Recently, I attended the premiere of a film about extreme athletes (Don’t Crack Under Pressure—I highly recommend it). I was impressed by the feats they have achieved, but also impressed with the passion they have, which sustains them and keeps them going. Even after breaking two legs, a skier comes back a year later to tackle a difficult mountain. A surfer almost drowns after being pounded by three massive waves. He is hesitant to go out again, but he does.
If you are a writer, you have a passion for writing. At times, it may take over your life. Other times, you struggle to fit it into the rest of your life. Here are 10 tips to help you when it comes to writing time. Surf’s up, so ride those waves of creativity!
1) Make writing your job. Schedule a time as if you were going to an out-of-the-house job. Don’t wait for the muse to show up; sit down and write at whatever time you have set aside for writing. I find it helps to use an online time tracker, such as toggl.
2) Start with half an hour a day, if that’s all you have. Build it up to an hour, then two hours, as you have time. A novel can be written in even that short amount of time. I’ve heard of authors with young children who only had 15 minutes a day some days—and made that work.
3) Once you have a schedule, don’t miss more than two days in a row. If you do so, you start a new—bad—habit, and it becomes easier to miss another day and another day.
4) Create a ritual. My ritual begins with making myself a cup of Earl Grey tea (the first of many throughout the day). My first hour is often spent answering emails before editing or doing other work. Some writers say they spend half an hour reading poetry before writing. Others may spend the first hour doing research, or reviewing what they wrote the day before. Some do free writing—a way to warm up before doing the actual writing at hand.
5) Set daily word count goals. If you are looking to write an 80,000-word novel, then break it down to how many words you need to write to finish the book in, say, six months. Make sure to build in time for editing and revising, if you hope to submit it to an agent by a certain date.
6) Set deadlines. Even if it is an arbitrary deadline—I’m going to start submitting this novel in six months—make sure you have a date in mind. Deadlines are great motivators!
7) Work with a partner. One author I know is part of a two-person team. Each week, she and her partner exchange what they have written for the week. This makes you accountable to someone else, and will spur you to write. You can also join critique groups or writing groups that meet monthly.
8) Turn off the Internet. Some writers have had to set Internet blockers in order to stay off Facebook or Twitter. It’s too easy to say you are just going to check Facebook for five minutes—only to look up an hour later. Some restriction apps are Cold Turkey, Freedom, Anti-Social, RescueTime, and LeechBlock.
9) Get out of the house. If you absolutely can’t work at home because of too many distractions—from family members to piled-up laundry—then get out of the house. Write at a Starbucks or find working spaces that rent by the hour. Some authors, such as Maya Angelou and JK Rowling, have even gone to the extreme of renting hotel rooms!
10) Plan what you are doing the next day. This can be as simple as writing a few words on a notepad you keep at your desk. When you come back to your desk the next day, you have a plan set for you.
“It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.”
― The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
Creating well-rounded, interesting, and, most importantly, believable characters is not always easy. As an editor, characterization is one of the most important elements I consider. You may have plot, setting, pacing, and dialogue down pat, but characters touch the emotions of a reader in a way that the other elements usually can’t. Michael Connelly, in Writing Mysteries, calls characterization the most important of the elements. “A good plot is empty unless filled with the blood of character,” he writes.
I recently attended the musical production Jekyll & Hyde, and was reminded of the duality that we all possess. This was a major theme in Stevenson’s work, as Jekyll asserts that “man is not truly one, but truly two.” In trying to separate good and evil, however, Jekyll only succeeds in alienating the dark side—a creature of pure evil who soon overpowers the good Dr. Jekyll.
The story is a good lesson in creating characters. The most interesting protagonists (and antagonists) are those who struggle with inner demons—it’s a reason why many detectives turn to alcohol, are divorced, or harbor deep family secrets. It adds dimension to the character. And, because a character must always face personal conflict in order to grow, it helps to add this inner drama.
