If I Knew Then….

If it’s so good to know, why didn’t Merlin just tell Arthur what the future held for him in Once and Future King and be done with it?

Because there would be no story.

It’s the story that is important. The ending is only one part of the story. I have heard of people who read the end of the mystery first. I do not. I want to play the puzzle that the author spent a year plus of his or her life constructing for me. But I do sometimes re-read a mystery in order to study how that writer exposed and buried the clues.

Still the puzzle is only one part of the mystery story. There is the thrill of adventure. There are character arcs. We want the characters to get what they deserve whether it’s happy-ever-after or a comeuppance. I love surprises. I love the escape. Sometimes there is exposure to a new point-of-view on something that is germane to our times and I like seeing how other people think.

Girl on a Train was a big hit even though the ultimate question (“Is she going to get murdered for sticking her nose in to other people’s business?”) really wasn’t at stake at all. Unless it became apparent early that she was telling the story from beyond the grave, we knew she wasn’t going to get killed. So the thriller-style ending didn’t work for me. I liked the book otherwise. The author tracked the downward spiral of the protagonist’s alcoholism vividly.

At times, I feel like the author tried, and failed, to manipulate me by posing a mortal threat that is obviously no threat at all. Even as I watch Star Trek with my 12 year old grandson and it looks like one of the crew is in some mortal danger, he’s learned from me not to worry if the crew member is a star of the show. That actor has a contract and he’ll outlive the instant danger to appear in the next episode. Not so for the redshirts, of course, those sad unnamed crew members that get vaporized by some hostile alien. Even so, every episode is a ripping good story so I watch them.

Adrian McKinty successfully played with the mortal-threat-to-the-progat stakes in his last book in the Sean Duffy Series, Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly. He opened with bad guys taking Duffy out into the woods to be shot. The scene stops just when Duffy is pretty sure there is no way out. The next scene starts with the backstory and the book spools out the events leading up to this climactic scene. Added to the suspense was my expectation that this would be the last Duffy book. He could get shot. Authors have killed off their sleuths before to be done with them. Conan Doyle killed Sherlock. Dame Agatha killed Poirot.

But you won’t hear it from me. If you want to know if Duffy dies, buy the book.



Rolling with the Punches (of First Draft)

Flexible.  That’s the key word in this writing business.  We gotta be flexible, because we can’t always predict the curveballs Life will toss at us.  We can’t always predict those things that later we wish we would’ve known.  Sometimes they morph into mistakes, and maybe we shouldn’t avoid them, as Sam pointed out yesterday.  Maybe it’s all part of the Bigger Plan.

It’s the same with first drafts.

I’m a pantser, trying very hard to learn how to write to outline.  Right or wrong, I have this idea that outlines should save me a lot of trouble down the road.  At least, that’s my theory, because I often take wrong turns and end up un-writing thousands of words.

So, for my current Work in Progress, I decided to try this outline approach.  I used as a template Hallie Ephron’s blueprint in her wonderful book, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel.  Lo and behold, answering her questions and figuring out what information needed to go when and where actually gave me the skeleton of an outline!  I sharpened my pencils and was all set to go.

Somewhere about 10k words in, I noticed my draft was a bit off-kilter from my outline.  No problem, I told myself.  The story itself was more or less on track.  I will go back and edit later, of course.  I kept plowing on, introducing the cast one-by-one, including Victim #1, Villain, and Innocent Suspects, all as previously outlined.

Then around 18k words a new character popped into the story, arguing with Victim #2.

Hello, who the heck are you? Where did you come from, and what’s your beef?

The character explained, told me his name, and convinced me of his need to be in the story.  I decided to let him stay.  What harm could he do?  Someone has to do the grunt work in the story, and besides, I Am God.  I can always take him out later if he doesn’t pull his weight.  I assigned him a Supporting Cast role and moved on.

Now I’m 26k words in, and I still can’t persuade Innocent Suspect #3 to show his face.

C’mon out!  You’re overdue for your scene!  

He is still not talking to me.  I suspect he doesn’t want to be in the story.  Maybe he’ll show up later, but later doesn’t fit with the outline.  *sigh*  I will press on without him for now and see how the draft turns out.  I’ve got to be flexible.  I just hope I am not on the verge of a character revolt.

If only I’d known…

Onto the Next Mistake!

As long as you haven’t murdered anyone or sent out your manuscript too early, then there’s not too much you should redo in life (unless you’re Keenan Powell who clearly missed at least twelve opportunities to become a billionaire).

Dwelling on failures will drive a person to crippling self doubt and copious amounts of junk food. For instance, student loans. This month’s theme, “What I wish I’d known,” made me think of the $40,000 in interest I’ve paid on a degree I don’t use. Let’s not mention that again. It’s almost as disturbing to consider all those those manuscripts I sent out too early. I remember the first query I sent. I was getting breakfast ready for the kids and making coffee. Suddenly, I was all like: Does this querying thing even work? Will NYC people even respond to me? Why am I spending every spare minute writing this book? Who am I and what is the point of life on earth? So, I sent a query to a big fancy literary agent. Within ten minutes she asked to see the full manuscript. Oops. The manuscript in question was filled with comment bubbles, 10,000 words too long, and generally sucked. It also started with a dream sequence, a wake-up, and looking in the mirror. Strangely, that part was in the sample I sent her, so maybe people don’t hate that stuff as much as they say they do?

