Chatting with authors Janet Fitch and Denise Hamilton

Administrator: Welcome to our online chat with Janet Fitch and Denise Hamilton.

raul: hi Denise, how do you research your books?

ellen Ulken: Janet, At what stage in life did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Denise Hamilton: I was a Los Angeles Times reporter for 10 years so I got paid nicely to do research, which I have been able to spin into plots

Janet Fitch: Hi ulken, I was a senior in college--I'd always been a major reader, but I'd had a bad experience in 3rd grade.

Denise Hamilton: for my novels.

Administrator: janet and denise, do you write every day?

Janet Fitch: I was in England and realized I didn't want to be an historian after all, I wanted to be Anais Nin

Janet Fitch: I write every day... I never get ideas unless I'm actually writing. Ideas I get in the shower don't do me any good

Denise Hamilton: I just finished my first standlone novel, it's set in1949 Hollywood, so for that one I read a lot of biographies and memoirs and

Denise Hamilton: oral histories of growing up in Hollywood.Mickey Cohen's autobiography was a special highlight, I highly recommend it.

Administrator: i want to write a novel this year. how do i start? do i need to know how it will end first?

ellen Ulken: Denise, Are the characters in your novel, then, fictionalized representations of the real people you studied?

Janet Fitch: It's a lot to expect of yourself, to write a novel in a year. ANyway, you don't write a novel, you write a scene, and then another scene.

Administrator: what is a reasonable amount of time to dedicate to writing every day?

Denise Hamilton: I write every weekday, when my kids are in school. I try to write from about 8-3 pm, but of course that's also the time I have to answer e-mail, run errands, etc.

Tom: Hi Denise and Janet. I'm wondering what you think about 'the zone' in writing--you know, where the muse is just kind of speaking through you and time starts to fly and you're amazed at what's coming out. Is that kind of state the exception or the rule--meaning, is writing more often painful and slow, and the 'flow' thing just a once-in-awhile side-benefit of working hard?

Janet Fitch: I never know how a novel is going to end, because you don't really know what's going to be at the bottom of a novel until you excavate it

Denise Hamilton: So it takes discipline. I punch the clock, just like I was in an office. Inspiration usually strikes a couple of pages in.

Janet Fitch: I'd rather see a writer write 15 minutes a day than save it all up for a Saturday. A work gets a coating on it when it's not been worked on for a while, makes it hard to break back in. It's easier to keep a patient on life support than to ressurrect the dead.

misslindsay: Do you develop a set method as you write more novels? Or is it the same process of discovery with each book?

Administrator: ah, thanks. that's great.

Denise Hamilton: Ah, the zone. Yeah, when you slide into it, it feels like you're sitting there taking dictation from the characters who are talking in your head. It's like a movie

Janet Fitch: Hi Tom--I have to be writing for the angels to sing. I have to be writing damned hard. They don't come to me when I'm making a sandwich.The flow is earned.

misslindsay: You're both from LA originally, right? How does LA inform your writing?

Denise Hamilton: unspooling. Those are the times a writer lives for, when you look up and three hours have gone by and the food you put on the stove is burnt to a crisp cuz you forgot about it.

Janet Fitch: Miss L--the process changes from book to book. I'm always inventing a process, the one I used last time never works with the new book.

Administrator: what books do you recommend that are good for someone who wants to know more about the writing process?

Janet Fitch: LA is the trace of scars on my own body--I am LA. I'm a carrier, like someone who has an untreatable virus.

Janet Fitch: The books I recommend for the writing process are Gardner's The Art of Fiction and Annie Dillard's THe Writing Life. I also like the new Robert Olen Butler writing book--From Where you Dream

Administrator: janet, that's really interesting. it seems that LA has a deep effect on many writers. why do you think that is?

misslindsay: Does teaching give you a different perspective on the writing process at all?