At the beginning of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series, her two main characters, essentially good people, find themselves drawn to each other. The problem: Police Chief Russ van Alstyne is married and Episcopal priest Claire Fergusson is not looking to break up his marriage. However, the attraction is strong, and it’s something they must fight against.
Louise Penny’s novels often feature characters who are capable of both good and bad. Characters are jealous of spouses and colleagues, let resentments fester, and face problems of addiction—in short, they are quite human, with these “ugly” sides that we all possess from time to time.
Michael Connelly, in the same book mentioned above, gives an example of how Det. Harry Bosch’s character is revealed through a small scene. Some might call it mean-spirited; others, humorous. Bosch is getting no information from a bureaucrat at City Hall. After she leaves her cubicle, performing a pirouette move to get through the narrow channel, he pushes the desk a couple inches closer to the wall. When she comes back in, performing the same maneuver, she hits her thigh, spilling a drink she had on her desk. Connelly says the scene was all about character, showing how Bosch doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
You might also want to play with characters who shift throughout your novel. Perhaps you introduced the character for one reason. This doesn’t mean the character’s reason for existence has to remain static. Author Alyson Richman, in a recent talk, explained that she brought in one character for a specific scene of a sinking ship. The father in the scene gives up his seat on a lifeboat so a young, gifted musician can survive. It’s a pivotal scene. Later, however, toward the end of the book, it turns out the surviving character also had another important reason to remain throughout the story.
We also have to remember that a character is often seen differently by those around them, just as in real life we behave differently around our family, co-workers, and strangers.
S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin, a 30-something Chinese-American private eye, is one example. She is one thing to her clients: a professional, no-nonsense investigator. She is something else to her partner Bill Smith, with whom there are sparks. But some of the funniest scenes are between Lydia and her traditional mother. Lydia lives with her mother, who disapproves of her daughter’s career choices, love interests (and single status), and even her clothes—and lets Lydia know it often.
When I first began reading books and attending lectures on writing, I consistently heard, “write what you know.” In theory, the concept is simple. Stories incorporating personal experiences will be more believable, interesting, and engaging for readers. My problem is that “writing what you know” doesn’t always work for me.
For example, I was my mother’s miracle baby–her first successful pregnancy, her brilliant, beautiful bubbly daughter (she saw what she wanted to see). She taught me to read, was my Girl Scout leader, cheered me on in whatever activity I chose to try, and beamed with pride when I graduated from college and law school. Even if something didn’t quite go the way I hoped, my mother was there for me.
In three sentences, I’ve summarized enough of our relationship for you to realize our story lacks conflict. Although this scenario may result in a plot that is believable, I doubt that any reader except my mother would find it interesting or engaging. But, what if our interaction had been different? What if she hadn’t been loving and supportive? If she’d walked out of my life when I was a child without telling me why? What if I was raised by my father? Or, if his position in the community brought a number of surrogate mother types into my life? How would such a family dynamic impact the woman I became?
Once these questions crossed my mind, endless story possibilities intrigued me. The result of modifying “write what you know” to “write what you don’t know” became my new book, Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery. In Poker, Carrie’s mother returns to her life twenty-six years after abandoning her family. Within hours of appearing in Carrie’s office and leaving Carrie with a sealed envelope and the knowledge that she once considered killing Carrie’s father, Carrie’s mother is murdered. Compelled to find out why her mother is dead and to unravel why she abandoned her, Carrie soon learns that what she was taught to believe and the truth may very well be two different things.
Blending what I know and what I don’t raised the stakes for Poker’s plotline beyond the sentimental tale of my mother loving me. It also convinced me that the boundaries of reality often need to be challenged by writers. At least for me, failure to take the challenge means there could never be a Goldstein book or story about vampires, werewolves, the inner thoughts of animals, or a mother who doesn’t have twins.
What about you? Do you stick to reading or writing only what you know?
