Phyllis Zimbler Miller is a former Mrs. Lieutenant and lives with her husband in Los Angeles. The co-author of the Jewish holiday book “Seasons for Celebration,” she has written a success guide for teens (www.flippingburgersandbeyond.com). She welcomes messages and visitors at www.mrslieutenant.com.
I’ve been working on MRS. LIEUTENANT: A SHARON GOLD NOVEL for almost 20 years. I started after two female film producers optioned the story I told them about my experience as a new Mrs. Lieutenant in the spring of 1970.
The story had a dramatic backdrop – it took place right after the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four Kent State University students during a Vietnam War protest and during Nixon’s two-month incursion into Cambodia. And the producers were intrigued by the idea of leading roles for four young women of different ethnicities. (Think movie ticket demographics.)
After taking the project “around town” (Hollywood), the producers told me I had to write the book first. By the time I’d written the first draft, the producers had moved on to new projects.
And thus began my years of buying Writer’s Digest books on writing and taking writing classes at UCLA Extension. I had to learn to go from being a journalist – just the facts – to being a novelist – to letting go of the truth in order to tell a better story. And the book needed to be a novel so that I could dramatize some events as well as protect identities.
Yet, if I had to put my finger on the one thing that probably most helped my writing improve, it was following the advice of my friend Loretta Savery. (She’s thanked in the book’s acknowledgments for her steadfast belief in MRS. LIEUTENANT throughout many long years.) She told me I had to stop reading mystery novels – my sole fiction-reading menu until a few years ago – and instead read “good” books.
Now, before anyone jumps down my throat, I’m not saying that mysteries aren’t well written. Many are. It’s just that, with the exception of such wonderful mystery writers as P.D. James and Martin Cruz Smith, most mysteries are not written in the kind of dramatic style I needed for MRS. LIEUTENANT.
I took Loretta’s advice and changed my reading habits (except I didn’t give up P.D. James or Martin Cruz Smith). And I did learn a great deal from the “good” books I read. I even threw in some classics I had never before read.
Although this change in reading direction helped me, it’s surely not the answer for everyone. Yet, if you’re having problems with a writing project, consider changing something only tangentially connected to the writing project and see what happens. You just may achieve a breakthrough.