mostly of mystery writers and fans, and because I am good at it. I tagged on that last bit because I always forget it. Before every time I go to interview someone famous, someone who has made a difference in my favorite genre, I get frightened that this time, this time, I will mess up, behave foolishly, ask a stupid question, not ask the important question, in fact, perform so poorly I will never be asked to do this again. I also had the brilliant notion that we need to do a better job of marketing ourselves as writers, and said that I would be happy to create a sheet with contact information including social media info for all the writers in NeoSinc. I am creating this handout at the same time as I am reading all of Rozan’s books and preparing to moderate a panel.
Or maybe the key issue is that in a few weeks, one of my best and oldest friends in the world is coming to visit me for four days from London. I haven’t seen her in a year, and my mind is in a whirl about all the things I want to do when she comes here. Part of the difficulty with the visit this time is that two friends she adores and always wants to see have been having a series of crises and have been practically incommunicado. I’ve found myself worrying at odd times what I need to do to both help them and to try to get them to participate in the visit.
But then again, also taking up a lot of time and worry is that I am also teaching, and I am involved in a kerfluffle with a student who has missed 15 classes and the midterm exam and has accused me of unfairness because I don’t think he should be allowed to take the test. (My syllabus says students are likely to fail after missing more than 6 classes. His stance is that he pays a lot of money to go to college, so I should accede to his wishes. We disagree on this.) It is not a pleasant place to be right now.
Of course, I’ve had to have major plumbing and other work done recently meaning money assigned for other things went to pay for this work. And the plumbers are coming back to do yet more work this week.
Most important of all, perhaps, is that I’m also trying to get my book finished, and build my author platform, which includes doing a weekly podcast, which involves, in addition to watching episodes of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, also interviewing others for additional episodes and doing research on Buffy.
Oh, that felt good. A chance to list some of the things weighing on my mind. I’m sure if you’ve gotten this far you are wondering what I’m jabbering on about, and it is this: if you don’t find a way to master all that is worrying you, you will accomplish little. When I have a lot happening in my life, sometimes it acts as a spur, and I actually get even more done. I’m sure you’ve heard the adage, if you want something done, give it to a busy person. But lately, what I’m discovering, is that I’m tired, and I’m very easily overwhelmed. I used to be able to burn as a blowtorch and get things done no matter what; frankly, I simply can’t do that anymore.
So here are some nuggets of advice that might help you. These are the things that usually work for me, and they are working for me this week, which is why I thought to write this post.
I keep a to do list. I split the page in half lengthwise. On today’s list, the left side says Tuesday, and the right side says Wednesday. I then do what you would expect: write down the things that I need to do today and tomorrow. Having a two day split is incredibly useful to me, because often I don’t think about what I need tomorrow until I see today’s list, and vice versa. This list is nothing new to me;possibly, you do something similar as well.
Over my spring break, I created a simplified Masterlist. Instead of writing everything that needs doing, I wrote it based on key things in my life. This happened, for the month of March, to be 8 things, most of which you see mentioned above. I then took each goal, and broke it into mini-steps. For example, for S. J. Rozan, I wrote down:
- Rozan books I still had to read;
- get a Cleveland Public Library card to check out a book I couldn’t get through my usual library system;
- visit websites to do some research on her;
- find questions I had asked previous mystery celebrities to get an idea as to what I had done in the past (this makes me feel safer because I know those interviews were successful);
- what steps do I need to take to create the marketing NeoSinc sheet and
- what info do I need for the panelists so I can introduce them
I did this sort of breakdown for each important task on my list. Today, when I began to feel panicky about not being able to get everything done, I realized, I can’t get everything done. I can only get a few of the most important things done. My friend from England is coming the end of March. There are a number of things I need to do before she gets here, but that isn’t for 3 weeks. I realized that what I need to do is keep a list of stuff to do, and for things that might need preparation, put a start date down for when to do it. For example, when Nina comes, we watch television and movies together. I’ll need to order some of these from the library and Netflix. Better do that at least 10 days before she comes. Here’s the thing: once I started my list, I realized I didn’t need to worry about that. It is much more important and relevant that I think about and act upon the Rozan project.
There are so many things I SHOULD be doing in addition to what I’ve written above. My tendency at these times is to want to take a nap, make another pot of tea, watch an episode or two or three or more of Murder, She Wrote, my latest obsession. Oddly enough, none of these things (except maybe the tea) will actually help me get anything done. What ends up happening is I fall further behind and fall into more of a swivet. So, I’ve learned to make the picture smaller.