Janet Fitch: LA is like a small stage with a trap door. Either you stay on the little well-lit stage and say "There's no there there" or you fall through the trap door and find this mysterious undescribed world, and its yours to create. Fantastic

Tom: Was there a point in your lives/writing lives when you suddenly got a lot better at self-discipline? I think a lot of us respond well to deadlines but can't necessarily translate that to self-imposed ones. Is it a thing that comes from experience, or is more innate?

Administrator: that is so inspiring.

Janet Fitch: Teaching--teaching's the opposite of writing. In writing you try to keep your analytical self at bay. So teaching allows you to use that more intellectual side of yourself. It's also convivial, which writing is certainly not.

Tom: I agree that's a really cool way to describe LA

Denise Hamilton: I was really lucky because journalism taught me good work habits. You can't wait for the muse to strike, you have to wrestle her to the ground. Some days it feels like I'm slogging through mud and nothing good is coming, but even on those days, I often find that when I reread my work the next morning, it's not nearly as bad as I thought. I always hit a wall about 200 pages in and think I have no idea what happens next and am bored to tears by the plot and the characters and have written myself into a hole, and that's when writing novels becomes a faith-based enterprise and you just have to have faith that your subconscious knows what it's doing and how the book ends and keep going. Because I've done this six times now and if you can break through that wall, somehow it all comes together at the end and you're amazed and you say, ah, so that's what that book was about. But I always remember what Carl Hiaasen says -- in journalism there is no writer's block, there is only unemployment, and when you write a book a year in a series, there's no writer's block either. There's just writing whether you feel like it or not and knowing you are really lucky and blessed to have this job of telling stories all day. There's nothing I'd rather do.

Administrator: do either of you have trouble with procrastination?

Janet Fitch: I think writers are fuelled by fear anyway, we're afraid of dying with what we know about the world and have not yet had the time to embody

Janet Fitch: Procrastination's also about fear, so it's using the fear of NOT geting something down to override the fear of doing it

Administrator: so you get bored with your plots, too? and the thing to do is muscle through them?

Janet Fitch: IN writing, everything's about making decisions. In deciding X we preclude Y. But I learned eventually that until you've made a choice you have nothing at all. That helps break the fear barrier.

Janet Fitch: I don't decide my plots ahead of time, plot is what happens when I'm following character and feeling my way into the submerged meaning of what I'm writing.

Denise Hamilton: I never read a writing book so can't recommend, but I caution against reading too many books when the best way to get better as a writer is just to write. Writing is like a muscle. The more you use it the more toned and fluid it gets. Journalism taught me to write fast, on deadline, and not wait for the perfect word, or inspiration. So I try to apply that to my novel-writing. I still have daily deadlines, but they're imposed by when my kids get home. Then I take off the writer hat and put on the Mommy hat until 9 pm when I collapse into a heap. That's when I do my reading, I'm a voracious reader. I don't watch TV though, so think of all the free time I have when the average American watches 25 hours a week.

Administrator: that's great advice.

Administrator: what are you both reading right now?

ellen Ulken: Did you suffer a period of rejections from publishers, or did success come easy to you. In other words, how do you recommend an unpublished writer keep the faith to soldier ahead?

Janet Fitch: REading while writing--I read like someone with a vitamin deficiency. I'm looking for something very specific. and when I find it, its AHHHHHHHHHH....

john: as a young lawyer, i am also driven partly by fear (missing deadlines, scewing up). One of my biggest concerns since I started practicing was my writing, and the value of clear and concise writing. However, I am concerned that my legal training is slowly degrading any creative talents, if any, that I once had. Are there any helpful exercises that you could suggest to help me keep my legal writing from precluding any chance that I might have as a future novelist or writer (non-legal)?

Tom: Janet - you mean you're looking for something specific and you don't know what it is until you find it? Or you're looking for specific researchy type stuff?

