The Writing Life: Plotter or Pantser

By Kristi Belcamino

On the heels of my debut mystery, with book two coming out in a few weeks, now I’m starting to plot book three in my Gabriella Giovanni series.

Because I’m not a “pantser” which I think comes from the term “by the seat of your pants” a free-flowing, free-spirited, go-with-the-flow write-as-it-comes-to-you writer.

Nope. I plot.

I like to have a rough sketch or outline of what my novel is going to look like before I actually sit down to write. I haven’t always been this way. When I wrote Blessed are the Dead, I sat down with a vague idea of the story and let it carry me way. Which sounds wonderful and artsy and more creative, but in reality it was a terrific waste of time.

I got the words on paper and had a first draft of my novel in three months. But then I spent a year revising, polishing, shaping and molding it into the book that is in your hands today. Because when I first wrote it, I didn’t know squat about three-act structure.

And I got away with not knowing it for quite a long time. I was even able to get an agent without knowing it. But when she went to sell the book people came soooo close to buying it, but said there was “something” that wasn’t quite right about it. One editor said she went to bed thinking “I HAVE to buy this book” but woke up saying she wouldn’t be able to get others on board because it had a FATAL flaw. Holy, cats. What FATAL flaw? It read like two different books. Say what? Then another editor said something similar.

I tore apart my novel and began studying every book I could get my hands on that talked about structure, because the chief complaint about my book had something to do with its structure. Hmmm. As I read all these books, something became very clear to me—like a kick to the teeth—My book was NOT following standard three-act structure—the same structure that every successful book and movie on the planet follows.

So I revised once again. This time, I had several books to guide me, James Scott Bell’s PLOT & STRUCTURE and STORY ENGINEERING by Larry Brooks. Then, we resubmitted to the editors and this time—BOOK DEAL. Two-book deal with HarperCollins!!!! 

When I sat down to write book two, you better believe I used three-act structure in my plotting. And for book three, yeppers!

I love using the Index Card method that Alexandra Sokoloff talks about in SCREENWRITING TRICKS FOR AUTHORS. 

Do you plot or are you a pantser? If you plot, what do you use? Please share. I’m a nerd about writing process and love to hear how authors do it.

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The Writing Life: Encouraging Future Readers–and Writers

It’s that time of year, the time when school comes to a close and children are handed their summer reading lists. Many great, local libraries engage in fun contests to encourage the kids to keep reading over the summer, and even Barnes & Noble gets in the act, offering a free book to children who complete the reader’s worksheet they provide.

Her dad and I were pretty pleased with munchkin’s list this year. She’ll be preparing for sixth grade, and she has to read six books. Two are determined by the school (one, Wonder,  by RJ Palacio, will be read by the whole middle school; the other is Hatchet, by Gary Paulson). For the other four, the school provided a list with options in many different genres: poetry, science fiction, non-fiction, historical fiction, realistic fiction, and fantasy. Clearly, the faculty wanted every student to find something on the list that would appeal to him or her, and I think they did a great job. It’s not easy to please everyone!

But too often, the lists I see and hear about are limited to a single “approved” genre, or the books are completely prescribed, with no reader choice. There are many adults who still seem to believe that reading a graphic novel isn’t really, well, reading. And this makes me sad. Reading the written word, any written word, does delightful, delicious things for the developing brain. Giving children the freedom to make their own reading choices gives them power, ownership over the journey they’re undertaking. There are so few parts of this journey from childhood to adulthood that they will have some say in, that it seems important to give them what we can, allow them that responsibility. Kids will challenge themselves when they’re ready, honest.

Our daughter is a very bright, articulate child. She’s also empathetic to the point that it can be painful. So while her friends were reading Harry Potter in first and second grade, she was reading about candy fairies right into fifth grade. Her choices were safe. She made mostly non-fiction reading choices. Books about nature, the weather, and cats were her go-to choices, because they was no drama and conflict. Her teachers told my husband and I again and again, let it go, she’ll make different choices when she’s ready.

