Anne Heltzel: Five Things I Learned Writing Just Like Mother


The last time Maeve saw her cousin was the night she escaped the cult they were raised in. For the past two decades, Maeve has worked hard to build a normal life in New York City, where she keeps everything—and everyone—at a safe distance. When Andrea suddenly reappears, Maeve regains the only true friend she’s ever had. Soon she’s spending more time at Andrea’s remote Catskills estate than in her own cramped apartment. Maeve doesn’t even mind that her cousin’s wealthy work friends clearly disapprove of her single lifestyle. After all, Andrea has made her fortune in the fertility industry—baby fever comes with the territory. The more Maeve immerses herself in Andrea’s world, the more disconnected she feels from her life back in the city; and the cousins’ increasing attachment triggers memories Maeve has fought hard to bury. But confronting the terrors of her childhood may be the only way for Maeve to transcend the nightmare still to come.

In JUST LIKE MOTHER, Heltzel employs an unsettling, cultish environment as a framework for exploring the pressures of motherhood and group think, society’s expectations for women of a certain age, and the extremes of conservative feminism. Atmospheric prose and chilling scenes from a childhood gone wrong will leave readers hungry to discover Maeve’s spine-chilling fate. 

It’s the journey, not the destination

You probably think I’m talking about the journey to publication. This applies in that case too—pub day is rewarding; but it’s the blood, sweat, tears, and tendonitis that you’ll wear like armor when you approach anything challenging in life moving forward.

But what I’m really talking about here is your story. In Just Like Mother there were aspects of the “reveal” that couldn’t be hidden due to the book’s setup. This was a conundrum, because I was aware there may not be the traditional payoff for readers of thrillers. And since Just Like Mother is a horror-thriller hybrid novel, there are certain expectations for BIG TWISTS.

To alter the reveal, I realized I’d have to adjust the entire backstory and setup. I wasn’t opposed to making massive changes, but I was opposed to changing my protagonist’s origin story in service of familiar plot conventions. So instead of focusing on how to make this particular twist more twisty, I focused on how to make the getting there as unexpected, rewarding, and fun as I possibly could.

As someone who tends to know her endings early on and work toward them, I really enjoyed refocusing on making the more mundane aspects of the novel pop: working sinister details into every scene to build atmosphere, veering off in some bonkers directions, playing with mood and tone.

I realized a couple of interesting things when I was playing in the in-between: first, that it’s really fun to let go of the urgency of speeding toward an ending; and second, that I should have been doing this all along anyway. Sure, a great twist in the end is fun (and don’t worry, I did still build in a few surprises!); but it’s the getting there that contains the most payoff.

And my revised strategy seems to have worked! Even when readers can predict the ending, most of them have commented that they really enjoyed getting there—which is the most rewarding feeling!

Write to your emotions

Unfortunately most writers can’t just write when we feel like it or when inspiration strikes. If you are a person like me who experiences a range of emotions throughout any given week, you are in luck! I have found a workaround.

I learned early that my best writing is emotion-driven, and I also learned early to keep a running list of scenes that come to mind, so I can dive in on any scene and will never be lacking inspiration or stuck on what comes next. At any given time, I typically have at least three scenes (and as many as 15) listed in a separate document. The list grows as I get further into the story and know more about my characters and envision them in scenarios that support their narrative arc and are thematically related to the plot. Usually a scene idea will spring randomly to mind while I’m driving or in the shower (times I allow my mind to wander). I keep a million notes on my phone along the lines of, “pumpkin effigy” or “scene in garden no gloves.” When I’m in front of my computer I build out these scenes into a couple of sentences to tie them into the existing text.

Then—here’s the good part—when I really, really don’t feel like writing but know I have to hit a deadline, I pull up my scene list and choose the scene that is most aligned with my emotional state. If I am angry or frustrated, I jump into a scene where my character(s) are experiencing negative emotions. Channeling real emotions into pre-planned scenes results in more visceral, immediate prose—so even on the days when I’m really dragging, I can usually produce something worth keeping.

Pretend no one will ever read it

This is, hands-down, the best thing I learned to do while writing Just Like Mother. Sometimes my brain goes to extremely dark places. Sometimes there’s fear surrounding that tendency. I’m not proud to say I care a little too much about what people think, and I’m always worried about things like disappointing my parents or tarnishing my reputation. (For the record, I know intellectually that my anxieties are mostly unfounded. No one thinks about me that much, and certainly I’m not giving my parents enough credit here. But when your day job is editing kids’ books and you write gruesome horror novels on the side, you consider these things.)

When I first began drafting Just Like Mother, I was having a hard time shaking these anxieties. I played it safe for much of the novel’s start, until I knew something had to change. I wasn’t having fun anymore, and I wasn’t unleashing my imagination. But I know enough about writing to know that playing it safe gets you nowhere, and I had to be gutsier for my novel to succeed.

