Ask The Expert — Retired Detective Sergeant Bruce Coffin

Today we welcome back Bruce Coffin who is celebrating the release of his second novel in his Detective Byron Mystery series, Beneath The Depths. I really enjoyed the first book in the series Among the Shadows.

Bruce recent helped me get my police procedure details right as I was writing my sixth book. He is here today to answer more questions. Thanks so much, Bruce!

Did you always want to be a police officer? 

Not initially. I had actually planned to become a writer and attended college with that goal in mind. It wasn’t until I had a less than positive experience with a creative writing professor that I changed career direction.

What was the process for you to become a police officer?

I took the test for several of the local police departments before being offered a job with the Portland PD. Candidates are required to pass a number of things before they are sent to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. Two written tests, polygraph test, psychological test, background check, credit check, criminal check, driver’s license check, several interviews (including the captain’s boards), a physical exam performed by a doctor, and a physical assessment. I’m still wondering how I ever passed the psychological (twice). Maybe they graded on a curve.

Has the process for becoming an officer changed since you joined the force?

Not all that much. The process itself has remained the same. The biggest difference today is the number of people turning out to take the exams. When I tested to become an officer literally hundreds of people would take the test. Many local departments have trouble getting even thirty people to show up. This shortage of candidates has resulted in many officers transferring laterally from other agencies.

What are three things we should know about being a police officer?

It can be the toughest of jobs when things go wrong. It can be the most rewarding of careers when everything is going well. And policing is a front row seat to the greatest show on earth, the human condition. I don’t regret a single day of my twenty-eight years on the job.

What was your favorite part of the job? Any interesting experiences you can share? 

Ha! There are too many to list. As for interesting experiences, you’ll have to read my novels.

If I get pulled over what should I do? 

Do what I do when I’m pulled over. Shut the car off. Keep your hands where the officer can see them. Stay in the car. Be polite. Traffic stops are one of the most dangerous things an officer can do, especially at night when visibility is bad. Don’t add to the officer’s stress level by acting out or arguing. Court is the place to make your case, not on the side of the road. Treat the officer like you would want to be treated. Remember they have no idea who you are or what else you may have recently been doing when they approach you. I know an officer who pulled over a driver for failing to dim their vehicle’s high beams. That particular driver was returning home immediately after raping a murdering a woman.

What do people get wrong when they are writing a character who is a police officer?

I get asked this question a lot. If I had to sum it up quickly I’d tell you to write a real character first. After you’ve created a believable character turn his or her world upside down by making them a cop. All writers are readers first, just as all cops are people.

How do you use your expertise in your books? 

The plots for my novels are fictional but I use as much of my own experiences as I can to make the stories as realistic as I can for the reader. Obviously I have to take a few liberties for the benefit the reader. In real life murder investigations sometimes go unsolved, but if I were to write my novels that way no one would want to read them. I make it a point to delve into the human and ethical struggles that police officers must confront every day. My novels are a way for those with no police experience to jump into the car with John Byron and Diane Joyner and race toward trouble from the safety of your couch.

How are you alike and different from your protagonist John Byron? 

I constructed John Byron by throwing myself into a blender along with some of the officers who trained me when I was starting out and a few of the officers I worked with over the years. The traits John and I share are that we tend to look at things the way many veteran detectives do and we both have an irreverent streak especially when it comes to interference in our investigations. As for our differences, John is struggling with alcohol addiction and his failed marriage. I am blessed with a supportive and understanding wife. And the fact that she has put up with me and my craziness for more than thirty-five years makes me one lucky guy.

What are you working on now? 

At the moment I’m hard at work on the manuscript for the third Detective Byron mystery, tentatively titled Beyond the Truth. I am almost three quarters of the way through first draft. Oh, and for those of you wondering, I have already begun plotting Byron number four…

Readers: Do you have a question you’d like to ask about being on the police force or about Bruce’s great series?

