A few months ago I wrote a post for Career Authors in which I talked about how my experience as a copywriter came in handy for novel-writing.
As hinted in the piece, there’s another side to that coin, a gap between expectation and reality in the transfer of writing skills. Or in my case, a LACK of transfer of those skills. At least at first.
When I set out to write my first book, I thought writing for a living would prepare me to write for what I would hope would be a new living. I had written for my supper for more than 20 years. I had the discipline to write on the daily. I knew that when deadlines loomed and clients (or editors) waited, writer’s block wasn’t an option.
Easy, right? I’d simply take my writing skills from here and copy/paste them over there.
Despite the fact that I had a toolbox crammed with writer’s tools (handy) and the discipline to write rather than heed the siren’s call of a full dishwasher (also handy), novel-writing was a world apart from copywriting.
It wasn’t just the sheer volume of words. I expected that writing 90,000 nouns, verbs and adjectives would feel different than writing a few hundred. It was the dearth of skills I had not yet acquired, let alone honed, that surprised me.
I found that while I knew how to write dialogue that would help define characters, I had to learn to give my fictional people rich internal lives. I discovered that although I knew how to turn a phrase, I’d need to figure out how to twist a plot. I realized that good storytelling very often trumped good writing.
That was the real a-ha moment for me.
I had oodles of experience creating lush mental pictures through my writing and knew my way around figurative language. I soon found that it didn’t mean a thing if the story itself wasn’t interesting. I discovered that, for the most part, a good story could withstand okay writing, but not the other way around.
Not that I advocate verbal mediocrity, mind you. How you say something is as important as what you say. It was simply an epiphany that taught me that I couldn’t rely on writerly gymnastics the way I could with copywriting.
So I dug deeper into my toolbox. I read books. I took classes. I went to the writer’s school of hard knocks and made mistakes then tried to learn from them.
It’s been a journey—one that’s far from over. The more I learn, the more I discover how much there is to learn. And that’s the beauty of it, really. Writing isn’t about the triumph of achievement. It’s about reaching farther, growing, learning, becoming, discovering what you didn’t know you’d need to know.
What’s been a surprise as you’ve transitioned from a career or life stage? What advice would you give your younger, greener self? I’d love to know.
I used to be a multi-tasker.I remember being able to:
watch television, do homework, and carry on a phone conversation all at once
track 3 different conversations at parties
write 2 or 3 different projects at once (and keep them all straight)
I can’t do that anymore.Heck, I can’t even knit while watching television without either dropping a stitch or dropping the action of the show.I suspect multitasking is a function of a younger brain.
I haven’t given up trying, though.Now I’m reading 3 different books (1 for the exercise bike, 1 for book club, and 1 of my choice), and I can’t keep the characters and plots straight.It’s eery when I’m reading along in one book and I ask myself, “but what about Martha?” and then realize she’s in another book.Oops.
So, what’s a writer to do about multitasking?There are plots and subplots and different viewpoint characters to track.We have to keep them straight, weaving them in and out of the story in all the right places.We can’t drop a single one of them, like my dropped stitches.
Here’s what I’ve done to help keep some of this straight:
Write a 1-2 sentence summary of each chapter or section.Being a pantser, this summary comes after the chapter has magically appeared.
Use a different font (in the growing outline) for each viewpoint character.This makes it easy to scan through and see where that character is in the story, and who to juggle next.
Different colored index cards track the different subplots as they grow.I lay them out on my table and intersperse them where they appear in the book.I can easily see where one subplot has been neglected too long.This is an especially handy tool for the revision process, after a complete draft is written.
Right now I’m facing a huge challenge with my Work-in-Progress.Doesn’t it always seem like the current book is the hardest book you’ve ever written?My WIP has (so far) 3 different viewpoint characters, 2 time-lines, and 3 settings.So I’m looking for more ideas of how to multi-task this mess!
What tips do you have for keeping track of different plots and characters?
The other Mysteristas and I always rave about our experience at Malice Domestic, a wonderful convention dedicated to fans of traditional mysteries, and this time I wanted to spotlight not only a great writer, but a fantastic opportunity for mystery writers who are just starting out.
It’s my pleasure to introduce you to this year’s winner, Bess Carnan, an up-and-coming mystery writer who shares my love of cozies and geek-tastic hobbies.
