December 6, 2010

Guest Post: Carolyn J. Rose, Part II

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 10:43 pm

Welcome back to Carolyn! Her post yesterday on a specter with which nearly all writers wrestle, at least from time to time, led to an absorbing discussion–just the reason I love having this blog. Hope everyone will share their further thoughts and reactions to Carolyn’s second installment. And do check out Carolyn’s fiction for yourself. You’ll be as happy as I am that she sits down at that machine, and gets the stories told.
Consulted To Death

Carolyn J. Rose

After a trip to Southern Oregon and stop at mist-shrouded Humbug Mountain, I encouraged Mike to take the lead on a young adult fantasy. The idea sprang from an incident in his childhood when a group of older kids ran ahead and abandoned him on the mountain. (Having lived with him for 25+ years, I have some insight into why this happened, but that’s another story for another post.)

Abby and Noah, the brother and sister in The Hermit of Humbug Mountain, let us return to our childhoods and “make things come out right” in a fantasy that pitted evil against innocence. (BSP-the Kindle edition is priced at only $2.99 through December.) Writing a fantasy was a complete change of pace from our usual mysteries, and working with settings and characters not of the world we live in powered up the creative sides of our brains. We created the Mushroom Forest, a flaming river, the Darksuckers, and a host of other strange and wonderful creatures in a realm inside that mountain on the Oregon coast. We were so engrossed in the obstacles we created in our fantasy world that we wouldn’t have noticed writers’ block if we got it.

A year later, inspired by a futile search for a computer expert in an Oregon coast community where everyone seemed to work two jobs and keep odd hours, we created what we think of as our “satires in cozy clothing.” Devil’s Harbor is a microcosm of the country and Molly Donovan and the denizens of the quirky town are driven by the emotions and beliefs that drive all of us—with a big dose of vanity, insanity, addiction, and conviction. The chance to poke fun at so many people made writing The Big Grabowski and Sometimes a Great Commotion seem effortless. Like sprinters, we hurdled writers’ blocks without a moment’s hesitation and plunged on.

The story that unfolded in Hemlock Lake had simmered on a back burner in my brain for many years, fueled by memories of growing up in the Catskills. The book had a power all its own and each time I was blocked because of criticism or rejection, I felt it pull me back like a lodestone draws an iron filing. Hemlock Lake took me deeper into character development than I’d ever been before, and forced me to look more closely at the darker side of human nature. To finish it, I had to deny my usual reaction to laugh and walk away. I had to go where the characters took me.

With all of that in mind, I realized that the as-yet-unpublished stories I’ve written have developed from ideas spawned by events and characters in earlier works. The mental excursion back to the Catskills for material for Hemlock Lake gave rise to A Place of Forgetting, a story of love, perceived betrayal, and the consequences of acting on that perception in 1966. The Refuge, a tale of a woman on the run from a killer, sprang from the domestic abuse in the backstory of Camille Chancellor, a character in Hemlock Lake. My real-life “adventures” as a substitute teacher led to the cozy No Substitute for Murder.

Fortified by the knowledge that the backlist is a well of ideas, I reminded myself that the sequel to Hemlock Lake has passed the halfway point; I know how it ends and I see how I’m going to get there. This winter, once I divest myself of two of my three jobs, I hope to be able to write my way to those magical words: THE END.

That’s when I realized that my block wasn’t caused by worrying about the book I’m working on now, but about the next and the one after that. I saw I was being drawn to the dark side of writing, the frightening feeling that the well of ideas will dry up, my creativity will wither, my writing career will crash.

And that’s when I reminded myself that I’m not in this alone. I have friends and fellow writers for support, and I have a fan club of fictional characters—some already in print and some still waiting for the opportunity to meet a reader.

Those characters got me this far. The best thing to do is relax and trust them to stick with me for as many years as I want to write.

If they don’t, well, I’m a mystery writer; I can always kill them off. And, thanks to all the crime-scene shows I watch, I can kill them in a variety of gruesome ways.

So now, having giving myself yet another pep talk, I can get back to my work in progress. But first, just one more short peek at my neighbor’s fence.

Hmmm. He’s coming out of his house. He’s marching up to the fence. He’s pulling something out of his pocket. He’s pointing it at me. He’s—

Uh oh.