We took her summer book list to the store to shop two weeks ago, and she snatched up the poetry book immediately. Then she perused the other choices, and to my surprise, chose the one that seems to have the deepest, most emotional story from the realistic fiction category. It’s about a child who struggles to fit into his new school and town, suffers from constant harassment from his brother, and is overwhelmed at the secrets he’s discovering about his family, but ultimately gains confidence on his journey to acceptance, both for himself and of his family (Tangerine, by Edward Bloor). Then we moved to the YA section where she chose several weighty books with a variety of themes. All reading-level appropriate, and a few that will challenge her. But I didn’t pick them–she did, because she’s ready.

Likewise, munchkin’s school has had the students writing quite a bit. There’s been a summer reading journal most years, and even though that’s not a requirement for this summer, she’s doing one anyway. As with many schools, hers had the students write poetry before a visiting poet arrived, hosted a Young Author’s Day every spring where the students read their original work to parents and grandparents, and so on.

I would argue, however, that it’s not enough to simply lean on the school and expect teachers to produce the next generation of readers and writers. Like most families, we’re quite busy and it’s hard to fit in any more stuff. But we have to, I think, in order to truly encourage, support, and create that next generation. It takes more than reading a bedtime story (although that activity is incredibly valuable). It requires the adults in the home to show that they value the written word, either by reading it or by producing it. Visiting libraries and book stores is a wonderful way to spend time with children.

Further, children need to hear from us that we value the act of reading. In our house, we ask munchkin (and her friends!) to talk about what she’s reading, to share what she likes and what she’s confused by; we encourage her to read her stories and poetry to us, and share her reading journal with her grandparents. These small activities bolster her confidence and creativity. We don’t evaluate what she presents or writes, we just enjoy it, which gives her freedom to explore and challenge herself. It’s not easy to find the time (remember that post on making time?), but it’s essential, in my opinion. Any other great ideas on how to keep our kids engaged in reading and writing?

Here’s to future readers and writers everywhere! May summer be a time of reading and writing enjoyment for all.

Interview: Tracy Weber

Please welcome Tracy Weber, author of Murder Strikes a Pose.

murderCover768px[1]What’s your idea of a perfect day?
Nothing makes me happier than a sunny, warm day with nothing to do but hang out with my dog and husband, cuddled up on the couch with a good cozy mystery and a glass of bubbly. A wall of windows overlooking a white sandy beach doesn’t hurt, either.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I’m not exactly a fashionista, and although I hear myself say the word “awesome” enough that I’m sure it’s highly annoying, my signature is eccentricity has to be my twice-weekly meal at my favorite alehouse. The waitresses have my order memorized, but they really don’t need to, because the cooks start making it as soon as they see me walk in the door.

What is my order, you ask? A “black bean pita burger, no mayo, no cheese, extra three-pepper salsa, side salad with mushrooms and honey chipotle dressing on the side.” Then I go to my neighborhood grocery store and get a pink-frosted shortbread cookie for dessert.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Susan Conant (the author who inspired me to write), my dog, Tasha, though she probably counts as family, and all of my yoga students. My yoga students encouraged me and told me I could be an author long before I believed it myself.

Do you listen to music when you write?
Never. I’m very easily distracted. The only background noises I can tolerate when I write are soft puppy dog snores.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Dark chocolate M&Ms. They are addictive, a little unusual, and any slight hint of bitterness is brightened by sweetness and color.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
Before I answer that question, I need to provide a quick bit of back story. My dog, Tasha, suffers from an autoimmune disease called Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency. The disease essentially destroyed her pancreas, leaving her unable to digest food. EPI is manageable, but incurable. Since she was eighteen months old, Tasha has needed to have expensive medication added to every meal. Without it, she will literally starve to death.

Now to the idea for the book.

Several years ago, I befriended a homeless woman who owned a dog-aggressive Rottweiler mix. She and her dog were always together. She loved that dog to a fault and took better care of it than she did of herself.

