Crime writers spend a lot of time trying to imagine secrets that would drive people to kill. It’s trickier than it sounds in these shameless times. Impregnating your daughter, say, once reliably led to all sorts of noir-ish doings. Today, Chinatown’s Noah Cross and Evelyn Mulwray could just as well end up on Dr. Phil’s television show, sharing a hug.
Our characters tend to lie a lot, too, which makes narrative continuity a bitch. At least once per book, I have to make a chart for myself: Who’s Lying About What (and to Whom). But my characters at least have something at stake—a career, a marriage, a fortune. The truly baffling lies are the ones real people tell every day, about the most mundane things.
Take commuting, for example. My father insists everyone fibs about the time it takes to get to work, shortening it to rationalize life in a far-flung suburb. I timed mine today and it came in somewhere between seven and eight minutes. Sounds pretty good, I know, but not when I confess I voluntarily increased it almost 30-fold. Until this past winter, it was 15 seconds, the amount of time it takes to climb the flight of stairs to my home office. I began walking to a local coffeehouse to quell cabin fever. The habit quickly hardened into a rut, and now the staff at Spoons starts my order—a skim-milk latte and a toasted plain bagel, which costs $4.31—the moment I cross the threshold. (If I’m late, I have to fall back on onion or everything bagels. The staff now refers to this as my “bagel karma.”)
I know it’s a 21st-century cliché, writing a novel in a coffeehouse, but there are fewer distractions at Spoons. No e-mail, telephone, or laundry. It’s just the pleasant buzz of other people’s lives and the occasional shrieks of other people’s children, both of which make me feel as if I’m in a newsroom again.
My mornings at Spoons lead me to another routine lie in American life: how much we work. I’ve heard it all. Eight hours, 10 hours, 12 hours. I even know someone who works up to 15 hours a day, but that’s seasonal. Well, today I wrote for almost three hours, which is about average. My self-imposed quota is 1,000 words; I might write up to 3,000 words on a good day or if the scenes are dialogue-heavy. Write 1,000 words five days a week and that’s a first draft in 20 weeks. Then come revisions, for which I have more stamina. I can go up to five hours a day on revisions, as long as I break it down into two sessions. Add in the ancillary business of publishing—correspondence, research, maintaining a Web site—and I might hit six hours.
Infuriating, isn’t it? (And I haven’t even mentioned my regular 3 p.m. gym visit and scheduled reading time, or pointed out that I run errands when stores are quiet and still.) But factor in a few things: no health insurance. I pay for my own ($381.16 per month for a single woman in remarkably good health). No pension, no 401(k) match. No vacations. Sure, I can choose not to work. But if I don’t turn in an acceptable book this fall, I don’t get paid. Last summer, I took my laptop with me on vacation to Nantucket, rising at 6:30 every day to write. In 2002, my first full year without a day job, I went only two weeks without writing or touring, from Dec. 15-Jan. 1, and even then I was corresponding with my agent over an urgent matter. Yes, I’m the boss of me, and the nicest one I’ve ever had, but no one subsidizes my Internet reading. You?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the trade-offs of self-employment while keeping an eye on the Baltimore Sun’s contract negotiations. Nervous friends called today with updates. The company has agreed to keep the current sick-leave policy, rather than force the Sun’s workers to accept the regressive policy in place at some of its other newspapers. (Five days a year, no accrual.) They appear to have worked out a compromise on the pension plan as well. But the company’s so-called pay-for-play proposal is still on the table. The Sun’s owner, Tribune Co., wants a “merit-based” salary structure.
Given that I now play for my pay, and love it, you think I’d be all for this. But I have an autonomy that my former colleagues don’t. No one could, for example, assign me to cover a courthouse where cameras aren’t allowed, then give me a lukewarm job evaluation because I didn’t produce enough feature stories with photographs. (This really happened to a friend at the Sun a few years back.) One manager—fondly nicknamed the Reich Marshal—is chatting up reporters, insisting they would benefit under the new system. I’m not sure about my friends, but I know the Reich Marshal would be happier. After all, his craven style would be less noticeable in a newsroom where everyone had to suck up.