Bruce Robert Coffin is a former detective sergeant with more than twenty-seven years in law enforcement. At the time of his retirement, from the Portland, Maine police department, he supervised all homicide and violent crime investigations for Maine’s largest city. Following the terror attacks of September 11th, Bruce spent four years working counter-terrorism with the FBI, earning the Director’s Award, the highest honor a non-agent can receive.
Bruce is the bestselling author of the Detective Byron Mysteries from HarperCollins. The debut novel in the series, Among the Shadows, was released to rave reviews, appearing in several Amazon bestseller lists and topping the paperback fiction list in the Maine Sunday Telegram. His short stories have been featured in several anthologies including the 2016 Best American Mystery Stories.

 

The Five Definitions of Scene

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Hi. Kim Gray here. Today we welcome Stuart Horwitz the founder and principal of Book Architecture. He is the author of three books, the latest being Finish Your Book in Three Drafts: How to Write a Book, Revise a Book, and Complete a Book While You Still Love It. He joins us today to discuss The Five Definitions of Scene.

imageTake it away, Stuart!

What’s the big deal about scene? Well, as a group of self-contained passages within your narrative, they are nothing less than the building blocks of your work. Finding the places where your scenes break and separating them into discrete units can help you move scenes around, divide and combine them, and eliminate them when necessary.

The most commonly heard expression in writing circles is probably “Show, don’t tell,” which means you must put us in the scene. Don’t tell us about it, don’t tell us that it happened, don’t tell us that your characters—or you as the narrator—had a certain set of feelings about it; make it happen for us as readers, as viewers.

From this we get the first definition of scene:

#1. A scene is where something happens.image

If you are working in non-fiction, consider a scene to be the material that is grouped under a subhead where you have demonstrated your point, which is the same thing as making things happen. Now that you have introduced new material into the discourse, the discourse has shifted. Which is what our second definition of scene is getting at:

#2. A scene is where because something happens, something changes.

As I said above, a scene is the basic measuring unit by which you will construct your manuscript. Once you have identified these units, you can determine if each scene is weak or strong, a hopeless aside, or the climactic scene, in large part by whether or not any given scene belongs to a recognizable series.

#3. A scene has to be capable of series.

You would be surprised by the number of scenes that are written which contain nothing that is repeated—not the characters, not the place, not the ideas. Readers have a limited ability to track information, so unless you are intentionally presenting a red herring, what are these one-iteration series doing, just hanging out? The vibrant cafe owner with caustic wit but a heart of gold: Where did he go? That cabin that seemed so mysterious: How come we never went back there?

Series is a complicated concept that I explore at length in my books, but the heart of it is: If you get a great character, object, setting, or concept—it has to repeat. When you repeat and vary your narrative elements, they each become a strand; brand enough strands together and you can fashion a strong rope which is your theme. Because your theme is strengthened by each and every one of your series threads, which in turn spool out of your scenes, it makes sense that,

#4. A scene has to be in the service of the one central theme.

If all of your scenes serve the one central theme, you almost can’t miss at that point. But if you do have a scene that is not related to the one thing your book is about (because your book can only be about one thing, that is the very definition of theme), it either has to be expandable, or it is expendable.
Finally, the fifth definition of scene is this:

#5. A scene has to have “it.”

That’s it; just “it.” I, for one, don’t think we should be above talking about things in this way. Each scene must carry with it a sense of excitement, for both the writer and the reader. A bad or forgotten scene that you decide to keep while putting together your provisional scenic order might have “it.” That might be why you haven’t dropped it yet. You may not know what “it” is, but you can still detect it; it resonates, you can’t quite shake it. This scene has “it”—not that it’s perfect.

So, that’s it: five criteria for a scene to meet for you to feel good about what it does and get information about where it goes. And then get on to writing the next one.image

Stuart Horwitz is also a ghostwriter, independent developmental editor. He developed the Book Architecture Method (www.BookArchitecture.com) over fifteen years of helping writers get from first draft to final draft. His first book, Blueprint Your Best Seller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method (Penguin/Perigee) was named one of the best books about writing by The Writer magazine.

