Writing advice from Hallie Ephron: Enjoy the mess

Today we want to give a Wicked Welcome to Hallie Ephron. When I first joined Sisters in Crime New England, Hallie was the President. Over the years she has been a cheerleader, a mentor, and a friend. She is also a very gifted teacher, and has just released an update for her book WRITING & SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL. My well worn copy of the original will soon share space with this updated version. We’re thrilled that she agreed to visit the blog today. Welcome Hallie!

oldnewwritingsellingWhen I started writing what would be the first edition of WRITING & SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL back in 2003, I had four mystery novels under my belt and spoken on panels with enough of my fellow writers to know that there are almost as many ways to plan a mystery novel as there are writers.

Just for example, listen to what these uber-successful writers have to say about planning:

“An outline is crucial. It saves so much time. When you write suspense, you have to know where you’re going because you have to drop little hints along the way. With the outline, I always know where the story is going.” —John Grisham

“I do a very minimal synopsis before I start, and I know where I end up, I know sort of stations along the way, but I give myself freedom to kind of just discover things as I go along.” —Louis Bayard

“I just dive in and hope the book comes out at the other end. And as I get to the character, slowly the plot develops like a Polaroid.” —Tana French

Hmmm. It’s not very helpful to someone writing their first crime novel to be told there is no one way. But, having worked with many published and unpublished writers, what comes through over and over is that each of us has our own talents and deficits, and it’s wise to start by accepting that as a given – it’s both your greatest weakness and your greatest strength.

Do you outline? It’s a question you hear over and over at author panels. I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every time I heard a writer answer quoting E. L. Doctorow, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” The truth is, you may like writing as if you’re driving at night in fog, but it doesn’t work for everyone.

Some of us are naturally planners (okay, we’re anal) and need to write a detailed outline or synopsis before committing ourselves to an opening scene. Others are pantsers (delusional free spirits?) who’d rather fly by the seat of their pants. If I’m not surprised, they like to say, then how can I expect the reader to be surprised? Most of us do a little of both, and in different proportions according to the demands of of the project underway.

I, for one, can pants along, groping and hoping for a while. But at some point, within the first 100 pages, I need to pick my head up out of the weeds and take the long view. That might involve attempting an outline or synopsis, or maybe just a pack of 3×5 cards with the main plot points. If I don’t, inevitably I write myself into one cul de sac after another and end up with an “out” file that’s longer than my manuscript. So I write a little, plan a little, write a some more, plan some more…

My plan becomes my rock as I work my way toward THE END. Usually it works, as long as I’m not afraid to blow up the rock if need be.

My sage advice is: Do whatever works for you. To that end, the “Planning” section of the REVISED AND EXPANDED edition of WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL is packed with planning exercises to try on, like so many hats. They’ve worked for other writers and might work for you. There are exercises for planning the premise, the crime, the protagonist, the villain, the web of characters, the setting, the dramatic (it had better be!) opening, and of course, the three acts that comprise the plot. The planning section culminates with a MYSTERY NOVEL BLUEPRINT summarizing every aspect in a handy dandy chart that you can complete, and goes on to take an equally hands-on approach to writing, revising, and selling your novel.

Fortunately, in this new edition, the blueprint (and all of the other exercises in the book) can be printed out and completed. Got to love technology.

For more about WRITING & SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL: REVISED EXPANDED: http://www.writersdigestshop.com/writing-and-selling-your-mystery-novel-revised-and-expanded

An excerpt on developing a premise for your mystery novel. http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/develop-premise-mystery-novel

What’s your planning process? Brainstorm? Outline? Synopsis? Grope and hope? And does it change from one project to the next?

***

hallieephron1photobylynnwayne062014HALLIE EPHRON is the New York Times bestselling author of ten crime novels, including YOU’LL NEVER KNOW, DEAR (Wm Morrow 6/17)). She is a four-time finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. A revised and expanded edition of her Edgar-nominated WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL(Writers Digest Books) is just out from Writers Digest Books. For twelve years she was the crime fiction book reviewer for the Boston Globe and won the Ellen Nehr Award for Excellence in Mystery Reviewing.

