Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter

Also resurfacing: a sea turtle we saw in Mexico!

Happy New Year! I’m very behind with updates to this blog. I was traveling with my family over the new year (Mexico!) and am also busy writing a new novel, which I plan to hand over to my editor in just a few weeks. Between those two things, I have unplugged from the internet a bit. I’ll be coming up for air and updating this blog sporadically between now and mid-February.

Meanwhile, you can find me over at my mystery blog, Sleuths Spies & Alibis. Exciting things are happening there. We’ve nearly doubled our size, adding five outstanding mystery and thriller writers who have books coming out this year or next year, AND we have expanded our blog topic to include thrillers. Drop by and meet our fresh blood bloggers! And if you’re a writer with a new year’s resolution of getting more words written, check out my post there, up today, on demystifying the writing process.

Snorkeling cove!

As it turns out, the BEST thing I have done for my writing process lately is to take a break. I took an ENTIRE WEEK off from any kind of work while I was in Mexico. Let me say that again: AN ENTIRE WEEK off from work. You guys, I have never done this. I am notorious for running off to check email, or spending some time writing to meet a deadline (for a novel or for freelance work that I do). Or I schedule trips around conferences or book promotion, which are really not vacations. Or I become desperate to see everything within a 100-mile radius, so I run around trying to take it all in, and burn myself out. Relax? Recreate? Those were completely foreign words to me.

My husband chose this destination — it was his turn — and he was adamant about going to a place where we could all unplug. The Mayan Riviera had guaranteed good weather, and it was a child-friendly place to take our kindergartener son. This was a perfect destination for us at this time in our lives. It was not until I was sprawled out on a beach, gazing at blue sky, hearing nothing but waves, that I realized how hard I had worked in 2012, and how much I needed a break.

We did manage to seek out some adventures. We climbed Mayan ruins. We swam in rivers, natural pools, and the sea. We went to an eco park called Xcaret, hiked jungle paths, saw animals, and visited an outstanding coral reef aquarium. But adventures, directed largely by our five-year-old’s stamina, were manageable.

Coral reef aquarium at the edge of a jungle

It was incredibly refreshing to be away from a computer for awhile. I highly recommend a periodic unplugging from electronic devices — and you don’t even have to go to Mexico to do this! When I wasn’t staring at a screen every day, or checking in with various social media accounts all the time, my mind felt sharper. I had more room for my own thoughts. I was alert and energized. I became more attuned to small yet fascinating things, like the shape of a cloud that looked like a palm frond, or the warmth of sand beneath my feet, or the glint of blue, reflected off water, on the underside of seagulls’ wings. I became more present for my husband and son. I think I even laughed more.

My one new year’s resolution for 2013 is to be more present in the world, more alert, more aware. What about you? How do you balance the internet world with your real life? What do you do to “unplug” and how often do you resurface?

My little guy, surrounded by jellyfish

I’ve been absent from the blog these past few weeks, but for good reasons, I swear. Mainly, I was finishing up line edits/final revisions to my novel. These revisions coincided with yet another family vacation. Fortunately, this one was a visit to family in Seattle, so I had a team of people available to look after my son and give me some much-needed chunks of time. Everyone was extremely understanding about this situation, and more than patient with me as I frantically went into last-minute brainstorming mode about such things as knives and twine (reworking a climactic scene) and other issues.

Mostly, I worked odd hours here and there, and and very early in the morning, taking advantage of my four-year-old’s jet lag. I also worked a little in a remote lodge on Mount Rainier, where we spent a weekend. There’s nothing like mountain air to clear your head! Ideas and solutions came easily to me at 5,400 feet, without the distractions of television, Internet access, and social media.

Paradise Inn, Mount Rainier. Yep, that’s snow in August.

Miraculously I scavenged enough time to get the job done. In the airport security line, leaving Seattle, I got an email from my editor. Revisions accepted; the book is off to copyediting! The production process has begun. The words “you are ALL DONE” were incredible to behold. I’m still in a state of disbelief.

Near the end of our Pacific Northwest sojourn, I received another bit of exciting news, in a serendipitous way. We went on a day trip to Port Townsend, on the Olympic Peninsula. I haven’t been to Port Townsend since high school, when I attended a creative writing camp which run by CENTRUM. CENTRUM (the arts organization, not the vitamin) literally changed my life back then, helping me to reconnect with my childhood ambition of becoming a writer. I met like-minded kids, worked with professional authors, and became, in that magical week, determined to write for a living someday. So two decades later, here I am returning to that site, and on the ferry boat I receive a magical message from my editor. A JPEG of my book’s cover art.


It was a very emotional moment. It’s been a long journey. At 18, I never would have imagined I’d someday return to the CENTRUM grounds, staring at an image of my book cover (on an invention called the iPhone, no less!)