I began to wonder, what if her dog had Tasha’s same health condition? What would she do? What could she do, for that matter? That’s when the story of George and Bella started rattling around in my head. I want to be clear that George is not that woman. He has several issues, including alcoholism, that she did not. However, like her—and like me, for that matter—he learned the joy and heartache of caring for an imperfect being. In many ways, Murder Strikes a Pose is George’s story.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
I write mystery series, so most of my writing is centered around solving murder. But ultimately, my books are all about love, whether it be in the form of friendship, romance, parenthood, or the unconditional love of an animal. The primary characters in my novels are often very flawed, but they all have one thing in common: the mistakes they make, the risks they take, the regrets they mourn, even the idiosyncrasies they struggle to overcome—all have their basis in love.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Kate is a study in contrasts. She’s a yoga teacher, but like many women, she’s “average” in weight, not super flexible, and not all that pleased with her body. Kate wants to live according to the yoga teachings, but she often acts impulsively, only to later regret it. She was abandoned by her mother when she was young, but she had a close, if fractious, relationship with her father. When he died, Kate struggled to learn how to survive on her own.

Kate has difficulty controlling her temper and she avoids intimacy of any kind. But she is also a caring, committed person who protects those around her, even if doing so is not in her best interests. On the surface, Kate is like those dark chocolate M&Ms I mentioned earlier—with a jalapeño center. She’s crunchy, spicy, and prone to bite when you least expect it.

She is also one of the luckiest women I know. She has incredible people in her life like Michael and Rene, who see through her faults and love her anyway.

Kate will continue to grow and develop throughout the series. The first book is the story of how she learns to bond with and commit to Bella; the second will explore her relationship with Michael; the third, which I’m writing now, introduces a third character from Kate’s past that will challenge her in unexpected ways. That character will force Kate to learn how to forgive.

Of course, my books are first and foremost mysteries. But the ultimate transformation will always be within Kate.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Kate is like the love child of the Dalai Lama and the Incredible Hulk. She’s got the Dalai Lama’s soul, wants to have Bill Bixby’s mild-mannered persona, but she’s cursed with Incredible Hulk’s unpredictable temper. She’s working on that.

If you could host an author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
I’d love to gather around the dinner table with some of my favorite authors in the mystery genre:

  • Mary Daheim, because she’s always a blast to be around
  • Janet Evanovich, because I have so much to learn from her humor
  • Susan Conant, because she’s the author that started it all for me
  • J A Jance, because I’ve loved her stories forever
  • Sue Grafton, because her female detective has been an inspiration for so many
  • Agatha Christie, because I’d love to get her perspective on the cozy genre, especially how it has changed since she invented it all those years ago. I suspect she’d be equal parts amused, impressed, and horrified.

What’s next for you?
My second novel, A Killer Retreat, will be released this coming January. I’m currently working on the third novel in the Downward Dog Mystery series, tentatively titled Karma Can Be Killer. And of course, I’m still managing my yoga studio, teaching yoga, and walking my puppy-girl.

Yoga, dogs, and murder. What could be more fun?

***

Tracy Weber is a certified yoga teacher and the founder of Whole Life Yoga, an award-winning yoga studio in Seattle, where she current¬ly lives with her husband, Marc, and German shepherd, Tasha. She loves sharing her passion for yoga and animals in any form possible. When she’s not writing, she spends her time teaching yoga, walking Tasha, and sip¬ping Blackthorn cider at her favorite ale house. Tracy loves connecting with fans. Find her on her author web page or on Facebook.

Her first mystery, Murder Strikes a Pose, is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or wherever books are sold.

Whole Life Yoga: http://www.wholelifeyoga.com/

Author web page: http://tracyweberauthor.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tracywe

Amazon buy link: http://www.amazon.com/Murder-Strikes-Pose-Downward-Mystery/dp/0738739685/

Barnes and Noble buy link: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/murder-strikes-a-pose-tracy-weber/1116503716?ean=9780738739687

Moravian Writers’ Conference

I had the pleasure of attending the Moravian Writers’ Conference in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania last weekend. My writing was recharged by listening to the many writers talk and read. The keynoters, Ursula Hegi and Laurie Halse Anderson, affirmed that writing takes research, research, research, then courage, honesty and revising, revising, revising. I learned the most from Master Memoirist Beverly Donofrio, author of Riding in Cars with Boys, Looking for Mary, and now Astonished.