Judge Debra H. Goldstein is the author of Should Have Played Poker: A Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery (Five Star Publishing, April 2016) and the 2012 IPPY award-winning Maze in Blue, a mystery set on the University of Michigan’s campus. She also writes short stories and nonfiction. Debra serves on the national Sisters in Crime, Guppy Chapter, and Alabama Writers Conclave boards and is a MWA member. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband, Joel, whose blood runs crimson.
This week’s post is by Susan Van Kirk, who usually writes full-length novels, but decided to try her hand at novellas. Here she explains why.
Over the past three years, I’ve been writing a series called the Endurance mysteries. Three May Keep a Secret came out in 2014 from Five Star/Cengage Publishing. It led to a second Endurance novel, Marry in Haste, which will launch November 16, 2016. That book will be followed in the late spring of 2017 by Death Takes No Bribes. All three are full length novels.
This past January, I decided to try my hand at a novella. This would afford me three excellent advantages: (1) I could expand the character of my detective, TJ Sweeney, by writing a story around her instead of Grace Kimball, the protagonist of my Endurance series; and (2) I could give my readers a story to keep them in the small town of Endurance since my first and second novels are being published two years apart; and (3) I could mix up the tone a bit from cozy mystery novels to a slightly darker police procedural. My fictional town of Endurance would be in all of the books, but my main character, Grace, would only put in a brief appearance in the novella. I found that writing a novella is quite different from writing novels, but I really enjoyed the change.
Length is a prime consideration. My cozy mysteries run anywhere from 71,000 to 82,000 words. I discovered a novella should weigh in between 20,000 and 40,000 words. The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney, my novella, ended at 25,000 words. It may be read in one or two sittings, the perfect length for a spring afternoon reading break.
The second consideration is plot structure. A novel has multiple subplots that need to connect to the main plot and possibly be tied up at the end. But The Locket is a straight shot. Detective TJ Sweeney is called to the scene of a burial. A construction crew digging a new foundation on the outskirts of Endurance finds a pile of buried bones and a skull. The bones are decades old and raise a lot of questions. They turn out to be human, and the condition of the skull indicates a possible murder. Male or female? When did this happen? What happened? How can Sweeney identify a person long before DNA results were registered in databases? Who did this? Why? Sweeney must answer a series of questions to try to solve this case. During her investigation, the reader learns about the detective’s past, her family history, and why this case becomes so personal.
The point of view is also different compared to writing a novel. In my Endurance mysteries, I followed the main character, Grace Kimball. Much like me, she is Caucasian, a retired teacher, and a disaster in the kitchen. It’s easy to write a character who is similar to me. But The Locket delves into TJ Sweeney’s life, and she is thirty-nine, biracial, single, and a police detective. While Grace is a widow and single mother who is just starting to date an equally senior man, the single Sweeney goes through men like a high-speed commuter train. Uh, not like me. This is a stretch.
A novel may have several conflicts, although one in particular usually stands out. In Three May Keep a Secret, Grace Kimball is battling a terrifying ordeal from her past and also investigating a murder in the present. She only recently retired, so she is dealing with a huge change in her life. In the novella, TJ Sweeney is coping with some very deep feelings tied directly to solving a decades-old murder. One complicated conflict.
A novella is obviously shorter than a novel, but it is also more straightforward and leaves less room for description and details. If you’re looking for a mystery that can be read in a few hours, a novella is perfect. The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney is a good example of how a novella can fit between two novels in a series, but can also stand on its own for new readers. It is now available from Amazon.com as a Kindle e-book.
About the Author
Susan Van Kirk was educated at Knox College and the University of Illinois. After college, she taught high school English for thirty-four years in the small town of Monmouth, Illinois (population 10,000).
She taught an additional ten years at Monmouth College. Her short story, “War and Remembrance,” was published by Teacher Magazine and became one of the chapters in her creative nonfiction memoir, The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks).
Her first mystery novel about the town of Endurance, Three May Keep a Secret, was published in 2014 by Five Star Publishing/Cengage. Marry in Haste is her second Endurance mystery, coming out November, 2016, also from Five Star Publishing/Cengage.
