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!

Lori:

[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.

I’ll do it later…

By Liz, pondering life instead of working on book six.

I’m sure you’ve seen the meme on Facebook depicting the long timeline meant to capture a creative project. Basically, the beginning of the timeline is where the work begins. Then most of the rest of the timeline is colored in red with the words “F*** off” underneath. Then a small spot of yellow labeled “Panic.” Finally, a tiny patch of green labeled “All the work while crying,” until we reach the deadline.

Folks, this is often me. I kick myself for it every time, and swear I’ll never do it again. Sometimes I have what I think is a good reason to put off a big project, like my latest book (the day job, personal drama, moving, sick pets, fill-in-the-blank). Other times, my only good reason is that I’ve been watching too many Gilmore Girls reruns. Either way, good reason or bad, I’m stressing myself out for no reason.

dont-let-your-want-for-perfection-become-procrastination

I’ve always been this way. I remember the time in high school that I put off studying for my geometry final until 9 p.m. the night before – then asked my dad (a math teacher) to help me study.

“Sure,” he said. “What chapter?”

I looked at him with a puzzled frown. “Well, all of them,” I said, as if it were a perfectly reasonable request. He almost passed out.

Another time I waited until the day before a big paper was due to write it. And by write it, I mean sit at the computer and bang out the first and last draft. It was going well – until the computer had some malfunction (these were the VERY early Apple days) and the document disappeared. After a minor heart attack I figured out how to restore it, but it was stressful. Still, I finished the paper, turned it in and got an “A.” At least in this area, I’m fortunate that I’m good enough at it that I can operate this way. But it’s still not optimal for mental health.

As a reporter, I got used to writing under the gun. After all, most of the time stories came in at the eleventh hour and you had to run out, get the interviews, then run back, write, and file—usually within an hour or two. And usually with a scanner blaring next to your ear and an editor breathing down your neck. I know there’s a big difference between a 15- or 17-inch story and a 70,000 word story, but the goal is the same: To write something that informs/entertains/keeps the readers’ interest. And write it in the timeframe you’ve agreed to, whether that’s two hours or nine months.

So why do I continue this bad habit? I’m really not sure. I used to beat myself up about it, until I saw this quote by Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way:

“Procrastination is not laziness. It is fear. Call it by its right name, and forgive yourself.”

If I really stop and think about it, she’s right. It’s fear of not being good enough, not doing it right, not living up to reader’s expectations, not being able to figure out the plot, you name it. In this case, it could also be fear of the end of a contract, without knowing if it will be continued. If I finish the book, will I have to say goodbye to my friends in Frog Ledge?

But part of this job—this life—is uncertainty, and learning how to live with it. It’s not easy, but it’s doable. So with that in mind, I’m going to stop putting off that next scene, and get back to writing.

Readers, what chore/hobby/job do you procrastinate?

Tuning In

Jessie: In book jail on the coast of Maine.

WHISPERSHIRESI have a confession. After having written five books I still don’t know where the stories come from. I don’t really mean the little snippets and nuggets of ideas that you tuck away and think “Oh, wouldn’t that be interesting to use in a book someday”. I mean the whole complex thing of starting with almost nothing and ending up with a whole world complete with complex people, vibrant settings and intriguing conflicts.

I wish I could say it had something to do with me but I am not really sure that it does. As I work I find myself wondering if my role is that of a conduit through which an existing story flows. I often have a sneaking suspicion that rather than making my books up I somehow happened to tune into a sort of radio frequency and I simply hear them and then write them down.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as I’ve been doing time in book jail, putting the finishing touches on my second Change of Fortune mystery. The main character, Ruby Proulx, is clairaudient. She has the benefit of a voice she hears from time to that gives her advice. Throughout the course of the first book in the series, Whispers Beyond the Veil, with effort, she manages to hear the voice more clearly and to tap into it at will rather than by chance.

I find myself hoping that life will imitate art and that my own ability to tune in will improve as much as Ruby’s. Is it possible to get a clearer signal? Is there some way to make the rest of life quieter so the story is more easily heard? Is that all wishful thinking?

In the end it probably doesn’t matter where the stories come from as long as they manage to get told. As long as the voices come out through the fingertips and onto the page, and readers enjoy the results, it really makes no difference if I thought of it all, or none of it at all. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Readers, do you have any suggestions for quieting the outside world? Writers, where do you think the stories come from?

 

Myth-Busting, Part III – Personal Editing

WW Editing

Congratulations to Terri Crossley! You are the winner of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mysteries. Please contact Sherry at SherryHarrisauthor.com! Random.org was used for the drawing.