I clearly could have done a billion things better, at least ten things yesterday. For instance, when my husband offered to watch the kids so I could work, I should have said yes. I wish I could go back in time and redo that one, especially now that the kids are home sick today. Anyways, you can’t spend your whole life second guessing yourself, particularly with writing. Who doesn’t have a book that could have been amazing if only we were a little smarter, better, and knew the vampire genre was already dead.

Speaking of literary trends–being too late or too early to a trend must be on most writer’s “If I’d only known” list. Personally, I’m late to everything. I’m currently working on a ghost book only to find that “ghosts are out.” I think technology and social media is at fault for some of this. Just a guess, but it seems like trends emerge and die at pretty much the same pace that Apple introduces iPhones. What can you do? Unless you happen to start the next trend, you just have to write the best book you can and hope that someone wants to read it. Although, I don’t recommend trying to resuscitate a dead genre.  Just write a good book and don’t give up.

Everyone has something they should have known. The key is to avoid becoming that old lady telling everyone who comes over for coffee about her one missed chance, as if it was the only chance. Just keep making mistakes. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is stumbling from one failure to the next with no loss of enthusiasm.” If nothing else, that quote validates my current approach to life and writing, so I’m going with it.

Where the kids are

I was so fortunate to be invited to participate in YA Fest at the Palmer Branch of the Easton  Public Library this past weekend. The event consisted of over 40 young adult authors selling and signing books. Some authors got to do a special meet-and-greet with teens. There was an author Skype session. The organizers raffled off huge stacks of books from various publishing houses. It was truly awesome.

It’s not every day, not every year, I get to meet other authors and gush over their books. Nor is it often I get to hear from readers directly. I was particularly floored to find out that the library’s adult YA book group read Grunge Gods and Graveyards for their book club pick. Since the story is set in 1996, it’s perfect for adult YA readers. Something I yell into the ether often.

I was also excited to simply network with other authors. Even after three books, I still feel like I’m getting my feet wet. My writing process will always be in flux, but the publishing business itself is something I’m completely unfamiliar with. I did get to ask a fellow YA crime fiction writer her thoughts on why the mystery/crime fiction genre doesn’t seem to be as popular in young adult literature as it does in the adult market. And she said, “Teens just read the adult stuff.” Okay, that makes sense. When I was a teen in the 90s, I read adult fiction because there wasn’t the incredible collection of YA books to pick from. But now, YA is a huge market, simply because adults are reading it as well. When I was a teen, my mom wasn’t pilfering books from my Christopher Pike library.

But here’s the thing. YA has a ton of sub genres. Everything from high fantasy to steampunk to contemporary issues to science fiction. There are also adult books in these same genres. But teens stick to the YA offerings because they speak to them. So why the mismatch in crime fiction? Is it simply because adult crime fiction is so well marketed, teens can’t help but pay attention? Gone Girl was such a huge success that if you’re a teen reader who loves crime fiction, why wouldn’t you read the book everyone is talking about? This becomes the gateway book for teen crime fiction readers, except it sends them into the adult sphere, rather than the YA.

Personally, I find YA crime fiction so fun to write. Two years ago, I wrote a post for Writers Digest on how to make a tenacious teen sleuth. You can read it here if you want. But one of the best parts of writing about teenage crime solvers is their ability to be subversive. To break rules because they’re kids, not cops. And because teens are often overlooked. They can eavesdrop. They have access to their peers that adults do not. And the crimes are often as sinister as anything you’d find in an adult read.

So if YA readers are jumping to adult crime fiction instead of reading the books aimed at their age group, then publishers need to see how they can market those titles directly. Take a lesson, perhaps, from the marketing launch of Girl on the Train.

Because there are amazing YA crime fiction books out. Teen readers need to know where to  find them.

Guest Post: Christina Hoag

SkinofTattoosCoverSmallWhere do I start? I’ve got a lot of “if only I knews”! Perhaps the biggest “if only I knew” is how much more I should have done to build my author’s platform before I was even published. In fact, this may have helped me get published as agents and editors are all looking at an author’s platform as much as their manuscript these days.

As a journalist, I should have had a website up and running with my nonfiction book that I co-authored, and I should started other social media sites such as Instagram, GoodReads and a Facebook author page. (I’m glad to say I did do something right—I built my Twitter following to 20.4K over the course of steady daily tweeting.)

I should have started joining writers’ organizations that are open to unpublished authors, like Sisters in Crime, which would have allowed me to network and make more connections that could have helped me gain marketing and promotion expertise. Ditto with writers’ conferences. I could have saved myself so much time and energy in cold-querying agents by pitching them directly at conferences, and again doing that crucial networking.

