Good morning Miss Demeanors! I’ve been on the road recently, first to the wonderful Southern Kentucky Book Festival in Bowling Green, then to the Mystery Writers of America symposium in New York, and finally to Malice Domestic in Bethesda. At every point, there was talk about writing. Lots of talk about writing. One of the questions is how to know when it’s time to start a new project. My question today is, what part is the most difficult for you? The initial idea, outline, writing the first pages? Do you have a process to go from idea to “start”? ROBIN: The opening scene. I try to subscribe to the crappy first draftprocess where I focus on getting the story out of my system. Ideas areeasy, 3-dimensional characters take a little more time, knowing whereto start the clock ticking is hard, a great first sentence is where I agonize. I have to remind myself I have permission to just spit thefirst draft out and worry about that all-important first page whenI’ve got some clay on the table to work with. SUSAN: I’m with you, Robin. I really like to know the opening scene, and even though I plow forward with a rough first draft, I’m never truly happy until that first scene is set. Once that’s done, I usually have a pretty good idea of where I’m going, but I go over and over it obsessively, even though I know I shouldn’t. CATE: Hi everyone, I outline extensively before I start writing so, for me, the outline is the most difficult because that’s when I try to put down the character arcs and all the moving plot points on paper to see if the story will work. My outlines often change as I go along and am writing, but that initial outline is probably the most difficult. ALISON: I don’t think I can improve on what Robin said. I’ll add that once I have the first draft, I find it’s at the 60%-75% point that I really struggle. For my first book, I completely pantsed it. This second one, I did a rough outline (nothing like what I did for my dissertation, so I won’t call it extensive). Regardless of process, though, when I pass the halfway point and can see the end I feel like I’m standing on a rock in a fast moving river and don’t know where to jump. I’m there right now…so I better get back to it. MICHELE: Sometimes I want to dive into a new manuscript before I’ve finished the one I haven’t finished. I get all excited about starting a new book and so the most difficult thing for me is to have to put it on hold. I do jot down ideas and fragments of character sketches so I don’t forget them. ALEXIA: The initial idea is the most difficult part for me. I have so many ideas competing for space in my head, it’s hard to choose one. Which idea will transform itself into a fully developed story? Which idea will lead me down a rabbit hole of wasted time to a dead end? How much time should I devote to developing an idea before I give it up as a lost cause? I’m always fighting with my inner editor, which can be positively demonic at times, because it tells me, “That’s a dumb idea, no one wants to read that,” “This story’s will go nowhere so don’t even start,” “That’s a horrible/boring/otherwise inadequate opening/sentence/paragraph no one will want to read it.” I need a brilliant idea diving rod and an inner editor exorcism.Read more
At the Mystery Writer’s of America symposium the afternoon took a turn both dark and short. The authors nominated for Best Short Story shared the many ways they are inspired. SJ Rozan (“Chin Long-Yun Stays at Home”) pointed to the draw of an unusual situation or a phrase. The imagery of the pile of shoes in a Primo Levi story led Lisa Gray (“The Queen of Secrets”) to her obsession with shoes and eventually her nominated story. Kenji Jasper (“A Moment of Clarity at the Waffle House”) started his story as a love letter and ended up killing his demons. Jeffery Deaver (“Hard to Get”) claims that he tries to ‘know his limitations’ and approaches the short story with plot in mind, knowing that he needs ‘the zinger’ before he then populates with characters. There were commonalities among the panel. Most notably, a short story takes time. Time to germinate. Time to prune and hone. Altogether a day of authors sharing stories that make us want to read….. and inspire us to write.Read more
Today is the Mystery Writer’s of America symposium in Manhattan. The three day event kicked off with a party at the Mysterious Bookstore…… but those stories need to stay in the room. The actual symposium kicked off with a panel of Best First Novel Nominees. The panelists may be ‘firsts’ but they had a wealth of knowledge to share. Jordan Harper (She Rides Shotgun), Deborah E. Kennedy (Tornado Weather), Winnie M. Li (Dark Chapter) and Melissa Scrivner Love (Lola) discussed how they got their start, what inspired the creation of their protagonist, how their own history played into their work, and their path to publication. It was a fantastic panel but there were a few overarching takeaways. – Don’t be afraid of the dramatic changes to the manuscript (both Harper and Love rewrote their manuscript from an entirely different character’s point of view).