This month, we’ve busting myths and rules about writing and the writing process. We’ve talked about character bibles and word count goals, and today we’re talking personal editing habits.

Many writers and teachers alike follow the mantra of, “Get the whole first draft down before you edit a word.” It works for a lot of people, especially those who dread the slog of a first draft. But some people say they need to look at what they’ve already done and make it better before they can move forward. So who’s right? Wickeds, what do you think?

Sherry: I do a combination of both. I think I’ve shared the odd way I write before — the beginning, the end, and then back to the middle. Because of this I do some editing along the way. But avoid writing and rewriting the same scene over and over. I think that is a form of procrastination or fear of failure.

Jessie: I am of the “get the draft done, then go back” school of thought. I don’t change anything already written before the draft is done. For example, if I decide to combine two characters into one, I go forward as if that has always been the case from the moment I make the decision. I wait until a revision draft to begin to patch things up. I tend to write quickly during those early drafts and I really don’t want anything slowing down my flow.

Barb: I am also of the “never look back” school, partially because I don’t know what needs to be fixed until I’ve gotten to the end, read the whole first draft, and made some decisions. I could waste a lot of time going back and fixing stuff–and then end up cutting the whole scene for one reason or another. Sometimes I KNOW I’m creating continuity issues, but I soldier on.

Julie: I write the entire draft. But, I use inline edits in Scrivener, and also use brackets and write myself notes like this [fix this later] [find out what you called her in the second chapter] [add more clock stuff here] [is this true or did you make it up?]. I’ve learned to trust my plotting, and keep on going.

Edith: I also like to crank out the sh**ty first draft, as Anne Lamott said. I try not to stop for research while I’m writing, instead typing [CHECK THIS] or a variation on one of Julie’s notes. One of my first editing passes is to search for left square bracket and then go check for answers to those questions. That said, every morning when I start writing I reread what I wrote the day before. I do some minor editing, fleshing out, tweaking. It gets me back into the story and reminds me of what’s coming up next.

Blue_socks,_knitting_in_progress

Photo by Lisa Risager (blue socks for a feminist) via Wikimedia Commons

I think it’s interesting that this approach we all pretty much share would not work in some other art forms – like knitting, for example! Can you imagine knitting the rough draft for a sock and then polishing it? Although it might work for a painting. I wouldn’t know, not having talents in that direction, but I can imagine an artist might lay down the rough idea for a picture and then fine tune it.

Liz: I always intend to write the first  draft through, but when I get stuck I find that if I go back and do some editing, I end up making changes that get me unstuck. I don’t love that it works that way because I always feel like I’m never going to get the entire book done, but it seems to work – even when I’m churning out the last chapter after the rest of the book has been revised a few times!

Readers: What do you crank out and then refine, and what kinds of projects do you have to make your best on the first try? Writers – anybody out there write just one draft, ready to submit?

The Five Definitions of Scene

image

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?

Save

Wicked Wednesday – What’s in Your Character’s Purse?

We’ve been talking a lot about our characters lately, and what makes them who they are. Well, what says more than what’s in your purse (or messenger bag, or backpack, or whatever else they carry with them constantly?)

So Wickeds, what’s in your main character’s favorite bag that they absolutely can’t live without?

totebagBarb: When Julia Snowden left Manhattan, she also left behind the laptop bag and crossbody purse that went with her life in venture capital. Since she’s landed back in Maine, she’s carried a canvas Snowden Family Clambake tote. Sometimes it contains clues Julia’s investigating, like a blowup of a photo from her phone, or a copy of an old insurance report. Other times, it’s more mundane stuff, like Snowden Family Clambake brochures or her mom’s mail fetched from the Post Office. The tote bag also holds her nylon wallet, sunblock or chapstick depending on the season, a bundle of covered rubber bands to pull back her hair if she’s on a boat or around food prep, and her smartphone, which works pretty well in Maine, except where it doesn’t.

Liz: Stan Connor is always prepared. It comes from her life in corporate America. These days she’s still a sucker for a high-end bag, but she usually leaves that behind unless she’s going somewhere fancy. When she’s running around town solving murders or collecting organic ingredients for her recipes, she’s usually got a tote bag with her that can easily hold her emergency dog and cat treats, notebooks where she collects ideas for recipes and jots down her on the spot ideas for new flavors and ingredients and random veggies she happens upon at a farmers’ market. Her staples include a makeup bag with her favorite Urban Decay eyeliner and mascara, hair ties, and travel dog water bowls. She also carries emergency information about her pets in her wallet too, with her bank card and license. Her cell phone is usually in her pocket, though, just in case she runs out without her bag in a huge hurry.