Readers: Do you recognize these building blocks while you read? Do you feel “it” and notice scenes moving the story forward? Writers: Do you employ these criteria?

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Ask the Expert: Mo Walsh on Press Releases

NEWS FLASH: Kim Heniadis is the randomly selected winner of yesterday’s gift pack!

Edith here, enjoying a warm end of winter. I invited Sisters in Crime pal and journalist Mo Walsh to tell us about how to write a press release. I’ve used her template several times with good results. She’s also a crack photographer, and always wears her grey reporter hat when she snaps photos at the New England Crime Bake. What I love about today’s post is that it’s … a press release!Headshot3b

Authors advised: ‘Your news release is not about you’

WEYMOUTH, MA—March 11, 2016—Authors looking to publicize their books and public events have more success with news releases that connect with their target readers and make it easy for editors to say Yes, according to mystery writer and veteran news reporter Maureen “Mo” Walsh.

“Your news release is not about you—it’s about why readers should care about you and your book. That’s what news or features editors think when deciding whether to use your release or, even better, assign a reporter to interview you,” said Walsh in a March 11 blog post at www.wickedcozyauthors.com.

Walsh has published short crime fiction in Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine, Woman’s World, and five anthologies of Best New England Crime Stories from Level Best Books; and is a coauthor of the mystery trivia book A Miscellany of Murder (Adams Media, 2010). Walsh worked in advertising and public relations and now writes features for the Gatehouse Media New England newspapers.

She outlined three steps to writing an attention-getting news release:

  1. Create a Publicity Profile for your own use, listing everything you can think of about you, your book, your characters (they have connections, too); local, regional, and major media. Include a short bio (75 words) and a longer one (200 words), plus book cover blurbs and reviews. Walsh provided sample questions to create your profile.

From this, create the guts of your news release:

  • Paragraph on notable award(s), brief description of series or protagonist, latest book title and plot.
  • Paragraph quoting notable review(s).
  • Paragraph with interesting author quote.
  • Paragraph with brief bio, hitting most intriguing highlights.
  • Author’s website.

After your news release, not in it, include:

  • Hi-resolution author headshot with photo credit; JPEG photo of book cover(s).
  • Not-for-publication phone numbers and email for media to contact.
  1. Learn Basic Newswriting Style and the upside-down pyramid structure. “Newsrooms are short on staff and time. Less work for the editor means a better chance your release will be used,” said Walsh. “Learn to layer news from the must-know details down and how to write a headline, a lead (or lede), and a nut graph, plus how to use quotes effectively.”
  1. Start with Connections You Have: hometown, alumni, employer or industry, special interests, religious or service organizations, military service, etc. What publicity outlets can you tap through these connections? “Frame your news in terms news release connections graphicof these relationships,” said Walsh. “You are not just Author X, you are ‘Long Beach native’ or ‘Gardening enthusiast’; ‘Clinical psychologist’ or ‘member of the Hull High School Class of 1996’. And be prepared for follow-up questions or interviews with details about those connections.” She provided a colorful graph of such connections.

This can all sound like very dull stuff, Walsh admitted. “It comes alive when you fill in all the blanks with lively description of your book and characters, interesting details about your life and interests, and quotes from reviews and your primary reader—you!” Walsh kindly provided some real-life press releases.

Mo will check in today to answer any questions or comment on any sample graphs you’d like to post. A past board member of Sisters in Crime New England, she is current VP of Mystery Writers of America-New England and works on publicity for the New England Crime Bake conference.

Readers: How did it go when you wrote a press release? Have you read or used good ones – or bad ones? What did you learn? Do ask Mo questions – she’s an expert!

Ask the Expert: Sarah Knight, Bookseller

Edith here. I’m so happy Sarah Knight could join us today to talk about her job at the fabulous and thriving independent Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont. Author Sara Henry introduced Sheila, Tiger Wiseman, and me to Sarah this summer when we were on a writing retreat at Tiger’s Vermont home. Sarah agreed to visit and tell us all about the different hats she wears on the job. Take it away, Sarah!