For this week, and this week only, I have to teach, and I have to go to the Lit Cleveland Board Meeting and be prepared, but the most important thing I need to do, I’ve decided, is be ready for the Saturday conference. Therefore, every day this week, on my daily list, are tasks I need to complete for that. Those are what I do before everything else. When I have extra time, I fit in other things. Since I’m quite good at creating baby steps, tasks that can be completed in 10 minutes or less, I find that despite a jam-packed week, most of the little things have been done. I’m also beginning to catch my breath with the mystery conference. This afternoon, I realized after I eschewed the nap and the Jessica Fletcher marathon, that I’m ahead of things with the Rozan project. So ahead, in fact, that I had time to write this blog. This is me feeling really good about the mystery conference.
I learned awhile ago that despite the fact that I create daily, weekly, and monthly lists, I frequently don’t accomplish the most important things (like, let’s say, getting my book finished and published. Oy!) yet I’m always busy. A great suggestion I discovered, which I have to relearn over and over is, put the three most important things, those tasks that will move you towards your heart’s goal (like the book getting finished and into an editor’s hands) at the top of the list. Make sure those things get checked off before cleaning litter boxes and washing windows gets done. And, you can add to this my suggestion of something that is working for me today, that of making the picture smaller.
You can’t do everything, so pick the most important task for the week and do something about it every day.
Last Friday, Feb. 26, I was on top of the world. My spring break was beginning, and I had so much energy. I got rid of paper that had been in my basement for over 15 years! (I’m a college English teacher, and I USED to save everything that could be used as a model for my students. Oy.) This past weekend, I filled more than 8 bags with paper and recyled it. What an amazing feeling. Bins became empty as I removed files and discarded them; several huge boxes are now ready for the garbagemen.
I also worked on Chapter 5, the final chapter of my monograph. And, I set up an author website and wrote three blogs. I finished a couple of books, too. My spring break looked like I was riding on air and going to accomplish so much.
On Monday, Feb. 29, I gave a writing workshop at the South Euclid branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library. I was so excited to present and ready to do so. I woke up late that morning only to discover that my hot water heater had died and was leaking in my basement. I could hear the gas. Oh no. I couldn’t get in touch with a single friend who knew about these things. All I could think about was that my animals would die in a fiery explosion, I had no money to get a new water heater, and in about 45 minutes, I had to give a two hour presentation on the other side of town.
The following day (by the way, nobody died the day before in a gas explosion) the water heater guy came out and needed to drain the tank. Except that my drain in my basement is clogged, and he couldn’t drain the tank. I’d been putting off plumbing repairs, of which there are many, for months, waiting till I had money. Now I needed to hire plumbers to fix the drain so I could get the hot water heater in.
That night, while eating gummy, chewy candy, I realized that my crown was gone (the one in my mouth, not on my head). It didn’t hurt, but I knew I would need a dentist.
That night, last night, I didn’t want to write. My goal is to write every day for a minimum of 26 minutes. (See the post cleverly titled “26 Minutes.”)
Last night, I decided, I had had so many things go wrong, all of them expensive, that it was perfectly reasonable that I not write. In fact, I should take Bailey on a longer walk than usual, and I should watch another episode or two of Psych, and then read. No one, and I mean no one, could blame me if I didn’t write. Life was really sucking, and I shouldn’t have to do anything but self-care.
My brain is so tricky. I had just explained on Monday at the writing workshop that I am what Gretchen Rubin ( of The Happiness Project) would call an abstainer. There are people who can write every few days or weeks without schedule, and they do good work. I’m a person with severe writing anxiety. I am not one of those people. I can go a day or two without writing and still be sort of OK. Longer than that though, and there is a problem. And that’s the thing. My brain is very smart. It knows the angles and knows that I will seize at anything to get out of writing when I don’t feel like doing it. I told my class, don’t allow that to happen.
So, despite not wanting to be at my computer last night, I chose to write. Was it the best I’ve ever written? No, but it wasn’t bad. In fact, I finished a segment of Chapter 5 that has been troubling me for quite awhile. I’m down to 2 more sections to do. That is exciting. And you know what? Accomplishing that goal made me feel better. I lost the panicky feeling, the out of control feeling I’d had with the third disaster. Actually, I no longer thought of any of it as a disaster.
Here’s what I know: I have to finish this chapter. Then I have to revise the book. And then I have to send it out and try to get it published. That is what I need to do whether the roof is caving in or the car needs work. As long as I’m eating and my animals are eating (so they aren’t inclined to eat me in my sleep), and I have heat and electricity, I need to push on through. The alternative is that I don’t finish this book or my future writing projects, thus leading in turn, to my dreams being crushed and my life ruined.