Gotta go!

Carolyn J. Rose grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, and spent 25 years as a television news writer and producer in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She has published many mysteries and lives in Vancouver, WA, with her husband, radio personality Mike Phillips, and a motley collection of pets. Her hobbies are reading, gardening, and not cooking.

Surf to for more information. And watch the book trailer for HEMLOCK LAKE at


  1. One of the challenges when we wrote The Hermit of Humbug Mountains was making sure that the imaginary world we created inside the mountain had it’s own internal logic. What would the darksuckers do with the darkness they inhaled. How could Noah cross the river of fire using only his natural sense of rhythm? What could make stone gargoyles come to life? It was great fun, along with being a challenge. And, a bonus, I think I’ve worked through all (most) (some) (a few of) those childhood issues.

    Mike Nettleton
    Co-Author The Hermit of Humbug Mountain

    Comment by Mike Nettleton — December 7, 2010 @ 11:58 am

  2. I’m so glad he said “most.” Maybe some day I’ll blog about issues still in the working-on stage. And I know that Mike will be blogging very soon, right here on Suspense Your Disbelief, about sticking to his projects and his latest bright idea about how to do that.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — December 7, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

  3. My own efforts at writing fiction are paltry, relegated to a back burner whilst writing writing books. When it comes to courage in action, these two get the Writer Olympic Medal–which has one criterion: completion. When I shift out of my comfort zone, the frying pan of writing nonfiction, into the fires of writing fiction, I’m looking around for a 5-alarm rescue response. So many characters, so many possibilities, how do I pick–oh, lint on my black jacket, laundry to do, dog to walk, earning a living (oh that is the best excuse). Carolyn writes and completes. Can it be that simple? Perhaps in some ways it is.

    Comment by EL — December 7, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

  4. The problem with earning a living is that you can be so mentally tapped by your 9-5 that it’s hard to force yourself into the additional work (and make no mistake about it writing is work)of taking care of the next part of your book. The only advice I have is to break it down into very small, manageable tasks and view the writing as your reward for completing the mundane day-to-day tasks of life. View it as fun first. After all, it’s not dental work, it’s just writing. Don’t feel guilty if you can’t write two hours a day or only one. If all you can manage is half an hour, so be it.

    Comment by Mike Nettleton — December 7, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

  5. That is quite a bonus, Mike. I don’t know if this is the sense in which you meant it, Carolyn–but I suspect that “most” should never become “all”. If all our issues were completely worked through, wouldn’t a certain dark magic be lost from our writing?

    I have to say–can’t believe I completed such a coherent sentence even after seeing that one of my goddesses has visited Suspense Your Disbelief! I mean, I know she’s a friend of Carolyn’s, but still, for all my regular readers–THIS is the Elizabeth Lyons whose SELL YOUR NOVEL TOOLKIT I recommend to anyone I can tie down, and who played such a pivotal role in my own pre-start of a career…

    Elizabeth, several writers I know say the same thing about the possibilities in fiction being overwhelming. I have the opposite problem–and it can really be a problem. I am so lost in the story that I feel the way I write it is the real way, the only way. It can be very hard to get out of that box and see the need for revision.

    Thanks again to Carolyn for such a great post!

    Comment by jenny — December 7, 2010 @ 6:38 pm

  6. I always enjoy Jenny’s guest columnists! Keep ‘em coming!

    Comment by Judy — December 7, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

  7. Jenny–many writers have a similar “issue” and may not even know they have it: that how they’ve written their novels is the way and only way it must be (if I understand your comment). And none of us can be subjective about our own stories. I mean, can you get subjective about your nightly dreams?

    I remember one gentleman who was in one of my critique groups that I led many years ago. When Paul joined, he had been writing his epic for 25 years! It was brilliant. A literary agent (who has sold over 700 books) had read the behemoth work (I sorta remember something like 175K) and told him that she was sure it would win major awards, but he would need to revise it to cut character backstories and make the major though-line stronger. He could not do it; he had practice his vision of the work for too long and he could not escape the rut turned gash.

