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…

$64,000,000 Questions

If Only I’d Known…

My mom wasn’t always right.  If she had been (may she rest in peace), then I wouldn’t have had to hide my writing notebook from her when I was a teenager.  She thought that writing mysteries wasn’t challenging enough, but boy, was she wrong!

And speaking of challenges…

If we mystery lovers really wished we would’ve known the things we do not know, then what would happen to the mystery in our books?

If we mystery lovers knew on page one whodunnit, would we read on?

If Only I’d Known…

How to read faster.  Speed reading was the only subject I ever failed in high school.  I was given a machine with a bar of light that swept down the page of my book.  But the story swept me away, instead, and I failed to notice the bar of light waiting for me to catch up.

If I had learned to read faster, how many more books could I have read by now?

If Only I’d Known…

Memory doesn’t last forever.  Back in my twenties, I didn’t even keep a calendar, because I remembered everything.  No need for a journal when every day was fresh in my mind.  No need to keep elaborate spread sheets on characters and plot threads.  {{shudders}}

 So, when did spoiler alerts transform into gentle reminders?

If Only I’d Known…

When to end a book.  If I had known, maybe I wouldn’t have cycled through draft after draft of books.  Some of them changed their endings; some of them had no endings and got pitched into the bottom drawer.  Maybe I would’ve saved years of time.

How many more books could I have written by now?

If Only I’d Known…

The secret handshake.  I would’a become a bestselling author!

But then…would I have been able to write the books I really want to write?

That’s another $64,000,000 question!  What are some of yours?

A Writer’s Mentor

Last week I lost one of my mentors, and the world dimmed a bit more.

One of the special treasures I keep on my desk is this little “award” that he made for me, honoring one of my books.  (Dancing for the General, which is finally coming out later this year, but that’s another story–for later.)


See what I mean about the world dimming?

We’ve all had friends and coaches and teachers and cheerleaders.  Writers are fortunate to have many such helpful supporters in our lives.  We’ve talked here on the blog about how amazingly supportive the writing community is.

But a mentor goes above and beyond all that.

While I’ve had countless dozens of the former, I can count on only one hand the number of true mentors in my life.  And so I’ve been wondering what makes them different?  How is a mentor more than just a friend, a coach, a teacher, or a cheerleader?  A mentor is all of that and more.  But what makes a mentor a mentor?  Here’s how I spell it out:

Motivate.  A mentor motivates us to want to write our best.  Sure, mentors supply knowledge, but they also fuel our desire.

Encourage.  Mentors believe in us, even when the rest of the world doesn’t.  They stick with us and don’t give up on us.  They see and understand our dreams, too.

Nurture.  Mentors gently guide us along our career paths.  They nourish our literary gardens.  They help us pluck out the unsightly weeds, leaving only magnificent blossoms to open.

Time.  There is no limit on a mentor’s time.  They give their time freely, and they do so gladly.  They are always there for us, for whatever we need.  Sometimes it’s advice, but other times it’s just a shoulder.

One-on-one.  Mentors give us their exclusive attention, blinding us to the point that we think we are the only one they are mentoring.  (The truth is that there are usually many others.)

Relationship.  The mentor’s relationship is one way to give back to the writing community.  It’s what writers do, in exchange for all that we have gained from the generosity of other writers.

We never really graduate from the mentor relationship.  We will keep on keeping on, and the writing community is richer for all those relationships.

Have you ever had a mentor, whether for writing or something else?  I’d love to hear your insights!   


Relationships Resolved

Relationships are fun to read about when we have lots of questions.  Will Scarlett and Rhett Butler ever get together?  Questions lead to tension, and tension especially drives a mystery.

But…what happens when the questions get answered?  Does “resolved” mean the end of a series?

Here are a few classic examples that come to mind:

  • Should Perry Mason and Della Street marry?
  • Should James Bond ever take Miss Moneypenny out to dinner?
  • Should Archie Goodwin quit, frustrated that Nero Wolfe always keeps him in the dark?
  • Should Ellery Queen grow up and move out of his father’s house?
  • Should (the original) Dan-o ever assert himself and tell McGarrett “book-em yourself!”?
  • Should Watson abandon Holmes, disgusted by his torment with drugs?

One unresolved question that I’m working on now is my fourth Nell Letterly mystery.  Nell is a menopausal single mom who becomes a karate teacher to support her teenage daughter.  She would love to resolve her issues with her jerky, almost-ex husband Max, who ran out on her with some sexy honey and all their joint savings.  But I haven’t decided yet if I will let her have that scene, because it could drain the tension that drives her forward.  It could mean the end of the series.

Personally, I like the mystery of unresolved questions.

But I’d love to know what you think.  I learn so much from other mystery readers and writers!

Do you like to see your fictional characters resolve their relationships with significant others?  

Do you have a favorite fictional couple in mysteries today, and what do you like about their relationship?  

Beginning Again

I spent last month in South Africa, soaking up sun, the wonderful company of my family, and as much story fodder as possible.  Usually when I travel, I continue to write every day, but this time there were too many other distractions.

So now I’m beginning the process of starting to write all over again, and yikes!  It’s tough.  Maybe it’s just January, as Sam pointed out yesterday.  But I suspect 3 culprits:

Slow build-up.  It took me 10 years to decide to be a writer, then another 10 years studying and practicing, then another 10 years before I made my first sale.  Granted, I started this process at age 12, but now I don’t have the luxury of that slow build-up anymore.