Mythbusting–Cozies Are Not The Shallow End Of The Fiction Pool

Susannah here, enjoying a cup of joe … and avoiding housework...

So, my Wicked people, today I thought we’d have a Mythbusting session. No, I’m not going to use a magnifying glass and the sun to start a campfire, or investigate the potentially uncomfortable results of combining Pop Rocks and soda. Not that that wouldn’t be fun–er, educational!

I belong to a number of different writers’ email loops, and they are sources of invaluable information. But sometimes they are full of misinformation. Or perhaps I should say misperceptions.

Recently on one of the loops someone mentioned the “fact” that cozies are not “deep” and that she was having trouble connecting with her characters and story. This was her first cozy contract, but she had extensive experience writing in the romance and paranormal genres. A couple of people chimed in that they were writing or reading cozies and either implied or came right out and said that cozies were “light,” the implication being that they were shallow.

I’m going on the record right now to tell you that traditional, cozy mysteries do NOT have to be shallow, devoid of character arcs and development, or plot driven to the point that the characters don’t matter. Certainly no Wicked Cozy or Accomplice is writing books like that! I butted in and emailed the author privately and we brainstormed some ways that she could not only get more into her sleuth’s head, but tie what’s in her head to the plot–both the immediate plot (the murder), and the ongoing plot (the character’s backstory and development over the series). So in case this helps any writer or reader get a better handle on adding or identifying depth in stories–any genre–here are some of the thoughts and techniques I offered:

  •  The key difference between an ongoing series, like a cozy mystery or darker procedural, and a standalone, like a romance, is that the main character’s entire character arc cannot–in fact, MUST not–be revealed in one book. In a romance, you only get one chance. There are two main characters, and they fall in love, overcome obstacles to their relationship, including both external AND internal, and in the end they get together with a promise of a Happily Ever After. The End. These characters may make cameo appearances in later related novels, but their character arcs are essentially completed because subsequent books have new romantic partners as main characters.
  • However, in an ongoing series, if the author reveals everything in the first book, or starts the main character from a place where she’s already settled (already happily married, already has children, already firmly established in a profession, completely secure in her place in the community), the author and the story have nowhere to go in subsequent books. An exception to the above would be if the character starts from a place where she THINKS she’s settled or all her demons are conquered, but then something happens to throw that balance way, way off.
  • Give the main character some family issues.  A mother or father who abandoned her. A sibling with whom she has never gotten along. An interfering grandmother. An awful ex-husband with a new trophy wife. A mother or father who disapproves of what she is doing with her life. A family secret that no one ever talked about, but that suddenly comes to a head, causing strong emotions to come up. This ensures lots of plot and conflict material for future books. And if a relative or someone else from her past gets killed off later, the heroine will have to deal with the guilt that they never reconciled. Or maybe one of these people is accused of murder, and the heroine finds she can use finding the real killer as a means of reconciliation. Does the heroine take some action, thinking she’s doing the right thing, but in the process injures an innocent person and must find a way to deal with her guilt and make things right?
  • Give your heroine a deep-seated reason to want/need to succeed. She could have a need to prove her parents wrong–they wanted her to go to law school, but she wanted to open a bead store and make jewelry. Or she could have had a boss or a teacher who told her she had no talent and would never amount to anything, and she has believed it, limiting her success. Or maybe she grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, so it’s vitally important to her to have roots and financial security. Or maybe she has been working at a job that sucks the life out of her but pays the bills, but her real dream is to drive an ice cream truck. Does she have a physical challenge that she has always been told will prevent her from being what she wants to be, and she needs to change her belief system in order to get there? Help the character find a way or ways over time to move closer to her dream(s).
  • Use secondary characters as foils for the sleuth’s over-time development. Example: a friend falls for a con man, and the heroine knows he’s dishonest because the guy tells the same kind of stories as her own ex. So helping her friend also gives her some closure with her own issues. Or a member of the community or the sleuth’s mentor figure used to be a stockbroker, but gave it all up to come home to her small town to open her dream knitting shop. By example, the heroine sees that living authentically is possible, which could allow her to grow and develop and make strides toward her dream(s).

