Why I’m a Standalone Writer — Guest Lori Rader-Day

I am happy to welcome back Lori Rader-Day. We met at Left Coast Crime in 2014 when we were both debut authors. Our first books weren’t even out yet. Lori’s third book, The Day I Diedreleased on April 11th!


[Movie trailer voice] IN A WORLD where the mystery genre is built upon series characters, Lori Rader-Day is a serial author of—standalones.

Hi, I’m Lori, and I write… standalones.

[Everyone chines in.] Hi, Lori.

[A voice from the back of the room] You’re safe here, Lori.

Am I? Am I really? I’m looking around and everyone else—wow, this is hard. Everyone else has a series. Some of them have two or three series. It’s easy to feel as though I’m not doing something right, you know? Like I am not a real mystery author, because I haven’t written a series yet.

Face it. Mystery readers love series. They are always going on about Miss Fisher and Vera and Dexter and Sookie and Longmire. I get it. There’s something great about knowing that the thing you like and have read or, since series books are sometimes turned into television, watched—there’s more! There’s more of this thing I really enjoyed! It’s all good news!

Publishers also love series titles. You know why? Because the marketing does its dang self when it comes to series books. Launch once, write into infinity, and your happy readers from the first book are likely to keep picking up later titles, as long as you let them know they are available. If new readers discover you later into the series, that’s also good news for your backlist sales. Again: all good news.

Wow, you guys are really turning me around on this—

[Voice from the back of the room] Stay strong, Lori.

[Deep breath] OK, right. There’s a reason I write standalones, even so. And the reason is—me. I like standalones. I like to read them. I like knowing that the book I’m picking up is the whole story, that I’m not missing three books prior to this one and hence a lot of backstory. I’m a little OCD on this. If I find a series book that I want to read, I can’t just pick up that new book. I have to go back into the backlist and find the first book. Why? Because I want the origin story. How did this character become an amateur sleuth? Why did they become a bounty hunter instead of a lingerie salesperson (Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum) or a private investigator instead of a lady of leisure (Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver)? I’m not going to skip THAT story of all stories they have to tell. That’s the best one!

So there’s my own reading practices to blame. I will take a good standalone over anything, any day of the week. A fully realized story and character, where everything is left on the page and nothing “saved” for a future book is my kind of book.

Though I do like series books. When I find a character who has the potential to carry an ongoing story of growth and change, of course I’ll read that—

[Voice from the second row] She’s wavering. Do something.

But the real reason that I write standalones has nothing to do with my reading habits and everything to do with my own attention span.

When I was writing my first two published novels, I was working a day job. A demanding one. To get my writing done, I had to use my lunch hour almost every day of the week. I was turning down lunch invitations with real friends to go spend time with these fake friends I was making up. I had to make myself want to be at the blank page, or I wouldn’t show up there. There were just so many other things to do. Life easily gets in the way.

So I had to keep things interesting in what I was writing—giving myself fun assignments like two first-person narrators or a really fun character with bad behavior—but I also had to keep myself engaged with the next thing. As in, when I finish THIS manuscript, I get to write something completely different. I get to write The Brand New Shiny Idea!

The Brand New Shiny Idea cannot be a second book with the same character, you see. That’s not Brand New or Shiny enough.

I guess you can say I use the next book, the next standalone by definition, as the carrot at the end of the stick of writing my current project.

[Mumble from somewhere in row four] Heavy-handed metaphor alert.

There are just so many story ideas out there to be written, and the ones that occur to me have me hopping from one character to another, from one setting to another. For now. Someday I hope one of the characters I write gives me another idea—and then another one—for what she wants to do. I will welcome that turn of events. But until then…

[Murmurs from among the group.]

[Voice from the back] You can do it!

I am a standalone writer. Thank you for your support.

Readers: Do you read standalones? Have you thought about writing one?

Lori Rader-Day, author of The Day I Died, The Black Hour, and Little Pretty Things, is the recipient of the 2016 Mary Higgins Clark Award and the 2015 Anthony Award for Best First Novel. Lori’s short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Time Out Chicago, Good Housekeeping, and others. She lives in Chicago, where she teaches mystery writing at StoryStudio Chicago and is the president of the Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter.

Scrivener Tips

We’ve arrived at the middle Wicked Wednesday out of five this month!

We haven’t talked about Scrivener for a while, but we [ALMOST] all use it for our writing. Wickeds, share your favorite new (or old) tip for writing fiction in Scrivener. Keywords? Compiling? Let’s let each other, and the world, know what in this fabulous application makes creating a book easier for us. On your marks, get set, dish!

Edith: I make heavy use of the synopsis card. In it (in the Inspector) I jot down the day and time the scene takes place – Thursday 4 PM, for example – and then a quick couple of sentences about what happens: “Cam drives home, reacts to news about her mom being in there with Susan.” After I read a scene to my critique group I prepend R to the synopsis so I can tell at a glance if I’ve already shared that scene. When I’m revising and I need to remember where in my list of thirty or forty scenes something happened, I can slowly mouse over the list of scenes in the Binder and the start of the synopsis shows up in a small text window.