Sheila Connolly, Sarah Knight, Sara J. Henry, and Edith. Picture taken by Tiger Wiseman (Edith thinks)

Sheila Connolly, Sarah Knight, Sara J. Henry, and Edith. Picture taken by Tiger Wiseman (Edith thinks)

Sarah: My area of expertise at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont is as an adult bookseller, the adult book merchandiser, and adult mass market buyer.

DSCF1505As a bookseller I’m often asked for recommendations.  I have a series of questions I ask to find out what type of books the customer likes to read. I begin with very general questions like fiction or nonfiction, hardcover or paperback. Then my questions become more specific. If it’s a mystery the customer would like to read I ask what was the last mystery the person read and liked. Then I suggest a few titles and, if they like one or two, we’re set. If not, I continue on.

As a merchandiser I’m in charge of the displays and work with other booksellers to select interesting titles for our customers to buy. I’m in charge of the mystery section. After DSCF1515listening to cozy readers’ comments and questions, I decided to have a dedicated cozy section within the larger mystery section. This has been very successful and the number of customers who buy cozies has increased. Plans are in with works to enlarge the cozy mysteries both in number of titles and space in the section.

Edith: The Wicked Cozy Authors approve, Sarah!

Sarah: As an adult mass market buyer, I buy what I think our customers might be interested in both established and new authors. Also, I like to bring in titles that might surprise our readers. I try and buy a variety of cozy mysteries. I order electronically online from publisher catalogs.

Edith: How did you start working at Northshire?
The sculpture outside the store.

The sculpture outside the store.

Sarah: One evening I mentioned to my husband that, rather than sell Asian antiques, I would like to work at the Northshire Bookstore. The next afternoon on our kitchen table, I noticed a copy of our local paper open to the help wanted section. A big red circle was drawn around an ad for a bookseller at the Northshire. That was 25 years ago and seems like yesterday.

Edith: It was meant to be!What are three things we should know about your area of expertise?
Sarah: You don’t have to read every book you sell, but it helps to read some of them. If I’ve met an author, I will work harder to sell their books and prominently display them in the store (one of the perks of being in charge of displays). After I met you, Edith, I brought in several of your titles and faced them out. All sold.
Edith: Aw, thank you! That’s awesome.
Is there a general characteristic that experts in this field all share?
Sarah: A general characteristic of booksellers is that they are passionate about books Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 6.47.52 PMand reading and have homes or rooms that have so many books they qualify to be featured on a hoarders reality show.
Edith: What do people usually get wrong when writing about your field?
Sarah: Booksellers do NOT get to read while on the job, I repeat, booksellers do NOT get to read while on the job.  We are there to sell books to customers to read.
Edith: I did not know that! Next question: what is a great idea you’d love to share?

Sarah: Find time to read everywhere you go (except when you’re a bookseller at work).

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The lake where Sarah wrote these answers. Yes, Vermont is beautiful.

Edith: And what are you working on now?
Sarah: I am looking for a cozy mystery which features a protagonist who loves adult coloring books that are all the rage now. Any thoughts? I am organizing my advanced readers copies by publication month trying to read them in this order. It’s hard when the publisher sends me an advance copy of a book by a favorite and the book release date DSCF1504in next February. I’m trying to be a more disciplined reader.
Edith: That’s sounds like a great premise for a new series if it hasn’t been done yet. Sarah, thanks so much for visiting us. I’m looking forward to getting back to Northshire for another visit.

Readers: What else do you want to know about the job of a bookseller, bookbuyer, and book merchandiser? Ask Sarah – she’ll be popping by today to reply to comments.