This cozy stuff is like any other genre fiction–it just happens at a slower rate over a series. The thing is that whatever character issues you choose, they have to be woven in over the framework of the mystery itself. So the character issues should tie in with the heroine’s success–or failure–at solving the mysteries.

It’s your turn, readers and writers. How much character development do you want to see, and how quickly do you want it to happen over a series? What are some examples of series that make character development a priority (whether or not you agree with the direction the author chose to take her/his character, which is another topic entirely)?

Wicked Dealing with Deadlines: Short-Term

Two weeks ago we discussed strategies for dealing with deadlines that are far in the

"Double-Bell Alarm Clock" by Anonymous illustrator - Eaton’s Spring and Summer Catalogue, 1917

“Double-Bell Alarm Clock” by Anonymous illustrator – Eaton’s Spring and Summer Catalogue, 1917

future. Today we’ll talk about the deadlines that suddenly are on top of us. Do you stay up all night to finish something? Go to bed at ten but set the alarm for three in the morning? Make lists? What about when short-term deadlines stack up like planes waiting to land?

Liz: Oh, boy. This happens to me all the time. I don’t usually stay up all night because I’m way too cranky the next day, but I have been known to have marathon sessions in the evenings or on weekends to get a bunch of things done. I try really hard to be a better planner, but alas, it doesn’t always work!

Jessie: I make lists. I make one at the beginning of the month for projects that require a bit of time and one each day for more immediate tasks. I like seeing what needs doing laid out in black and white. Getting things on paper gets them out of my head and makes room for me to be more creative about how to accomplish what’s on the list.

Julie: I am a big fan of the Franklin Covey system. (Would that it was an app, or a Google plug-in, but I digress.) I have big deadlines (book #2 due to my editor, book #1 proofs need to be read, a grant application for work, etc.), middle sized deadlines (birthdays and other occasions that require attention, social media updates) and small deadlines that require some attention (parking permit updates, bills that need to be paid, subscriptions that need to be updated). I have lists of them all, and am trying to get in the habit of choosing what I can do that day, and prioritizing.

Sherry: I put reminders in my phone for short term deadlines and set alarms to help remind me when something is due. My husband and I also share a calendar which helps keep track of events we are both involved in.

Barb: I have a to-do list that I update frequently, sometimes weekly, sometimes every few days, sometimes every few weeks. My to-do list has categories –MCM (Maine Clambake Mysteries), LBB (Level Best Books), WCA (Wicked Cozy Authors), MCW (Maine Crime Writers), CB (Crime Bake) and personal. All the to-dos get divided up among them. I would say it helps me keep balanced, but that’s not my nature. I usually dive deep into stuff. So mostly, it reminds me what hanging out there while I’m on one of my deep dives. The to-dos in my running chronological notes in my Levenger Junior Notebook, which also contains my calendar and is never far from my side.

Edith: I love all these different strategies! I keep a daily short-term to-do list next to my ToDoListlaptop. After Ramona DeFelice Long posted about the ten-item to-do list last week, I went back and counted up how many items I normally have on the list, and it turns out to be about ten. I have two priority items on the top every day, and I cross them off every day: Write (or Edits/Revise, depending), and Walk. The day after we got back from our Old Orchard retreat, I had twenty things on the list, but seven didn’t get done, and some were very tiny…like “shower.” Think I needed a boost of confidence that day or what?

Readers: How do you deal with things that have to get done right now, pretty soon, all at once?

Boldly Go Where Others Have Gone Before, Many Times

By Julie, dodging raindrops in Boston

WCA retreat659869684270_5811006839915814681_n 2Yesterday, we talked about our other lifeboats, but today I want to talk about this lifeboat we all call the Wicked Cozy Authors. We are defining a lifeboat blog as a group of writers who support each other. You see examples of this on the blog–celebrating book birthdays and announcements, chiming in on Wicked Wednesday comments, social mediaing each other’s posts, and supporting other people in the community. We occasionally do panels together, or in groups of 2 or 3. Our bookmark is our calling card at conferences, signings, and meetings. We have a new ad we are running in the Crime Bake program, and Barb just redesigned the bookmarks, using our new header image. (Don’t you love it? Meg Manion captured us well.) We are all keeping the fair ship Wicked Cozy Authors afloat, in style.

