On Writing In Diverse GenreKJ Scrim - I read that you are a poet and a mystery writer. Does one help with writing the other? How?
Maria Melendez Kelson - Both poetry writing and mystery writing involve a dance between fulfilling and subverting a reader’s expectations about form and structure.
- Poetry taught me to look for opportunities to use unexpected phrasing, and to appreciate the potential for patterning in the physical sounds of language.
- Fiction teaches me to look for opportunities for unexpected emotions or events, and to appreciate the potential for patterning in symbols and motifs.
Current Work in ProgressKJ - What are you working on right now?
Maria - I’m writing a contemporary mystery set in the redwood country of northern California. The lead character, Boots Montoya, is a multiracial single mother of an adopted teen son. She’s an education reformer with a lot of do-gooder self-righteousness. But when her son is accused of the murder of an undocumented boy, she becomes a liar, a prowler, and a thief in her struggle to find the real killer and exonerate her kid. Clues lead her deeper into the area’s Spanish-speaking immigrant community, out to the wild Pacific coast, and into the ancient forest backcountry of Humboldt County, where she discovers a clandestine camp for teenaged domestic spies. If she fails to find the threads connecting these worlds, it could cost her son his freedom. When the killer learns Boots has come too near the truth, her search for answers becomes a fight for her very life.
Santa Fe Art ResidencyKJ - You were recently selected for a writing residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute. What did you have to do to secure this residency, and what does this mean to you as a writer?
Maria - The Santa Fe Art Institute has a theme each year for what they call their “sponsored residencies.” These are residencies for which the cost of housing is underwritten by sponsors, and residents need only pay for food and personal needs while living on-site.
Apogee Journal, a literary magazine I follow, tweeted out the SFAI call for residency applications, where I learned the theme for the upcoming residency year was “Equal Justice.” I thought—isn’t this a concern of many crime writers? It’s a concept that raises driving questions for the characters I’m writing about.
The application requested a current work sample and a proposal for work to be done at SFAI. So I sent sample chapters from the work-in-progress, and … *gulp* … a brief outline of a “Book 2” with these characters. This felt like a huge leap of faith, since I’m still revising Book 1.
I submitted the application in February of this year. When I found out in July that I’d been selected for a residency, it meant a panel of strangers that included writers, residency staff, and other artists had seen value in what I am doing. This was a significant affirmation, and a handy little oar for (what feels like) my solitary writing raft. I’m not really going a whole lot faster with one oar, but it’s something to hold onto, and I might be able to beat back a shark with it.
The residency itself, I imagine, will be a big fireworks show of inspiration! I’ll be living at the Art Institute for the month of July 2018, which is a month the brilliant SFAI staff have designated for artists who are parents. I’ll have my family with me, and I’ll be living with seven other residents from multiple disciplines and their families. SFAI provides an apartment and a separate studio workspace. I’m so excited to learn about the other artists’ creative processes, and to see what kinds of unpredictable things come of our time with each other. The only thing I’m tasked with doing, as a resident, is my own writing, but residents are encouraged to interact and collaborate if their muses move them to do so.
For writers who are starting to build a record of publication, or for established writers who could benefit from a concentrated period of time in the company of other working writers or artists, applying for residencies is a great way to validate that your work, and the time needed for your work, are things to be taken seriously.
Beating ProcrastinationKJ - What do you do when procrastination is winning over writing?
Maria - I’ve gotten better at measuring when I am truly procrastinating and when I am simply living my life. I used to think that ANYTHING I did that wasn’t writing was a way of procrastinating from writing. For this reason, I could feel guilty brushing my teeth, guilty about taking my car in for an oil change. Who can live like that? Now I make a weekly writing schedule at the start of the week, and set the expectation that I’ll be at my desk during those times. When it’s not those times, I consciously let go of guilt or anxiety about whatever it is I might currently be working on. Something that helps me do this is physically putting the work back in a drawer after each session.
When it comes to maintaining focus during a scheduled writing session, I have a couple of tricks: tracking my focused time in 25-minute increments (aka “the Pomodoro method”), leaving the home modem off, and keeping my writing desk generally free of non-writing related stuff.
Conferences, Workshops, Critique GroupsKJ - Writing conferences, workshops, and critique groups are an important part of the new writer's experiences (and more experienced writers too!). How have they helped you?
Maria – Pikes Peak Writers Conference and SleuthFest (a mystery writers’ conference in Florida) have both been great for how-to sessions and for unparalleled opportunities to network with agents and editors.
Although I’ve only attended one or two events in each case, I should also mention that I’ve learned quite a bit from periodic free or low-cost workshops run through Pikes Peak Writers Write Brains, Pikes Peak Writers Critique Group, Romance Writers of America, and Colorado Sisters in Crime. The volunteer person-power that goes into running these public events year-round is staggering, and every one of these organizations’ board members and volunteers deserve a room of their own with unlimited chocolate, coffee, and craft beer in that great writer’s retreat in the sky.
Sisters in Crime runs a wonderful workshop the day before the annual mystery fiction fan-con (aka “Bouchercon”) that I’ve attend a couple of times. It’s for Sisters and Misters!
My local anchor for professional development as a writer has been the Rocky Mountain chapter of Mystery Writers of America. I attended their monthly dinners, where there’s always a generous and free-flowing exchange of information, heartaches, and triumphs. Members range from newbie writers to established bestsellers with 30+ books in print.
Because it’s the largest writers’ conference in North America, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference is a wonderful place to meet other writers of color from around the country for fellowship and mutual support. In fact, writers of many stripes can find their tribe there. There are panels for and about writers with disabilities, writers who’ve lived abroad, veterans who write, etc. As a poet, I’ve presented at AWP a number of times over the years, and two years ago I put together a panel of women of color who write crime novels. The chance to connect these novelists I admire with potential new readers in the audience was a real high, for me.
As far as critique groups go ... over the last 20+ years I have lived in Wyoming, South Carolina, California, Indiana, Utah, and (now) Colorado. In four of those six states, I’ve participated in critique groups. Some writers do fine without them, and in the two states I lived where I didn’t have a critique group, I still produced a fair amount of work, but I simply enjoy my own process more when I have regular meetings with peers to provide understanding, challenge, and … deadlines!
Go to Books for WritersKJ - Do you have any "self-help for writers" books that you use regularly? How do they help? Please share your list of your top 2 or 3.
Maria - Around the Writer’s Block, by Roseanne Bane, helps with organizing time and understanding the neurological conditions under which creativity can/can’t flourish.
Plot Whisperer, by Martha Alderson, helps with fictional structure and with seeing a sense of purpose in the highs and lows of the process of writing.
7 Secrets of the Highly Prolific, by Hillary Rettig, helps writers understand and improve their own processes and mindsets.
KJ - What is one (or a few) of the most important lessons you have learned so far?
Maria - Learn to love your process, not someone else’s process. And if learning to love your process is too much to ask, then learn to accept that feeling confident is desirable but not required. Only showing up and working is a must. In the words of an 80s candy bar commercial: “Sometimes you feel like a nut. Sometimes you don’t.”
Maria Melendez Kelson is a poet and mystery writer. These very different genres lend a dynamic approach in writing. She has been accepted to a month-long writing residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute beginning in July of 2018.
Visit Maria Melendez Kelson’s website at: www.mariakelson.com