Congratulations on your win! For our readers who are unfamiliar with the grant, can you explain what it is and what made you decide to apply for the grant?
Thank you so much! The William F. Deeck – Malice Domestic Grant
for Unpublished Writers is an award given out by Malice Domestic, a convention
for traditional and cozy mystery writers. Unpublished writers submit three consecutive
chapters of their work in progress and a plot synopsis, a committee reads
through every single one, and one incredibly lucky aspiring author is awarded a
comprehensive registration for the upcoming Malice—including a hotel room—and
$2,500 you can use to attend another conference or workshop.
And I’m really glad you asked why, because it’s actually because
of you! After we met at Bouchercon 2018, I really admired you and was inspired
to be more proactive about my writing career. In addition to getting more
active in the Sisters In Crime online chapter the Guppies, I applied to a few
awards and contests. I didn’t expect to win, but the William F. Deeck – Malice
Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers creates such a huge boost for a
writer—at least one of the Agatha Award winners this year was a past
recipient—that I felt like I ought to at least try. Every time you make an
effort it makes the next step easier, right?
Tell us about your winning entry.
Hawaiian Homicide is the first—hopefully—in a series about a
travel blogger, Jax Alston. It’s set in the town where I lived on the Big
Island of Hawaii, Kailua-Kona, with a few excursions to some of my favorite
places on the island. Jax and her photographer friend Michael are on the Big
Island for a work trip when Michael is accused of murdering another guest at
the bed-and-breakfast where they are staying. Since his husband is joining him
in two weeks for their fifth anniversary cruise, Michael really needs to get the police off his back. Jax just really doesn’t want his husband blaming
her for getting Michael into trouble, so she jumps in to try to clear his name.
It’s basically a love letter to the Big Island wrapped in a cozy murder
When did you find out you won and what was your reaction?
Holy cheesenips! The head of the committee, Harriette Sackler,
called me in February. We talked about our shared love of animal rescue, she
congratulated me, and then she said I couldn’t tell anyone except my spouse and
my agent until they made the big announcement at Malice Domestic’s Agatha Award
Banquet in May. I’m the world’s worst secret keeper, so after we hung up I
immediately told my husband Kevin, my agent, our foster kittens, and my
therapist. Then I had to stew for about three months. Harriette called about an
hour before Kevin and I were leaving for a trip to Disney World, so Kevin had
the front desk at our hotel make me an “I’m celebrating!” button that said I
was celebrating a “Top Secret Award!” At least one person asked if I was a
Nobel Prize winner.
All that to say I did a lot of bouncing. Writing is a very
solitary activity and the validation of this Very Important Award committee
thinking that I was the best of the best was like a shot of adrenaline. I
couldn’t make myself accept it all at once; it was kind of like building a Lego
castle. Every couple minutes it would hit me again and I could add another
brick of understanding and acceptance until, a few days later, it finally all
added up and settled into my core that I really had won, they really did think
I was good, and maybe I actually was pretty okay at this writing thing.
How did you feel accepting the award during the Agatha Awards
No, it actually doesn’t rank as quite terrifying, thanks in large
part to my anti-anxiety medication and my seatmate, Cynthia Tolbert, who helped
distract me in the run up. I’m not the best at people-ing, and I’d literally
never given a speech with a microphone and an audience all waiting to hear what
I had to say. That kind of platform and attention was super scary. Luckily,
Malice Domestic is filled with the most supportive, wonderful people, so even
though I was shaking and more nervous than I’ve been in years, I was pretty
sure everyone would be nice, no matter how badly I flubbed it. And sure enough,
my friends all cheered and the whole room applauded and no one threw a tomato.
(As an aside to anyone who gets nominated for an Agatha Award: prep your speech
just in case, but also practice
posing. There were three professional photographers in two places after I got
off-stage, all of whom needed to get pictures. I was not ready for that and,
embarrassingly, it shows in the photos. Oh well.)
From what I understand, you write mainly cozies. What drew you to
You know, I wish I had a good answer to that. I can’t say what
started my journey with cozies, but I think I know why I stick with it.