    One little technique for getting outside your own ideas for a novel is to ask friends to brainstorm how to take what you’ve thought of, perhaps even written, and tell you how your ideas could be taken one more step (or five steps) more unique. It’s a variation on “what-if.” Give a group of 3 or more friends an “adult beverage” (Carolyn taught me this phrase), and let them go gung-ho. Easy for me to say–so what if you have to throw out your version and begin again. . . .

    Comment by EL — December 7, 2010 @ 9:06 pm

  8. Oh man, I ache for that man in your group, Elizabeth! What a lost chance. I want to revise his magnum opus myself ;)

    It’s great advice you give–which is why the second I finish going through a ms so that it’s at the, say, second draft point (ie, not hot off the flames), I instantly hand it over to my trustys. At this point I am fully expecting to get it back with NO COMMENTS. These brilliant readers–and writers and even one editor–will say things like, “Wow. This is the first ms I’ve ever read where I have nothing to say. Not one little word needs to be changed.”

    We writers are delusional, right?

    Imagine my surprise when the list comes back as long as Santa’s! You mean, there *isn’t* one way to write this book–and I’d found it? I weep, I moan, I stomp around, refusing to be calmed down by my husband.

    And then…I get to work. I revise. And revise. And revise.

    My drafts have numbered into the double digits.

    Please feel to share this process of woe with that gentleman writer, if he should show up again ;)

    I almost left out the part where I go apologize to said husband, adding, “Thank Someone it didn’t sell the first way I had it”!

    Comment by jenny — December 7, 2010 @ 9:19 pm

  9. I love that – “Thank Someone it didn’t sell the first way I had it.”
    And I love the word “delusional,” but I’ll dress that up and say that I get so invested in and committed to my stories and characters that change is difficult – especially when I feel them voting against it.
    That’s when it’s time to take a long break from that work – I recommend at least six months – and a cruise tossed in there would be nice.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — December 7, 2010 @ 9:30 pm

  10. Ah, the suffering of revision vs. the terror of the blank page! Jenny and I have had many interesting discussions about our diametrically opposed writing processes. I’m like you, Elizabeth–overwhelmed by the possibilities. Once I have something on the page to revise, I’m fine. That’s why I outline, and write ever-expanding scene synopses, and do everything I can to fake myself into believing I’m not really writing a first draft. (Oh! Look! I’ve expanded that scene synopsis so much it’s actually, kind of like, sort of, a first draft!) Jenny, I envy the joy you find in drafting, but not the pain of the subsequent loss of belief in the story’s perfection. It takes a lot of creative courage to let go of that and do as many revisions as necessary.

    Comment by Lauren S — December 7, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

  11. So well spoken, Lauren and Jenny. Hope not to put a dark cloud over the invitation to share you inspiration with Paul, that writer who put 25 years into his masterpiece. When he joined my group he was something like 70-ish. At one point, he asked another older gentleman in the group and myself if we’d witness his will, which he wrote himself. Then, years passed. Paul’s house caught on fire, originating in the circuit where he had all of his electronics plugged in. An overload. He lost all, including his computer files and paper drafts of his opus. Ah, but, I had saved a full printed out copy because I loved it so much. Of course I gave it back.

    But Paul never got the umph to do anything with it after the fire. At age 80-something he died. I was contacted by a probate attorney to come in and prove my signature on his will. The other fellow had died before Paul. Somewhere I have a copy of Paul’s will–all one paragraph, written like the genius he was.

    And why is this relevant? Um-um-um. Write til you drop. No matter. Or???

    Comment by EL — December 8, 2010 @ 12:13 am

  12. Oh my. Here’s the relevance I see: “Listen to your editors”!

    Also, Paul’s story has a tragedy that to me suggests it could be a frame for his own book–if anyone had the rights to it and wished to work with it in a CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES sort of way.

    Write. Get your work out there when it’s good enough. Don’t be afraid to listen to the feedback you get.

    Thanks for sharing, Elizabeth.

    Comment by jenny — December 8, 2010 @ 9:05 am

  13. Lauren – I identify with the idea of expanding on notes and scene outlines. I call it backfilling. I often revisit an earlier scene to add subtext and foreshadow and deepen characterization. And sometimes I’m there all day and nothing “new” gets written. Sigh.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — December 8, 2010 @ 11:30 am

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