I recently went to see a community theater production of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. There are two endings to this theatrical production—Christie’s original ending for the novel and the ending she rewrote in 1943, when she adapted the play for stage (she and the producers agreed the book’s ending was too grim for theatergoers).
Our community theater alternates the endings; the night I attended, we got the grim ending (which I didn’t like). A quick Google search gave me the alternate ending, which I now envision as the end.
No matter. Watching Christie’s play, and the audience reaction, reminded me of how great a writer she was. Yes, there are some who criticize her wooden characters and say she wasn’t “literary” enough. Yet the Queen of Crime remains the top-selling mystery author and her books are only increasing in popularity, with sales growing 50 percent in the last 10 years, according to novelist Andrew Taylor in The Independent. Christie obviously did some things right.
Through the eyes of And Then There Were None, here are five elements that Christie got spot-on:
1) Gave us characters we cared about. There are two we especially care about in the play. As all the other characters are killed off, part of the suspense is in wondering whether these two will survive.
You can carry this lesson through to your protagonist. If you are writing a mystery or thriller, you need to put your protagonist through the wringer—either physically or emotionally (or both). You may feel you need to protect the protagonist, but in doing so you may be sucking the tension out of your novel. A reader identifies and empathizes with a character who faces difficult choices or a hard journey (either external or internal). You may need to step back and ask yourself whether your character has faced enough conflict.
2) Provided plenty of suspense. One after another, the characters are killed off in Christie’s play. Can the killer be caught before all are dead?
From the beginning, we know that the killer (unrevealed) has plans to kill off all 10 of the guests, who have been brought to an isolated island. The killer believes—rightly or wrongly—that all of them have caused the death of someone else and gotten away scot-free. As if that’s not bad enough, a raging storm outside keeps everyone from leaving, or anyone from coming in to rescue them. And then the guests realize that the killer has to be one of them. Christie not only introduces a mystery, but she continues to ratchet up the suspense through the ending.
In traditional British mysteries, by the way, there’s the initial murder, but then that’s followed by another (or a few more others). This may be formulaic, but it does keep the suspense high. You don’t always need multiple murders in a mystery, but if your action is lagging, look to the classics to see how tension is kept at a high.
3) Kept the whodunit front and center. During intermission, the theatergoers batted theories back and forth. Everyone had a favorite for the role of villain (a great thing about the play was that every character was both potential villain and potential victim).
Christie was brilliant at constructing puzzle plots—who was with Character X when he was killed? Who was out of the picture? Since there were several murders by intermission, this truly was a puzzle with many different pieces. The audience, from their conversation, enjoyed putting these pieces together.
If you are writing a traditional mystery (rather than a thriller, for example), your reader may be the type who wants a puzzle she can play along with. Make sure you sprinkle in enough clues, as well as the occasional red herring.
4) Played fair with the audience. The clues were all there—at one point, a little light clicked on for me, and I knew part of the solution, though not the who. When the villain was revealed, it was so simple and made so much sense. Of course that person was the killer!
5) Made sure to misdirect. While she played fair, Christie was the master of misdirection. There have even been academic papers written about her use of misdirection. Like a magician, she has the playgoer focused on one thing, while something else is happening right in front of our eyes. Christie also did this very successfully in her books, which may be the greatest reason for her continued popularity.
Misdirection may be the hardest element for a new writer. I often see beginning writers get everything else right—wonderful characters, enough clues, even a red herring or two, yet the mystery itself is transparent. That’s because, in planting the clues, the author has failed to employ misdirection. A reader who figures it out midway through the story might wade through to the end, but they will still come away dissatisfied. And they won’t buy your second book.
Look to Agatha Christie for misdirection. In Five Little Pigs (aka Murder in Retrospect), two characters are having a conversation that is overheard by a third character. But the third character misinterprets, drawing the wrong conclusion—as does the reader.
