Tuesday, October 4, 2016

RJ Harlick hosting guest blogger Barbara Fradkin

RJ Harlick here: It’s my pleasure to welcome Barbara Fradkin as my guest blogger this week. A two-time winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel along with numerous nominations, Barbara is one of Canada’s pre-eminent crime writers. Her long standing Inspector Green series has won many fans. This week she set out in a new direction.  She launched Fire in the Stars, the first in the Amanda Doucette series, which is receiving rave reviews. 

“In your active writing years, was there ever a point you decided to quit writing altogether? If so, how long before you were back at it?”

That is the question of the week on Criminal Minds. At least for me, and I suspect for many writers, the stumbling block is that simple word decided. Since when has writing been a decision, which implies a deliberate choice? Do I choose to write? Do I choose not to write?

On a day-to-day level, I suppose I do. As in “Yikes, the deadline is looming and I’m two hundred pages behind schedule, so I’d better get myself into the chair and devote the day to it!” Other days I might think, “Lovely, I wrote double my quota yesterday, so I can play hooky today.” To a professional writer, writing is our job, and with it comes frustrations, roadblocks, deadlines, schedules, moments of pure thrill and others of utter despair. Days when we’re eager to go to work and days we’d rather swim through boiling oil.

Days, especially when the words are junk or the reviews are bad or the royalty cheque is barely enough to keep the dog fed, when we wonder why we don’t sell shoes instead.

Author Barbara Fradkin, with Kenzie
But the question is not “Do you ever hate it enough to quit?”, to which the answer is “At least once a week”.  The question is not about wishes, but about choice. I don’t choose to be a writer, it’s just who I am. In fact, I may have been born a writer. I certainly don’t remember any decision to be one, only the urge to write down the stories in my head as soon as I could spell well enough to do it.

For many of us, writing is a compulsion. Stories emerge from the soup of our unconscious clamouring to be explored. I see a small snippet in the news, or an unusually clad person on the subway, or an argument in a coffee shop, and my mind starts to ask questions. What if, how come, what happened, where is that person going, what’s going to happen next? As I follow the path where the questions lead, a story begins to unspool in my head. It may never make it into a book, or it may be altered beyond recognition from its humble roots, but the exploration has begun.

I suppose there are some writers for whom the passion for writing has died, and for whom writing may be just a job that they can choose to quit. That lack of passion probably shows in their work, for most of us don’t write for the money or the fame (God knows!), but for our love of the story. I could no more turn off this tap than I could win an Olympic medal in high jump (I’m 5 ft. 3).

But to put philosophy aside, I will try to answer the more practical question about what I do when I’m fed up, dried up, and sick to death of writing. This does happen to me, usually when I have been working too hard on a project, without time to recharge the batteries or refill the reserves of creativity. I do get to the point where I feel every word I write is junk, every plot a repeat, every character a cliché from before. I feel like an imposter trying to be a writer. Every writer I know goes through this phase at least once in a book.

Sometimes it’s possible to put the book aside, take some time for R&R to take the pressure off, or switch to writing something completely different. This is why I also write short stories and novellas. Once I’ve escaped from the tyranny of the hated book and immersed myself in a new story with a refreshing new circle of characters, I usually discover I don’t hate writing at all. I just hate that book. Which may be a problem since I’m usually under contract to produce that book.

Still, hating a book is irreversible. It may signal that the book is so unwieldy that I’ve lost track of its point. I don’t usually know where a book is going or how it’s going to resolve, but I do try to keep track of the theme I’m exploring. Rather like being lost in the forest, I can do one of two things when I’m lost in a book. I can take stock of where I am, size up what I’ve covered so far, and pick up the most promising threads to take forward. Or I can blunder on ahead, writing scenes that may or may not be going anywhere useful, and hoping I will eventually stumble back onto a path that leads somewhere exciting. I’ve used both with equal success.

Hating a book may also signal that the book is a bore. If you’re bored writing it, guaranteed the reader will be bored reading it. This solution is easy. Spice it up. Send a lady through the door with a gun, or drop another body down the chimney, as has been suggested by past masters of the craft. Throw in an unexpected twist, make a character behave unpredictably, add another character who throws the whole story off kilter, or conversely take out a character who’s not pulling their weight. Be ruthless. “I don’t need you. You’re redundant, pointless, etc.”

Another reason for hating the book is the feeling it’s all been said before. Falling into a rut in which novelty and adventure are lost can be deadly. The book may not be salvageable. After ten Inspector Green novels, I was beginning to feel I’d explored the characters, setting, and police procedural structure as thoroughly as I wanted to.  I never thought to quit writing entirely, however. Instead, I decided to break free, get to know new characters, write a different kind of book, and explore different parts of the country.  So I started a new series. FIRE IN THE STARS is its debut.

Leaving the comfort of friends, familiar surroundings and plot structures was difficult, but I have found my time with Amanda Doucette exhilarating and rejuvenating. It opens up whole new paths to explore, and I expect that after some time with her, I will be able to come back to Green with fresh ideas and a fresh perspective on the issues he tackles. Switching back and forth between the series should help to keep the batteries charged and the creative wells full. I know I will hate each book along the way, but hopefully because it is challenging me to make it a better book. I can live with that.

Find out more about Barbara and all her work at: http://www.barbarafradkin.com/


Art Taylor said...

Welcome, Barbara—I enjoyed your post (so many comments rang true with my own experience) and look forward to checking out your work!

Cathy Ace said...

Welcome Barbara - good to have you along today, and thanks for writing such an insightful piece.

RM Greenaway said...

Thanks, Barbara. It's great to get the perspective from a writer with such a long-running series, and your thoughts on how to shake it up when it gets too settled. I'm looking forward to reading your new series.

Barbara Fradkin said...

Thanks for the welcome and the comments, everyone. It's nice to meet fellow writers and discover how similar our experiences are! No one else quite gets us.