Exercising the habit muscle.  Sitting down in my writer’s chair every day is a habit, and we all know what happens to habits and flabby muscles when we stop exercising them, right?

Rhythm and story flow.  With a properly exercised habit muscle, the writer finds her rhythm, and words flow.  When this rhythm is interrupted for whatever reason, it’s like a large boulder diverting a river channel.  It takes a while for the water working its way around the obstacle before it regains its original direction of flow.

No wonder beginning again is tough!  But what can we do to make the process of beginning again any easier?

For me, it’s all about goals.  Goals keep me on track.  They’re more like a road map to keep me going in the right direction.  All I have to do to succeed is to stay on the road.  Pamela’s and Peg’s posts this month made me realize that my road-map goals are really more about intentions and systems.

Last year on the blog I stated my goal to write 200k words in 2016.  Well, I didn’t reach it, but I’m still pretty happy with what I did–150k words.  That’s a win for me!  I am definitely still on my road map, and now my map shows me what I need to do in 2017.

While it’s tempting to cut my goals back to a safer 150k words, I’m not going to.  I need to keep stretching myself, and I need to work on better consistency.  Those are my intentions for 2017.  The system to get there will be one day at a time.  I know what projects I want to do, and I know how much time I will have available to do them.  It works out to 190k words.  So, that’s my goal for 2017.  Will I do it?  Who knows?  I hope so!  But the word count really isn’t as important as having a more consistent system in place.

Do you find it tough to begin again?

Done? Or Is It a Wrap?

My two favorite words to write are “The End.”  But does that mean the book is really done?  I’d thought so before–several times on one particular book!  With shaking fingers last weekend, I finally hit “send,” and off went my troublesome manuscript to my publisher, meeting the deadline for production.

Many years ago, this book started with an image.  It was so vivid I couldn’t put it out of my mind.  Wondering what might’ve led up to this vivid image sent me to:

  • months of research,
  • and more months, interviewing potential characters.  Who would suffer the most as a result of all that research?
  • Brainstorming with critique group helped figure it out.
  • I threw in a couple of writing classes for skill building, which helped me write character sketches and a sketchy outline.
  • Then I spent months of writing the draft, and more months, digesting critiques.
  • Finally, I could revise and edit and shout, “It’s done!”

No, it wasn’t done.  The book was terrible.  Critical Voice told me so.  The best place for that book was my bottom drawer.

Time passed while I worked on other projects.  But that haunting image wouldn’t let me alone.  So, I took more writing classes, shoved Critical Voice into the drawer, and did more research.  And what do you know?

  • Some new characters knocked at my office door.  They’d heard there might be an opening for them.
  • A new plot emerged, and I wrote the next draft.
  • Then I repeated more months of writing the draft, and more months, digesting critiques.
  • And finally, I could revise and edit and shout, “It’s done!”

But it wasn’t done.

This time the editor pointed out to me that this story couldn’t be contained within only one book.  It was a trilogy.  At least.

So, I repeated the process twice more for two brand-new books, a few more writing classes, some more research, a lot more brainstorming, and a few other writing projects woven in along the way.

After all that, I could finally tackle the story of my vivid, haunting image.  Then came more months of writing the draft, and more months of digesting more critiques, of revisions and edits and writing “The End.”  Again.

Off it went to the editor, who said (guess what?):  No, it wasn’t done.  Now there were editorial corrections to make, and all those tweaks meant that I had to read it through one more time to whack more moles.

Did I get them all?  Probably not, which means the book is still not really “done.”  But it’s queued for production, and that makes it a wrap.

How do you know when a book is done?

Weather as Clues

‘Twas a dark and stormy night…  A cliche, yes, but it always worked for me when I was cutting my mystery teeth on Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and my personal favorite, Kay Tracy.

Much later, I heard Elmore Leonard give his “10 Rules of Writing” in a speech.  First rule:  “Never open a book with weather.”  He went on to explain that readers want to read about characters.

It’s great advice, and I completely agree.  I’ve been giving it more thought this month with our theme of atmosphere.  Weather can play an important role in a story.  Weather can be an effective tool in good storytelling.  This tool works especially well in a mystery.

Recently, I finished reading Faceless Killers, by Henning Mankell, the first of the Inspector Wallander series.  The Scandinavian weather in winter is painted as dark and dreary, and Wallander dreads the day that snow will arrive.  “At least it’s not snowing,” he says repeatedly.  Oh boy.  The reader knows that it’s going to snow before the book is done, and when it snows, something is gonna happen.  The plot is going to take a turn.

The opposite kind of weather works, too.  James Lee Burke sets up sultry heat, and the reader anticipates electrifying tales.  I used to read a lot of books in Spanish, where the stifling heat of their settings drove the characters crazy and propelled them through interesting twists of the story.

Weather is a force, and it can drive the story.  Weather signals the reader to anticipate turning points and dark moments.  Unexpected storms come up to catch the characters unaware.  Hurricanes will capsize boats, snow storms will trap both good guys and bad guys for their showdown, fog doesn’t just set the mood but also obscures what the sleuth can observe.

I once read a chilling story where the fog in London was thick as pea soup, so thick that the victim couldn’t see the villain beside her.  In one of my favorite books, Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, a storm plays a pivotal role and provides a major turning point.  If you haven’t read it yet, please do so!

I haven’t found a good tornado mystery, but I’m still looking.  Can anyone recommend one?