The Hidden Surprise in the First Draft

I am a slow writer. No so much for blogs, or short stories, but for novels. I plod along though characters and plot. I’m guaranteed to stall at chapters 3 and 13 and not until I’m in the last ten (of generally 40) chapters do I zip along, confident in where my story is going. By this time, a good six months have passed between chapter 1 and chapter 40.

That’s not a bad thing for me in the editing process. My first draft is right out of Scrivener. I run it through Word and a spell check and take it directly to Autocrit. The Autocrit program looks for pacing, passive voice, overused words. All the nasty little items and cause a story to slow until the reader wants to toss it to the wall. Autocrit takes another week or two. Depending on whether my day job has me in Miami for a week or so. Then I settle in for a two to three day read.

That’s where being a slow writer becomes a plus. By the time I get to the read through, I know my characters and my story, but I’ve forgotten the detail. All those little moments that make a novel memorable. The turn of the phrase in this chapter, the dialogue in that. I read my second draft as if I have never seen the book before. It’s all new to me again.

Even reading with a critical eye I find tiny gems amid the OMG I have to cut this out sections. Those little gems make me keep reading and writing. They are the surprises in the first draft. The bits and pieces that I know I will keep and that keep me writing.

Writing is a hard process. It’s one that I love, but it is difficult. By the time I finish a book, I’m thinking, this was so hard to write, no one will ever want to read it. When I dig into the third draft, and realize I’m turning some of the pages wanting to know what happens next (and yes, wearing my red pencil to the nub) I believe again. By the end of the third draft revisions, I’m ready to send my newest child out into the world, confident again that it’s worth the read.

How about you, writers, how do you feel at the end of the writing process? Readers, what keeps you turning the pages?

Kait Carson writes mysteries with a Florida flair. You can connect with her on twitter, @kaitcarson, on Facebook, of by e-mail at

Plot twist!

Otherwise known as a surprise, the plot twist is a key feature in any good mystery; without a good plot twist (or 4 or 6 of them), the story will be, well, predictable and dull. A great writer knows not only how to write a great plot twist, but also when to write them in. So, do most readers love surprises, or is it just me?

In 2010, Sisters in Crime released The Mystery Book Consumer in the Digital Age, a report on consumer book-buying habits. Overwhelmingly, respondents indicated that they like mysteries for the surprises, the twists and turns that built the suspense and kept the reader guessing right to the end of the story.

Of course, the trick for the author is to provide plenty of surprises while still being fair to the reader. Nothing turns me off a story (and sometimes an author) than when they don’t play fair with me, the reader. But a juicy, unexpected twist? Bliss!

I found a list of seven books here with “…the best plot twists and surprise endings ever written.”

  • Fight Club: A Novel (Chuck  Palahniuk)
  • Shutter Island (Dennis Lehane)
  • Gone Girl: A Novel (Gillian Flynn)
  • And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie)
  • Atonement (Ian Mcewan)
  • Tell No One (Harlan Coben)
  • The Black Dahlia (James Ellroy)

What do you think, did these books have great twists? What books would you add? I have to say, I love Agatha Christie and she never disappoints me with her surprises. Craig Johnson (Walt Longmire Mystery Series) uses a deft hand to serve up great surprises that make his books a “can’t put down” treat. Julia Spencer-Fleming (Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries) is another writer who uses a judicious helping of plot twists that keep me reading way past my bedtime. Share your favorites–my TBR pile isn’t quite tall enough!

Guest Post: Kathleen Kaska

A Softhearted Sherlock Holmes

The term softhearted, when associated with the character Sherlock Holmes, seems like an oxymoron. But since the Great Detective has become an iconic fixture in literature, films, and television, I feel it’s worth mentioning that he’s not always unfeeling or cold-hearted. True, he’s not the type to circle February 14th on his calendar, but there are several instances where his heart, although not worn on his sleeve, was in the right place. In the original Canon and in the many recent adaptations, Holmes’s kinder, gentler side emerges on occasion. Here are a few of my favorite examples of Holmes expressing heartfelt emotions toward his friend/flatmate, Dr. Watson, and “the woman,” Irene Adler.

In the short story, “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs,” Killer Evans shoots Dr. Watson in the leg, causing Holmes to rush to his friend’s side, uttering “You’re not hurt, Watson? For God’s sake, say that you’re not hurt!” The wound was superficial, and according to Watson, “It was worth a wound—it was worth many wounds—to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask.”

In the last 2012 episode of CBS’s Elementary, Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) names his newly discovered bee species, Euglossa watsonia, after Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) to show his deepest gratitude for helping him combat his drug addiction and deal with the pain caused by girlfriend/nemesis Jamie Moriarty (Natalie Dormer).