Don’t let your circumstances stop you from taking those baby steps to your success. Last night, I was able to “spare” 32 minutes to do my writing and finish the section. I’m one step closer to finishing this book. Someday, I might even make enough money from my writing to pay for the water heater, the crown, and the plumbing. For now, I just have to keep writing.
I have writing anxiety. Actually, let me restate that: I have WRITING ANXIETY, and one thing I’ve learned is that I am a person who does better, emotionally and project-wise, if I write every day. Yes, this is actually less scary then simply putting my writing off. When I realized this, I became concerned. How would I keep writing? I have friends and acquaintances who write 2 or 4 or 6 or even more hours nearly every day. This is astounding to me. Certainly, when I worked on my dissertation, I had days when I would also write that many hours, and it was sometimes a nightmare.
I am currently working on turning my dissertation into a book for the layperson, especially people who love mysteries and either want to write them or simply read them with more pleasure. This should be easy, right? I’ve laid down the framework with the dissertation, but it hasn’t proven to be as simple as I originally thought it would be. Some chapters were OK, only taking several months to revise (for me that is fast). Others, most infamously Chapter 4, took a year to write. To be fair, I created Chapter 4 out of whole cloth. Chapter 4, the last chapter I finished, was the one that taught me that I need to write every day, and no matter how long I write, all that matters is that I write.
I also learned this lesson by doing NaNoWriMo for the first time in 2015. I did it unexpectedly, but when Nov. 1 came, I was ready. And I stunned myself by loving it. I ended up doing over 54,000 words, and I did those words, usually in about 20-40 minute sprints a night. Those words added up.
So, for those of you who worry about writing, who always put it off because you don’t have the time, or you worry that you aren’t prepared, I am going to give you the number one tool that works for me, and that is to set the timer (and I prefer using the one on the computer, e.ggtimer.com) for 26 minutes. In 20 minutes, I can write over 1000 words. I may have anxiety, but I am a fast writer; I’m usually pretty fluid and fluent when I get out of my own way.
The 6 minutes I added because something stupid would pretty much always happen just as I was about to begin. A cat would want to be let out; I would need a glass of water; the phone would ring; I could no longer bear the mess of papers around my computer–and I discovered that 6 minutes or less was all it took to take care of whatever crisis emerged.
In 26 minutes (and yes, frequently there is no crisis) I can do well over 1000 words. Is it gold? Is it great prose? Not usually, but I’ve learned in my 20+ years of writing and teaching that there is a lot of crap that has to come out, and it’s better that it comes out in the free writing.
I co-taught with a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University, and he loved my free writing exercises and now uses these in his psychology classes. In turn, he explained to me and the classes we taught that one of the values of free writing is that it leads to what he terms “marination.” He says, our brains think about what we have written, so no matter how good or how bad the writing, our brain cogitates on it. The next time we write about the subject, we automatically will have something that is richer and more interesting. Do this cycle enough, and you are bound to have something good.
The other night, I was checking Facebook around 11 PM, and I noticed a post from a former student. She had as her status: “Help! All I want to do is post pictures of puppies, but I need to get this draft written! Somebody tell me what to do!” I immediately replied: “Write for 26 minutes and then reward yourself by posting pictures of puppies.” A few hours later, I noticed that she had pinged me. “Dr. Clark, I don’t like the number 26, so I picked the number 32. I wrote for 32 minutes and finished my draft. Thank you very much! 😉 ” I loved that!
When I don’t want to write, and that is most of the time, I just tell myself–write for 26 minutes. If you really hate it, you can stop at 10 minutes. I rarely do that–I rarely write for less than 26 minutes, but it is OK to stop when it is unbearable. And I often write for 1/2 hour or even an hour, when I want to, and that is great too.
Anybody, anybody, can write for 10 minutes or 26 minutes. Even you. Try.
Note: I was asked to write a blog post for Books@Work. They were especially interested in the fact that three different groups of people chose the same book to discuss. I quickly wrote a 2000+ word post for them which they cut dramatically. Here is my original post. Yes–it’s that great a book.
Blog post for Books@Work
I’ve been doing seminars at Books@Work for a couple of years now, and the book I’m using is Learning to Swim by Sara Henry. It is a great book, a rich book, and that is fortunate, because I’m doing it for the third time.
We offer the participants three choices in advance with a little write up of each book, and as a group they pick the one that sounds the most interesting. Henry’s book keeps winning, and I think I know why. Or at least, I know why I love it so much and why I am happy to now be reading it for the 5th time.