Ask the Expert – Glenn Burlamachi, Funeral Director

Liz here, and today I invited one of my oldest pals to join us for “Ask the Expert.” Glenn BGlenn Burlamachi owns and operates the Concord Funeral Home in Concord, Massachusetts, and has worked in the business for many years prior. (Confession: I had a stint working at Glenn’s funeral home! For research, of course.) I’ve always been fascinated by the business, a little because of my love for Six Feet Under but mostly because Glenn used to tell me stories all the time about what it’s like. I thought it would be an interesting topic for the blog, so here were my questions to Glenn:

1. How are violent deaths handled?

Violent deaths are not as common, however each case is different. There are accidents, homicides and suicides, all three can create it’s own violent story.  It is my experience to bring the survivors into the funeral home and process the funeral services as quickly as we can.  The survivors do not want to be there any more than you do.  We are as empathetic as we can be and keep conversation to a minimum.  Usually we do not deal directly with the immediate family but with another family member or close friend who acts as a liaison between the funeral director and family.

Concord 22. What’s the craziest funeral you’ve been part of?

Well, fortunately we have not had any “crazy” funerals.  I am mindful however that each family may have their own beliefs, customs and religious beliefs, this can add a “twist” to some funeral services.  Example…Jewish are buried within 48 hours of death with the exception of Saturday, they are quick and well handled with all parties cooperating and working together.  Unitarians are independent and need minimal assistance by a funeral home.  Greeks are traditionalists regardless of age.  We did have a horse and buggy funeral at the request of the deceased (prior to dying of course)…I could go on and on.

3. Talk about what it’s like behind the scenes of the funeral home?

A funeral home is a business just like any other, we function as efficiently as the leadership and staff allows.  It can be chaotic at  as death has no set schedule.  I have witnessed the funeral home remain quiet for week(s) and have as many as 7 deaths in 2 days.  We need to be prepared and at the ready 24/7, this adds to the stress as the funeral home (neat and organized) and staff (also neat and organized) must be available.  In my history we have had 3 deaths in one day on numerous occasions.  It is also imperative both the exterior and interior of the funeral home are updated and tastefully appointed. Concord Funeral Home

4. What’s it like living in the funeral home?

As mentioned previously we are a 24/7 profession, therefore residing at the funeral home is most often convenient.  However, there are more times than none I find myself unable to shut down and stop.  There is ALWAYS something to do so the disconnect can be most challenging at times.  Also, most funeral homes are located on a main street, this creates a “fish-bowl” atmosphere for the occupied funeral directors.  Some residents will observe (and comment) on your daily routine.

5. What is the worse cliché you have to deal with as a funeral director?

The daily clichés are common, “I’ll be the last one to let you down”, “I bet everyone is dying to get in there?” “how’s business?”  I have learned over the years to politely ignore and remain professional when the clichés are mentioned.

6. Favorite and least favorite part of job?

Favorite: the ability to assist a family in their lowest point in their life. This is both a privilege and honor.
Least favorite: 24/7  this profession is always on your mind.

Concord inside7. Typical day?

Depending on death calls, it can be very busy or very quiet.  When busy there are families to meet, obituaries to compose, scheduling to administer (church, cemetery, military and staffing).  When there are no death calls we find ourselves, cleaning, organizing, community service etc.

8. What happens when you receive a death call?

Most deaths are reported to the funeral home via telephone “call” hence the term “death-call”.  These phone calls occur 24/7, death can occur at home, a hospital, nursing home or public area. In most cases we must respond immediately.  We drive to the designated location and transfer the person with dignity and respect.  We dress and always act professionally, it is our duty and obligation regardless of the surrounding location or community we serve.

9. Writers try to capture feelings in words.  If you could describe the feeling  of your funeral home, how would you do that?

A funeral home is a reflection of its proprietors. The décor should be neutral, “home-like” and have a sense of the community.  The Concord Funeral Home is located in historic Concord, Massachusetts, therefore we have a slight revolutionary theme throughout.  The colors are warm and comforting, the art work is appropriate and the furniture period to the home yet functional. The exterior should have good curb-appeal such as freshly painted, seasonal flowers, manicured lawns etc.  This is the first impression for the general public therefore it must be favorable.