Although Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) professes not to have any friends in the BBC’s series, Sherlock, he gives a moving best-man speech at Dr. Waston (Martin Freeman) and Mary Morstan’s (Amanda Abbington) wedding. However, the speech begins on an unsettling note. “I’m afraid, John, I can’t congratulate you. All emotions, and in particular love, stand opposed to pure cold reason I hold above all things.” He elucidates for several minutes disclosing his negative views on God, marriage, and all things sacred, causing the wedding guests to fidget. Then his humble (yes, he can be humble) side emerges. “John, I am a ridiculous man redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship.” John and Mary smile and the guests relax. He wraps up with “Today you [John] sit between the woman [Mary] you have made your wife and the man [Holmes] you have saved. In short, the two people who love you most in all this world.” Does this Holmes actually say he loved his friend Dr. Watson? Seems so.

And then there’s Irene Adler. Many Holmes fans scoff at the idea of Holmes having feelings other than admiration for Irene, one of only a few people, and the only woman, who outsmarted him. But would mere admiration cause him to keep her photo in his desk drawer as a memento?

In Guy Ritchie’s second Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) film, The Game of Shadows, Holmes takes Irene’s (Rachel McAdams) handkerchief as a keepsake after Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) murders her. Later in the film, on a boat to France, Dr. Watson (Jude Law) observes Holmes pressing the hanky to his nose for a final sentimental sniff before sadly tossing it overboard to float away on the waves.

In CBS’s Elementary Holmes was involved in a romantic relationship with the most deceitful and notorious Irene Adler/Jamie Moriarty (Natalie Dormer). Despite the pain she causes him, he actually admits he loves her. And in the Sherlock episode, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” although Holmes is shocked at seeing Irene (Lara Pulver) dressed in her battle gear, or lack thereof, his feelings become evident at the end when they exchange a sultry and sweet smile after he rescues her from a near beheading. This might not be love, but saving her from losing her head surely means he cared.

Oh, here’s another example: In a recent episode of Elementary, Holmes, out of loneliness (Dr. Watson is spending time with boyfriend Andrew, and Holmes’s new protégé Kitty Winter has disappeared), engages in a ménage a trois with two women he has picked up. He doesn’t express feelings for them, but at least he seems happy.


Kathleen Kaska writes the Classic Mystery Triviography Series. Her The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book 300_Murder at the Driskill_mockup01was a finalist for the 2013 EPIC award in nonfiction. Kathleen also writes the Sydney Lockhart Mysteries. Her latest, Murder at the Driskill, features a twelve-year-old female Sherlock Holmes impersonator.

You can reach Kathleen at,, @KKaskaAuthor.


The Hearts of Mulder and Scully

The X-Files featured the longest running foreplay in television history. At least it seemed that way to me. It got annoying after a while, but then series tend to play out before the producers let them go. It’s been twenty years since the show first aired, which I find hard to wrap my head around, but it’s not dead yet. They’re talking about doing another film, and I say do it!

At first, we had the fresh-faced Dana Scully assigned to debunk the strange theories of spooky Fox Mulder. The perfect couple for the nineties. Still digesting all the changes in women’s roles in the later part of the twentieth century, writers made Scully the scientist and Mulder the emotionally sensitive one. Except Scully exhibited the traits of the Victorian Angel in the House in that she kept her principles unsullied. She gave Mulder a pure space to stand and live in for a time. Science demands objectivity, and Scully’s commitment to honesty made her have to admit that Mulder might be right most of the time. Yet she doggedly kept to her skepticism. The script demanded it.

Mulder is reminiscent of the Byronic hero of the nineteenth century, a moody man who creates his own code of ethics, exuding a brooding sexuality, and suffering from some mysterious guilt. In Mulder’s case it was the loss of his sister. Why, oh why didn’t they abduct him instead? Mulder’s vulnerability and his quirky brilliance begin to win Scully over. Her heart peeks out from behind her formidable, yet shy intellect. The tension builds.

Although Scully is the scientist of the pair and they trade off saving each other’s lives, Scully also is the traditional female body that is assaulted and invaded. Donnie Pfaster who abducts women, washes their hair, and then cuts off their fingers before he kills them, takes Scully and asks her in a famous scene if her hair is dry or normal. Tooms elongates himself into a spaghetti string and invades Scully’s bathroom. (She’s running a bath. At least she knows not to take a shower!) Duane Barry, repeatedly abducted by aliens, abducts Scully in turn, and Mulder must rescue her. But in conscious replication of Mulder’s original wound, Scully is later abducted by—well, is it aliens or the government? She discovers an implant, removes it, and contracts cancer. Scully’s brother tells Mulder he is one sorry son of a bitch, and Mulder agrees with him.

Toward the end of the series, Scully becomes pregnant and there is some indication that it is an immaculate conception—or at least another abduction and implant of a super soldier. The baby is revealed to have super powers, created from genetic manipulation, so the science fiction aspect of the show is saved. The shadow government wants to abduct this child, so Scully is forced to give him up in order to hide him and keep him safe. But the audience yearns to know that this is really Mulder’s child. It is over little Billy that the two finally have a long and protracted kiss. And it is in the subsequent film that we discover Mulder is indeed his father. They sort of forgot about the super powers.

