The Other Side of the Coin

Since writing is what I do, it’s hardly surprising that’s often the subject of these weekly posts—writing. Last week I wrote about the magic of writing mysteries. This week I’m at the opposite end of that spectrum—the hell of writing mysteries.

In my world, there’s nothing better than getting to the last scene on the last page and finishing writing a book. On the other hand, there’s nothing worse than starting one. In some instances, that means sitting in my writing chair staring at the blank page of a new file on my computer screen. In other instances it means staring at an empty spot in my head. No matter how many steps I take while I’m thinking about it, no matter how many times I toss and turn over night, the place where the new story should be is still … well … a complete mystery.

When I finished writing Nothing to Lose, the next Beau book for HarperCollins, I received news that the Ali books would now have a new editor at Simon and Schuster. Editors change from time to time. Sometimes it’s a good fit; sometimes it’s not—like the editor who told me in our first telephone conversation that what I really needed to do with Hour of the Hunter was “get rid of all the Indian stuff.” By the way that’s also what another long ago editor once told Tony Hillerman. Fortunately neither one of us took that ill-conceived bit of advice to heart, and that new editor didn’t last long, either. But I digress.

So in my first conversation with my new S&S editor two months ago, I already knew several of the questions she would ask. “What’s the new book about? What’s the title? And when will it be finished?” As mentioned above, I had been down this road before, so I had given those topics some serious thought prior to the phone call. I told her I believed the book would be titled Fatal Vows, and it would be about a young woman worrying that her mother’s new boyfriend was big trouble. Oh, and I expected to have the book done by the end of October. So much for our initial introduction.

But then I went to work on one of the most difficult part’s of the writing process—thinking a story into existence, and the more I thought about a book called Fatal Vows, the less I liked it. With a name like that there’s not much doubt about what’s going to happen–someone, the wife most likely, is going to die one way or the other. So where’s the suspense? Where’s the mystery? And wait just a minute here, haven’t I already written this story in another book, maybe even in another Ali? Chewing your cabbage twice occasionally might be fine in casual conversation, but not in a book that people would end up having to buy in order to read it. Don’t my readers deserve something new?

Which brought me straight up against the most difficult change a writer ever has to make: I had to change my mind. I had to start over. I had to think up a entirely different plot line. Meanwhile the number of days between then and my upcoming deadline was steadily ticking downward.

My least favorite part of the writing process is what I call “wrestling with the devil.” That means the story line has suddenly come to a screeching halt and won’t move forward. In each case, the only way to get around that obstacle is to think my way through it—usually when I go to bed at night. Instead of sleeping, I spend endless hours tossing and turning. In most cases my devil wrestling episodes occur in midstream of a book. Inevitably, after one of these events, I wake up the next morning exhausted and feeling as though I’ve spent the previous night slogging through hot dry sand in the Hassyampa riverbed north of Wickenburg.

This time, however, I had an early on-set case of devil wrestling. It occurred this past weekend when we happened to have out of town guests. I had been busy hostessing during the day, but when I went to bed that night, the blank spot where a story should have been reasserted itself in spades! I tossed and turned and then tossed some more, trying to let go of one story line and pick up the trail of a new one, and when I woke up the next morning, I thought I had one.

Sometimes when people say they were “up all night,” it may have felt like they were awake the whole time, but usually that’s not entirely true. In this case, however, it was because my new Apple Watch was keeping score. When I checked my sleep time on Sunday morning there it was in black and white—One hour thirty-three minutes. Total!

I crawled out of bed, made sure everyone had breakfast, and did my steps. Then, company or no, I went back to bed and took a four-hour nap. That night, I went to bed and slept for nine hours in a row, which meant that by the next morning I was pretty well caught up.

On Monday I checked with some of my medical consultants and realized that part of my new idea required some tweaking, but yesterday I ran the new title, Collateral Damage, past my new editor, then I went to work on the prologue.

So here I am on August 11, 1500 words down, and only 93,500 to go.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with that first step, so I’d better get a move on. Starting writing a book is the hard part, but once I reach the end, it will be worth it because, for the last thirty-nine years, it has been, EACH AND EVERY TIME!

33 thoughts on “The Other Side of the Coin

  1. Of course, for your readers, starting a new book is the BEST! And we hate when they end. Too quickly it always seems. Can’t wait for a new Beau!

  2. Your comment about the Hassyampa brought back many memories. My 3 children lived in Aguila, about 25 miles west of Wickenburg with my ex wife. I would drive from Ahwatukee to pick them up on every other Friday and take them home for the weekend. Then Sunday afternoon we would take them back. South of Wickenburg at a roadside rest is a place where the water comes to the surface for a couple hundred feet and then subsides again. We would stop there and play in the stream and have a picnic lunch. I imagine the river is actually flowing now with the serious monsoon season and the “No fishing from bridge” sign makes sense.

  3. I absolutely love learning about the process that authors go through. I am in awe of those of you who can right fiction. I just can’t even write a short story. I love to write but it’s all nonfiction from my life experience. So keep going as long as you can. I’m amazed that you can still keep cranking out good books. I do believe we’re about the same age. I sure love to meet you sometime. Are you ever in Colorado?

    • Lead South Dakota is as close as I’ll be to doing an appearance in Colorado. That’s for the South Dakota Book Festival, October 1,2, and 3.