But I want to talk about the role the Wickeds play behind the scenes. As you all know, I am the last Wicked in the publishing pipeline. Right now I am going through edits, and am looking at a release date in about a year. That is a long, long time. But my lifeboat team is keeping me on task–offering advice, support. Because they’ve all been there. Some two or three times.

As much as I would like to think I am a precious flower in this writing journey, I’m not. I am writing a cozy mystery. Literally hundreds of people do it every year. Whether you are a plotter or a pantser, you have to get the words on the page (or in the computer), and then move them around until it all makes sense. Then someone reads it, and helps you move them around again. Nothing can make the writing part easier, but having a lifeboat can make it much less lonely, and a lot more fun.

What else does my lifeboat provide?

  • Business advice.
  • Answers to questions based on recent experience.
  • A cheering squadron of support.
  • Gentle (and not so gentle) nudges.
  • Lots of laughter.
  • A group of people who know what you are going through. No explanation necessary.
  • And finally, did I mention friendship?

How lucky am I to benefit from the wisdom of this terrific lifeboat?

P.S. I hope to see some of you Saturday at the Boston Book Festival! I will be moderating a panel called “WhyDunnit”. Edith, Barb, and Liz will be on this same panel, which is sponsored by Sisters in Crime New England. If you are there, make sure you say hello!

Wicked Wednesday – Keeping Series Characters Evolving

It’s Wicked Wednesday, when we all weigh in on a topic. This month, we’re focusing on craft, so naturally we’re starting the conversation with characters. Since we all write series, we’re constantly thinking about creating interesting, three-dimensional, continuously evolving characters. Today we’re sharing some of the ways we do that.

Liz: I’m constantly thinking about Stan’s evolution as I get deeper into the Pawsitively Organic series. It’s been so interesting to see her come alive from the original sketch I created for my proposal. Now, three books later, I’m watching her become a different person as she settles into her new life. She’s learning how to think outside of the structured environment in which she spent most of her adult life. She’s learning how to deal with a relationship that’s much more than a convenience thing. And she’s forced to explore a complicated relationship with her mother that she’s ignored for a long time. To get to the heart of why she’s doing certain things, I try to keep in mind what her motivation would be for everything – what makes sense based on who she is. And a lot of times, we’re discovering that together so it’s a fun process.

Edith: I hope Cam is evolving in the Local Foods Mysteries! I know readers have reportedsnowonhoophouse that they like her evolving relationships,  and she’s certainly learning a lot about farming, at which she was a novice half a year before the series started. In the third book, Farmed and Dangerous, which takes place during a snowy January, she finds the strength to do a couple of things she thought she’d never have to (sorry, can’t reveal more or I’d spoil the plot!). Probably the main way she’s changing is getting out of her social isolation as a software engineer and learning how to be comfortable with people, which she has to do as a farmer. But what Liz says is true – we have to always keep the character’s motivation in mind.

Barb: Such a timely question for me as I work on my proposal for the next three books in the Maine Clambake Mystery series. In Clammed Up, Julia Snowden returns to the Maine harbor town of her birth to spend the summer leading the charge to save her family’s ailing clambake business. Complications ensue. She’s in love with a guy who will never follow her back to New York. What to do? It’s important to me that Julia keeps evolving, and that we don’t get stuck in this will-she-or-won’t-she relationship forever. After all, she’s thirty, not fifteen, and adults either do or they don’t. So the next three books will have a different question at their heart. And as soon as I know what it is, (and it gets the go-ahead from my editor), I’ll let you know!

Sherry: One of the story lines in the Sarah Winston Garage Sale Series is Sarah learning to live on her own. She married at nineteen and then at thirty-eight is divorced in Tagged for Death. She has to support herself for the first time too. She also lives across the country from her family so emotional support through a difficult time is another issue.

Jessie: The overall character arc for Dani, the protagonist in the Sugar Grove series involves her being taken more seriously by her family, her community and even by herself. In each of the books Dani grows herself as she grows her business. Little by little she is putting her own stamp on what has been a family endeavor and she gets stronger with each passing book.

