Nancy Pickard

Hi, there. I’m Nancy Pickard, and a mystery writer. Elaine, Nancy, Harley Jane and Sarah have kindly invited me to share their podium. Thanks, guys, and hello to everybody who’s reading this. And now, I’m going to tell you about a time when I was not, metaphorically, wearing any lipstick at all. Here’s my chronicle of a moment of unadorned truth . . .

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If you ever have an unaccountable urge to feel stupid, try writing an advice book for writers, and then forget to follow your own advice. The book I wrote with psychologist Lynn Lott was Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path, and the step I forgot was Step One. Now why do you suppose I would do that?

Could it be because the name and substance of it is, Unhappiness?

Why, yes, I think we have a clue there, don’t you?

When it comes to avoiding the grittier parts of writing, and getting stuck because of that, I am no better than a brand new writer. The only advantage I have is that when I finally recognize the fix I’m in, I have so much experience that I’m not scared to do the things that may help me get out of it.

Take this past December, January, and February of my writing life, for instance.

In November, I started a new book, and it was going great. I wrote all the way up to the morning of Christmas Eve, and then I stopped, because, well, I hadn’t done any shopping yet. But I thought, "no problem. I’ll just start writing again the day after Christmas." It was going so well; surely a tiny interruption of just a couple of days wouldn’t stop the irresistible flow of words.

Seven weeks later, having written not one more word, I was beginning to get . . . nervous.

"How’s the book coming?" my non-writer friends were asking me.

"Fine," I told them, "fine" being writer code for, "not."

Writer friends knew better than to ask.

And then one day I had a vague memory of having written a book that purported to be able to help writers get over blocks.

Oh, yeah, and what was that first step?

Unhappiness.

Right at the moment of feeling like an idiot, I realized I was avoiding my own best advice, which was to let myself actually feel how unhappy I was about not writing. I was pretty sure why I had avoided doing so: I didn’t want the thoughts that preceded the feelings. They were thoughts like, "There’s no character for readers to love," and "I can’t find the heart of it," and, "I don’t know what happens in the middle." I didn’t have any answers to those problems, and so I had been squelching them, along with the feelings that flavored them.

Fortunately, I have enough experience to know that if I will let myself feel the true, painful depth of my unhappiness at that moment, it may only last for a little while, because once it’s truly felt, it will shoot me out to the other side of it.

So I took a breath and did it, stupid feelings, tears and all.

Less than twenty-four hours later, I had an epiphany about the book.

An idea for a major character came to me, and I realized he was the missing link that I’d been waiting for. With a sense of happiness and relief, I began to think about him, about his place in the story, about possible scenes with him.

And thus did I finally manage to navigate the first step again.

Gee, somebody ought to write an advice book about all this.