Tag: plotting

The next book. Where and when to begin….

 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.

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Serial Summer

This is the Summer of my Submission, which is to say this is the summer when my fabulous agent is working to sell my new mystery novel and I am working very hard to manage my anxiety. I considered taking up drink, and have not ruled it out entirely, but for the time being I’m channeling my anxiety into writing short stories. Which is to say I am now in the midst of writing four short stories.   I’ve never done anything like this. Usually I’m a very focused one-at-a-time sort of person. I explore, I take notes, I cogitate, I excavate and then hopefully something emerges. But at the moment I’m more in a machine-gunning frame of mind. I’m spewing one idea after another onto the page, and it’s sort of fun. Perhaps it’s the writing version of going onto Tinder and dating four guys in one week. (I can hear my son groaning as I write that sentence.) One of the most exciting parts of this speed-writing is that I’m developing characters I normally wouldn’t write about. One particular one that intrigues me is the daughter of a serial killer. I’ve always been interested in what it would be like to be related to someone truly evil. Could you be a good person and have those genes inside you? Would you worry all the time that something evil might emerge or would you just shut the whole thing down, and not think about it at all? Would you love your father? Would you visit him in jail? Would you hesitate to get married because you’d worry that your children would be evil?  So many questions! Which is always a good thing. One thing I absolutely know is what her name will be, but I’ll write more about that tomorrow. Stay tuned.     

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Clues and red herrings

 Mystery and thriller writers are often asked – how do you plot your books? For the truth of the matter is that whether the author plots in advance or flies by the seat of their pants and then fixes, the mystery/thriller writer is paying attention to the clues and red herrings that bring their story to a satisfying end. This makes clues and red herrings the mystery writers stock in trade. They aren’t, however, all of the stock needed to arrive at a satisfying end. I like to think that misdirection is the mystery writer’s friend.   What are some strategies for misdirection?- Innocent characters with strong motives (who must be clearly shown to be innocent later)- Innocent character at the scene of the crime (meaning no motive, but the reader will wonder if the motive will be revealed)- Guilty character who appears innocent (no evidence of motive, weapon or opportunity)- Clues that can be interpreted in multiple ways (and are)- Unreliable narrator (this has been added to the list of popular misdirection techniques in recent years) Strategies require thought and application. Writers use post its and charts, they think about foreshadowing, investigate the rabbit holes of misdirection, and plot backwards from the end to check the sequence. The critical part of all these strategies is a satisfactory conclusion to each point. For what is truly important is that the reader buy into the ending. There is a fine line between the reader identifying the guilty party too early and not being able to identify them at all. The solution should evolve, so that when it is revealed it is the nicest mix of surprise and a satisfied ‘of course’! What are your favorite endings? Was it a big reveal or the steady inevitable construction of clues? (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was one of my first mystery reads and the conclusion was a complete surprise, but when I was reminded of the chair being moved I thought Agatha Christie was playing fair. The clues were all there.)    

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Fair Game

 The movers brought my furniture today. Except for a few minor snafus—driver arrived, crew didn’t; car battery died so couldn’t get it off truck—everything was going well. Until. The crew parked in the nameless alley behind my house and had almost finished unloading my household goods when a cranky neighbor showed up and demanded both the crew’s pickup truck and the moving truck be removed. She “needed” them moved, she said. The movers had parked in the alley to avoid blocking the road in front of my house. They weren’t impeding traffic. They weren’t parked in the woman’s yard. They weren’t blocking her driveway or preventing her from leaving her house. Cranky neighbor was so offended by a moving truck in a back alley, she called the police. The policeman who responded did not seem overly concerned. He remained polite and professional. He simply asked the movers about how long they thought they’d be then left. Cranky neighbor stayed home and spied on the movers, looking for reasons to scold them. Welcome to the neighborhood. Being an author always alert for story ideas, I immediately thought this woman would make the perfect fictional murder victim. I fantasized ways of killing her off and created a list of suspects with a motive for doing her in. The list was long. I mentally scouted locations for the crime scene and devised a reason for my sleuth to be in this otherwise charming town. Then I stopped. I reminded myself part of what made this town charming was its small size. If I wrote a story and people read it (as I hope they would) they’d recognize the person on whom I’d wreaked fictional vengeance. That probably wouldn’t get me invited to many parties or included on any Christmas card lists. Last Spring, Richard Cohen wrote an article titled, “How Writers Will Steal Your Life and Use it For Fiction.” He explained how writers crafted characters inspired by people they met and examined how this literary identity theft impacted both writer and written about. One of my favorite episodes of “Midsomer Murders” deals with a man whose life has been turned into a novel by someone else. He feels victimized, his experiences stolen, leaving him with nothing to write about himself. There are ways to borrow someone’s life without offending them or risking libel charges. Transform males into female characters and vice versa. Borrow traits from several different people and combine them into a single character. Change your locale. Get their permission. Some people might like the idea of being an author’s muse. However we handle it, we’re unlikely to stop using bits and pieces of real people to build fictional characters. Life has too many good stories to pass up. Maybe writers should all wear warning buttons like the one I recently gave a writer friend—”Be careful. Anything you say may end up in my novel.” How do real people inspire your writing? How do you disguise them? 

