How Agatha Christie helped me get my dishes done (and my book written)

Hi, Maureen here, NOT suffering from writer’s block.

Not that you thought I was, but anyone following my progress on the second book in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series, “No News is Bad News,” may think it because it’s…taking…so…long.

Writer’s block was the topic of a question at a recent Sisters in Crime Speakers Bureau panel I was on with fellow Maine crime writers Kate Flora and Arlene Kay. The three of us were in agreement that there is no such thing. Kate, I believe, called it self-indulgent.

The three of us were firm that writing is work, it’s a job, and you get to it, you don’t swan around with the back of your hand to your forehead lamenting that the muse has not come to visit.

Writing IS work. Fun work, but still work. And it’s easy to avoid doing it, for a lot of reasons. Don’t think this is too weird,but  it scares me a little. It scares me because I know how tangled my writing process is, how much agony and panic I’ll go through and how difficult it will be to get to the end. Kinda makes me not want to start.

I never thought about the writing process at all before I started writing “Cold Hard News,” my first mystery novel.

Writing? This recent "Adam@Home" may make you laugh and cry at the same time.

Writing? This recent “Adam@Home” may make you laugh and cry at the same time.

I knew about my writing process as a journalist, but that’s totally different and a blog for a different day. But when it came time to finally write my first mystery novel after putting it off for decades, I was lost. I won’t go through all the agonizing back and forth I’ve written about here before, except to say Stephen King’s “On Writing” finally kicked me in gear with the message, basically, to shut up, sit down and write already. (A familiar theme, right?)

So I did. And I found a writing process. A tortuous one. I don’t outline. I start writing. I try to “get the story down,” as I call it, skipping over transitions, scenes, not paying a lot of attention to the words I use or how they’re arranged. Things begin to reveal themselves. As they do, I go back to what I’ve written and start refining it, adding in clues and other scenes, adjusting characters and situations. I also go forward with scenes, writing scenes that spring forth in my mind with no idea where they’re going to go or how they fit. I go back, I go forward, I rework. There are a lot of legal pads around the house with scenes, dialogue, ideas. Things I’ve written at four in the morning without my glasses on that don’t make sense.

Even with all that, I still wasn’t quite sure how the plot was going to work it self out. As tens of thousands of words piled up, I just hoped the book would form itself into something that made sense before I lost my mind.

I don’t say that lightly. I don’t want to sound like a dilettante or some kind of nut, but I need to be able to totally absorb myself in the writing for hours and days for it to really take shape and my brain to do what it needed to. I couldn’t do it in the hour spurts I was writing in because of the long, energy sapping days of my day job. But the panel with Kate and Arlene was a reminder to stop, basically, swanning around lamenting how HARD IT IS TO WRITE and just friggin’ do it.

After that panel a couple weekends ago, trying to ignore the panic, self-doubt and fear that the 70,000 or so words I had so far was a steaming pile of crap, I decided to make myself feel better by finding an Agatha Christie quote I remembered from that had made me laugh. Something like, “Now all you have to do is go back and throw in a few clues and write it and you’re all set.” I found it, it’s from “Mrs. McGinty’s Dead,” and it’s: “There you are, Ariadne…The whole plot of your next novel presented to you. All you’ll have to do is work in a few false clues, and—of course—do the actual writing.”

While looking for that quote, I came across this, also from Christie: “The best time for planning a book is when you’re doing the dishes.”

The squeamish may want to stop reading at this point. If you’re not already wondering a little about whether what I really need is a padded room, this may convince you. I have had an issue for a while recently with getting the dishes done. That’s not a euphemism for something interesting. I really just can’t seem to get the sink and counter empty of dirty dishes. I’m sure I could unravel why if I really thought about it, but lack of time and energy are the superficial excuses. The day I read that Christie quote I’d also stumbled upon a few rare days in a row off from work. I came up with a plan: I knew that my writing process was to write whether it seemed to be coming together or not, then to let it fester in my brain letting scenes, transitions and plot lines pop up. So I would write for a couple hours, then do the dishes. And see what happened. If nothing else, at least it was finally a way to get the dishes done. I’m embarrassed enough to say that there were enough dirty dishes to be able to repeat the process several times.