This is a book about change. I love books about transformation and protagonists who learn from their circumstances. My favorite genre is the mystery genre, and when people first hear me say that, they often assume I must be fascinated with murder: how it’s done and how to get away with it. Actually, that’s not particularly interesting to me at all. The reason I love mysteries is because murder changes people. In a murder investigation, secrets are revealed, even long held ones. People at the center of the mystery, either because they were somehow connected to the victim or victims, or because they are suspects, begin to question what they knew of the victim and what they themselves are capable of. And I mean that in the broadest sense.
In Learning to Swim, our protagonist, Troy, undergoes nearly an immediate change when she rescues a drowning child. (I hate spoilers, so I will try hard not to ruin anything for the person I hope will read this fantastic book. We find out about the drowning child in the first chapter.) The boy was deliberately thrown into the water with his arms tied, so this was attempted murder at the very least.
Troy is very happily single, childless, with friends kept at arms length. As she investigates, every aspect of her life changes. First, she realizes that in order to help the child, she needs to reach out to people, something she is quite uncomfortable with.
In my very first Books@Work seminar I ever led, I was surprised to find Troy’s asking a friend for help to be a bone of contention. One of the participants said that she would never tell her best friend such a secret. The argument in the seminar was about the legality and ethics of Troy’s actions. “I wouldn’t tell my best friend about what I had done!” This was immediately intriguing to me.
When I had read about Troy’s discussion with her friend, it never occurred to me that Troy shouldn’t have shared this. I wondered if the seminar participant, let’s call her Karen, thought that Troy might be enmeshing her friend in possible legal difficulties. “Karen, are you afraid for Troy’s friend, that she’ll get in trouble?” I decided to admire Karen for her concern.
“Hell no,” said Karen. “I wouldn’t trust my friend with that information!” Pandemonium. The questions I had prepared had been answered politely and had led to some interesting discussion, but this outburst stirred something in the crowd. Wow! I thought I’d capitalize on it, and now I was dying to hear what others believed.
There were seven of us that day. I went around the room, and we were relatively evenly split. A few of the women said, “Absolutely I’d tell my best friend. I tell her everything!” Others agreed with Karen. “I try not to let things that will get me into trouble out. It’s my own fault if something comes back on me.” I shared with them how fascinating this was to me. I have eight best friends. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but I can’t differentiate. I really do have eight best friends.) And it would never occur to me that I couldn’t tell them things, even if it might be a detriment to me. In fact, there have been times in my life when I hesitated to share, and, realizing that I was uncomfortable actually became a spur to sharing. I almost felt guilty in feeling that I couldn’t share.
Whatever these women felt though, this had become my favorite question: would you share this story with your best friend if you were Troy? And I continue to get great, heartfelt answers to this.
Another reason I love teaching at Books@Work is because of the following: sometimes I get to make participants cry. OK, I am partly kidding, but a good book can evoke strong emotion and great discussion. One of the issues explored in this book is that of having children, and what makes a good parent, and what makes a bad parent, and what makes a horrible parent. One of the sessions was very sparsely attended, and I asked about family in the book, and one of the women (Let’s call her Pat) burst into tears quite suddenly. We were all startled, and I quickly asked if she were all right. She explained that the book had really touched a nerve for her, in a mostly good way.
Pat told us that when she and her husband got married, one of the things they strongly agreed to was that they never wanted to have children. They had a really good marriage until one day, about five years into the marriage, she had an unexpected change of heart and suddenly, she wanted children. She couldn’t really explain it; she just really wanted kids. She hesitantly raised this with her husband, and he violently stated he didn’t want them, and this was their agreement and what was going on. She was devastated by this and began to think her intense desire would ruin their marriage.
She persisted though in this, and finally, many months later, he very grudgingly, gave in. She worried what a family would look like with a loving mother and a hesitant father. When her child was born though, it wasn’t long before her husband became a doting father, and they ended up with two more children and a strong, happy family. She is still so grateful for this drastic change in her life, and because of the story, kept thinking of her own circumstances and what might have happened if she hadn’t changed her mind and her husband’s.
I am so grateful to have heard this story.
The second time I led a seminar with this book, I was in a group of Hudson employees. Unlike my first group, this one was huge, with 21 participants. The first day, we had 19—missing were 2 people from the legal department.
