Author: Susan Breen

Susan Breen is the author of The Fiction Class and the Maggie Dove mystery series. Her short stories have been published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

Psychological Barriers

I teach a class for Gotham Writers called Novel First Draft, which is about helping writers power through a first draft. Over ten weeks, people will write anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 words, and it’s exhilarating. Nothing more inspiring then seeing writers in the flow. But invariably, around week five, (or sometimes week two), certain psychological barriers crop up that can slow things down. Here are a few of them. Carping Critic: You’re no good. Your writing’s no good. Have you ever read Charles Dickens? Do you think he’d write a sentence like that? There are so many writers out there so much better than you. Why do you think anyone would want to read what you have to say? Arghh. How are you supposed to deal with that? By reminding yourself that you have your own unique thing to say. And it doesn’t need to be perfect. This is just a first draft. You can do it! The Betrayer: My family will hate me when they read this. My friends will hate me. How can I write something if it’s going to hurt the people I love. How to respond? This is a tough one because it can happen, […]

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Are you cozy?

This week all sorts of cozy mystery writers and readers are huddling around our screens to take part in the More than Malice (virtual) Conference. There will be a an assortment of writers talking on such topics as Seeking Agatha: The Christie Tradition and It Happened: True Crime ( which will include fellow Miss Demeanor, Alexia Gordon.) There will also be an Author Speed Dating event at which I will be participating. One minute to talk about my book! One of the panels I’m most interested in, pictured above, is an analysis of the intellectual underpinnings of cozy mysteries. I’m so excited to hear what these scholars have to say. When we talk about cozy mysteries, we’re talking about mysteries which do not have hard-core violence. Think Miss Marple, who is the patron saint of cozy mystery writers. (By contrast, Jo Nesbo is not a cozy mystery author, though he is quite entertaining.) What I love about writing cozy is that the focus is on characters and community. These crimes are not anonymous. They’re committed by people the protagonist knows. And, in some cases, loves. It gives me a chance to think about what pushes people to commit crimes. How […]

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The Plot

Here is the plot for the novel, The Plot. A down-on-his-luck writing teacher feels like his life has passed him by. Then, a brash student comes to him and tells him  he has an idea for a novel that is SO GOOD, it cannot fail. Whoever writes this novel will have a guaranteed best-seller. The writing teacher is dubious. Naturally. But then the student tells him his idea and, lo and behold, it is actually a fabulous idea. Years pass. The writing teacher continues on his downward trajectory. One day he’s thinking about his student and wonders why he hasn’t seen mention of his book. He does some research and discovers the student is dead. So. He thinks about it a bit, and then he steals the plot. Writes the book, and has fantastic success. He’s on Oprah. He’s wealthy. Life is good, and then he gets an e mail. I know what you’ve done. It’s a very entertaining book, and if you’re a writing teacher, as I am, there is boundless material to chew over, but I found myself wondering–Do you think that’s true? Are there some plots that are so idiot-proof that if you just write them down […]

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Fearless Writing

I’ve been reading Octavia Butler’s novel, Kindred, which is about “a modern black woman, who is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband, when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South.” From the opening page, this book is just as searing as you’d think it would be, and as I’ve been reading it, I’ve been thinking that if I had an idea for a book like this, it would terrify me and I’m not sure I could go there. So my question is two-fold. Have you ever been scared by something you wrote? Or, alternatively, what books have you read that you thought took courage to write? Keenan: I think I suffer from adrenal fatigue. Or denial. I don’t get scared anymore. I get bored. However, to address the brave book, I’d say it’s “The Liar’s Daughter” by Claire Allan.  Here’s my Goodreads review: Meet Heidi, the long-suffering dutiful step-daughter, Ciara, the long-suffering spiteful biological daughter, and Joe McKee, the man who molded both their lives and knows he does not deserve forgiveness for his sins. Joe is dying of cancer. Heidi is caring for him, despite her feelings towards him […]

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Should we be writing about the pandemic? Now?

A few nights ago I attended a virtual reading at Neo-Noir at the Bar. Got to hear a number of exciting authors, among them Kellye Garrett, Lori Rader-Day and Ivy Pochoda. At one point, Pochoda mentioned that her new work was set during the pandemic. She’d gone to a panel where a number of writers were saying that they didn’t intend to write about the pandemic, and as soon as she heard them she thought, then I will. (She also read the opening pages of her new work, which started with someone looking at a tree, so you can imagine that I was on-board immediately.) She did get me thinking, however, about whether I intend to write about the pandemic. I’ve not been tempted, though not because I don’t find the subject intriguing. It’s the timing I can’t figure out. I’ve written a bit about 9/11, but years after the event. My concern is that I’ll be overtaken by events. By the time a book comes out, it will probably be in 2023. By then we might have forgotten all about it. Or we might be fighting off something worse. Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Alone in Berlin, which was written […]

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Can we talk about shoes?

