Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Hank Phillippi Ryan

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.

Confession: I have a huge writerly/life-erly crush on today’s featured author. She is none other than Hank Phillippi Ryan, author of the just-released-yesterday-to-huge-acclaim The Other Woman (a thriller, which is the first in a new series). Not only is Hank a gripping, hold-you-to-your-seat writer AND a rather famous investigative reporter in Boston who helps a lot of people, but she’s also a warm, genuine, funny, so-much-like-you-and-me, no bullshit person who gets it done. Hell, she’s even sexy.

I was lucky enough to meet Hank earlier this year when we were both speaking at the 2012 Pennwriters Conference in Lancaster, PA. She was the brilliant keynote speaker who touched everybody’s heart, and I was sharing the gospel of writerhead.

As I suspected, Hank’s got one hell of a writerhead, so please put your hands together and raise your voices. Let’s hear it for Hank!

“Hank! Hank! Hank! Hank!”

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

I have a full-time job as a television reporter—9 til 6, every day. Being a journalist has writerhead of its own—a deadline-crazed instant-gratification banging out the best you can, as fast as you can, of what’s absolutely factual—knowing it’ll evaporate into the airwaves the moment it’s broadcast.

When I flip the switch to writing my book each night—not reporting, but making stuff up!—I don’t have the luxury of much time to get into the groove. I write—or I don’t. And I have to write, because the publisher is expecting a book! A good book! So I have to get to writerhead—but I know that state of being is not attainable simply by “wanting” to.

So—I let go. Each day as I sit at the desk in my study, in front of my computer, I tell myself it’s all fine, it doesn’t matter. I’m not writing a book, I’m writing a page. A paragraph. One line. I give myself permission to “not-do” it.

What do I hope will happen in this part of the book? I ask myself. What’s my goal with the scene? I try to envision it, how people would look, and what they want, and how they would feel and react to each other. And I try…a few words.

Even telling you about it now, the background noises in my house are fading, and the light seems to be focused on me and nowhere else, and I can feel the tunnel of the story pulling me into it.

And soon—I know, I rely on it!—my fingers will be flying across the keyboard so fast I have no idea what I’m even writing. (Thank goodness for spellcheck—although sometimes even spellcheck is baffled.) Oh, I think—I didn’t know that was going to happen next! She said—what?

Sometimes tears come to my eyes. And then I know.

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

Smiling. Even through the mists of writerhead, I can hear the footsteps in the hall. My husband, since we live alone and he’s the only possibility. I’ll ignore it, I say. Maybe he’ll go away. Maybe he doesn’t really need me this very second.

Sometimes he’ll come in, and stand behind my chair. Look over my shoulder at the screen. “How’re you doing?” he’ll ask. And I know he’s lonely, or wants to connect, and truly does want to know how I am. And I feel—guilty that my reaction (which I tamp down) is to say: Go a-WAY.

But I finish the line I’m writing, sometimes make a little reminder note (“gun” or “phone call” or “Jane doesn’t know about baby”) and try to totally focus on him. It the least I can do, right? And then I can get back to work.

Quickly—over the fourth of July, my wonderful 9-year-old grandson was in town. I was at a particularly difficult part of my (now-finished) new book and could NOT decide what to do. Writerhead was a memory.

Eli came in and said—“I’m so interested in what you’re doing Grammy. What are you working on?”

How could I resist that?

But I had a dilemma. How do you tell a nine year-old you’re trying to decide if a character should live or die?

“I’m deciding whether a character should live or die,” I said.

Eli thought about that. “Is it a good person?”

“Yes,” I said, “she is.”

“Then she should live,” he said. “Maybe have a narrow escape.”

I smiled. “Yes, that’s what I was thinking, too. But sometimes a narrow escape is a cheap shot.”

Eli thought about that. “True,” he said. “So she should have to give something up to escape.”

And of course that was exactly right, and I told him so. Thank goodness for the interruption!

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

Oh, it’s time. Pure, timeless, endless time. I feel like a star, glittering in space, constant and confident and eternal and even alone.

BIO: Hank Phillippi Ryan is the on-the-air investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate. Her work has resulted in new laws, people sent to prison, homes removed from foreclosure, and millions of dollars in restitution. Along with her 28 EMMYs, Hank’s won dozens of other journalism honors. She’s been a radio reporter, a political campaign staffer, a legislative aide in the United States Senate and an editorial assistant at Rolling Stone Magazine working with Hunter S. Thompson.

She’s won the Anthony. Agatha and Macavity for her crime fiction, and is president-electo of national Sisters in Crime.

Her newest thriller, The Other Woman (an Indie Next GreatRead) is now out in hardcover from Forge. A starred review in Library Journal says “Readers who crave mystery and political intrigue will be mesmerized…,” and a starred review from Booklist calls it “The perfect thriller for an election season..”

CONNECT: To get more Hank, visit her website or check out her blog at Jungle Red Writers. Give her a thumbs-up on Facebook. Or say give her a high-five on Twitter (@hank_phillippi).