This month I connected with Alice K. Boatwright, with my five questions and some follow-up conversation. Alice’s most recent book is SEA, SKY, ISLANDS: Three stories from the San Juan Islands. She is currently working on the third book in her Ellie Kent mystery series and is the author of many short stories. Her three shorts on Vietnam, collected in Collateral Damage, are evocative and provocative.
What is your favorite book about the craft of writing? Why?
Alice: Throughout my training as a writer (BA, MFA, workshops), I never once had a textbook on the dos and don’ts of writing fiction. When I began teaching at the University of New Hampshire, I had a master’s degree but no experience. I asked Don Murray, author of A Writer Teaches Writing and the head of my department, what I should do in my Freshman English Composition classes, and he said, “Have them write a lot and have fun.” I said I could do that. He believed that when people found a subject that mattered deeply to them, they would want the skills that helped them make their meaning clear – from grammar and punctuation to other techniques. I witnessed this process firsthand and facilitating it was a very powerful and exciting experience.
That said, we did use some texts in that program, and my favorite was William Zinsser’s On Writing Well – a book that illustrates on every page what good writing is like. I also love Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, for its focus on simplicity and clarity. The two books that gave me permission to become a writer myself were the classics, If You Want To Write by Brenda Ueland and Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. The first assures you that you have something original to say if you will only take the time to do it with care and specificity; and the second teaches you how to develop the habits needed to write in the midst of a busy life full of other demands. I have never been a fan of books on fiction writing techniques, though I liked Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird when I read it. I think the advice about writing a shitty first draft is a very important message.
Sarah: You’re the second person to mention Brenda Ueland’s book in two months—a book I had never previously heard of. Similarly, I’m being schooled by my guests here about how important the practice of writing is, regardless of what other kinds of craft resources might be useful to each individual.
Strunk & White has been a go-to of mine since my mother bought me my first copy for middle school English. On Facebook, you suggested (tongue in cheek?) the ebook version of this and other favorites. To me, these reference books must be in I got more out of it than out of some of my teachers. Writing craft isn’t just about how to write fiction, it’s about how to write, and I appreciate your highlighting this.
What do you like most about writing a first draft?
Alice: I like writing my first draft because I do it quickly, as much as possible without constraints or self-criticism. I think of this beginning as stretching my canvas (how big?) and then drawing a sketch of the painting to come. With mysteries, I know the ending so I know where I’m going, and I usually know where I want to start. So, I just go for it. My first drafts are usually quite short.
What is your favorite part of revision?
Alice: Revision is the real work. It’s where the plot takes advantage of the intuitive and logical developments that reveal themselves as you go along. Where characters find their voices and relationships come alive. Where the setting becomes a player in the story through finding the best telling details (and getting rid of the useless ones). Where the pacing is honed to draw the readers along and never let them go as you twist and turn from page one to the end. And where the language is refined from word one to the final period. A small job! I love it and hate it until the last part where it all starts to come together. Then I can work with tireless exhilaration. But the middle part is always hard and requires commitment, courage (and someone who’s willing to let you whine a lot, when needed.)
Sarah: I love how your descriptions of process for both writing a first draft and revision are so connected to visual art, to making, creating. And yes—courage!
What book (not about writing) are you reading right now or have you recently finished that you would recommend to others? Why?
Alice: I am currently in love with Maggie O’Farrell. I read HAMNET a few months and thought it was one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. The whole idea, the style, the structure filled me with awe. Recently I decided to read her first book, AFTER YOU’D GONE, which was written about 20 years ago. This was also amazing. She broke all the rules about multiple points of view, the present and the past woven together, and more. . . but I was never once lost or frustrated. I was perfectly happy to go wherever she took me, confident that it would come together in the end, and it did.
Can you give an example of how you have been kind to someone else recently, in real life or through one of your characters?
Alice: I don’t feel comfortable answering this question in a personal context, Sarah. Within the context of writing, I do a lot of service to my community. Formerly this focused on Sisters in Crime and the defunct Mystery Writers Roundtable. Now I am the first convenor for the UK Crime Writers Association’s North America chapter, planning meetings and programs for a network of 80 authors in the US and Canada. Helping other writers navigate the challenges of writing, editing, publishing, and marketing (and repeat) is important to me, and I love doing it.
Sarah: I felt like this was a very personal, and totally appropriate, answer to the question. It’s a question I borrowed from a kid’s podcast that my workplace puts out, in which a monster has a podcast within the podcast and asks adults he meets “how were you kind today?” I wanted to leave more room in my question for answers, and love the variety I am getting. It’s a hard question. One that is difficult to answer on multiple levels, including your concern about it being personal.
Your answer is true to you, and true from my experience of you. How kind you were to me when we first met, “roping” me into Sisters in Crime service at the local level, inviting me into the Saturday writing group. I have come to count you as a true friend, and am so happy to be able to highlight your answers here and your works this month. Thank you for being you!