Ages ago I saw a quote that said something like “cozies start with
the premise that the world is fundamentally good and if it ever gets out of
balance, someone will always be there to step up and right it again.” The real
world is pretty stressful, especially if you read the news. I like that cozies
soften the edges and make sure to tie everything up with a happy ending.
Cozies are also almost always themed, which I really enjoy. Some
series give you recipes (Leslie Karst) or organizational tips (Mary Feliz), or
you get a series-long peek into a different life, like that of a wedding
planner (Laura Durham) or L.A. insider (Kellye Garrett). It’s like playing
pretend, but not having to make up any of the information yourself.
How long have you been writing and what has your journey been
I dictated my first-ever book to a babysitter at three or four. She wrote it up and bound it with tape. “The Secret of the Unicorn” never took off, but I never stopped writing, mostly in the edges of my school notebooks. I did try to grow up and went to grad school with the intent of becoming a psychologist and having a Responsible, Bill-Paying-type career, but grad school kicked my butt. I quit and, as I regrouped, Kevin suggested that I dedicate some time to focusing on what I actually enjoy. We got married, moved to Hawaii, and I completed a full manuscript. It was garbage, but the next one was pretty okay and I hope I’ve only gotten better from there. It took half a decade, but now I have an agent who likes my stories and the encouraging weight of Malice Domestic behind me in addition to a supportive spouse.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience with the Mysteristas, Bess! And best of luck with your series, it sounds fantastic.
Bess had to be pushed out the door to go away to college, but immediately developed wanderlust. These days she and her spouse live in Orlando, Florida with their rescued garbage cat, Squeaker, and an endless stream of foster kittens. In between feedings, flea baths, and snuggles she writes cozy mysteries that are really love letters to all the places she’s lived. She can be found all over the internet as @BessCarnanBooks, and her home base is BessCarnanBooks.com
I’ve just wrapped up the publication of my seventh book.
This book completes the series I began in 2012, and it’s a satisfying moment,
but also a little melancholy.
When you’ve spent the last six years working on a storyline
that has brought you so much joy, created characters that will remain with you
forever, and has inspired countless ideas and unexpected moments, then it’s
hard to let it go, and even stranger to think of starting something new.
But the writing juices never abate, and I find myself ready to start something new. But what? Should I stick to what I know? Mystery and suspense, with a touch of the unknown thrown in for added drama? Or should I step out of my comfort zone? Try something I’ve never done before and see where it leads?
There are those who recommend writing to a certain audience.
Determine what the hot new trend is and go there because that’s where the
readers are. But then there’s the other camp that says write what calls to you.
Write what you know, or what you would like to read.
These two ideas could overlap. Maybe what you want to write
matches the market demand. But what if it doesn’t? What you want to write may
not be the hot genre of the moment. Perhaps it once was, but now it’s cooled a
bit. There readers are still there, but not in the numbers that might shoot
your sales through the roof and raise your rank as an author in a short amount
This is not to say that your story isn’t good or not worthy
of excellent sales. It could be as good or better as the latest best seller, but
it may suffer from less exposure and less interest, making it harder for new readers
What’s the answer? Right now, it seems, clean romance is a
hot trend, and of course the lusty romance will always be a big seller. My
books contain romance, but would they fall into those categories? No, probably
As a business person, the logical choice would be to go
where the money is. Find the audience that’s hungry for new books and feed
them. But does that feed me? One of the great things about writing is bringing
to life the stories in my mind and the characters that tell that story. That
inspiration doesn’t come from any reports about what genre will sell better
than another. It comes from my gut.
I suppose that’s the decision all authors must make. Go with
your instincts or go with the trends. Once you have your base of readers, maybe
that will sustain you for a while, but readers are finicky. They move on, ready
to try something new. Does that mean you try something new too?
I’d like to say I’m business savvy, will study the trends,
and write what’s popular, but for me, at least for now, I choose my gut. To be
truthful, I can’t help it. Those are the stories I’m called to write. They are
there for a reason and I follow the call. I can only assume there’s a reason
for that. If I don’t write them, someone else will. And since the muse is
calling, I have to answer.
And hopefully the reader will hear that call as well. If the
story calls to me, I hope it calls to them, too. It’s the only way I know how
What do you think? Is it better to follow the trend or follow your heart? What are your opinions and would you choose to do something different than me?