One of the things I love about mystery novels is that they are filled with ethical dilemmas. In an amateur sleuth mystery, the protagonist has to make difficult choices, often because she isn’t in law enforcement or associated with legal industry. She often doesn’t know what she is “supposed” to do, and for someone like me, this is wonderful because it then becomes a matter of common sense and compassion. In Learning to Swim, Troy has to make a lot of critical decisions quickly and with faculties that aren’t at their best because she has been through traumatic events herself. This creates fertile ground for readers to ponder what they would have done or what Troy shouldn’t have done.
The group was evenly split over one such choice Troy made with a few of the participants quite angry at Troy. There was some fierce judgment cast against her, with me and a few others defending Troy. One of Troy’s opponents said that what Troy had done was against the law. We all attempted to figure out exactly what the law was, and sadly, our law experts were missing. One person who hated Troy said that at the next meeting we’d find out how wrong Troy was. We couldn’t wait to learn the truth.
At meeting number two, I was introduced to the law experts. We eagerly explained the conundrum, catching up the people who had missed the last session. People were literally at the edge of their seats wondering if the final nail would be put into Troy’s ethical coffin. The lead expert said, “The people who opposed Troy are right. What she did was legally wrong. Charges could be brought against her.” Let’s call the main person against Troy, Shelley. She had a large grin, and I imagined that if she weren’t so self-contained, she would have been pumping her fist in the air. I felt strangely decompressed and disappointed. But then the legal expert spoke again, “but if I were Troy…” no one spoke. No one even breathed, waiting to hear the final pronouncement, “I would have done the same thing.” Pandemonium! I loved that guy in that moment.
Another bone of contention with some in the Hudson group was the snooping that Troy did. A common complaint against amateur sleuth mysteries by those who don’t like them is that these detectives have to stoop to spying. In a police procedural, and in real life, police have to obtain warrants in order to search people’s premises. There is a measure of protection afforded to citizens to protect their privacy and property. Amateur sleuths don’t have this “luxury.” They have to seize opportunity when it comes, and therefore they break laws. Troy finds out all sorts of information by looking at computer emails, for example.
Most of us who love mysteries didn’t give this any thought. A few people in the seminar were quite upset about this and talked about violations of privacy and such. This then led to a discussion about at what point did they begin to disagree with Troy’s actions. This was fascinating. I made a chronological list of actions Troy took and then simply had people vote. Did she go to far with this first one? This second? This third? As I proceeded through the list, not surprisingly, fewer and fewer people supported her actions. Until this session, inured as I am to tropes in the mystery genre, apparently, it never occurred to me to question her actions. We then had a lively discussion because I asked people who allowed for most of Troy’s actions to defend her from those who thought even Troy’s first foray into privacy violation to be wrong. The debate was incredibly vigorous.
What was most fun though to me as observer, were what people considered wrong for Troy, but not for themselves. Jane, let’s call her, was very upset at even the most basic steps Troy took to sleuth, but then Jane surprised us all when she talked about how she came to divorce her husband. It turned out he had carried out an online romance with a couple of different people, later meeting them for regular rendezvous. Jane uncovered this by stealing her then husband’s password. She then arranged to meet the women pretending to be her husband, and she met with them! Jane was proud of these actions (and received quite a bit of attention from her fellow employees, two of whom stated they had done similar things in relationships though not going quite as far as Jane.) Yet Jane was one of those who vociferously opposed Tory’s actions. People are funny. And interesting.
Each time I read this book, I find myself identifying with Troy. In the first group, one of the women identified Troy as “childish” and “not ready for adulthood.” It was difficult for me to hear this. I loved Troy! In the second group, when someone attacked Troy’s character and I defended her, the person laughed. “I like Troy, Katherine! She’s just a character!” I realized at that moment how much I loved Troy, and how much I loved her life despite so many perceiving it as lacking. “I know, “ I said to the participant. “In so many ways, I am Troy, or wish I was.” Many of the participants smiled at that. I had discovered, in leading these seminars, just how much I often identify with protagonists and don’t see their flaws. This seminar allowed me to learn a bit more about myself.
We find out about ourselves and others when we read and when we share. I love learning why people identify with a character or don’t. I love hearing about ethical dilemmas and how others would resolve them. It is especially interesting to me when something I think is obvious isn’t to others, and vice-versa. We can’t help having some blinders on when we read, the blinders put on through our gender, race, class, geographical region, education, etc. Sharing with others is so interesting because it at least momentarily, if we are very lucky, allows us a glimpse into another’s thoughts and emotional processes. By doing that, we learn more about them, and hopefully, if we are having an interesting enough discussion about disparate issues, we learn that difference is as much fun and as intriguing as sharing the same values and ideas.