Donofrio’s reading mesmerized me. The piece began with her waking in her own bed to a rapist threatening her with a knife. No messing around. Donofrio then piles memory upon memory of male sexual aggression, all those events that could lead to rape, but don’t—men yelling taunts, men cornering you, men chasing you. The rape Donofrio describes is happening right before she leaves to become a nun, a spiritual seeker, not in the traditional take-the-veil sort of way necessarily, but by going into a contemplative life to find a connection to the divine, to God. And this violence happens? God, what is this all about? The themes of the whole book were woven into that first galvanizing scene.

I took Donofrio’s workshop the next morning. She talked and we wrote, then read and received comments. She helped people learn to write scenes vs. summary, an important skill. (Just as a side note, I discovered while trying to teach modernism to sophomores last semester that they didn’t understand internal narration vs. description. They couldn’t identify which character’s point of view we were in. Basics.) I finally got to start on that story that has been following me around.

Here’s what I learned. My last real growth spurt as a writer was learning structure. I became the outline queen. I wanted to know what I was writing before I wrote. This worked for my last novel. It turned on in my head like a light bulb. But I’d been waiting to know the structure of my next two. I thought of Virginia Woolf’s quote, “As for my next book, I won’t write it till it has grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall.”

But this book is not going to do that. I’m going to have to write it from the ground up—pick a “hot spot,” as Donofrio called them, and write that. Then write another one. After a while, these scenes will reveal the larger structure to me. I realize we already know this. I already knew it, but I was resisting it. I didn’t want to go through that awful struggle in the dark of trying to find the whole picture.

“So, I feel like I spend about 75% of my time flailing around,” I half asked, half said.

Donofrio nodded, “Yeah, we all do that.”

Ursula Hegi seems to delight in the discovery process. She writes, she reads, she ponders, she researches, she revises, then one day the book opens up before her and reveals its secret heart.

Writing is hard work, even though it’s not really, as Laurie Halse Anderson said. It’s not standing on a hot roof with melted tar in the 95 degree sun with 90 percent humidity, like the workers in her neck of the woods do. No, but it is a different kind of hard work, Hegi urged. Virginia Woolf compared the early part of writing to fishing: “The image that comes to my mind when I think of this girl is the image of a fisherman lying sunk in dreams on the verge of a deep lake with a rod held out over the water. She was letting her imagination sweep unchecked round every rock and cranny of the world that lies submerged in the depths of our unconscious being.”

The quote continues, and this brings us back to Donofrio, who urged us to write the “hot spots,” those things that choked the throat of some women in the workshop as they tried to read what they’d written. Woolf describes it this way: “Now came the experience, the experience that I believe to be far commoner with women writers than with men. The line raced through the girl’s fingers. Her imagination had rushed away. It had sought the pools, the depths, the dark places where the largest fish slumber. And then there was a smash. There was an explosion. There was foam and confusion. The imagination had dashed itself against something hard. The girl was roused from her dream. She was indeed in a state of the most acute and difficult distress. To speak without figure she had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say. Men, her reason told her, would be shocked.”

Time to tell the shocking truth in our writing.

5 Easy Steps to Improving Craft

One very important aspect of The Writing Life that we’ve been talking about this month (IMHO) is getting better at what we do.  I like to budget special time for “Improving Craft” into my daily writing schedule.  So I have come up with 5 easy steps to grow as a writer:

  1.  Read.  Not a problem!  Writers love to read, and that’s probably what made most of us want to become writers in the first place.  Some of the authors I admire include Dolores Johnson, Kris Nelscott, Phyllis A. Whitney, and oh gosh, oodles more.  I only list these few select ones because of points 2, 3, and 4 below.
  2. Analyze what you read.  Here comes the “work”–but it’s fun!  We get to re-read our favorite authors and try to figure out how they’ve made us love their work. For instance, what I love about Johnson’s dry-cleaner series is the wonderful way she presents humor.  What I love about Nelscott’s Smokey Dalton series is the way she uses historical elements.  What I love about the Whitney books is the way she builds atmosphere.  I find examples of what I love and then ask:  how do they DO that??  How can I do it too?
  3. Learn from Admired Writers’ advice!  This includes workshops, classes, mentoring, and yes, more reading.  Not all advice is right for everyone, so take care in choosing a trusted source.  Since I admire Nelscott’s work, I applied to one of the rare mystery workshops she offers–and was lucky enough to be accepted!  I also admire Johnson’s work, and I participated in a critique group with her for several years before she passed away.  (See points 1 & 2.)
  4. Study how-to books.  It’s not always possible to work one-on-one with an Admired Writer, but thankfully there’s a plethora of craft books to study.  Everyone will have a unique list of resources that have impacted them profoundly–often, it’s a matter of timing, or maybe of methods.  Here’s my list, and the reasons why these examples helped me:
  • Writing Popular Fiction, by Dean R. Koontz (because he’s a long-term bestseller at writing popular fiction, and the basic concepts haven’t changed)
  •  Writing the Blockbuster Novel, by Albert Zuckerman (because he was a top agent for bestseller Ken Follett and knew what elements sold books at the time this book came out–publishing has changed, but not the elements of good storytelling)
  •  The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, by Robert J. Ray and Jack Remick (because my writing time was–and still is–very limited, and I needed to know how to construct a mystery piecemeal and still get it done)
  •  Writing Mysteries:  A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, edited by Sue Grafton.  This was my first introduction to how to write a mystery, and it opened my eyes to the wide range of topics, and Bonus!  It includes an article by Phyllis A. Whitney, one of my favorite storytellers (See points 1 and 2.)

5.  Listen to reader feedback.  Join a mystery book club (you get to read, find new authors, and, well, see points 1 and 2).  Mystery readers are happy to tell you in no uncertain terms what they like and dislike about stories and characters and settings.  Sometimes you will also learn about procedure from experts at club meetings and some of their pet peeves to be sure to avoid.

It all boils down to point #1, reading.  Improving our craft can be a lot of fun, and I’m always looking for new methods and new authors to learn from.  After all, if we don’t get better, we have nothing to write that anyone wants to read!

Kristi Belcamino: My Very Own Writer Interview!

hiresBADcover A few years ago, I was invited to join Mysteristas, and have loved the support from my fellow bloggers, who I affectionately call my Mysterista Sistas.

I’ve read the author interviews and all their posts since then and am thrilled to announce that today, I am a published author. I have a book out in public for the first time ever today (Blessed are the Dead) and decided there was no better way to celebrate than to take our very own writer interview for myself.

Before I do, I’ll just give a snippet of what my debut mystery is about:

To catch a killer, one reporter must risk it all … San Francisco Bay Area newspaper reporter Gabriella Giovanni spends her days on the crime beat, flitting in and out of other people’s nightmares, yet walking away unscathed. When a little girl disappears on the way to the school bus stop, her quest for justice and a front-page story leads her to a convicted kidnapper, Jack Dean Johnson, who reels her in with promises to reveal his exploits as a serial killer. But Gabriella’s passion for her job quickly spirals into obsession when she begins to suspect the kidnapper may have ties to her own dark past: her sister’s murder. Risking her life, her job, and everything she holds dear, Gabriella embarks on a quest to find answers and stop a deranged murderer before he strikes again. Perfect for fans of Sue Grafton and Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series!

What’s your idea of a perfect day?

My perfect day would revolve around hosting a dinner party al fresco in my backyard with my family and close friends and would include yummy food, delicious wine, stimulating conversation, and much laughter.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?

My signature accessories are my giant silver hoop earrings. I have a signature fragrance, but I keep the brand a secret (have to maintain some mystique). My signature baked item is biscotti.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.

1. Anais Nin for showing me the magic of writing and the writing life.

2. S.E. Hinton for proving that a teenage girl has something extremely important to say to the world.

3. My fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Ward who gave me a children’s thesaurus as a gift and said that she hoped one day I would be a writer.

