23 May 2016
Last Sunday the Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter (Austin, Texas) hosted the annual Barbara Burnett Smith Aspiring Writers/Mentors Program. For those of you who didn't know her, Barbara was a founding officer of the Heart of Texas SinC Chapter, and one-time president of National SinC. She was a cozy writer extraordinaire and a good friend and mentor to a lot of aspiring writers.
I've been honored to be asked to be a mentor for several years now, and again I was delighted to meet and critique a new aspiring author's work. I'm always happy to see the new crop of writers coming up – happy and a little bit intimidated. Fresh faces and fresh ideas are always intimidating.
But seeing these newbies takes me back to when I was (fairly) fresh faced. I've written all my life, it seems, but although I had boxes full of half-written novels, finished short-stories, a couple of plays, and even some very bad poetry, it wasn't until I was thirty-five years old that it hit me that I could actually do this. I could be a writer. All I had to do was try. This epiphany came to me when I was in the audience at a club, listening to a local singer/songwriter. Someone in the audience asked him when he was born. Strangely enough he was born the same year as I. And that's when it hit me. Here was this guy with a talent that might not last him much longer – all sorts of things can go wrong with vocal cords and throats and the aging process is not always kind to such a physical talent – and he was out there doing it. Four nights a week he was using his God-given talent to express himself and to entertain others. And here I sat, with (what I hoped) was a talent that could last a lifetime. Writers don't age out of their talent, at least I hope not.
So I went home and asked my husband if he'd like to support me for a while. I wanted to quit my job and write full time. He agreed, although he told me years later, he never thought I'd be able to do it. Even with little faith, he still supported me, so I didn't get mad when he confessed. I was very lucky. The first short-story I wrote got published. I never got paid, but I got published! Then I got a really bad romance novel published. The first (and last) one I ever tried. The publisher went out of business before the book hit the stores, but I still got my check for $100. I'm afraid that without these first two “success” I might not have been able to suffer through the year of rejections of my first mystery. But I came up with a plan, a new goal: To paper my downstairs bathroom with rejection letters! Luckily, I only got enough to do one wall before someone said, “Yes, I want it.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. That first mystery came out in 1988, and there have been thirty-something since then. I'm not saying this is the easiest career, but I'm thinking maybe that singer has retired by now, but I'm still going. Strong, I hope.
05 May 2014
RANDOM THOUGHTS ON WRITING
by Jan Grape
Random thoughts running thru my head today. Both are good subjects, I hope. The first is, do you let an idea jell or percolate in your head before you start writing? I try to do that but have certainly been guilty of not letting the idea jell long enough. And to be honest, you can also take too long to let an idea come out of your head and onto the computer screen or on to the paper.
I don't think there's a specific amount of time that one should use. No right or wrong way here. Sometimes a story demands that you sit yourself down and write while the idea is fresh on your mind or when the muse says, do it, just do it now.
It's always possible you'll have an idea, maybe make some notes so you won't forget it. Then you set it aside. Perhaps you might need to do some research on the subject. On the location or on the character's life or on some part of the idea. Somewhere your creative muse says, whoa, slow down here, we need to get this right. Or maybe you've written about half-way through and you're not exactly sure where to go. Place it on the back burner and let it percolate. Most likely it will come spilling out when you least expect it, but it will solve your problem.
Most writers I know, write both novels and short stories, but I once was editing an anthology and asked an Edgar winner if he would write a short story to be included. He declined by saying, sorry I only have one idea a year and I need to use that for my next novel. It was a strange response but perhaps it's true. I don't recall seeing many if any short stories from him through the years, but he does write terrific novels.
Personally I seem to do better when I have a deadline so I don't let my story or idea simmer too long. And I have on occasion had a story come pouring out and finishing a decent short story in a day. I do try to set it aside then and jell at least a day or two then reread before I edit. If I have the time, I think I'm mentioned before that I like to let a story sit for three or four days before I start on editing or rewriting. But each writer does things differently and each story or book demands different actions.
I do think it's a good thing to be easy going and do whatever works for you in the long run.
My other random thoughts are about mentoring aspiring writers. How many of you have done that? I enjoy doing it and actually do it every year for my Sisters-in-Crime local chapter. We have an event every year in May which is to honor our good friend, Barbara Burnett Smith who had a fatal accident in 2005. Barbara enjoyed mentoring and her son, W.D. Smith set up this event with our Heart of Texas Chapter. The authors who agree to participate, are sent the name of an aspiring writer. The author contacts the writer and the writer sends along 500-750 words of their work in progress. A very short synopsis is also included.
The author reads and critiques and spends as much time as the author wishes. Then on the scheduled date for the S-in-C meeting and event, the author and writer meet. The regular meeting occurs and the participants are recognized. Usually a portion of the aspiring writer's work is read. Also one author is usually chosen as being an outstanding mentor. At the end of the meeting, the mentor and mentee have a few minutes to discuss the mentees work and hopes. The author gives the aspiring writer a couple of their books and autographs them.
One major thing I enjoy about being a mentor is when I read the new writer's work, I can see myself with my early work. I can usually see where they might be going wrong and do my best to set them on the right path. However, you might find an outstanding aspiring writer and decide you want to introduce them to your editor or agent. That hasn't happened to me yet, but I've had a couple come close and hope I'll see them published soon.