Fort Warden (Port Townsend, WA) where I returned to visit the grounds of CENTRUM

And the cover art? Soon to be revealed! Very soon! All I can say right now is I love it so much, I gazed at that little image on my phone for the entire ferry ride, missing all the scenery around me.

More excuses for being missing in action on the blog:

  • I’ve been busy with a website makeover. I’ve found a fabulous web designer who has totally captured my vision of a website and is hard at work making it a reality. Stay tuned; I’ll reveal it this fall!
  • I’ve been getting a new group blog ready to launch. September 6 is the launch date for Sleuths, Spies and Alibis, a group of seven kidlit mystery writers. I’m having lots of fun with this! 
  • It’s August. My kid’s day camp has ended. No childcare till school starts, after Labor Day. Whew!

Here’s a secret. I’m not just a fiction writer. I also write teaching materials for students who are learning English as a second or other language. Which I guess is a fancy way of saying I write grammar books. Believe me, this confession has killed many conversations at parties. Suddenly self-conscious about their use of standard English, people tend to clam up around me, just like someone with food on her teeth might not smile at the dentist. Or the interested people might venture linguistic questions, ranging from who vs. whom to more complex matters of sentence parsing and the history of the English language. (Of which I am not an expert).

Most often, I get blank stares, polite smiles, so I don’t talk about this line of work in public too much, even though it’s been my bread-and-butter money for years. Even though a lot of the projects I work on are really fascinating, and have helped my fiction writing. For example, one summer I got to travel to New York almost every week to work with a film production studio on a DVD series accompanying a textbook series I co-authored. I got to help choose actors for an ensemble cast, brainstorm character and plot developments, and even write scripts. That experience taught me so much about managing scenes in fiction — getting to the action quickly — and writing concisely. Sentence parsing? Times have changed. These aren’t your mother’s grammar books.

Anyway, these days, fiction writing has taken over much of my work time. So between phases of edits on my novel, or new chapters on my work in progress, I return to a teacher’s guide project I’m contracted for this summer. Sometimes having a day job that involves writing is exhausting. Sometimes the last thing you want to do after a day of writing is write some more, especially when most of America is watching prime time television or Netflix movies. But this one’s a relatively straightforward task, and it is also a relief to do something with very clear parameters. It’s refreshing to work on problems that have specific answers, which can be listed in an Answer Key and cross-referenced in an index.

There are no answer keys when you write a novel. You might have an outline or Table of Contents, like a textbook, but often you deviate from it. I have a road map for this project, and I find it soothing.

And when it’s time to throw the map out the window and switch gears, I’ll return to my novel — the one in progress or the one I’m editing — refreshed, ready to leave the relative safety of a textbook for the open road again.

Does your day job enhance your writing life or deplete it? What do you think are the best day jobs for writers or other creative types?

Okay, so I have this bad track record of working on vacations. I thought I had reformed after a trip to New Mexico several years ago, when I literally chased a FedEx van to get a delivery from a publisher in a remote mountain village. I started traveling without my computer. I told clients well in advance that I would not be available for freelance writing and editing work on certain dates, due to previously scheduled family vacation time. (I actually had to memorize the words and practice saying them).

But putting up walls around a novel you’re revising is not so easy. Especially when you’re in the thick of it and trying to ride that narrative wave. Suddenly those carefully constructed walls start to crumble and slide like a sand castle.

I planned to turn in this phase of my novel revision on June 30. It was done, all ready to go. I thought. Then I discovered a plot glitch. A pretty gnarly tangle. When one of my editors said I could take a few extra days to finish it up, I decided to leap at the chance to fix the problem. Even though it meant I’d be looking at the manuscript while on my family vacation. Even though it meant there was a good chance my family would riot.

My family has been more than patient. I get up early and stay up late. While with them, I try very hard to stay in the moment and not let my mind drift to the Novel.

It is a strange sensation to be surrounded by people on vacation and yet not truly on vacation, since I don’t feel completely free until this problem is solved to the best of my ability. It kind of feels like being separated from revelers and beach-goers by a thin sheet of glass. I’m relaxed, working in a gorgeous setting. Yet I also feel like a radio channel is always on somewhere, connecting me to the book even when I’ve turned off the laptop and walked away.

And because I’m always working on something, or scouting for new material, I do wonder if there is always a channel left on somewhere, distant voices jabbering away. I wonder if I have ever managed to fully detach and relax on vacation. (I got the idea for the novel I’m revising now while on my honeymoon!) On some level I’m always observing, noting, collecting. I’m scribbling ideas on napkins. I seem more vulnerable to this affliction while away from home.

How do writers take a “proper” vacation? And should they?