I also found it works for vacuuming and cleaning the bathroom. Not so much going through the months’ worth of unopened mail on the kitchen table, though — too many distractions.12747517_10208711419451820_8292783485293004002_o

I also knew, now that I was soaring past 82,000 words, it was time to outline. There is no way for me to keep track of scenes, plot (what there was of it), who said what to whom and the troubling flashback chapters without it. Here’s how I outline: I go through and write down every chapter and scene — they’ve already been written, understand — what happens in the scene plot-wise, if new characters are introduced, and that type of thing. (Don’t tell me to try Scrivener, trying to figure that out, including buying a used copy of “Scrivener for Dummies” that may as well have been in Greek, added about six months of procrastination last year).

After that outline is written in longhand, I get out post-it notes and a big piece of cardboard. Since my book is third person with several points of view, I do a different color for each point of view. Each scene goes on its own note so I can see where it is and move things around as needed.

I spent a lot of time doing this over the past weekend.

And then I took a break and watched four episodes of “Better Call Saul” in a row followed by two “Datelines” and a “48 Hours Mystery.”

And somewhere over the course of two days, the miracle I’d been waiting for happened.

I knew it was coming. Little tremors had started — waking up in at 3 in the morning with an idea for a scene or a piece of plot. Driving home from work and having to pull over to tap out a line of dialogue on my phone. But suddenly, with hardly any more warning than that, the whole structure of the plot that I’d been missing, plus some missteps I’d taken and would have to readjust (including taking back a murder), appeared in my head, full-blown. I am not making this up.

Sure, there’s still a lot of work left to do. I have to go back and fix all the writing. Throw in some clues. Add transitions. Write the final six or so chapters. And yeah, then I’ll have a first draft that will get poked and pulled by my reading crew, and I’ll have to go back and rework it all.

But believe it or not, I feel like I’ve rounded third and am headed home.

And there are fewer dirty dishes in the sink than there have been in a year.

Thanks Agatha Christie, for a sink empty of dirty dishes.

Thanks Agatha Christie, for a sink empty of dirty dishes.

Maureen Milliken is the author of Cold Hard News, the first in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter: @mmilliken47, like her Facebook page: Maureen Milliken mysteries, sign up for email updates at her website and read her blog: maureenmilliken.com.

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6 Responses to How Agatha Christie helped me get my dishes done (and my book written)

  1. It’s a long haul, Maureen. I’m so glad you feel on top of it now. We all owe Agatha so much!

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  2. Barb Ross says:

    Very encouraging, Maureen, from someone whose draft is a bit behind yours. I won’t be mentioning to my husband how housework helps the process, however!

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  3. Perfect description of the process! I substitute the gym for the dishes. 🙂

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  4. L.C. Rooney says:

    I’m not sure how you got inside my head, into my office, atop my desk … but you have, with eerie accuracy and in excruciating detail, described my process. My own outline came a little sooner — around 65,000 words into the book — when I realized that if I didn’t break down and do it, the book would simply never come together. The only difference is that I use Scrivener rather than post-it notes. And shame on me for not employing Scrivener’s fantastic “index card/corkboard” outlining tool sooner! As I close in (at last!!) on a completed first draft, I’m already planning to START Book #2 with the virtual index cards. Because, unlike you, I just. Can’t. Go through. The process. This way. Again. 😀

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  5. Barbara Glynn says:

    Hi Maureen, thank you for this post. I could have written it (dishes, mail, etc.) aside from the Christie quotes, which I love. I finished reading Stephen King’s On Writing last week, and was inspired in unexpected ways, one of which getting the story written and then think about what you have to change or add in. I tend to get stuck thinking about things that need to be fixed or added in. And Kate Flora has also reminded me to just sit down and write (which I have been doing Kate, thank you for the encouragement). I enjoyed Cold Hard News and I’m looking forward to No News is Bad News.

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  6. Jim Milliken says:

    I was informed and inspired by your piece, although I take a somewhat different approach to a very different kind of writing. Among other devices & practices, I have on my bulletin board a photo of a wolf glaring at the camera, to which I’ve added my type of advice: “SHUT UP and get to work.”

    Thanks for this and all the other good reads you provide.

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