I don’t really believe in writer’s block—writing is a job just like any other. Your dentist doesn’t decide she can’t fill your cavity today because she’s “blocked”. She does the job, and so must you!
Emmy award-winning journalist Libby Kirsch turned to writing mysteries after the birth of her third child. We catch with her to talk about her 5 am writing routine, treating deadlines with respect and how she outlines her work.
What made you want to be a writer?
I always wanted to be a writer; and can remember staying inside at recess in third grade to write my first story about hero sleuth, Emerald Green. As an adult, I worked as a journalist for local news stations in Montana, Tennessee, Virginia, and Ohio before switching to writing mysteries. I had no idea at the time, but I now see that being a reporter was excellent training for literally anything that might come next in life. Live shot in the middle of a NASCAR race with thirty strangers trying to get on camera? No problem. Shots fired by a criminal that the police (and you!) are chasing after he robs a bank? Just another Tuesday. Also, after sitting in newsrooms listening to scanners squawk and shout around the clock, no amount of noise can break my train of thought when I sit down to work!
Do you have a writing routine?
I usually wake up and write from 5am-7am; just to make sure I get some words in every day. I look at writing as “me time” and look forward to it. And, though five might sound early to some people, I’ve had shifts at work that started at 3 am, so five honestly seems like no big deal. Also, coffee. Then after I get the kids off to school, I try and write for a few more hours before moving on to marketing.
How do you outline your work and begin writing?
I currently write in two series; the Stella Reynolds Mystery Series, and the Janet Black Mystery Series. I used to be a panster but I got frustrated writing (what felt to me!) like so many wasted words that wouldn’t end up working out by the time I got to the end of the story. So now I’m a plotter—but I always leave room for surprises as I go. I typically write the first chapter and the main “final” conflict right in the beginning—it gives me a sense of where I’m starting, and where I need to end up. Of course, after so many rounds of editing, the last climactic chapter that I’d written 70K words earlier in the story doesn’t often stay the same, but I like how it helps me stay centered and focused on the main themes and conflicts of the story.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Give yourself deadlines and treat those deadlines with respect. This is probably because of my journalism background, but back when I was on air, my deadline might have been 5:04 pm. And that meant that if my story wasn’t ready until 5:06, I had missed the deadline, and would be hauled into the news director’s office to explain myself. Now I like to set (reasonable! I’m not down to the minute anymore, thank God!) deadlines for word counts, and then keep my butt in the chair until I’ve met them for the day or week. I don’t believe in writer’s block—writing is a job just like any other. Your dentist doesn’t decide she can’t fill your cavity today because she’s “blocked”. She does the job, and so must you! However, that doesn’t have to mean writing straight through from start to finish. If you can’t figure out a chapter, skip it! Go to the next point you’re sure of in the story, and often, after writing it, you know what’s wrong with the earlier chapter and can triage it.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for new authors?
When you’re just starting out, writing the book feels like The Job. But it’s really only The Beginning of The Job, and that’s hard to wrap your head around at first! Even after the novel is published, now your job shifts to marketing and promoting; which is quite different from sitting in your quiet office alone with your thoughts.
What methods of book marketing do you find the most effective?
It’s so difficult to gauge the results of traditional book marketing. I did a media tour for my second book release. Four TV interviews and three radio interviews over two days. Did I sell any books because of it? I HAVE NO IDEA! It’s too bad every reader isn’t asked how they heard about you—it would really help all of us focus our efforts, eh? I find that trying to consistently grow my mailing list is the most effective way to spend my time on marketing. It allows me to speak directly to the reader who’s most interested in my books!
What struggles did you face in the writing process?
The biggest struggle for me early on was a craft problem. Moving from journalism to creative writing was harder than I thought! I had no idea how to describe the characters in my book. It sounds ludicrous to say, but as a TV reporter, I never had to describe what anyone (or anything) looked like—the viewer would be staring at them during the story on the evening news! I still remember sending a trusted reader the first few chapters of my first manuscript and her feedback was, “I can’t really picture anybody.” Ha! Too right, I’d not spent a single word describing a single character!
How do you handle rejection as a writer?
There’s nothing worse than a bad review! I try and remind myself that reading is such a subjective experience—and to prove it, you can go to any universally adored and critically acclaimed book and see even they have one- and two-star reviews aplenty. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has almost 500 one-star reviews on Amazon. WHAT?? I try not to read the reviews and, instead, spend that time planning or writing the next book.
What is the best writing advice you have received?
Never stop learning and get on with writing the next book! Join a critique group, take a writing class, try and critically think about each book you read and assess what makes it “work.”