10. What kind of schooling do funeral directors require?

Funeral directors are required to attend and graduate from a two-year associates program.  Upon completion you are required to pass the National Board Exam consisting of 2 sections, Arts and Sciences.  Once this is successfully accomplished a funeral director must pass the state requirements.  Each state has its own guidelines. This consists of an apprenticeship program and both written and practical (embalming) exams.

11. Do funeral directors attend conferences?

Yes, there are many conferences offered throughout the calendar year. Most funeral directors will attend several.  Funeral Directors are required to earn 8 CEU hours each  year and are obtained at these mentioned conferences or online classes.  This profession like all professions change and it is important to keep up with the changes.

Readers: Ask Glenn a question! He’s going to stop in throughout the day as he can, in between funeral tasks.

Ask the Expert: Skye Wentworth, Publicist

Edith here, writing furiously north of Boston.

I’m happy to welcome Skye Wentworth to our occasional Ask the Expert series. She’s a friend and fellow member of the Newburyport Writers Group, and a much-sought-after North Shore public relations expert and book publicist.Skye Wentworth Photo Take it away, Skye!

Area of Expertise: My services include: public relations and social media strategy, social media marketing, publicity and media relations, media training, public image management, and award research and submission.

Edith: And don’t we all need help with that!

How did you get started in this business?

I took the long route – from librarian to advertising to publishing. I was a librarian at Boston University in the 80s. At that time courses were free to faculty members and I began to take some courses in public relations and communications. One course led to another and I ended up with a Master’s Degree in Media & Technology. When my family moved to Maine, I got a job as Director of Public Relations at an advertising company. An author came to us with her book and I had an epiphany. That’s what I wanted to do in life — promote books!

I later worked for several publishing houses as Senior Publicist before starting my own business, Skye Wentworth Public Relations.

Edith: It sounds like your winding path had a purpose.

What are three things we should know about your area of expertise?

  1. Every book campaign is different. No two books or two authors are alike. I explain to my clients that each campaign is like going down a raft on a river. We aren’t certain of what might happen around the next bend – but it’s sure to be something exciting.
  1. Publicists need to be creative. Even if it’s just the subject line. I once had a Navy Seal that dearly wanted to be on a popular religious TV show. My subject line read: Navy Seal Author: A Bible Under Every Beret. We booked the show within 5 minutes.
  1. It’s important to go the extra mile. I do an interview with each author ahead of time and offer it to editors. I write up “cheat sheets” for producers, which has an introduction for the author/guest and sample questions. The idea is to make it very easy for the media to take your material and run with it. You’ll reap rewards.

Is there a general characteristic that experts in this field all share?

It’s always great fun getting together with fellow publicists and sharing stories about: What works? What doesn’t? What’s brand new to the scene? We might discuss a book that scored, a radio show that took a nosedive, or possibly an author who went on to great fame. For instance, I previously worked for a firm in New Orleans who helped Dr. Michael Roizen, author of Real Age: Are You as Young as You Can Be?, get on Oprah. His life suddenly changed. You may not have heard of Dr. Roizen (who was quite shy) but you have heard of his partner, Dr. Oz.

What do people usually get wrong when writing about your field?

People often ask me what a publicist does and a common response is, “I can do that.”

Photo by Will Ryan.

Photo by Will Ryan.

He/she thinks it’s the easiest job in the world. Anyone can pick up the phone, ask for Terry Gross and book a radio spot on NPR’s Fresh Air, right? Or why not just send an email?

Let’s pretend you do get Terry Gross on the phone. What do you say when she asks you why her listeners would be interested in your book? Or asks what’s the print run of your new novel? She may ask you to send a press kit, including a press release, one-page, sample questions, clips from reviews and audios from previous shows. Are you prepared?

One of the jobs that publicists do on an ongoing basis is to think like a journalist or a producer. It means that we do a little digging to find out who their audience is and what their interests are. From there we develop a strategy/pitch that matches the targeted media we’ll be pitching. Generally it’s not just the book, it could be something happening in current events that dovetails with the author’s novel or perhaps the book is about a renowned jewelry theft and the author is an expert in gems. The idea is to setup the whole scenario and make sure that your pitch is compelling!