Mystery writer Margot Kinberg, who often gives workshops and classes on Agatha Christie (and other writing topics), says Agatha Christie remains popular today because her novels deal with “essential human characteristics, faults and virtues.”
Says Kinberg: It doesn’t take a bizarre plot or a serial killer to move the action in a story along. Christie’s stories (well, the best ones, anyway) don’t make use of a lot of gore, explicit sex, or some of the other things you so often see in a modern crime novel. But nor are they too ‘sweet and frothy.’ They simply tell human stories of greed, fear, and some of the other motives that real people have for murder. Everything in each story serves the plot. It’s not there for shock value.”
That sounds like another very good lesson we can take away from Agatha Christie’s works!
The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by literary agent Noah Lukeman, is an eye-opener. Any author querying agents should read this first. As Lukeman writes, agents and editors don’t read manuscripts for their own enjoyment. They read solely with the goal of getting through the slush pile, and so are reading with an eye to dismiss manuscripts.
Some of the reasons, he writes, to dismiss a manuscript:
* The presentation or formatting of the manuscript is wrong
* The author has queried an agent or editor inappropriate to the author’s work
* The overuse or misuse of adjectives and adverbs
* The rhythm of the prose is poor (this includes poor sentence construction and grammatical mistakes)
* The overuse of analogies, similes, and metaphors
* Stylistic errors, such as redundancy or writing that is too noticeable
* Bad dialogue. “If, at a quick glance, our initial impression of a manuscript is that it suffers from one of the preliminary problems, we then look to dialogue: if it, too, is poor, we needn’t look any further,” Lukeman writes.
If a manuscript does make it beyond the first few pages and shows none of the above problems, agents and editors then look at “showing versus telling,” viewpoint and narration, characterization, subtlety, tone, focus, and pacing, Lukeman says.
Finally, Lukeman admits (as I’ve heard other agents say) that they often ignore synopses and plot outlines at first, starting instead with the manuscript. If the manuscript is good, agents will then go back to the synopsis.
Recently, I gave an online class on revising and self-editing. Before that, I asked a group of editors for their thoughts on the most common errors they came across when editing fiction. More than two dozen colleagues responded. These are the errors they say they find the most:
· Punctuation and misplaced modifiers
· On the other hand, over-adherence to the rules of grammar, particularly in dialogue, said Barb Adamski.
· Inconsistencies in names, geographical errors, and timeline issues
· Attempting to say something really simple—but in a convoluted “fancy” manner that results in the line making zero sense.
· Unnecessary segues, such as “and then” or “having said that.”
· Repetitiveness and redundancy
Telling versus showing
Telling, rather than showing was mentioned by numerous editors. What is meant by “telling”? Here, several editors discuss how they see this in novels they’ve edited.
· “Lengthy dialogue recaps of events from earlier in the book,” said Kate Cousino.
· A subset of telling versus showing is “having characters discuss things in dialogue that no rational person would,” said Karin Horwatt Cather. “For instance, two characters at a fireplace, one of whom says, ‘And you know, of course, that the pasteurization of milk contributed greatly to reduction of food-borne illness in children and is one of society’s greatest advances.’ The other says, ‘Why, yes, Myrtle, and this century has seen the invention of many labor-saving devices.’ ”
· “Laundry list” descriptions. Said one: “Most fiction writers I’ve worked with, except for a few who are highly skilled, think that they are a camera, a lens that looks at things, so they have to describe what they're looking at, e.g., ‘Her honey-gold hair was parted in the center, framing a high forehead above two exquisitely arched brows, over two azure-blue eyes, gracing a pair of rosy, slightly in-drawn cheeks...’ and so on for a dozen pages until we get to the shoes, sandals, or boots in question.”
· Overtelling (listing every single move or step or word exchanged).
· Overdescription, also, “can turn a good story into a slog,” said one editor. “Readers don’t need to know exactly what everything looks/sounds/smells/feels like. One or two well-chosen details are usually enough; readers have enough imagination to fill in the rest.”