Born and raised in Dallas, TX, J. T. Bishop began writing in 2012. Inspired by a video that theorized the meaning of the end of the Mayan calendar, J. T. began the Red-Line trilogy. The video surmised that the earth was the central hub of activity for extraterrestrials thousands of years ago. J.T. didn’t know whether that was true or not, but it did spawn an idea. What if those extraterrestrials were still here? Two years and a lot of work later, the first three Red-Line books were complete, but she’s not done. The Red-Line saga develops as she continues to write new books.
Welcome Mollie Cox Bryan, author of The Jean Harlow Bombshell.
Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?
Books–Beloved by Toni Morrison, the Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. Anything by Louise Penny or JD Robb. What made you interested in writing this particular story?
My grandfather was a first cousin of Jean Harlow. Growing up, I’d heard bits and pieces about her, but it was never made a big deal over. My grandmother often said the best thing about Jean Harlow was that she was a friend of Clark Gable. Also, my grandmother didn’t think much of Jean and the fact that she wore no underwear. Irene was a woman who believed in layers of proper undergarments.
Fast forward to 2015, I’d written a blog post about being related to Harlow and a German game show contacted me to be on their show. Contestants ask questions about your famous relative and try to guess who it is. It was a free trip to Germany and my personality being what it is, I researched Harlow. I wanted to be well-prepared and I knew nothing about my famous relative, except the rumor of her death, which claims her mother didn’t seek medical help for Jean as she lay dying. Absolutely false.This incident is what prompted me to think about Jean Harlow and, of course, she crept into my writing. And because I am mainly a mystery writer, I wanted to write a mystery. I toyed with the idea of a historical mystery, but I wanted a contemporary take on her life, from the eyes of a character, who on the face of things, is opposite of Jean Harlow in many ways.
What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
Strong, modern women banding together. Community. Unhinging of secrets. Family. Food. Re-invention.
Tell us about your main character.
Charlotte Donovan is a dogged researcher and wannabe writer, struggling with Lyme Disease, money and men issues, and life is turned inside out when her boss dies. She’s not one of those super-hero kickass sleuths or PIs. Her super-hero power is her brain. She’s a modern woman with modern struggles and when pressed, finds she stronger than she imagined.
What’s next for you?
I have a new cozy mystery coming out in Sept. Christmas Cow Bells.
Tell us a bit about your new book.
Justine Turner is a world-famous biographer of Hollywood stars. She’s also Charlotte Donovan’s overbearing boss. So it comes as no surprise to Charlotte when Justine requests an emergency meeting related to her latest in-progress biography. It is a surprise, though, when Justine up and dies before their urgent discussion can begin.
In the wake of such a tragedy, all Charlotte wants to do is finish the Jean Harlow biography that Justine had started. Instead, she finds herself in grave danger—stalked both online and in person by a drop-dead Jean Harlow look-alike. Together with police sergeant Den Brophy, Charlotte uncovers shocking revelations. But will these revelations be enough to catch the killer?
About the marketing thing—love it, hate it?
I’m currently working in marketing for an IT company. And I love it. Marketing is really about telling the story or your business, brand, or book. But it’s much easier to do it for a company rather than yourself. I don’t mind it as much as I use to, but it’s hard not to feel strange marketing yourself.
Mollie Cox Bryan is a writer of women’s stories. Her stories have many forms: cookbooks, articles, essays, poetry and fiction. Mollie grew up near Pittsburgh, Pa., and attended Point Park University, where she received a B.A. in Journalism and Communications.
Mollie moved to the Washington, D.C. area, where she held a number of writing jobs, and has written about a diverse array of subjects, such as construction, mathematics education, and life insurance. While working in the editorial field, Mollie lead local poetry workshops and was selected to participate in the prestigious Jenny McKean Moore Poetry Workshop. She was honored with an Agatha Award nomination for her first novel, Scrapbook of Secrets. Several books in the Cumberland Creek series have received People’s Choice nominations from the Library of Virginia.
I credit Annette Dashofy, author of the fabulous Zoe Chambers Mysteries, with a lot in my life. She was one of the first to welcome me into Sisters in Crime. She critiqued my first (never to be published) book and gently taught me there was a lot more to writing a mystery than pushing a noun against a verb. She’s commiserated with me and helped celebrate my successes. And since she’s one of my critique partners, if you’ve ever enjoyed anything I’ve written she’s someone who helped me get there.
