Better

By Sherry — wishing you all a lovely day

I’m still thinking about the release of A Good Day To Buy which came out last week. With every book that comes out I think, “the next book has to be better.” Most writers (at least I hope it isn’t only me) have a tiny voice in their heads telling us we are frauds, fakes, and phonies. It’s the voice I have to shove aside or I’d never write another word. Every time a book comes out I’m afraid I’ll see a comment that says, “It wasn’t as good as the last one.” Or everyone will be thinking, “well she had a good run.” Yes, my head can be a very scary place to live some days.

To counteract those voices I’ve been reading two books on writing. The first one is Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of The Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers by James W. Hall. Barbara Ross knew I was a Hall fan. She saw him speak in Key West, told him I was now published, and had him sign a copy for me.

Between 2000 and 2003 I lived in the panhandle of Florida. At the time Florida International University was running a fabulous writing conference there every fall. One year Hall (who writers thrillers) was one of the teachers and he was working on this book.

One of the things I’ve never forgotten was when he talked about what does make a book last through the years. He said people want to learn something and thought perhaps this might go back to our puritanical work ethic. Fast forward to the present and it’s made me wonder if that is one of the reason cozy mysteries are so popular. Not only do readers get to go an adventure and try to solve the mystery, but they learn something. It might be a new recipe, yard sale tip, knitting pattern, or craft – the variety is endless.

In Hit Lit, Hall says, “The fierce loyalty readers feel for a certain characters grows out of a shared connection with the character’s emotional journey.” That resonates with me, the books I love be they mysteries, thrillers, romances, or literary, are all about the characters. Everything else is icing on the cake.

The second book is The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write Beneath the Surface by Donald Maass. Author Leslie Budewitz mentioned it on Facebook – thank you, Leslie! Maass says, “What shapes us and gives our lives meaning are not the things that happen to us but their significance.” Down a few paragraphs he says, “We are stories. Plot happens outside but story happens inside. Readers won’t get the true story, though, unless you put it on the page—both the big meaning of small events and the overlooked implications of large plot turns.”

I work with Barb Goffman who is an independent editor. After I’ve written the first draft I send it off to her. The first book we worked together on was The Longest Yard Sale – there were many notes in that one that said, “What is Sarah thinking?” or “Let us see how Sarah reacts.” I’ve had less of those comments as time has passed but it’s a valuable lesson in developing characters. It’s something I easily see in manuscripts when I edit but not always in my own.

It’s interesting that both Hall and Maass use some of the same authors as examples in their books like Stephen King and Harper Lee. I have hard copies of both books so I can mark them up, put in tabs, and refer back to passages. I’m only about a quarter of the way through each book, but I already know that they will make my writing better.

Readers: Is there an emotionally significant event in a book that has stuck with you? Please try to avoid spoilers — maybe mention a title or character that affected you. Writers: Do you have a favorite writing conference? I’d love to go to another great writing conference!

32 thoughts on “Better

  1. Great post, Sherry. I think I need to get those books, too. Especially the Maass. The workshop he gave when our New England SINC chapter brought him changed my writing for the better – in one day!

  2. I think I need these books too. I’m starting my second draft of the next book and jotting down notes and ideas for the next one, and that concern about needing to be better better better looms large in my mind. Will it be “better” or will it be the one where readers discover that I have no clue what I’m doing?!!! Ack!

  3. Thank you Sherry. A timely post as I am starting to plot out the next book. In some ways it gets harder with each one, not easier. Sure, I know more so I don’t make some of the rookie mistakes my editor used to catch. But I want each one to be better than the last. I swing from “I have a great idea!” to “That idea doesn’t work at all!”

    I am getting the Maass book today. I have a heavily highlighted copy of an earlier writing book of his and have heard him speak a few times. He is always terrific.

  4. Yes, there was an emotionally significant event that stuck with me in a historical book I read, Julie Klassen’s The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill. I still remember it because when I read it I teared up and had to put the book down for a moment so that I could ponder and relive the scene in my head. It was beautiful.

    I do appreciate when I learn something new when I’m reading. It’s like finding a gem. It’s an added bonus. And personally, I like descriptive writing. I know it’s been said that too many details isn’t good, but I guess I’m the exception to this rule. I like to get a clear interpretation of a place or situation so that I can visualize what the author is trying to relate to me. It’s okay with me if an author meticulously describes a setting, character, or emotional response. I consider it creative. But then again I’m speaking from a reader’s point of view, not a professional writer’s or editor’s perspective.

    • I will have to look for Klassen’s book! I love it when a writer can blend action and description beautifully so one doesn’t stand out too much. There was a scene in Craig Johnson’s first book, The Cold Dish, that has always stuck with me.

  5. I think what you said about Hall’s comments is very true. If you can make your readers “see” your main character and become personally invested in her, they will forgive you for a lot of things (like plot holes, or the fact that a perfectly nice woman is running around trying to solve multiple murders in a small town!).

  6. I don’t think you have to be a writer to feel like a fake, imposter, etc. We all have those feelings at one time or another. I love all the Wickeds books!

  7. Would writing — or anything — be worth doing, let alone fun, if we weren’t always trying to improve? Jim Hall spoke at our Flathead River Writers’ Conference a few years ago when Hit Lit was new, but the bookstore ran out and I still haven’t read it! Putting it on the list. Glad the Maass book is resonating with you. I attended his Breakout Novel workshop in 2012, and it changed my writing life. He’s also doing 3-day workshops on the emotional craft of fiction. http://free-expressions.com/ I can’t go this year, but maybe we can do a field trip next year!

  8. Two more books to pick up.

    I find the moment in Rebecca where Mrs Danvers, who has been gaslighting the heroine for the entire book, pushes it too far. The setting and atmosphere are straight gothic but the emotionality of the moment is timeless. It becomes the moment the rock is tipped over the top of the mountain and can’t be undone. Looking back after having read it so many times, THAT is the moment that everyone’s fate is sealed.

  9. I don’t have the Hall book, but I do have a couple of Maass’s books, including WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL and WRITING 21ST CENTURY FICTION. Both touch on this need for an emotional connection. I find his books intimidating – but after I get over the “I am never going to be able to write like this” reaction, they are helpful.

    As The Hubby says, “I like to read stories about people.” I think that’s the point for both Hall and Maass.

    Conferences? I like the one I’ll be attending in a couple weeks – Pennwriters. From the name, I bet you guessed it’s a Pennsylvania conference, huh? Lots of craft sessions. A couple years ago, Maass was even the keynote.

  10. As much as I love a plot twist (and get bored in a book without them), it is characters that stick with me and make me want to return to a series. Heck, one of my favorite Trixie Belden books has a weak mystery, but I love it because the characters are so alive, and the lazy final days of summer are captured so well, I just want to hop into the book and hang out with everyone.

  11. I love cozies that I learn something from – not how-tos, how things in the world work, the inside or behind-the-scene workings, or historical tid-bits. These things make the stories so much more interesting and believable. Good descriptions help me lose myself in the time and place of the story. The Wickeds do a great job of this! Thanks, ladies!

  12. Sherry, I’m a huge fan of St Hilda’s Mystery and Crime Conference in Oxford, which always has a theme amd excellent crime writers give pappers revolving around it, then take QA– beith tea breaks. Highly civilized! I also love the Master Classes at NE Crime Bake. But you know that!

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