So I told myself a half-truth: No one but you will ever read this book. It was only a half-truth because at that time, I genuinely didn’t know. There was the very real possibility that no one would read the book—that I’d query agents and get no requests. Writing without any audience in mind served to extinguish all my anxieties about what people might think of me and allowed me to go to some very dark places without fear. It also—crucially—made it necessary for me to enjoy the experience of writing the book versus focusing on publication as the end goal. If no one will ever read your book, it has to mean something to you. It must come from a personal space and serve you in some way, either as practice for the next or an investment in yourself as a creative person. If you pretend no one will ever read the book, you’ll never find yourself asking, “Is it worth it?”

Write for yourself, revise for your readers.

Although I wrote early drafts for myself, I put myself aside entirely when revising. My writing group offered fantastic criticism of my early drafts, and my agent was brilliant and ruthless in terms of cuts (for pacing) and brainstorming (for plot). When I was revising the book prior to going on submission I cut whole characters, multiple scenes, tens of thousands of words. I did it over and over and over, until the book hardly resembled the original. Then I did it again when we sold it. Because at that point the book was no longer about me, and my goals had shifted. Now—knowing that it would be read—my goal was to make it as enjoyable a reading experience as possible. To get there I needed to step outside myself and relinquish attachment to everything I’d just written.

But you know what? After writing purely for myself for years, it was refreshing to write in service of actual readers. You’ll never please everyone, but being able to accept feedback and be unselfish about a thing you are producing for other people’s entertainment is crucial.

Ask me about the character of Will sometime. He now only exists in a folder of “cut scenes” (along with at least a hundred other pages of nixed content!).

Hotel Lobbies are the Secret Sauce

This one is not very enjoyable to consider, but let’s be honest: none of us have great swaths of extra time for dabbling. I talked about Just Like Mother to friends for a solid year before I started writing it, not because I necessarily needed that additional time for the ideas to evolve (though that was part of it), but because I couldn’t “find” the time.

Eventually I grew embarrassed. I was telling people in my life about my book, but my book didn’t exist outside my imagination. It was time to do the work. When I evaluated my schedule, I realized there wasn’t any room at all—I had (still have) a demanding day job, and my evenings and weekends were packed with work and social plans…Oh.

There was one obvious element there that I could drop to make time for writing. For a year I stuck to a strict rule of one night out with friends per week. Most other weekday nights and weekend days, I worked after work. I started looking forward to my weekends for rest and uninterrupted work time. I apologized to friends and family and hoped they’d still be around when I re-emerged (thankfully, they are). And if I felt myself getting too burned out, I’d use Friday night to binge TV rather than write.

I know this isn’t feasible for a lot of people, especially people with partners and children. I was “lucky” in the sense that I was single when writing Just Like Mother. It wouldn’t be possible to ignore my partner now to the extent that I ignored my friends and family then, and it would be even less possible with children involved. Also, my process was somewhat extreme. You don’t have write a book in a year—you can take your time. You can sacrifice one thing per week and use those few hours to work on your book. But it will necessitate sacrifice, one way or another.

I will say this, though: I am not a robot. I thrive around other people. Most coffee shops didn’t stay open at night. Bars were the only establishments open late enough for my writing schedule, but they were too rowdy and didn’t allow laptops in most cases. When I found hotel lobbies, my life changed, and my progress improved exponentially. A nice hotel lobby will let you sit for hours with your laptop. Usually it’s bustling enough in the evening to make you feel stimulated,  and involved (it mimics a social life); and often if you choose to listen to conversations or observe body language, you’ll find inspiration.

My best, most productive post-work writing nights were spent in the lobbies of The Marlton, The Hoxton, and The High Line in New York City with a glass of wine and a snack. Having somewhere to go also forced me to clean up, put on a decent outfit, and generally be more of a human. And it’s fun, because for me these hotels were out of reach financially for an overnight stay, but this way I got to experience their glamor. (Once, though, I treated myself to a stay at The Ludlow on New Year’s Eve with my dog. I wrote in the lobby in the early evening and went up to my room when it got too crowded. I ordered a single glass of champagne for midnight and snuggled my dog in luxurious surroundings, and it remains one of my favorite memories of NYE.) I strongly recommend patronizing a hotel lobby if you live near one. But really any public space with interesting people and snacks will do. Honestly, a mall food court would work just as well.

ANNE HELTZEL is a New York-based novelist and book editor. In addition to writing horror, she has penned several milder titles for children and young adults. Just Like Mother is her adult debut.

Anne Heltzel: Website | Twitter

Just Like Mother: Bookshop | Indiebound


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