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WRITING MY WAY OUT OF A CARDBOARD BOX

 Let me be clear. This is not a criticism of or rant against technology. I am thrilled to be living in an age where there are computers, cellphones, the Internet, and Bluetooth. Admittedly, there is a learning curve for someone my age. I remember identifying with Dave Barry who wondered how they got the ink through the wires of a fax machine. But it has been worth every effort I have made to hang on, clinging to my devices by my fingernails declaring, “I will not be left behind.”            I am particularly smitten with Google. There is no place you cannot go with this wonder of wonders. Just within the past 48 hours, I have explored how to defer federal jury duty, how to fix a dropped stitch, what the weather will be in New Orleans and Italy this month, and who is the better candidate for state senate in my community. When the students I teach at a law school told me I should stop struggling with Westlaw, a complex legal software program, and just use Google, I was relieved to know I was actually in the know.            So when a number of my writing colleagues began to rave about how productive and organized they had become by using a writing software program that was becoming increasingly popular, I thought, why not? Combining my busy day job as a lawyer with a writing career made finding time to write challenging. I quickly purchased the Scrivener software, signed up for a training session, and purchased the Dummies manual. The program is not as easy as some say, but it is definitely doable and appeals to those of us steeped in traditional ways of organizing writing. A writing program that included use of virtual index cards appealed to my love of stationery supplies.            Off I went to St. John for a three-week writing vacation on the island where my mystery series is set. (And yes, three weeks of writing is a vacation when your other job involves divorces, custody battles, and disputes about who gets the Shih Tzu.) I set down at my table, cracked open Scrivener, and set off to write the second book in the Sabrina Salter series.            Much of the writing process for me takes place long before this moment when I sit down to actually write. I plot, ponder, ruminate, and even obsess in my head long before. Call it the gift of insomnia, but there is nothing like a couple of sleepless hours in the middle of the night to debug that plot glitch. Some writers will tell you that the time you spend in your head isn’t really writing, but to them I say B.S. When my fingers finally hit the keyboard, I may not have an outline like the plotters ( I am a pantser of sorts), but the story seems to flow from my brain to the keyboard as if I’ve opened a vent.            So that first morning when Sabrina and her cohort, Henry, didn’t show up for work, I was a little surprised. I thought they were just being a little shy, you know, with the new writing program. By the end of the first week, they had punched in but with little of the spit and spunk I have come to expect from them. As I was winding down my second week, I began to panic. What was wrong? I’d never had writer’s block before. I’d even heard it was just a myth. How could this be happening when I knew my story and who my characters were and where they were headed?            I felt as if I were stuffed into a cardboard box, you know the kind that kids make a fort out of when their parents get a huge shipment from Amazon. I was was suffocating. Writing felt as foreign to me as if someone had handed me sheet of music and told me to sing an aria. I stood up at the table and said to my husband I was done with it. “Writing?” he asked, looking very concerned. Everything I have done in recent years has been focused on creating more time and space for my passion: writing.            “No,” I said. “Writing programs. They are not for me. I know they are wonderful and have helped many writers, but I am not one of them.” I felt glorious, as if I had punched out the paper walls and pushed up the ceiling of my cardboard box to let the light and air in. I could breathe.            The next my morning, Sabrina and Henry arrived on time and ready to roll. I hit the keyboard and my fingers began to dance while the story that became the book, Permanent Sunset, emerged. I was happy. They were happy. I thought about that quote from another writer. “To thine own self be true.” Writing is an art. Pen, paper, keyboard, writing programs. They are all tools.  The artist gets to choose which tool to use. 

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Killer Nashville and Plot Twists

The writer’s conference Killer Nashville exceeded expectations in many ways, but as I digest the days of panels and speakers and most importantly dive into writing again I’m thinking about Plot Twists. At Killer Nashville three great panels touched on this: How to Write Effective Plot Twists, No Soggy Middles, and Creating Tension in Your Story. What I liked best about the panels is that there is no “perfect solution”. After all, every story is different, every author’s voice is different, however, there are many points that an author can reflect upon. I take notes at these events as if there is an exam (leftover from graduate school days?) and looking over them a few points stand out to me today. Mainly the idea of spending time on the villain. Sounds simple, right? Killer Nashville is mainly thriller and mystery writers and the advice and discussions crossover between the two…however I think that when writing a thriller the audience may know exactly who the villain is that villain should be evil (Hannibal Lector and his evil out of prison alter ego were both known to the reader/viewer and both were evil personified). I write mysteries and it’s not always as clear; after all, I want my audience to know the villain but not point to them on page 5 and say there they are, mystery solved. My villain needs to be concealed until the reveal and at the same time not so much of a surprise that the reader says, not possible. As I return to work on my manuscript I’ll be giving particular focus to this development. Are they enough of a villain to be satisfying? And are the means and reasons they went undetected well-constructed? Any thoughts about the well-constructed villain. Any favorites, any weak ones? Agatha Christie’s villain in the Murder of Roger Ackroyd certainly wasn’t obvious by any stretch of the imagination but, to me, he was completely believable once revealed. There have been many others since…..

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Wednesday's Writing Tip

I have a dirty secret to tell you involving my pants. I do not fly by the seat of them. Writers love to say that they do. They claim that their stories emerge, Athena-esque, fully formed from their split heads: beginning, middle and end intact; armed, even, with a marketing plan. Anything less is not art, they claim. So, here’s another confession. I am more craftsman than artist. My stories are painstakingly plotted. Each chapter is a carefully crafted image in a photo mosaic that I recolor and arrange until the whole can only be seen by standing back. I set out my plot twists like points on a map. Sometimes, I am surprised by how I get there. Sometimes, the characters become different people who refuse to go where I’d like, necessitating another storyline or idea. But, more often than not, they are designed with particular characteristics and backstories in mind that should set them off on the path I’ve envisioned.  If writers are Gods of our little worlds, then I am a deterministic one. My characters can no more escape their inclinations than I can escape my genetic compulsions.  So I don’t sit down and let the muse take me where she will. I cajole her. I conspire with her. And when I write, I know where I expect her to take me. Though, if I get somewhere good, I might take a seat and enjoy the view.   

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