Do you listen to music when you write?

Not usually, unless it is crazy town day at the coffee shop where I sometimes write with a few friends. Recently, we were bombarded by about 20 little ones squealing and crawling under our table and over our chairs along with about ten adults singing Happy Birthday at the top of their lungs. The three of us simultaneously took out our headphones and put them on.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?

I don’t know my chocolates, but I’d say it would have to be Italian. Maybe Italian-American, such as Ghirardelli chocolates!

What made you interested in writing this particular story?

I had to write this book to purge the monsters in my head. The antagonist is based on a real serial killer who preyed on little girls. The very first time I read a passage in public (Noir at the Bar) that involved him was intense. I ran off the stage when I finished to stop myself from bursting into tears from the emotional weight of it.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?

Gabriella Giovanni’s little sister was kidnapped and killed when they were children. Her father died a few days later. Because of this and her survivor guilt, Gabriella has a hard time believing she is worthy of love. She’s also very afraid to love someone for fear they will be taken away from her like her sister and father had been.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?

1. S.E. Hinton

2. Anais Nin

3. Henry Miller

4. Ernest Hemingway

5. Stephen King

6. Joan Didion

What’s next for you?

I’m excited to start writing the third book in the Gabriella Giovanni series. I just finished copyedits on the second book, Blessed are the Meek, and that goes on sale July 29th. I’m ready to get cranking on book number three.

Award-winning former journalist Kristi Belcamino’s debut mystery BLESSED ARE THE DEAD is an atmosphere-rich sojourn that has been compared to Sue Grafton and offers chilling, authentic glimpses into the mind of a psychopath while also mining the psyche of an extremely likeable and sympathetic protagonist. It was inspired by Belcamino’s dealings on the San Francisco Bay Area crime beat with a serial killer who police and FBI agents linked to the kidnapping and murders of little girls. Belcamino’s personal past colors this smart, effective novel that showcases a strong new voice in the market.

Find Kristi at www.kristibelcamino.com

Facebook: 

Twitter:@KristiBelcamino 

Goodreads

Just Own It. Life’s Too Short For Judgment

I’m going to keep this Monday morning missive short on words but heavy on thinking material.

Last week, Slate ran an article basically suggesting that adults who read YA books should be embarrassed. I won’t add the link because really that’s all you need to know. The whole thing was crap. Total crap. And, as you can imagine, it made a lot of people in the YA community very, very angry.

This isn’t a YA blog. Most of us here at Mysteristas don’t write in that category at all. But this is an important topic for mystery writers. Because occasionally, just like adult romance writers, we get called out by our own writerly kind for being … soft. Not literary. Fluff. Published solely for the for pure entertainment value.

Which is ridiculous.

But there it’s there in black and white in articles just like the one that bashed YA last week. There are plenty, but honestly, it’s worse when it comes from one of us. The most recent and horrible example being comments Isabel Allende made about mystery writing on the eve of the release of her book, Ripper. Which is a mystery, by the way. That she wrote because her agent thought it would be a good idea. Her words to NPR:

“The book is tongue in cheek. It’s very ironic … and I’m not a fan of mysteries, so to prepare for this experience of writing a mystery I started reading the most successful ones in the market in 2012. … And I realized I cannot write that kind of book. It’s too gruesome, too violent, too dark; there’s no redemption there. And the characters are just awful. Bad people. Very entertaining, but really bad people. So I thought, I will take the genre, write a mystery that is faithful to the formula and to what the readers expect, but it is a joke. My sleuth will not be this handsome detective or journalist or policeman or whatever. It will be a young, 16-year-old nerd. My female protagonist will not be this promiscuous, beautiful, dark-haired, thin lady. It will be a plump, blond, healer, and so forth.”

Even though she apologized, it’s not like she can take those words back. And I know plenty of people who won’t read Ripper or any of her other books now out of spite.

My point here is that no matter what we choose to read or write, I think we should own it. Don’t you? Life’s too short to judge ourselves by what we find entertaining and it’s certainly too silly to judge others for what they like either.