A few years ago, I went to the Boucheron World Mystery Convention, when it was in Toronto. One thing led to another and I wound up at a John Fluevog shoe store with fellow Miss Demeanor, Alexia Gordon. (We were on our way to a haunted walking tour, but that’s another story.) Never had I seen such amazing shoes, in so many colors, with such fabulous heels. I am strictly an Easy Spirit person, but I couldn’t resist. I splurged on this pair of shoes, and even though I don’t wear them a lot, or not at all in the last year or so, I get pleasure out of looking at them. They are works of art. Plus they have this cute engraving on the bottom. Nothing like looking at the bottom of your shoes and feeling inspired. Iwas thinking about shoes because tomorrow, author Christina Chiu, is coming to my book club to discuss her novel, Beauty. In real life, Christina is a shoe designer, and when she writes about shoes, you see them in a whole new way. “Black boots. There in the window. Could they really be lace? Wow. Floral and paisley-drops. Open-toed, trimmed with leather, knee […]

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What do you mean when you say Surreal?

The other day I noticed an ad for a collection of short stories about the pandemic. According to the blurb on the cover of The Decameron Project, “When reality is surreal, only fiction can make sense of it.” That made me think of how often I’ve used the word “surreal” since the pandemic started. When I say something is surreal, what I mean is that it’s unbelievable. Or strange. But I began to wonder about what the word actually means. In the deepest sense. So I popped over to the Museum of Modern Art. Everything you’d ever want to know about surrealism is explained there, and I was intrigued by the definition. Influenced by the writings of psychologist Sigmund Freud, the literary, intellectual, and artistic movement called Surrealism sought a revolution against the constraints of the rational mind; and by extension, the rules of a society they saw as oppressive.  Our country has spent a lot of time over the last year discussing the rules of our society, and what they mean, and who they apply to. It’s our job as mystery writers to push people to the breaking point, and see how they respond when a rule stands in their way. […]

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Mystery in the Woods

I was roaming around the woods yesterday when I came upon this hole. Immediately I was intrigued. Perhaps a horse made it? But why would a horse be hopping on one leg, and in any event, there are no horses in the woods. That I know of. Then I looked more closely. The edges of the dirt were smooth. I imagined a rock had been there and someone decided to pull it out. But why? Happens I’ve been rereading my first Maggie Dove mystery (because it is to be published in paperback soon! But more on that later.) Maggie Dove had planned to throw a rock at someone, so it was possible that someone had read my book and decided to emulate her. Though that seemed unlikely. The track team runs on this trail, so I thought it possible that someone tripped over the rock. Got irritated and dug it up. But why then would you leave a hole that you could trip on? No, the more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that someone had done this with a purpose. I have a friend who paints on rocks. She could have chosen to pick it up. […]

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A New Holiday?

I love Mother’s Day, but I also love the day after Mother’s Day. I feel like it’s a moment of Zen after a very intense build-up. I think the Monday after Mother’s Day should be National Take-a-Break Day.

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Truth, Lies & Alice Hoffman

I came across this quote from the great novelist Alice Hoffman and it nestled in my head. You know how you get these bits of information you can’t stop thinking about? It reminded me of something my oldest son Will once said to me. I was telling an anecdote about something and I was embroidering it. As one does. Because you have to if you want to make the story interesting, and he said to me, “Mom, you’re such a liar.” I was, in fact, lying, but with a purpose. The story needed a bit of shaping. I was not going to sit there and tell a boring story without any sort of a punch line. There was truth in the story, but it needed a boost. This is the same reason I wear make-up. By contrast, when I’m writing a novel, I’m trying to figure out the truth. That sounds sort of ponderous. What I mean is that when I’m writing fiction I’m trying to understand what characters are doing and there’s no point in lying to myself, even if the characters are lying. What do you think? Please join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter?

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Recent Posts

Grab Your Idea and Run
  • July 27, 2021
Psychological Barriers
  • July 26, 2021
Hot Sellers
  • July 22, 2021
Novelizations
  • July 21, 2021
Read Where You Are
  • July 19, 2021
Are you cozy?
  • July 15, 2021

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