· But, as writer and editor Carolyn Haley said: “As a writer, I find showing versus telling spectacularly difficult to do in many instances. So I represent a majority of our fiction client base, I suspect.”
· The expectation that “everybody” knows what they’re talking about
· Unduly assuming readers will understand a character’s point of view or motivation, when the writer has done too little to make that a fair assumption.
Characterization, POV, Dialogue
· Head-hopping: Changing the character’s point of view to another character’s point of view from one paragraph to the next.
· The Uncle Remus “dialect effect” (using dialect so much that it becomes a parody or is insensitive to a culture).
· Disappearing characters. “Aunt Lydia plays a large supporting role in the first three chapters and then disappears, never to return,” said one editor.
· “Ten variations of describing eye color for one character in two pages: cerulean, cornflower, azure, sapphire, turquoise,” said Dori Birch.
· Not enough world building and not enough character building. “Too much basing—subconscious or otherwise—their plot and world on stuff they’ve seen or read. Which is something that good world building will combat,” said one editor.
Lack of historical research. Authors don’t check timelines and when certain technologies were invented. “If the story takes place before the early 1990s, your characters cannot have cell phones and iPads,” one editor said.
· Heavy use of narrative at the beginning, dumping backstory.
· Lazy writing near the end of the story. “I call it ‘I’m sick of this story’ syndrome,” said Birch.
· Confusion of tenses, especially in flashbacks.
· Jerky, choppy rhythm
· Too much irrelevant detail.
It’s all about the word count
“Getting more obsessed with word count than the story. ‘It can’t be a story unless it’s more than 200,000 words!’ It then becomes the story that never ends...” said Birch.
One editor summed it up nicely: “Much of what has been discussed could be reduced if the writer would read it aloud. If it doesn’t seem correct when read aloud, fix it. If portions are deadly boring to read aloud, delete or edit those portions.”
Well-written dialogue is a wonderful way to move the story forward, give more depth to the character, and keep the plot from stagnating. But there are some pitfulls to writing dialogue. Here's a few things to watch for:
* That you are not just dumping information through dialogue. It’s OK to give some information through dialogue, but when a character is giving an entire monologue on any issue, you’ve gone too far.
* That you aren’t including dialogue just for the sake of having dialogue. Each line of dialogue should have a purpose, whether it’s revealing someone’s character or showing the sleuth and sidekick figuring out an important clue. Are there lines you can cut, and replace with action beats?
* Does your dialogue have conflict or tension? Good dialogue, according to James Scott Bell in “Revision & Self-Editing,” should surprise the reader. “View it like a game, where the players are trying to outfox each other. Are they using dialogue as a ‘weapon’?” he asks. Among that weaponry he lists anger, epithets, pouting, name-calling, and dodging as examples.
The two speakers don’t necessarily need to be antagonists, as in this example, from Reed Farrel Coleman’s “Walking the Perfect Square,” between his protagonist, recently retired cop Moe Prager, and Rico, a police detective:
“I had lunch with Sully,” I said. “He showed me a picture.”
“Yeah, and so what happened?”
“It was of Patrick Maloney.”
Rico’s expression soured. “That what you dragged me off a stakeout to tell me?”
“The picture didn’t look like the one on the poster.”
“Jesus Christ, Moe! Who looks like their picture? You take a look at your departmental ID lately? You probably look like Wolfman Jack.”
* That last line above is called “curving” the dialogue. Do you have ho-hum lines that you can ramp up a bit? How can you make them funnier, or edgier?
* Does your dialogue sound real – but not too real? It should be realistic, but not to the point where you use the normal hesitators that people use, such as “um,” “uh,” “y’know.” This will stop readers in their tracks.
* Have you thrown in some action beats? Here’s an example where an action beat is done well, from “A Cold and Lonely Place,” by Sara J. Henry:
She buried her face in her mug, and it was a moment before she spoke again. “Troy, I want these articles to show Tobin’s life, good, bad, whatever. I want them to show who he was and what he could have been.”