I also enjoy the idea of giving back or paying it forward is really the right term. I had so many wonderful writers help me when I was getting started and I remember telling one that I'd never be able to repay him. He said, don't ever even think about it. But to pay it forward. That he'd had great help when he started and someone had told him to pay it forward. It was something that he always tried to do. And it's something I always try to do. It's such a wonderful feeling to see the growth of an aspiring writer and know that you were able to help them get to complete their goal.
Happy Spring, Happy May, and Happy Cinco de Mayo.
Like my partner in crime, Fran, always says, until we meet next time take good care of yourself.
03 November 2011
by Deborah Elliott-Upton
One of my longtime writer friends is compiling information for an article about one of my former employers –and maybe unbeknownst to my boss– also one of my best writing mentors though the title was never official.
As editor of the "Book Page" where my book reviews ran every Sunday for several years, Mrs. Tripp may not have known how much in awe I was and still am of her accomplishments.
The writer friend, Bernice Simpson, asked my initial reaction to meeting my editor in person. The memory made me smile. Mary Kate Tripp looked like she ought to be harsh. She looked like a tough reporter. She looked exactly like I expected her to be. Picture Katherine Hepburn and you picture Mary Kate Tripp – all the sass, spitfire and spunk rolled up in a no-nonsense attidtude about her work.
Mrs. Tripp conquered the Old Boy's Club of the newsroom decades ago when women weren't allowed to wear slacks in public much less be a spitfire of a reporter. Women were like children and meant to be seen and not heard. If you went by the photo accompanying her column, you would suspect she was a stern woman who probably never laughed. Looks can be deceiving. Sometimes.
My initial meeting with Mary Kate Tripp happened when I wanted to write a book review of Jan Grape's mystery novel, AUSTIN CITY BLUE. I had never attempted to write a book review to be published, but when I met Jan at a writer's workshop, I knew I wanted to give it a try. When I spoke on the phone to Mrs. Tripp, she gave me the go-ahead to write the review on spec. For the non-writer, that simply means if they don't like it, it won't see print and you won't get paid no matter how much time you spent doing the research and writing the piece. It's just the way of the publishing world. After giving me the guidelines, Mrs. Tripp instructed she wanted me to bring a hard copy of the review to her home so she could meet me.
When she opened the door, I felt like Mary Richards (the main character from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show") meeting crusty Lou Grant for the first time. I swallowed hard and introduced myself while Mrs. Tripp gave me the "once over." I couldn't tell what sort of impression I made on her, but I desperately wanted to do this paricular book review and be published in the newspaper. To be honest, I wanted more than that: I wanted to be Mary Kate Tripp or at least inherit her job when she retired.
I have no idea how old she was then or now, but her hair is still white and worn in an unswept hairdo, both professional and intimidating simultaneously. The woman had won about every award a reporter could win and had interviewed everyone from celebrities to those in politics to ordinary people making a difference in the world through their books. She'd helped many local authors on their way to great careers.
The woman was sharp and once I got to know her, hid a delicious sense of humor beneath that steel glint expression in her eyes. At that first meeting, she told me she wanted to know about me. I was surprised. I assumed my writing would be all that mattered. I had given her my postal box address to send my check. Instead of asking where I resided, she inquired, "Where do you vote?" Inwardly, I smiled at her cleverness, but outside I tried to to keep my expression stoic. I was trying to appear more experienced and professional I suppose, but she probably saw right through me. (I've been told I must be lucky in love because I don't have a decent poker face to win at cards at all.)
My writing style ended up being my saving grace as she bought the review, then led me to her office in the back of the house and told me to pick out whatever books I'd like to review for the next Sunday's edition. In that moment, I realized I was hired for more than one gig. I stayed with the newspaper until it was sold to out-of-state owners who decided to discontinue the Book Page. I did write a few book reviews for the paper when one of my friends had a new book released, but it wasn't as much fun as when I worked for Mary Kate Tripp.
The best memory of working for her came one day after I'd selected a stack of books for the next week and Mrs. Tripp invited me "to sit and visit for a bit." I listened as she told me stories about when she'd first graduated from college and found no jobs available to her. She took a position for a rancher and his wife tutoring their children and becoming their nanny on the side. This woman who'd seemed so hard to crack admitted she often rode a horse to a spot where she could be alone and sneak a cigarette. The rancher didn't approve of women smoking, she told me. I didn't get the impression she enjoyed teaching children, but times were hard and she needed work. Then she grinned and said, "But his wife sure was a good cook." Mrs. Tripp eventually went to work for the newspaper and rose up through the ranks, keeping a marriage going along with a job back when women didn't do such things after marrying. Mary Kate Tripp is one heck of a woman, one great writer and a terrific mentor and role model for me. She inspired me to become a mentor to an aspiring writer a couple of years ago. (Yes, I had a full school year– that's nine months of Summer – with mystery writer, Summer G. Baker. Keep a lookout for that name!)
Do you have a mentor in your life and are you one to someone? It's really a wonderful experience and I highly recommend mentorship from both sides of the equation.