Is there a great idea you’d love to share?

Skye Postcard smIt’s an old idea but an important one. Put the relationship back in Public Relations. Be kind. Be personal. Don’t do all the talking. Take time to listen. Once you start getting media, remember to stay in touch with each person who interviewed you. Thank them for the story they did on you and later send quick updates on your other triumphs or comment on other stories they’ve crafted.

Edith: These sound like lessons for life! Create relationships. Be kind, be a good listener, say thank you. Yes.

What are you working on now?

Thanks for asking! I’m writing a book about publicity. The working title is called Zen and the Art of PR. It’s basis is about becoming more mindful in the world of Public Relations and Communications where active and effective listening is huge.

In our pursuit to promote books we need to be aware of the impact that multitasking and technology-based interactions have on our work. When we take the time to slow down and meditate we become more creative, more solution-focused, more productive, much happier – and in turn – get more hits!

And of course I’m still working with clients. My clients are not just on the north shore. I’m presently working with client/authors in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Ontario Canada, Wilton, CT, Newburyport and I just finished a campaign with an author from Mumbai, India.

You can find Skye Wentworth, Book Publicist on her web site, on Facebook, at skyewentworth@gmail.com, and at 978-462-4453.

Edith: Thanks so much for stopping by the blog today, Skye! You come very highly recommended by several successful authors I know.

Readers: Questions about public relations, book publicizing, or Skye’s new book? (How to get on Fresh Air? That’s the gig I want!) Ask away.

Ask the Expert–Paula Munier and Plot Perfect

Welcome Paula Munier to Ask the Expert this Friday. Paula is the author of Plot Perfect: How to Build Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene.

plotperfectHere’s the description.

Think of your favorite story–the one that kept you turning pages late into the night, the one with a plot so compelling, so multilayered, so perfect that you couldn’t put it down. How can you make your own plots–in your novels, short stories, memoirs, or screenplays–just as irresistible?

Plot Perfect provides the answer. This one-of-a-kind plotting primer reveals the secrets of creating a story structure that works–no matter what your genre. It gives you the strategies you need to build a scene-by-scene blueprint that will help elevate your fiction and earn the attention of agents and editors.

By coincidence, this winter, all the Wickeds happened to be working on first drafts at the same time. E-mails flew back and forth. “Using Plot Perfect to help me outline,” Julie wrote. “Using Plot Perfect to figure out a subplot,” Liz said. Here in Key West, my husband Bill, also a writer, and I were passing the book back and forth as we worked on our drafts.

Whoa, I thought. Something is up. So the Wickeds asked Paula here today to answer some questions for us and our readers.

Paula2Barb: You’ve been an editor, an agent and an author. Of all the writing elements, why did you feel a book on plot was needed?

Paula: As an agent, I’m always looking for good writers telling good stories. I’m not going to rewrite your stories for you if you’re not a good writer, but if you are a good writer I can help you tell a better story.

As an editor, I spent many years helping writers structure their books. Structure is often where good writers go wrong—especially those new to long-form storytelling. Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. And producing a series is one marathon after another. This can be a challenge for new novelists, who may have only written short stories or essays or news articles before trying their hand at the novel. Those writing crime fiction, where plot is so important, really need to master structure before they shop their work.

I represent—and have sold—many debut authors. I love helping novelists get into print!

Barb: Your book is about plot, but you spend a lot of time on the idea of theme in novels. Why is theme so important, and how does understanding your theme support plotting?

Paula: The book is based on my Plot Perfect boot camps. When Writers Digest first asked me to do a plot-related boot camp, I wanted to come up with a different approach to plot. And I chose the theme-related approach to plot, because I’ve seen too many manuscripts that read like video games—all action but no theme. Plot is what happens; theme is what it means. Theme is what your story is really about. I see too many stories that aren’t really about anything—they’re just one action after another. There’s no there there.