The character is struggling with what to say, and how to say it, and Henry shows us, rather than telling us. But beats should be used sparingly; use too many in dialogue and they only serve to slow it down too much and annoy the reader. Renni Browne and Dave King, in “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers,” suggest you read your dialogue aloud. If you find yourself pausing between two consecutive lines, then you might want to insert a beat at that point.
* Is each character distinct enough? If not, look at giving characters pet words or phrases they repeat from time, or look at cadence (some people use more words).
* Are you overusing ellipsis? Ellipsis should only be used only to indicate speech that trails off. And in real life, dialogue shouldn’t trail off every other sentence. Interrupted sentences are indicated not by ellipsis, but by dashes.
Finally, here’s a good example of dialogue done right, from Michele Drier’s "Edited for Death," in which two main characters puzzle out a clue together. This is the way to give the reader information. The dialogue is witty, there’s a little bit of tension between the two, there’s an action beat, and it certainly moves the story forward, providing a vital clue:
“You’re the one who told me not to put too much into him,” Clarice says. “To quote you, ‘It’s sad when a nobody dies,’ blah, blah, blah…”
“It’s not that he dies, it’s where they found his body,” I say.
“They found it in a bar, where else would a drunk be?”
“But that’s the point.” I’m patient, waiting for her to catch up. “Royce just said he slept in the lobby. Besides, if he was a well-known drunk—”
“They would have locked the bar!” Clarice says, her eyes growing round. “Royce sure wouldn’t have left the door to the bar open for a drunk, not to mention keeping Stewart out at night. So, where was he killed?”
The other day I had a conversation with an author who outlines to the nth degree. He’s written his first book and has a narrative arc that stretches through the next two — a very dramatic arc. I was in awe that he’s thought so far ahead, giving his characters deep psychological motives. I have trouble even scheduling my life out two weeks ahead!
Mystery writer Hallie Ephron is another one who carefully plots. But she says in her book on writing ("Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel") that even the best-laid plans go awry. She collaborates on the Peter Zak mysteries with Donald Davidoff; the first book, she writes, had been carefully outlined, with the villain carefully chosen. But, in writing a piece of dialogue in a critical scene, she realized that another “character had just confessed to the murder. The solution made perfect sense and had the great virtue of being totally unexpected.”
Ephron adds: “No one follows a plan to the letter. Major changes may be needed when a character you thought was going to be minor starts doing pirouettes, or when a plot point critical to your solution stretches credibility to the breaking point. But by getting down the basics early on and really thinking through your story and your characters, you give yourself a solid starting point.”
Then there are pantsers, or those who write by the seat of their pants. I hold these writers in awe, too, because I can’t imagine not starting without an outline. These are the writers who boot up their computers and are off, writing the story as it comes to them. They may later go back and revise it. But, for the most part, they work without an outline.
Not surprisingly perhaps, the prolific Stephen King counts himself among the non-outliners. He describes writing as excavating fossils.
In his book, “On Writing,” King says: “I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story. Some of the ideas which have produced those books are more complex than others, but the majority start out with the stark simplicity of a department store window display or a waxwork tableau. I want to put a group of characters … in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety … but to watch what happens and then write it down.”
Robert Campbell in “Writing Mysteries,” takes a middle approach, outlining as he goes along in his writing, making notes on characters, settings, or an element he might have introduced in an earlier chapter (a hidden gun, for instance) that he might use later. For him, it blends structure and serendipity.
“Obviously, this process of outlining might be done in the conventional way, thinking everything through and setting the scenes and characters down before the actual finished work is begun. But I find that by walking alongside my characters before they are fully formed I’m often pleasantly, even dramatically, surprised by conversations, actions and philosophies that I could not have imagined. When deep into a scene, writing on overdrive as it were, something magical very often takes place, some hidden well of imagination tapped, and I find myself a passenger floating on the raft of what is sometimes called inspiration along a river of words in full flood.”
So where do you fall: pantser, plotter, or in between?
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.