GirlOnTheBrinkCoverSmallI should have thought more about branding myself and developing one genre instead of, as my former literary agent told me, writing “all over the place.”

So why didn’t I do all this stuff? In short, I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t have the confidence in myself and my writing that I should have. I was intimidated by conferences and organizations because they were just for published authors, or so I thought. According to me, I was just another one in the mass of aspiring novelists begging for a contract. I was afraid I wouldn’t be taken seriously until I was published.

So I got published and then ventured out into the woolly world of trying to get my books discovered. Then began a whole other set of “if only I knews.”

I had no idea developing a genre or writing a series of books was essential to building a publishing career. To me, writing the same stuff over and over again seems boring (and frankly, still does, but….). I also had no idea just how competitive publishing has become and how writing a good book just isn’t enough to catapult you above the heads of everyone else. I didn’t realize getting readers to write reviews was a Promethean struggle.

I didn’t realize I was way ahead of the game in being a newspaper reporter and foreign correspondent for many years, which gave me a far more interesting bio than many as well as more expertise in the subject matter of crime, as I’ve covered real life crime and cops, done ride-alongs and so on.

I also didn’t realize that agents were basically sales people and weren’t going to invest a lot in an author they hadn’t sold, such as in advising them that they should build a platform or social media, or give editorial advice on early-stage manuscripts.

But here’s the thing. If I had known all these things, maybe I wouldn’t have even attempted this foolhardy game of being a novelist at all. I might’ve decided it was just too damn hard. Instead, I focused on my writing, all the time improving so I can be proud to put my name on it. And let’s face it, writing the best book you can write is at the heart of this business. Still, if only I had known there was more to it than just that.

So now I’m building my author platform, slowly but steadily. It’s been a steep learning curve, that’s for sure, but now I know.


ChristinaHoagAuthorHeadshotChristina Hoag is a former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press who’s been threatened by a murderer, had her laptop searched by Colombian guerrillas and phone tapped in Venezuela, hidden under a car to evade Guatemalan soldiers, posed as a nun to get inside a Caracas jail, interviewed gang members, bank robbers, thieves and thugs in prisons, shantytowns and slums, not to forget billionaires and presidents, some of whom fall into the previous categories. Kirkus Reviews praised Christina as a “talented writer” with a “well crafted debut” in Skin of Tattoos (Martin Brown Publishing, 2016), a gangland thriller. Her YA thriller Girl on the Brink (Fire and Ice, 2016) was named to Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2016 YA list. She also writes nonfiction, co-authoring Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence (Turner Publishing, 2014), a groundbreaking book on violence intervention used in several universities. Christina makes her home in Santa Monica and lives on the web at www.christinahoag.com.

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Ready, set…wait

Continuing our theme of “if only I would have known” this month at Mysteristas…

On Tuesday, Kate Lansing talked about how there’s really no rush in publishing, even though we think there is. If we don’t get that book done, we can’t query; and if we don’t query, we won’t get that agent and if we don’t get on it RIGHT NOW all the agents will be gone and we’ll never get published…

<pause for deep breath>

All this put me in mind of my first book (okay, not technically my first book, but the first I felt was good enough to put out there) two years ago. I’d been working on this puppy since 2013. I’d done a critique group. I’d paid to have it professionally edited. This book was ready. I was ready. It was time to query. I was prepped for some rejection; I knew that was part of the game, but I believed in this book and it was time to jump into the pond.

I wrote a query. I sent out about 20 of them. I pitched at a conference. Radio silence. I reworked my query and sent out another 20 or so letters. A few compliments, but mostly “this just isn’t for me” or radio silence.

I admit it. I was devastated.

Devastated enough that I paused writing book 2. Maybe I wasn’t as good as people told me, as I thought. Maybe I should hang it up. But then came along 2016 and The Great Short Story Challenge (or so I have dubbed it) – and I got three acceptances. In a row. In fairly prominent anthologies. Then a fourth rolled in.

Okay, what gives?

By this time, I’d finished book 2 with the help of a new (fabulous) critique group. I was prepared to shop it as book 1 of the series and even sent out one full manuscript. I started book 3 (or book 2, depending on how you look at it), decided I just can’t write and critique at the same time, so pressed pause in the critique process to finish Draft Zero.

But book 1 was still there. I still liked it. I thought it had potential. So I started working on it again with the new critique group. And I learned something very important.

It was not The Best Book It Could Be.

If only I’d known that in 2015. I wouldn’t have pitched. I wouldn’t have burned those 50 agents. I would have taken the time to do the hard work – the work I’m doing now – to make the book better. Because although I went through a period last month where I really hated the thing, two days ago I got an idea that made me fall in love all over again.

There are so many things that make it nearly impossible I would have known that two years ago. I’m a better writer than I was back then. I’ve written more words. I have a solid group at my back, pushing me to do better (even if sometimes I feel like hanging up my keyboard when they don’t quite love my monthly submission as much as I do). It’s possible that I couldn’t have written this book back then.

But I sure wish I’d have know that two years ago.

Fellow Mysteristas – what do you wish you would have known before you took a big plunge?