Interesting to me is that the last film in which Mulder and Scully are finally a couple was not very good. We wanted a continuation of the grand arc of the story—aliens, government conspiracies, that sort of thing—but we got a stand-alone episode instead—monster, murderer, solve this individual case sort of thing. But could it have been that the relationship was consummated and the series was therefore over?

Who is your favorite couple in a mystery series?

Heart in Mysteries: Nancy Drew Grows Up

Confession:  After cutting my teeth on teen sleuths Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and (my favorite) Kay Tracy, I did not turn to Agatha Christie, not the way most of my traditional mystery-fan buddies did.  Instead, I turned to romantic suspense.

I don’t mean the heart-throbbing kind of romantic suspense that is shelved today in the romance section of the bookstore.  What I devoured was a setting-heavy, brooding mystery (emphasis on mystery) with a hint of possible romance, usually unrequited until after the book ended.  I’m talking about Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and Phyllis A. Whitney.  I couldn’t read them fast enough.

Personally, I like a hint of romance, especially the unrequited type, in a mystery.  I like the tension this produces in a mystery.  And I like imagining the off-stage scenes myself (from romance to violence), instead of reading about them in graphic, play-by-play detail.

With the help of my awesome mystery book club, I’ve made a few very general observations about the presence of romance in mystery:

  • Fans of whodunnit mysteries (as in Agatha Christie) tend to dislike a developing romance in the stories they read if the romance gets in the way of the mystery.  These readers want to read for the intellectual pleasure of solving the puzzle.  The detective can’t solve the crime effectively if he or she is too busy swooning over a love interest.
  • Howdunnit mysteries—suspense—have more room to include a romance.  Too often, (at least for this reader) the “romance” isn’t exactly a developing relationship with romantic undertones.  Instead, it’s more about conquest, and the detectives gain clues from such conquests.  These conquests often end badly for the couple.
  • Romantic suspense in today’s market is more about the hot bedroom scenes and the dance getting there than the mystery or the threat to the protagonist or the brooding atmosphere.  The mystery serves the purpose of getting this couple together, rather than the relationship as byproduct to the mystery.  Little is left to the reader’s imagination, where their relationship is concerned.

As a reader, I like all of these mysteries.  My favorites, though, are the mysteries that defy categorization.  Risky mysteries!  As a writer, I want to be sensitive to what readers in general enjoy reading.

So here’s my conundrum as a writer:

Do I give the fictional sleuth in my traditional mystery a romantic interest?  Do I develop the series in the risky way I would want to read as a reader, or the way that readers in general would expect?  What do you think about the presence of romance in a mystery?

Hearts for Hughes

Today, I’m offering gratitude for storytellers who grapple with the mysterious nature of human interactions. Filmmaker John Hughes is one such candidate–his “teen movies” shed light on the navigation of complex cultures or situations and challenge us to think about our own contributions to them.

Hughes was brilliant at portraying, with pointed humor, instances of frustrated communication. Again and again, his characters engage our empathy with their mostly unsuccessful efforts to be understood. He portrays not only tensions among teens but also between adults and teens, as in this exchange from Ferriss Bueller’s Day Off.

Grace: “Hello, Jeannie. Who’s bothering you now?”
Jeannie: “Is Mr. Rooney in?”
Grace: “No, I’m sorry. He’s not. May I help you?”
Jeannie: “I seriously doubt it. When’s he back?”
Grace: “Well, I don’t know. He’s left the school grounds on personal business.”
Jeannie: “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Grace: “Well, I believe that it’s personal and it’s none of your business, young lady.”
Jeannie: “Nice attitude.”

Hughes was also a master of destabilizing authority figures: the parents tend to be oblivious or dispensers of dubious advice (“wrap a hot towel around your head”), and the power-hungry school principals don’t fare well (consider the principal crawling through the dog door at the Bueller’s house, or the moment in The Breakfast Club when Vernon yells at the teens in detention while sporting a paper toilet-seat cover).

Most importantly, though, beneath the sassy dialogue and comedic turns, Hughes keeps his protagonists focused on acts with heart: finding a voice, following a dream, connecting with others, and taking a chance. At its core, The Breakfast Club is really about opening one’s heart–letting go of misconceptions that divide us. Some Kind of Wonderful, Sixteen Candles, and even Weird Science suggest the supreme value of holding out hope (even if in the end what you hope for turns out to be something other than what you thought you were hoping for). In short, he certainly encourages us to ponder meaningful things. <3

ps: check out this blog post about Mr. Hughes and pen pal, Alison. If you didn’t think he was amazing before, you just might afterwards.

The Head and the Heart

It’s an age-old question in the creative space: How do you choose your next project.

My heart often tells me one thing, aka what I just can’t live without writing. My head, though, usually goes in an opposite direction, aka what would be the “smart” book to write.

I’m of the belief that if you’re heart’s not in it, it doesn’t matter how smart the idea is. An idea without heart isn’t going to cut it. Readers are smart. They’ll see right through it.

But, there needs to be a balance. How do you find that balance? Do you let your head take the lead and add heart? Or do you go with your heart and force your head to follow?