It's always a struggle to find enough time to write, whether you're a full-time writer or you're try to squeeze writing sessions around a job or a career, and between kids' soccer games, grocery shopping, TV binging, school, dating, yoga, laundry, friendship maintenance, family relations, social media, flossing, gardening, motorcycle maintenance, animal husbandry and on and on. All of these functions of life, as inescapable and important as some of them may be, are still, to a writer, excuses to procrastinate.
So, you would think that adding to that list, by volunteering time and energy to the writing community, would tax your daily word count even further.
While that may be true, I’ve found the unexpected collateral benefits to be well worth the pain.
I'm currently in the middle of my second term as President of the Mystery Writers of America SoCal chapter (which mysteriously includes Hawaii, Arizona, and most of Nevada). I was VP before that and a board member for several years before that. I've been on the board of Sisters in Crime for longer than I can remember.
During all that time, I've met, read, and talked writing with authors from all over the world, making me reevaluate my own work from new perspectives, re-energizing my enthusiasm for various projects that were wallowing in the dreaded second act, and initiating new projects. Granted, some of this sort of thing can be accomplished in the bar of a good crime writers conference (none of which is finer than the upcoming California Crime Writers Conference in June 2017), but your social networking opportunities are definitely broader when you volunteer. The reason for this is that when you go from mingling in a crowd to working on a project side-by-side, acquaintances become friends, and as relationships deepen, so do the mutual benefits.
And what does all this camaraderie get you? I have writer friends I can call on in a creative crisis, others I can visit when I travel, and still others I can bounce ideas off. Friends I've made on the inside of writers' organizations have led me to my long-standing critique group, best-selling authors blurbing my books, introductions to agents and editors, inside views into how the business of writing works, and on a minuscule level, a voice in organizational policies that affect us all.
Of all the activities that take me away from my writing, my volunteer work for organizations like MWA and SinC has been, without question, the most inspirational and educational (and fun). But the biggest bonus, and the most surprising, was the boost to my writing. So don't worry about finding the time, just raise your hand. What you may lose in quantity, you'll more than make up for in quality.
It is that time of year: teachers everywhere are crying, and perhaps a little terrified. I am a middle school teacher of theater and a class I invented, Writing For Publication. I work in conjunction with the Language Arts teacher. She is so busy teaching other stuff, that she has no time for ‘fun’ writing. I wanted to give students an opportunity to write whatever they wanted. I began this program years ago and we produced a few anthologies. Then, budgets being what they are, the program lapsed. Last year my principal was looking for ‘push-in’ programs, that is, an ‘expert’ comes in to a classroom to enrich curriculum. I resurrected the anthology. We had a blast. All first trimester we wrote and ‘shared’ documents. They edited and re-wrote and each week I taught a focus lesson: character, setting, dialog, etc. I told them I was their editor, not their teacher. That was fun for all of us!
Many of those students are also my theater students, so we already had a rapport and the idea of play scripts and film scripts was not new. So, we expanded on that as well. I got some amazing work. Some of it is what you’d expect, but much of it was incredible, considering they are 12 and 13 years old.
Second trimester, we edited and polished our best pearls! Third trimester, I formatted and got those puppies up on Amazon. Then we got to do ‘appropriate’ social media marketing. The school board was thrilled and so were my students and their parents. I knew they could do it!
How does that work for me as a mystery writer? I can only create new material during the summer. During the academic year, I am too full of ‘other worlds’ to create: we do two full drama productions a year plus special shows like the Holiday Program, the writing class, oh, did I mention I also am the student government advisor and school climate monitor? So, there are a lot of hormones flying around as well. I am also a mom and wife...
But my students are the best in the world. They energize me with their love and enthusiasm. When I break down a script with them, or we edit our brains out, I am also learning from them as well. They give so much energy and spirit that I am always remembering to give back. They thank me at the end of every class; they give hugs; they yell, “I love you!” across the campus at me; they give me chocolate (they know I work for food and bribes). So, I think I get more out of it than they do! For years, they have asked to be put in one of my books. I don’t really write for or about kids, but they wore me down. In the new K.O.’d, (K.O.’d At Banzai Pipeline) the police procedural series set in Hawaii, K.O., my heroine, is visited by her teenaged nephew when he enters the big surf contests. Raj and his friends are compilations of many students over the years, so this is my little homage to them and all the joy they bring.
Here is a link to a commercial we did for the county office of education.
I’ve been invited to visit a few websites to talk about my most recent release, Skeletons in the Attic, the first in my Marketville Mystery series. None of these bloggers, however, asked me to talk about the skeletons that come out in a writer’s protagonist. That is, until D.J. Adamson.
The concept intrigued me, and not just because of the tangible link to my novel. The reality is, we all have skeletons, if not in our attics, in our proverbial closets. Our characters, if they are to be believable, need to have secrets as well. Some of those secrets might be shared with the reader; some may stay hidden, at least for the time being.
In the case of Skeletons in the Attic, my protagonist is Calamity (Callie) Barnstable, and while Callie has a few secrets of her own, the book’s title refers to the skeletons she uncovers when trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance thirty years before.
It’s not that Callie necessarily wants to delve into the past, but her father, recently deceased in an “unfortunate occupational accident,” has left her a house in the town of Marketville—a house she never knew existed—under the proviso that she finds out who murdered her mother. A mother Callie has always believed left for “the milkman or some other male equivalent” when Callie was just six-years-old.
Callie accepts the assignment with some reluctance, and before long she finds herself discovering things that might have best been left in the past. But not every skeleton holds an unpleasant memory. There’s the trunk in the attic filled with memories: the sweatshirt from John Cougar Mellencamp’s Scarecrow tour—her father’s favorite musician. The mother-and-daughter matching outfits—leotards and legwarmers—prompting Callie to remember laughing with her mother as they tried to follow along with Jane Fonda’s aerobics. Her mother’s grease-stained, handwritten recipe for peanut butter cookies; Callie was always allowed to make the crisscross pattern on the top with a fork.
Allowing our protagonists to have skeletons, good and bad, helps the reader to identify with the character. How much of my protagonist’s past is my past, you might ask. That’s a secret for another day…though I will admit to owning that sweatshirt, along with a souvenir program from the Scarecrow tour.
Always did love John Mellencamp’s music.
Judy Penz Sheluk’s debut mystery novel, The Hanged Man’s Noose, was published in July 2015. Skeletons in the Attic, the first book in her Marketville Mystery Series,
Judy’s short crime fiction appears in World Enough and Crime, The Whole She-Bang 2, Flash and Bang and Live Free or Tri.
Judy is a member of Sisters in Crime, Crime Writers of Canada, International Thriller Writers and the Short Mystery Fiction Society.
Find Judy on her website/blog at www.judypenzsheluk.com, where she interviews other authors and blogs about the writing life.