- Writing is based in place, but the place doesn’t have to be exotic (Kennedy makes the point that digging deep into a place you know well can be as rewarding and rich as drawing from wide travels).- Experience, and therefore character, may come from explicit personal experience (as with Li’s fictional account of violence in her own life) or from taking one element of common experience to place yourself in the head of a character (how Harper explains his ability to write from the point of view of a pre-teen girl. Anxiety was their common characteristic).- Last but not least, the path to publication was not necessarily easy. Perseverance was the final word, whether it is about writing the manuscript or finding a publisher. Looking forward to the remainder of the panels…. and if you haven’t read these Best First Nominees, then you should head straight to the bookstoreRead more
I love describing ‘the scene.’ The quality of the air, the view, the buildings, the landscape. I can even conjure up a variety of words for the color of snow. It is smell that sometimes stumps me. And I know how important smell is – the sense that evokes our most vivid memories, able to awaken feelings long buried and place us immediately back in time. Recently I’ve been touring various distilleries – all part of research! There are many distinctive smells at a large distillery, including the scent of bourbon rising up through the halls of the warehouses. It occurred to me that I feel comfortable describing something as scented with bourbon. But I’m not as sure about the scent of sour mash…. that fermenting smell that fills the other parts of the distillery complex. Can I rely on people knowing what this is, like the scent of the ocean, or freshly cut grass? How much description do we need for smell, or do we have a common store of olfactory knowledge that spans most human experience?Read more
Authors think about names a lot. Does the name best represent the character? Does the character bend toward the name or does the name follow from the character? Names signify gender, ethnicity, social and economic class. A name may suggest background without having to say it – is the character a Russian woman living in the US, or were her parents Russian, or did they simply love a Russian name? My last name means ‘of Rooster.’ The blend of de with Hahn indicates that at some point a German name was given a French veneer (de in place of von). It would likely be impossible for anyone to realize that the German name is really from the Baltic States. In fact the name tells a story of a Baltic German who had a son born in a French speaking country. In the 20th century you might intuit the impact of a world war. And you’d be right. The Dublin airport currently has an exhibit of portraits blended with elements representing the person’s name. It reminds me how literally a name reflects a person. What does your name say about you? And what about the names of favorite fictional characters?Read more
I did a speaking event this week which got me thinking about my days as a theater kid in high school. Back then I was taught to play to the back row, where folks wouldn’t be able to hear as well. One drama went so far as to walk us through imagining a particular audience member who’s hard of hearing, creating a backstory for the character. I’m wondering if any of you have an imaginary reader in mind while writing or promoting your books? Is that typical?
Paula: I have a friend I always think of my audience. I’ve known her for more than 30 years, and while she’s not a writer, she is a voracious reader across many genres. I know the kind of story she likes, the kind of reading experience that she most enjoys. I think of her as the personification of my ideal reader, so when I feel lost in a story (as I often do), I ask myself if I’d be boring Sandy about now. And what I need to do to keep her turning the pages. Susan: One of the most difficult things about teaching adults, which I do, is that if you are boring–even for a minute!–they are likely to take out their cell phone or just not come to the next class. So I often ask myself, as I’m writing, if my class would be interested in what I have to say. This has led me to tighten up a bunch of scenes and to add a jolts of humor, whenever possible. Tracee: I don’t have an imaginary reader in mind to the extent that Paula does. I think I’m more in line with Susan and her ‘audience’ i.e. the crowd that has other things to do if we lose their attention. This is certainly one of the hardest parts of editing (let’s face it, that’s when the real decision making comes in). I may be in love with a scene or a character but what will ‘the audience’ think. It’s always a tough call because ‘the audience’ is composed of millions of individual opinions who won’t agree 100% on anything. Cate: I picture my good friends reading it, my father, and my brother. If I can write something that satisfies all of them, I feel like it’s probably a good book. I also give it to them to read before it comes out. 