I like creating growth situations for some of the supporting characters too, like Dani’s mother and sister. I think it makes for a richer story and I have a lot of fun exploring how Dani’s changes prompt some of theirs as well.

Readers: Have you seen the characters in the Wicked Cozys’ books evolve? What about in other series you love? Do you stop reading if the protagonist never changes?

In the Name of Research – Writer’s Police Academy

Liz here. This month, we’re focusing a lot of our topics on research, so I wanted to share this ultimate research adventure! In September 2012, Edith and I had the pleasure of attending the Writer’s Police Academy hosted by the fabulous Lee Lofland and some of the best law enforcement professionals in the country. It was definitely a weekend to remember, and I wrote a guest post about my experience. The below article first appeared on The Graveyard Shift blog, Sept. 2012. 

I spent a beautiful September weekend in North Carolina being shot at by drug dealers, shooting (and killing) fugitives and uncovering a makeshift grave. 

It was one of the best weekends of my life. 

But I expected nothing less from my first Writer’s Police Academy. I’d heard only great things about Lee’s event, and every one of them was true. Being immersed in the world of law enforcement, experiencing what these brave men and women experience every day, getting hands on and seeing and hearing the reality of their job was incredible and sobering and endlessly fascinating. 

Crime has always drawn me (not committing it, I promise) as much as telling stories has drawn me. The first research paper I ever wrote as an 11-year-old detailed the Charles Stuart murder case in Boston. While my friends were reading Sweet Valley High books, I could be counted on to have my nose in a true crime serial killer account. Even then, I was fascinated with the “whys” of each story, a gift from my grandfather, who spent decades as a detective in Lawrence, Mass. and had the stories to prove it. 

Family and friends of police officers know: a large part of police work is retelling the war stories. I was always an anomaly in my family due to my outlandish imagination and obsession with scary stories, so my grandfather’s penchant for telling these narratives — both real and embellished — was a breath of fresh air. Those stories drew me into his world, like a key to a secret club. They fed my imagination and got me asking questions and gave me yet another reason to admire him. I ate them up and imagined the days when I’d get to tell my own. 

As an adult, I didn’t pursue the job. But I did the next best thing: I became a crime fiction writer. Which meant learning everything about how cops and sheriffs and FBI and DEA agents do their jobs to make it believable on the page. I read tons of books, wormed my way onto any crime story I could catch as a reporter and supplemented my interest with friends on the job. I collected stories from police captains, parole officers and corrections officers. I tried to weasel my way into ride-alongs and local police business.

And this year, I finally got to the Writer’s Police Academy. 

me_edith

Lee and the law enforcement professionals who gave their time and expertise to our quirky group gave us an invaluable gift. We were privy to not only their firsthand experiences, but seeing and being part of those experiences. Crashing though doors with shields and rifles and learning how to sweep an apartment potentially full of lethal enemies, feeling the adrenaline rush to discover a person actually waiting behind the door (right, Edith?) and understanding how easy it would be for something to go wrong in a split second. 

TonyGoing through a firearms simulation where a mass shooter is killing innocent people and trying to gauge if and when you should shoot him. Traipsing through the woods (we were lucky the weather happened to be nice) and finding a finger in your path, and a few yards later finding the person the finger belonged to buried with leaves and twigs in a shallow hole. Imagining the insects swarming, the smells, the aftermath. 

Watching a live police chase and seeing what could happen when a traffic stop turns into something much more menacing. Learning how someone could slip out of their handcuffs and give a cop a really bad night. 

Me_cuffed

And the stories. As much as I loved being “shot at” by drug dealers and shooting bad people and everything else Lee had in store for us, what really grabbed me were the stories. Every officer and agent there let us into their lives. Some of the stories were funny, others were tragic, some were downright terrifying. But they were all real. I could’ve sat there for weeks and just listened, whether it was tales of a killer sighting his or her prey, the realities of gang violence, or how undercover cops avoid a drug dealer’s request to prove themselves by taking drugs. My grandfather would have been in his glory. 

Everything I did, saw and heard that weekend gave new meaning to the phrase “putting your life on the line,” and that’s what these people do every day. I was already grateful for the law enforcement officers who work so hard to keep us safe. Now, I’m indebted. 