Liz: I love the synopsis cards too, Edith. What I haven’t figured out is how to not have those little blurbs print when I compile so I don’t have to go through the word doc and delete all the extra stuff. Maybe you can show me! What I like is the ability to color code and tag things differently in the “general” section under the synopsis area. So I color code my day of the week so I can see if I have too much action each day or too little. And you can edit so the colors show in different places, like right in the binder area, or just the Screenshot 2016-03-13 09.02.51synopsis cards, etc. Then my next category is place, so I can see where things are happening around town. I’m sure there are tons and tons of things I haven’t figured out yet in Scrivener, but I love it so much – it makes life easier!

Oh – and one more thing. I use a Mac, and unfortunately there is no Scrivener app for iPad. BUT – I recently learned about Simplenote, which syncs with Scrivener so you can bring your scenes with you on iPad, then sync them back up in Scrivener. It saves all versions too, so you don’t have to worry about overwriting something accidentally. I love this when I have to travel for work and don’t want to bring two computers with me.

[Edith: The blurbs never show up when I compile, Liz. We’ll have to compare notes next time we get a chance!]

Jessie: I love the split screen feature which I use frequently during the revisions process. I am using it even more often now that I am writing books with more than one viewpoint character. Sometimes I want to try rewriting a scene from the other character’s POV and having the original scene in front of me whilst I do so gives me a strong sense of whether it is working in real time.

Julie: First of all, how much do I love that I’m learning more tips? My favorite thing to do these days is to figure out new ways to compile. Example? Lately I’ve compiled my scene cards into a document that I keep with me. When I have a block of time to write, I can look at that document, work on a scene, and then paste it into Scrivener when I get home. I am also color coding days of the week, so I can remember where I am. Also, if I end up moving a scene, I visually know I need to go back and change any time references.

Barb: Liz, have you tried check the Compile button=>Formatting=>uncheck synopsis (for every scene)?

I put all my character names as keywords, so the show up in the outline view when I am revising.

I prefer the screen outline view to the print one because it's more compact, so I screen capture and print.

I prefer the screen outline view to the print one because it’s more compact, so I screen capture and print.

Edith: Outline view? That’s a new one for me! I also put my characters names as keywords. Must investigate outline view …

Sherry: Au contraire, dear Edith — I don’t use Scrivener. I tried to learn and even signed up for an online class. I started out with the lessons but soon grew impatient. I’d rather write than take time to learn the program. At Left Coast Crime a couple of authors were talking about a different program with a much easier learning curve — now if I could just remember the name of that program!

Edith: I’m sorry, Sherry! I thought we all used it. It’s never too late…

Readers: Questions about Scrivener? Things you love, or hate, about the application? Or, like Sherry, have you tried it and found it not to your liking?

Procrastinating and other tales from the crypt….er, basement office.

By Liz, from the bowels of the basement office in Connecticut. Is it spring yet?

I’m a procrastinator by nature. I used to get in trouble with my parents for it all the time when I was kid. I would leave homework, papers, in one case a whole semester of geometry until the last possible minute. But I always prevailed with a good grade. Except maybe in the case of geometry, but I’ve never actually needed that in my adult life anyway.

So, back to procrastination. It never seemed to be a huge problem before. There was sometimes that moment of panic when I realized the task ahead of me was bigger than I originally thought, but once I focused, I got though it.

The reason I’m telling you this is because I hit that moment of panic recently relating to book #3. (Which, on a side note, I’m thrilled to announce has an official name finally – The Icing on the Corpse!) That panic came when I counted down the days until my deadline – May 1 – and the amount of work I had left to do. Including, yeah, the entire climax scene. Which I hadn’t even written the rough draft of yet.

Why, you ask? It’s simple – I procrastinated. I’ve been working on the book since last fall, and while my word count was nearly there, a good portion of the book was not. And I needed to get my butt in the chair, stat.

So I scheduled three nearly uninterrupted vacation days from work tacked up against a weekend and locked myself away. I had tea, I had essential oils, I had Shaggy and Finny (my muses), I had a lot of notepads and I had the Freedom app.

And then I had no choice.

I wrote out a whole new timeline (twice), I deleted a whole bunch of words, I added scenes and edited early chapters and started to see connections and possibilities and the places where I was just rambling to make myself feel like I was in a good place word count wise.

Using my beloved Scrivener, I moved scenes around and dragged all the ones I had no idea if I would use in the final draft into one place where I didn’t have to look at them.

By the end of day three, I felt like I had finally gotten some control back over my world.

Barb Ross recently wrote a great post about the amount of work it takes to get a book written: the plot aspect, the character aspect, the secondary plots, all those relationships, the secrets. After reading about Barb’s process, I made some new lists this time. One was a list of what was revealed when, which was really helpful to see on paper.

I also realized something about my process. It’s definitely not like anyone else’s – and that’s okay. My first drafts rarely have the endings written when I go back to the beginning and start editing. I just need that big picture to make the final scenes work. So I never truly have a complete “first draft” until the third or fourth revision.

Which means I’m just about ready to write the end. I better get back to work. Maybe next time I won’t procrastinate so long – but probably not. Hey, at least it isn’t warm outside yet!

Readers and writers, does anyone else have a procrastination problem to share?