Edith: Cam Flaherty carries an Otis-Rein messenger bag with crows stenciled oRose's satcheln it. Inside she has keys, chapstick, a nail file, and farm business cards, plus her smart phone, pens, a comb for her short hair and a slim wallet with necessary cards, license, and money. Robbie
Jordan likes her red Baggallini because of all the pockets – and it has room for a couple of emergency granola bars, too. And while Rose Carroll’s midwifery satchel isn’t exactly a purse, it carries all the supplies she needs for attending births: herbs, her Pinard horn, tape measure, scissors and cord-tying string, a stoppered bottle of carbolic acid, a few other pieces of equipment – plus her knitting and some dried fruit for energy at long labors.

Jessie: Ruby Proulx lives in Old Orchard in 1898 so her satin reticule would not be large enough for today’s needs. When she fled Canada for her aunt Honoria’s hotel in Old Orchard, Maine she had a few dollars, a photograph of her mother and a deck of tarot cards in her small satin reticule. Even after Ruby grows accustumed to her new life she kept using the same small purse or others that are like it. Her aunt has credit at all the local shops and Ruby generally has purchases added to the Hotel Belden’s account so she has little need to carry cash. Since respectable women of the day did not make a habit of wearing makeup, or at least never admitted to doing so, Ruby doesn’t carry any cosmetics either.

Sherry: What a fun question! Sarah loves red purses (she calls them that instead of a pocketbook like most of the residents of Ellington) and it has to be a big one because she has to carry a lot of stuff. She’d never be caught without a big tape measure because who knows when you are going to find that perfect thing at a yard sale that may or may not fit in your house. She probably has a notebook and paper for sketching out room designs. Her phone for keeping notes on. Tissues (she’s allergic to cats), lipstick, and a wallet. On occasion she’s been known to carry a screw driver and hammer around just in case she has to take something apart to fit in her Suburban.

Julie: Chief Jeff Paisley referred to Ruth as a hipster Mary Poppins, because of the bag she carries, and the fact that anything she needs gets pulled out of it. The bag itself is a cross body messenger bag. She’s glad that steampunk is popular, because it has cogs and wheels all over it. Ruth loves her large Moleskin notebooks, which she uses to sketch ideas, and make lists. She’s inherited the notebook habit from her grandfather. In addition to notebooks, she has pencils, erasers, lip gloss, tons of tools to tame her hair, straws, a small toolkit, a magnifying glass, a flashlight. And, of course, her cellphone and a wallet.

Readers, what’s a staple in your bag or favorite carryall?

The Blank Page

News Flash: Barbara Kay and Cynthia Balevre are the winners from yesterday’s post! Check your inboxes, ladies, and congratulations.

Liz Mugavero: Every time I finish a book, especially after a particularly harrowing deadline crunch, I feel like I want to crawl into a hole. A hole with no computer, more specifically. I feel like every piece of my creativity is completely wrung out, like I’ll never be able to turn out another word.

But I also have an immense sense of freedom, of being able to join the living again, to answer the 10,000 emails that have piled up, to actually leave the house.

The last thing I want to do is write. I say it will be at least two weeks, maybe a month, before I can even think about a new story or my Blankcharacters or a good opening scene. I happily push it all out of my mind and begin to go about my new, free life.

But during those relaxing walks around the town green, while Shaggy sniffs trees and we watch birds, I find myself typing notes into my phone—quick thoughts about something I saw that would fit into a story, or an overheard conversation that would make a great first line.

Or I’m in the car and suddenly an entire plot line jumps into my head and I have to tell Siri to take notes for me so I don’t lose it before I get home. Then I go home and start working on my synopsis for the next book. And guess what? It’s only been three days since I swore I wasn’t working on a book.

Am I crazy? Obsessed?

Nah, I’m just a writer. I can’t stop. I’ve never been able to. Telling stories is what I’m here to do, and it’s not something I can simply turn off. And in that free space that comes from finishing a project, new creativity has even more room to blossom. It doesn’t so much need time to return, but rather space to blossom.

Then I’m overcome with the possibilities of what’s going to happen to my characters this time. What dire problems I can bestow on them, and how they’ll figure a way out of it.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

It is. I do admit, I like a finished book that needs editing. It feels like I’ve climbed a mountain and can now linger on the way down the other side, taking my time and being all the things I didn’t see in that arduous climb.

But there’s something to be said for that blank page.