For crime fiction, theme is paramount. The themes in this category are big: good vs. evil, kill or be killed, the search for the truth, the nature of justice, society vs. the individual, chaos vs. order, etc. Readers expect crime fiction writers to tackle these big themes—and weave them right into the plot.

Barb: One of the things the Wickeds loved about your book is that while the concepts used in writing a novel can be quite abstract, you make them concrete by providing many, many examples. How long did it take you to write Plot Perfect, how did you find the examples and what criteria did you use to select them?

Paula: I had six months to write the book, but I’d been running the Plot Perfect boot camps for a couple of years already, so I knew the material fairly well. (I also teach at the Algonkian New York Pitch conferences, as well as other venues.)

I use a lot of examples because, as you say, it helps writers extrapolate, and apply what I’m talking about to their own work. I tend to use examples from the writers I love—from Shakespeare and Jane Austen to Dashiell Hammett and Alice Hoffman and Robert B. Parker—as well as the blockbusters that struck a chord with readers—Gone Girl, Eat Pray Love, etc.

Also, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that my editor at Writers Digest, Rachel Randall, is an even bigger believer in examples then I am—she had me add even more!

Barb: You look at so many books. As an agent, what do you think is the make-or-break? What single element most frequently causes you to take on a book? What single element most frequently causes you to reject it?

Paula: In today’s marketplace, your work really needs a USP: unique selling proposition. That’s marketing speak for being able to set your work apart from the competition. That often boils down to high-concept. Even in cozies, it’s often the cozies with well-defined premises/settings/USPs—the organic farming mystery, the cake decorating mystery, the Pennsylvania Dutch mystery, etc.—that win the contracts.

I always advise writers to read widely in their category—you’d be surprised how many writers don’t! You should pay particular attention to those debut authors who have broken out in the past three years. This is the competition that you’ll need to position your work against.

In terms of clients: I’m looking for a great writer with a story with a strong USP that I think I can sell. If I can’t boil it down to a 50-word pitch, I can’t sell it. That said, I’m a sucker for any writer with a strong voice. I try to stick to the categories I know well and have a soft spot for as a reader: women’s fiction, mainstream fiction, high-concept Sf/fantasy, YA fiction, any kind of crime fiction, as well as nonfiction.

Mostly I pass on projects because 1) the writer’s level of craft is not high enough for prime time yet; 2) the story idea isn’t strong enough; and/or 3) it’s just not my kind of project. Also, I won’t work with any writer who resists revision or refuses to take marketing and promoting her work seriously.

Barb: You’re a writer, too. What are you working on now?

Paula: Thanks for asking! I just finished a new book for Writers Digest called Writing with Quiet Hands: Notes on a Writer’s Craft, in which I talk about what it means to create good stories for today’s changing publishing landscape, and the finer points of craft that can make the difference between getting publishing and not getting published.

I’m also working on a new novel.

Barb: Thanks Paula. Readers, if you have questions or comments for Paula, fire away!

About Paula Munier: Writers are my tribe. I began as a journalist, and over the years I’ve penned countless new stories, articles, essays, collateral, and blogs, as well as authored/co-authored more than a dozen books, most recently Fixing Freddie, 5-Minute Mindfulness, and A Miscellany of Murder. Along the way, I’ve added editor, acquisitions specialist, digital content manager, and publishing executive to my repertoire—the common denominator being my commitment to writers and writing, no matter what my title. From Gannett, Greenspun, and Prima Games to Disney, Quayside, and F+W Media, I’ve fought the good fight for good writing and good writers. And I’ve loved every minute of it.

But now, as an agent, I have the opportunity to support talented writers in the most direct manner possible, helping my clients do good work, land great publishing deals, and build successful writing careers. So if you’re a writer as obsessed with words and stories as I am, and you’re in it for the long haul, consider working with me. My specialties include mystery/thriller, SF/fantasy, romance, YA, memoir, humor, pop culture, health & wellness, cooking, self-help, pop psych, New Age, inspirational, technology, science, and writing.