Friday, February 26, 2010

On Debuts and Cliches

“Write what you know.” It’s one of those clichés every writer hears in the early stages of learning the craft.

I agree with it—to an extent. I know about religion, classic horror, acting, and medieval lit. The first novel I ever wrote dealt with religion and horror. Then an agent who passed on that book challenged me to write a crime story starring an ex-nun. Nah, I thought—I’m a horror writer. But the idea clung to my subconscious, and I decided to learn about private investigators, health food, MMORPGs, and the minds of stalkers.

You may be asking: How is getting into the mind of a stalker is a positive thing? It is when it’s the mind of the villain in my debut mystery. If I’d clung to my self-label of “horror writer” I wouldn’t be looking forward to my first mystery on a bookstore shelf next spring.

Yet without my writing roots I wouldn’t be here either, because folks seem to be fascinated by nuns. We’re like an alternate species of human. Yep—I used to be a nun. Habit, veil, the whole shebang. (Sorry to disappoint: The convent’s nothing like Sister Act. And speaking of clichés, yes, I played the guitar; yes, I sang at Folk Masses; and yes, I taught middle school kids to sing and dance.) In my debut mystery, my ex-nun main character is re-acclimating to the world. That’s writing what I know—you should’ve seen me trying to walk in high heels for the first time in years. She’s also foiling a Bible-obsessed stalker, which combines what I know and what I had to learn—I’ve certainly never stalked anyone! Although if Gerard Butler moved in down the street…

Where was I? Oh, yes. Clichés. Nuns themselves may be cliché, although I certainly wasn’t. As in, I was in trouble pretty much every week for all my years in the convent. At first all I thought the only use I could make of those years were good was cocktail party conversation for the rest of my life. Yet what I thought was a colossal waste turned out to be a crucial ingredient to a mystery series.

Were I to go back to teaching English, this is where I’d start: Everything you know, everything you’ve experienced—good and bad—can be used to make your writing better. I’m living proof.

Oops. A cliché. I’d better go back to daydreaming about Gerard Butler moving into my neighborhood. And writing my next book

14 comments:

Chris said...

I've always thought "Know what you write" would be better advice. And it would have spared the world hundreds of stories about aspiring writers.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Welcome to Inkspot, Alice. Can't wait to read your book. I think it's going to be fascinating.

Lisa Bork said...

So, Alice, what sort of things did you get in trouble for every week? Inquiring minds what to know :)

Alan Orloff said...

Welcome to the blog, Alice! It sounds like you've got enough background fodder for several series. And, just speaking for myself, it sounds like a convent is the perfect place for a horror novel.

Jess Lourey said...

Welcome aboard, Alice! You're right about the "nuns are treated like zoo creatures" thing. And the only thing more interesting than a nun is an ex-nun. Any memoirs in the works?

Jess Lourey said...

p.s. When does your website go live? I'm guessing people are going to want to know all about you and your writing...

G.M. Malliet said...

My first question, as with Lisa, was the wish to know what got you in trouble. I suspect it was something very minor.

G.M. Malliet said...

p.s. No doubt you are sick of hearing this, but the Nun's Story remains one of my favorite movies. I wore a dishtowel on my head to see if I could look like Audrey Hepburn. Alas, only Audrey ever looked like Audrey.

Alice Loweecey said...

Thanks, everyone! Nope, no memoir from this fiction writer. Any convent sotries will be woven into my novels. And yep,. I used to get in trouble for whistling, talking too loudly, not acting "holy" enough. And I never wtch nun movies. Ever. They give me flashbacks.

Keith Raffel said...

I've read mysteries set in Tibet, Iceland, North Korea, and an Ottoman harem. All exotic places. But what's a more exotic, foreign place to most of us than a convent? What comes to mind? No sex, all women, visions, rapture, discipline. A rich vein to mine, Alice, you lucky thing.

Pablo said...

Read Zuckerman Unbound by Philip Roth if you want an account of what it is like to write what you know (and face the consequences).

Darrell James said...

Alice- I find the whole idea totally fascinating. I grew up in public schools with a Protestant upbringing. But I hung out with the Catholic kids in my neighborhood (there seemed to be a lot of them). My only mental picture of nuns came from them: "mean, bitchy women, with hair growing from the mole on their nose, who smacked kids with rulers for no other reason than "they could."

You've certainly enlightened this smalltown boy. Welcome aboard. I look forward to your book release.

Deborah Sharp said...

Fascinating, Alice! Your book sounds like it'll be a terrific read (and your LIFE sounds pretty interesting,too)

Cricket McRae said...

Welcome, Alice! Lucky you to have such rich fodder for your fiction. Looking forward to reading the book!