Lee and all our instructors — thank you. I’ll see you next year, as long as you’ll have us. 

Wicked Wednesday – Wicked Fun Research

It’s Wicked Wednesday again, and today we’re weighing in on a wicked fun type of research. Every now and then as we’re writing along, murdering people and getting our characters into all kinds of dangerous situations, we inevitably find ourselves describing a physical situation that is hard to imagine simply in our heads. So, Wickeds, when that happens, what do you do? Ask your spouse if you can push them (gently, of course) down the stairs? Enlist a friend to put you in a choke hold? Come on, ‘fess up! And what other kinds of fun research do you do for your stories?

Edith: All of the above. In addition, I visit chickens every chance I get and talk to people who keep them so I can get the details on farmer Cam’s rescue chickens correct.

I’ve just finished the first draft of an historical novel set in my town, with John Greenleaf BuggyWhittier as a secondary character, so I’m involved in research I can only confirm through old newspapers, property deeds, maps, and all manner of other sources. But material is everywhere. I went down to our local health center to have blood drawn, and sitting in the waiting room was a carriage from the period I’m writing about, the late 1800s. Of course I grabbed a pen and wrote a description of it. I’m a member of the Whittier Home Association and can wander through Whittier’s house, look at his desk, check out the accurately maintained herb garden, and best, talk to a dozen or two Whittier fans who know way more than I do (and one of whom will be reading a draft for me).

Liz: The good news is that I’m a klutz by nature. So when I needed to figure out how someone would land after a fall down the stairs, all I had to do was go back to the numerous times I’ve tumbled down on my own. Including one banner episode in my younger days where I not only fell down half the flight of stairs, but off the side with no banister in my parents’ basement and landed amidst my mother’s potato bin. Does that count?

Lobsterboat2Barb: Writing about coastal Maine, my research is often complicated by seasonality. I need to see blueberries picked, but it’s the dead of winter. I need to go to a clambake (yes my life is hard) but it hasn’t opened yet. For the next book in my Maine Clambake Mystery series, Musseled Out, I hitched a ride on a lobster boar with Captain Clive Farrin. You should totally do this if you are ever in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, by the way. It’s beautiful and informative and Captain Farrin and his sternman answered all my questions. Oh, how I suffer for my art.

ChairYSSherry: Oh, you poor thing, Barb! Since I’m writing a series with a garage sale theme I can indulge myself by considering going to them “work”. This week I’m visiting my mom in Florida. I headed out to run errands for her and after two right turns, there it was a yard sale sign beckoning to me with its siren song. I had to go. Sadly, for me (and happily for my husband who isn’t crazy about my habit) all of the things I liked were way too big for my suitcase. I had a lovely conversation with the man running the yard sale. His wife refinishes furniture or puts old things together in a new way — a skill I admire and lack!

clock_towers_of_waterbury_hJulie: I can get stuck in research. Right now, I am putting notes in my manuscript that say **find this out** so I don’t stop writing to find out something specific that turns into a three hour Google gorge. But two pieces of research are overarching for me right now. First, I am looking at and finding clock towers. And I am going to the Clock Museum this summer while I’m on vacation. Second, I need to figure out how to map a town. How long does it take Ruth to go to this house, or that store? What makes the journey’s different? And how does that impact the story? Again, right now I am working with a line drawing. But more details need to be sorted out. And I need to add a food element so I can do some research on that.

Jessie: I’ve ended up researching lots of different sorts of things because I write more than one series. In my first book, Live Free or Die, the main character is a volunteer sap buckets farm museumfire fighter and I was lucky enough to interview three different firefighters to help that story come alive.  I’ve interviewed sugar makers and conservation officers for my Sugar Grove series. Right now I am working on a historical series and have really enjoyed reading up on the late 1800s, visiting museums and interviewing the town historian in the place I am setting a new series.

One of my favorite ways to assemble my research thoughts is visually. So much of what I do as a writer, of course, uses words. Images feel like such a luxurious break and I like to use Pinterest to help me remember things and to imagine extravagantly.

Readers: What kind of research have you done? Was it fun or painful? Ask a Wicked a question about ours!