Today on Mystery Mondays I have the pleasure of hosting Phyllis Smallman. I met Phyllis at the 2014 Crime Writers Of Canada Arthur Ellis Awards dinner.
Her latest book, LAST CALL, in the Sheri Travis series has just come out. It’s a thrill that it’s finally here. I’ve already read it and loved it. You might like it, too 🙂
Over to Phyllis…
Write the small spaces.
by Phyllis Smallman
Whenever I give workshops the question that comes up most often is, “How do I find time to write, work, and have a life?”
- The first suggestion is don’t focus too hard on THE BOOK. I know, you want it done yesterday, but thinking only about this big block of writing takes the joy out of creating. All the little bits of writing you do, pieces that might never make it into THE BOOK, are equally important. Keep a small notebook with you, one with a cover that makes you smile. This is where you write your bits.
- Think of how much time we spend waiting. These are opportunities to focus on a character sketch, a mood, or even a vehicle that you’ll need. What do you smell and hear? Describing a sunset or the whine of the mechanics drill as he changes your tire, those are all terrific practice and necessary for writing well. These writing bits will be your freshest and strongest writing because they are from life. It’s like stocking your cupboard for an emergency. Write in the small spaces. In the dentist’s office do a short description of a person in the waiting room. Surprisingly, sooner or later you will likely use this. You’ll be writing a scene for your novel and need a casual player. There’s no need to interrupt the flow of the story to think up the character because you already have someone to insert. Or describe the dentist’s office. Coffee shops are perfect for these quick sketches. Pick a person and analyze them. How many piercings? Tattoos? Study the server. How much education does he have. Is a temporary job or will he be here forever? Surprising how many times I’ve needed to describe something like this and go blank. That’s when I pull out my trusty sketch book of words. Homeless people make great subjects and what cityscape is complete without one? Think of an artist drawing. That’s what you’re doing, but with words. I once wrote a whole piece about an unknown woman that I liked so much I wove her into the subplot.
- Eavesdropping is a good thing. It helps with so many aspects of writing. Not only does it teach you to write dialogue, but it shows you the ebb and flow of conversation. Overheard in a washroom, “Honey, you wouldn’t believe how much it costs to look this cheap.” You can bet that showed up in a book.
- Print out the part you need to edit. Waiting in line for the school pickup? Read that chapter out loud. You’ll quickly see the repetitions and the awkward bits. If your tongue stumbles, your reader’s eyes will. If you’re worried about people thinking you’re crazy, hold up your phone as if you are making a life changing call. This has the added benefit of keeping people from interrupting your writing time, because that’s what it is.
- And then there’s that three o’clock in the morning time when you can’t sleep. What else do you do at that time of the night? Worrying about your kids or how whacked you’re going to be at work the next day only makes being sleepless worse. And there’s no way you want to fixate on what the guy lying beside you is up to, so now’s the time to work on your plotting. Figure out how you can go deeper into the story. How can you make that plot twist more real? Can you go back and put in some foreshadowing? Can you combine two characters into one to streamline the story. The middle of the night is truly where you get the hard work done, not sitting in front of a screen.
- When a great idea comes along write that great idea down in that notebook that’s always handy. You can flesh it out later — maybe put two of these ideas together into one story. Two great ideas in one story, how brilliant is that? Or maybe you’ll create a short story from that idea. Now is not the time to edit or be critical, this is where you dream.
- Here’s something I’m a little squeamish to tell you. When I’m reading, if I see a wonderful phrase, I write it down. Think of it as a prompt or an inspiration. Always put it in bold quotes so you know it isn’t yours. You’ll put your own spin on it later. And another little secret, I also collect names from screen credits.
- If you write the little places, when you do have a block of time, you’ll be prepared to write. It’s like stretching before you exercise. When you sit down at your computer you don’t waste a minute thinking about what you’ll write because you’ve got this powerful sketch of your protagonist’s father to put in, one that will explain why she can’t commit to a relationship, and a brilliant description of their home, decayed and unloved, that mirrors their relationship.
- Coming to THE BOOK prepared to write makes you super-efficient because the hard bit has already been done. You just need to type it in. Sometimes I think we spend more time worrying about writing than we do writing.
- One more thing. Don’t tell me you aren’t a writer until you’re published. That’s garbage. You write; therefore, you are a writer. Being published doesn’t bestow some magic mantel on you. You already have it. And it’s a valuable and necessary thing to do. From the time humans sat around fires in caves, we’ve needed story tellers. It doesn’t matter how those stories are delivered, e-books, digital streaming or whispered in the dark, tall tales are necessary for humanity. So, do your bit, write.
Who is Phyllis Smallman?
Phyllis Smallman’s first novel, Margarita Nights, won the inaugural Unhanged Arthur award from the Crime Writers of Canada. Smallman has also won the IPPY golden medal for best mystery and numerous awards from the Florida Writers Association. Her writing has appeared in both Spinetingler Magazine and Omni Mystery Magazine. The Sherri Travis mystery series was chosen by Good Morning America for a summer read in 2010.
Before turning to a life of crime Smallman was a potter. She divides her time between a beach in Florida and an island in the Salish Sea.
Down in Key West, Sherri Travis and her best friend Marley are looking for a little fun in the sun. Promising to be back for last call, Marley leaves the Rawhide Saloon with an Elvis impersonator.
She doesn’t return. With Hurricane Alma turning toward Key West, and the police saying Marley must be missing for seventy-two hours before they start searching, Sherri and Lexi Divine, a six-foot tall drag queen, hunt for Marley amidst the chaos of the evacuation.