  4. I liked the one you were going to start with the girl`s mother`s boyfriend, just change the title. Love all your books, have read them all threw the years, never one I didn`t love. When I get your book I don`t stop reading till last page so I don`t get much sleep either. Can`t wait for the book to come out

  5. When I start a new job or project I do the work in my sleep for a couple of nights. It can be frustrating at times because it seems like I’m doing the work twice but really I’m sorting out the process. Luckily my last project, making a pond I only envisioned the final part of sitting next to the completed pond and enjoying myself. It would have been exhausting digging during the day and digging in my sleep, not to mention moving all that dirt.
    It’s seems I do my best thinking in my sleep or the shower, I woke up at 5 am 2 weeks ago and ordered an under liner for the pond and then went back to sleep.
    This week I decided I would re-read or really re-listen as I’m an Audiobook junkie to the Joanna Brady series. I’m on book #7 Outlaw Mountain, you would be surprised how much dirt gets moved when you have a book in your ear.
    Looking forward to the next Beau book. Ever think about bringing back the Walker series?

  6. Thank you so much for sharing these insights to the life of a mystery writer. As a non-fiction writer myself, writing fiction is a complete mystery to me.
    Where do your ideas for a story come from?
    Do you plot the whole book in your head or let it flow chapter by chapter?
    How do you create a mystery?
    I guess what I should do is surf the net looking for courses on creative writing that focus on writing fiction/mystery.
    In the meanwhile I appreciate your sharing.

  7. I could scream “Ditto!” for much of what you write, but I’m too tired to muster up much of a scream, as I’ve been “fussing” all night, preparing to start a new book! LOL

    HOWEVER, our processes differ considerably once I get to my keyboard, where I wrestle the piles of notes into some type of organized timeline and write a full synopsis of 20-40 single spaced words!

    I’ve heard you talk about your process, and while I love Beau books to the moon and back, your methodology is a total mystery to me!

  8. I appreciate you taking us through your arduous writing journeys and dilemmas! I’m probably the spirited reader you want to hate as I finish all your books in one day. Then, I sit around, waiting and wondering when you will have the next novel ready to go. 🙂

  9. As always your candid reflections resonated with me. My wife and I feel fortunate to be a part of your sharing the process of creation in your writing.

    What I found most familiar in your recent post was the struggle to sleep with a problem on your mind. As I’ve grown older I have significant problems sleeping and often wake up far too early in the morning.

    This is natural for my family as my mother in her later years found it impossible to sleep beyond 4:00 a.m.

    This sleep disruption is frequently exacerbated when I have an issue or problem on my mind just as you did when you grappled or wrestled with the devil on plot line.

    My wife and I are in the process of downsizing from a four bedroom home to a town home. This crazy real estate market has impacted my sleeping for the last 2 weeks. We listed our home on Tuesday at 5:00 p.m. and had received five offers within the hour.

    The criteria for our new home which is to remain in our current area, one story, three bedrooms, townhome association mean that in an already insane real estate market there are almost no homes available.

    Our outstanding realtor showed us a town home yesterday that really needs a lot of work. Knowing the market my wife and I were reluctantly considering taking on a relatively significant remodeling buying the home.

    Leaving that showing we drove by a town home in the development with a for sale sign. Looking at the pictures this showed a dream home for us.

    So we made an offer.

    So we’ve got an offer on our house and a offer to buy.

    And I’m not sleeping.

    • Glad you found what you wanted and made a timely offer. We found a home we loved one time while driving back from an open house of a place we hated. Right place; right time.

      And the next time I have a night like last Saturday, I’m going to get up and walk a couple thousand inside steps.

  10. Your books are treasures…as is your blog! You have harvested a real gift and we have reaped the benefit of that gift///many times over…so a big ‘Thank You’!!!

  11. I love your books. I am amazed at how you are able to keep the character in the different series. I do like the way minor characters appearing in different books. It is even more fun to have them pop up in different series.
    I also enjoy your Friday stories. I like learning about the mechanics of writing.
    Keep on keeping on.

  12. When I was video editing and getting involved in a large project, I’d often do the work in my sleep and then wake up and realize that it still needed to be done. It was disappointing, but helpful in that by sleep “editing” I was laying out the work in my mind.

  13. Judy,
    I always look forward to the weekly blog and I’m never disappointed. Sorry that you have to wrestle with the devil, but you always win! Reading everyone’s comments is just extra icing on the cake.

  14. What you wrote Judy is very knowledgeable for me, since I’m trying to learn to write better. I think it’s true starting out is hard, but the end is what makes the story. I love your books. Keep writing!

  15. Dear Judy, I had to roll my eyes when you noted the editor said to “leave out the Indian stuff”. I enjoy Tony Hillerman’s books as well as yours. As most of the publishing houses are in NewYork, I wonder if the people working there ever venture west. I chuckled at an author I read once who portrayed Monterey, California’s summer weather with booming thunderstorms. Boy could the West use that rain now. So please don’t change the accuracy of your books’ settings. And I look forward to the creative genius of your plot lines.

    • Melinda, I grew up in Iowa and have lived in Colorado and California before settling in Connecticut. Many folks here have no idea about the other parts of the country. One asked me if it snowed in Iowa? They might go to Florida in the winter, but they have no idea of what the US is like west of the Hudson River.

      • Carolyn, I agree with you. I have gone to school in New England and DC and found the same attitude. They are not interested in any part of the US west of the Mississippi – if they even think that far west.

        Sad to think that they will travel to Europe but not think of exploring the US.

        We westerners have a lot to offer

  16. Thank you for all the issues you approach and verbalize thru. writing. the parallels in our lives are amazing. Chuck in Tacoma.

  17. Just finished Unfinished Business, great story, great writing. Your books just get better and better. Thank you and keep putting those plots together.

  18. So I just googled COLLATERAL DAMAGE by J A Jance because I thought I misread your blog and I’d already read this book. Turns out I’ve read several other books with that title, so I’m glad it’s actually the newest book your working on. Obviously writing a book is not an easy task, but I’m glad you continually soldier on. Certainly gives me something to look forward to reading. Thanks so much for your perseverance.

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