Janet Fitch: I'm reading Lord Jim. For someone who didn't even speak English until he was 20, it's unbelievable. The way Conrad can construct a sentence, his richness of vocabulary, incredible metaphor. Breathtaking

Janet Fitch: No, I'm looking for something very very deep, something that responds to the search, the emotional search, of my work

Denise Hamilton: I recently read a great vampire book, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. It's Romeo and Juliet, with teen vampires. And I read Incendiary by Chris Cleave and The Good Life by Jay McInerney, both very good.

Tom: Janet - and do you look for that 'thing' in a specific place, or just in whatever you happen to be reading?

Janet Fitch: Freewriting will be very helpful. Taking a word and writing 2 pages using the word somewhere in there. Writing from a photograph with no preconcieved ideas, writing from a scent... Read poetry exclusively for a while. Just fall in love with the music of language

Denise Hamilton: John, you have to unlearn everything you learned as a legal writer, give yourself permission to go outside the facts, crawl inside people's heads, be whimsical. That's exactly the problem I had when I went from journalism to fiction. It took me a year to get out of the Who, whatwhen wherewhy paradigm. It takes practice. You have to toggle back and forth, become a bit bipolar.

Janet Fitch: Tom--I look for the 'thing' and go through a lot of books looking for it--a level of beauty in the language, a level of greatness in the description of the human condition

Administrator: sometimes when i'm reading james cain or i see a noir-ish movie filmed in l.a., i understand that there is a particular quality of "noir." but i don't know how to describe it. how do you describe "noir" as it relates to l.a.

Janet Fitch: Wishing you all good reading and good writing--heading for my panel.... best, Janet

Denise Hamilton: I was in a writing group and these wonderful women who would meet every other sunday at someone's house would put an arrow at certain passages of my prose and say, right here, you need to stop, and tell us what the character is thinking and how she's feeling. Stop with the all-seeing journalistic eye.

Administrator: denise, can you recommend any good writing workshops for beginners?

john: what advantances, Ms. Hamilton, if any, that you could glean from journalism?

john: I say that only because "unlearning" my legal writing is a very expensive proposition. If there was a meaningful way I could preserve that learning in my future writing, that would be ideal.

Denise Hamilton: Well seeing as I've just edited Los Angeles Noir, I've given this a lot of thought. Noir is a tone, a voice,a style. It's a character who makes one mis-step and finds him/herself in freefall, in a trap from which there is no escape. The traditional tropes are lust, betrayal, murder, passion, deceit. What I was trying to do with LA Noir was keep that feel but update it to 21st century LA, which is so Pacific Rim and multicultural and diverse, but people still come here from all around the world, not just Iowa City, to reinvent themselves, leave the past behind, hit it big. there's so much desperation and dashed hopes here, and a hunger to make it. That can sometimes lead people to make the wrong decisions. And then they fall...

Administrator: how do you differentiate between the all seeing journalistic eye and a specific point of view?

Denise Hamilton: John, I don't mean to unlearn it completely, just put it aside when you sit down to write fiction. Pretend like you're sitting around a kitchen table telling your best friend the story, and not worrying about finding the perfect word. You've already got a leg up on beginning writers because you do so much writing for a living.

Administrator: what was your beat when you worked at the newspaper?

Denise Hamilton: John, I don't know of any specific writing workshops, but most community colleges offer such classes, and UCLA extension has wonderful teachers. Many writers (but not me) also do private writing workshops. Vroman's in Pasadena runs 6-week writing workshops.

Denise Hamilton: I was at the Times for 10 years and was on many different beats. I did education for five years, which was fascinating. When there would be a triple killing at a high-school, they'd send me out to interview the kids and the cop reporter out to the prerss conference at Parker Center. And well, the cops often want to withhold info so they can solve the case, while the kids tell you exactly who the victim and the assailant were, and why they think it happened. Much of my time I was in small offices so I did GA, general assigment, so I never knew what I'd get sent out on, which was great for never getting bording.

Administrator: Thank you so much for participating in our chat. Thank you to Janet and Denise!

john: Much thanks.

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