Monday, May 31, 2010

Risk Management and Other Writerly Thoughts

by Annette Meyers

So, last year I had this intriguing, exciting first line of a book or maybe a short story in my head. I’d been playing with it for months while I was finishing what I hoped would be the final draft of my new novel, and while I was serving sporadically as an arbitrator on cases for FINRA.

I’ve always worked on the start of a book this way: The first line comes and I store it away in my brain and take it out and look at it and play with it, then put it back and keep doing it until I’m ready to sit down at the computer and begin writing.

But last spring I woke in the morning and called up my intriguing first line and it didn’t come. And it didn’t come during the day. And it didn’t come during my meditation. And it didn’t come when I planted the request in my thoughts before I went to sleep at night. I couldn’t believe it. I called a long time friend (writer) and asked if this had ever happened to her. She said it had. Sometimes it comes back, sometimes it doesn’t. But it didn’t make me feel any better.

And then I was watching Mad Men one night and one of the creative team, Paul, had stayed late into the night trying to work on copy for an ad and early in the morning he had it, the perfect line. He toasted himself and fell asleep at his desk and in the morning, the line was gone. When he met with Don Draper and Peggy Olson to talk about the copy, he said he’d had the perfect line and when he woke up it was gone. And Don and Peggy both said, oh, I hate when that happens.

What I decided to do was open a file called “Opening Lines” so it will never happen to me again. The file has grown to include titles, character descriptions, dialogue, ideas, whole paragraphs. It’s become my safety net.

But my intriguing, exciting first line has never come back. What has come to me is a new opening line for my novel SOMETHING DARKER, a police procedural, and taking no chances, I typed it onto the first page for me to rewrite. It’s a police procedural because when I was asked to do a story for SISTERS ON THE CASE, I wanted to try something different and since I’d never done a police procedural, I wrote “Not Just the Facts.” I decided that my next novel would be a police procedural, and that’s exactly what SOMETHING DARKER is.

I’ve always believed that I must keep coming through a different door, keep stretching, not grow stale writing the same characters over and over. To keep challenging myself as a writer, I went from contemporary Smith and Wetzon, third person through Wetzon’s eyes, to historical (fictional poet) Olivia Brown in first person, to Maan Meyers historicals with Marty, multiple points of view and omniscient author. I’ve written short stories in present tense. I like the immediacy of

But I did a really big stretch this winter. When I wrote Olivia Brown I reacquainted myself with various poetic forms so that I could feel comfortable writing Olivia’s poems. I came across the villanelle with its rhyming and pentameter restrictions and made a note on a post-it and stuck it to a photo on my desk. This winter I began to wonder if I could turn a vicious crime story I’d clipped from the newspapers several years ago into a villanelle. I wrote “The Villain’s Villanelle,” and EQMM just told me  "The Villain's Villanelle" will go on sale on June 22, in what they call the August issue.

It’s a magnificent obsession, this writing thing. Whenever I think, that’s it--especially considering the publishing climate these days and most of the editors I knew not around any--more--and I’m ready to put my feet up and read and do all the things I don’t do when I’m writing, an idea comes. But I’ve learned my lesson: This time it goes into my Opening Lines files.
Annette Meyers is the author of eight Smith and Wetzon Wall Street mysteries, two Olivia Brown 1920s mysteries, and a standalone suspense novel: Repentances. As Maan Meyers, she and her husband Martin have written seven history mysteries and numerous short stories set in New York in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. One of Annette’s short stories was included in Best American Mystery Stories, 2002. She was the 10th president of Sister in Crime and serves on the board of the International Association of Crime Writers, NA. Website:

1 comment:

Sheila Connolly said...

I once created a file folder labeled "Interesting Things I Don't Know What To Do With." Problem is, it kept growing--it's about six file boxes worth at the moment. And when I want to call up one of those great lines or story ideas, will I be able to find it? Ha!

Maybe our subconscious mind is trying to tell us something: if it's worth remembering, you will.