🙂 Alison: This is a hard question for me because when I started writing, I didn’t think my story could possibly make people mad. By the time I finished Blessed be the Wicked, and now that I’m working on Born in the Covenant (current title of book #2), it’s pretty clear there will be certain conservative members of the LDS Church who will definitely not like my book. I talk about too many things that one is not supposed to talk about. Having said that, I have a lot of family and friends who are LDS (as I was myself). I had to come up with a way to create a nuanced depiction of a religion that is usually painted in terms of black or white. When I read the manuscript aloud to myself, I thought about the people I care about who are on the more conservative side. My standard was: Did I express myself honestly, but was also respectful to view points I may not share? I have no doubt there are places where I failed, but I did make every effort to be honest and considerate at the same time. I guess, when you boil it down, I tried to engage in civil discourse. Alexia: I don’t think of a specific person when I’m writing. But I do imagine non-specific women reading Golden Age Mysteries while binge-watching Midsomer Murders. That’s my “target demographic”. A friend I’ve known since high school recently told me she’s turned her quilting society into a Gethsemane Brown fan club, so now I also picture quilters binge watching Midsomer Murders. Michele: I do not have an imaginary reader in mind when I am writing. Maybe I should, but what I constantly check for is my own boredom. If I am bored by what I am writing, it will most certainly bore any reader, assuming I can even interest one. How about you, dear reader? Do you have an imaginary reader in mind while you write? Come join us on Facebook to share your thoughts!
There are lots of ways to learn to write. Classes, workshops, MFA programs, etc. teach story structure, how to show, not tell, and such. However, there are no courses on how to be a writer. No class teaches us how to get past the inevitable imposter syndrome, how to endure the anxious weeks and months while our books are out on submission, or help with ideas and support during promotion tours. This is where community comes in. In the publishing world, that community is most often referred to as “finding our tribe.” No one understands the inner workings of a writer’s mind like other writers. I expected that sense of camaraderie when I started attending writers’ conferences and joined my local chapters of Sisters In Crime and Mystery Writers of America. What I didn’t expect was the generosity and openness of those who make their living as a writer. Every author I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and talk with, including best-sellers and my own fellow Miss Demeanors, takes their tribe seriously. To a person, they’ve been quick to offer guidance and mentorship, share stories of their own dark and stormy days along with their bright and sunny ones, laugh together. I heard a phrase the other day that resonated with me – as we rise, we lift. That’s what a tribe does. We support one another, lifting up those who are just finding their path, even if only by being a cheerleader or shoulder to cry on. It’s never too early or too late to find your tribe. None of us have to go on this journey alone. And that’s what it is, a journey. Yes, when I write I’m often in my office by myself. But my tribe and I help each other enjoy the ride of being writers.Read more
Every now and then I see aspiring authors throw tantrums on social media. Another one happened last week, so epically ill-advised it went viral within the publishing community and beyond. Seems like a good time to remind folks that writing is a team sport. True, it’s one person’s rear end in the chair at a keyboard or notebook. But if you’re following the path of traditional publishing, you’ll work with freelance editors to polish your manuscript before querying. You’ll attend conferences. Pitch agents. Once you sign with someone, you’ll work with editors and publishers. Whether you’re agented or self-published, you’ll need to reach out to others to help you promote your work – book stores, libraries, media, etc. Ultimately, the goal is to interact with readers. What do all of these groups have in common? They’re made up of people. Lots and lots of them. What was true in grade school is still true in adulthood – how you treat others counts. Social skills are the fundamental key to advancement in any career. And to enjoying life. I know it’s hard. Writing a book – or two or three – can take a long time. At times, it’s frustrating. But unless you play well with others, you may never get invited to the sandbox to experience the good parts.Read more