All of that means I’m thrilled to host her today as she celebrates the release of her eighth Zoe book, Fair Game. And she’s talking about something a lot of writers can relate to.
An Introvert in an Extrovert’s Life
I’m currently in
the middle of a mini book tour (the tour is mini, not the book) for the release
of Fair Game, the eighth in my Zoe
Chambers Mystery Series. Although I’m a writer, not an actor, I deserve an
Oscar for faking my way through all these public speaking gigs. Standing in
front of a room of people and chatting about my books does not come naturally.
One of my
earliest memories is of meeting the girl who would become my childhood best
friend. Her mother brought her to our house to introduce us. I hid behind my
mother’s legs. To say I was paralyzingly shy would be accurate.
In grade school,
I was the quiet kid. One teacher moved me, so I had to sit in the middle of the
rowdy kids, hoping I’d rub off on them. I didn’t. Nor did they rub off on me. I
think I lasted two days before pleading with my teacher to move back to my
In high school, I
was the wallflower at dances—on the rare occasion that I even attended. No one
asked me to dance. I was the last one picked for sports.
Well, you get the
The first big
step out of my shyness shell came when I joined 4-H. I thought it was simply a way
to learn more about horses since I’d recently gotten my first pony. But my
club’s leaders had other plans. As in most clubs, finding people to take
offices was a challenge. Reluctantly, I was cast into that pool and eventually
found myself in the role of vice-president. VPs never have to do much, I
president is absent. And our president was absent a lot. At least, that’s how I remember it.
Standing up in
front of the other kids and leading a meeting was the hardest thing I’d ever
done up to that point. But even at the time, I realized it was a defining
moment in my life. I could be in a leadership role and not die of
embarrassment. Who knew???
A few decades later, I found myself in front of a room, as a yoga teacher. Another defining moment. One of my teaching instructors gave me some words of wisdom that still stick with me. Even if the class doesn’t flow and you forget what you’re supposed to be saying, remind yourself afterward that no one has died. Besides, if I could stand in front of strangers doing downward facing dog in yoga pants, speaking in front of a group of readers while wearing normal clothes should be a piece of cake!
In truth, I still
get nervous, sometimes more than others. Don’t even ask me about sitting on a
panel with Louise Penny at last year’s Malice Domestic! Sheer. Terror. But I
did it. I drew from those moments as an awkward teen in 4-H.
Fair Game is partly set at the county
fair and pays homage to my 4-H friends and leaders who encouraged me to come
out of my shell and who continue to support me all these years later at local
And, yes, I still sometimes have to remind myself that while I stuttered and babbled a bit, in the end, no one has died. Except for a few characters in the book. It is a murder mystery after all.
Paramedic Zoe Chambers hoped a week at the Monongahela County Fair, showing her horse and manning the ambulance, would provide a much-needed diversion from recent events that continue to haunt her. An old friend, a bossy nemesis, and a teenage crush from her 4-H days fail to offer the distraction she had in mind. But ever the caregiver, she soon bonds with a troubled teen and a grieving father.
Back in Vance Township, a missing woman turns up dead, leading Police Chief Pete Adams into a journey through her mysterious final hours. With each new clue, the tragic circumstances of her death grow increasingly muddied.
A cryptic phone call leads Pete to join Zoe for an evening at the fairgrounds where the annual school bus demolition derby concludes with a gruesome discovery and a new case that may or may not be connected to the first. Pete’s quest for the motive behind two homicides—and Zoe’s stubborn determination to reunite a family—thrust them both onto a collision course with a violent and desperate felon.
Annette Dashofy is the USA Today best-selling author of the Zoe Chambers mystery series about a paramedic and deputy coroner in rural Pennsylvania’s tight-knit Vance Township. A lifelong resident of Washington County (PA), Annette has garnered four Agatha Award nominations including Best Contemporary Novel of 2018 for Cry Wolf. She’s a member of International Thriller Writers, the Pittsburgh Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and is on the board of directors of Pennwriters. Fair Game (May 2019) is the eighth in her series.