The great author William Faulkner once said, “I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.” A bold statement. Something fun to argue about. But you could certainly make the argument that writing short stories is a way to learn the craft of writing. It’s an argument that I make with my students quite often. So I turned the question over to my fellow Miss Demeanors to ask them if they had any thoughts on short story writing and whether they did it themselves, and this is what they said: Alexia: I like short stories. M.R. James’s ghost stories are my favorites. I also like Steven King’s “The Boogeyman”. That’s one of the few stories I’ve read that actually frightened me. I don’t write short stories. (I’ve tried) I envy writers who are skilled at it. And I shake my head whenever I hear someone talking about writing short stories because they fear writing a novel will be too difficult, the implication being that short stories are easy. Not. Saying what you want/need to say in less than 20,000 words means you have no room for fluff. Every word counts. Not easy at all. Cate: I love short stories. One of the first books that I remember reading as a kid was Stephen King’s collection: The Monkey’s Paw. Some of my favorite short stories have run in The New Yorker. Here’s one By Zadie Smith that I really enjoyed. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/02/11/the-embassy-of-cambodia I write short stories sometimes. Not often. This year, Down and Out Books is putting out an anthology based on the music of Lou Reed to support mental health and suicide prevention services. I have one story on it: Pale Blue Eyes. It takes place in Vegas and the nearby Red Rock Canyon State Park. It’s a short mystery about an assault, but also it’s about how people cope with loss. I enjoyed writing it. Robin: Do novellas count? The Body by Stephen King is my favorite, hands down. I just wrote my first cyber thriller short story and submitted it to my local chapter of Sisters in Crime for consideration in the first NorCal SinC anthology. Lots of firsts. I used to write short stories when I was younger. It’s taken me years to shake off brevity to write long form. When I see or hear other writers complain about having to cut tens of thousands of words from their first drafts, I’m sometimes jealous. I usually have to add the same amount. Tracee: I won’t claim to be ‘hooked’ but I do wonder…. this started when I read a short story on an airplane years ago. I wish I knew the title or author, but it was about a woman flying home to the US after the end of a diplomatic posting. You know that they uncovered a spy in the days before she left, and at the end I was convinced it was her and that she would be escorted off the plane. When it was her husband, and she’d uncovered it, I was blown away. I got just a tiny bit hooked. So much story packed into those few pages. Paula: I read stories in The Paris Review and The New Yorker from time to time, but I usually prefer the long form. With the exception of collections of stories featuring my favorite characters: The Beat Goes On (Rebus) by Ian Rankin, The Pyramid (Wallander) by Henning Mankell, Wait for Signs (Longmire) by Craig Johnson are some of the ones I’ve read over the past year or two.
Alison: Wow, I feel out of step. I’m not a short-story reader, and I can’t even imagine writing one. Even when it comes to the New Yorker, I read the non-fiction. Michele: I’m in the minority here. While I’ll enjoy an occasional short story in the New Yorker, I usually find myself hungering for more at the end of short stories. I have challenged myself to write a short story more than once and have yet to have any luck when I’ve submitted them. I admire those of you who tell and write them so well. Maybe some day…
My first teaching job was as a Sunday School teacher, which winds up being very good experience for being a writing teacher in New York City. Because the thing about teaching Sunday School is you can’t force anyone to stay. You can’t bribe them (although you can give the occasional bit of chocolate.) You can’t scare them (and you don’t want to. Of course.) All you can do is keep it interesting and hope they will want to stay in class. During my time as a Sunday School teacher I was always trying to come up with ways to be interesting. I recall using sugar cubes to create a model of the great temple of Jerusalem. I would hide passages of the Bible and kids would have to find them. There were always a lot of marshmallows involved. And fire. If you give an 8th grade boy an opportunity to set something on fire, he will bond with you immediately. (For Ash Wednesday we would write down things we were sorry about and set them aflame.) The nice thing is that really all of my Sunday School students have gone on to be great people, and I love running into them. One is a minister. A great joy. When you teach a class of adult students, especially at night, when they are tired, many of the same rules apply. Without the fire. You have to keep things moving. You have to surprise them. I’m forever hunting for fun writing exercises, and for things to do at 9:30 at night, after we’ve all been sitting there for two and half hours. I’m always conscious of the fact that people are choosing to be in class, and they might just easily choose not to. When the class is over, and people are leaving and smiling at me and saying, “See you next week!,” I always feel like I’ve won a victory. And then I run for the train, and go back to my quiet little room and my dogs, and I write.Read more