I’m just starting a new project and with it, the book journal. It’s an idea that was new to me when I first heard the late Sue Grafton talk about it, lo these many years, and it was, as many things about writing were to me then, A Revelation.
She described it simply: Create a journal document on your computer for each project. (Mine is called Notes, or Notes + some descriptive word from the title, e.g., Notes Spice #6.) Open each session with that document. Date the entry and jot a line or two about what’s going on in your life. Then, use this place to capture ideas, story questions, worries, research to be done later. I often add my goals for the writing session.
Here are a couple of typical entries, from The Solace of Bay Leaves:
“Tues 7/16 Not quite awake yet, but I can’t get on line, so – to the page! When last we saw our faithful but worried scribe at her desk pondering this ms., she was struggling. Looking for the joy in the writing process, but bogged down by worry and fear, and uncertain where this ms would go. Picture in the corner, a leeetle beety creature – or maybe an angel descending on a spider’s thread, to tell her: It’s all part of the process. Doubt and fear? Let them go. The unknowing? Know that it will resolve itself ON THE PAGE. Each book teaches you how to write THAT BOOK. GO LEARN!
Today’s goal: Cruise. Get to the end of what’s already written. Don’t try to Fix Everything.
What a struggle. But think how proud I’ll feel when I pull it off!
Can I really name a woman Kimberly Clark and get away with it??? (In a story sense, not a legal sense.) Yes, though I might want to reconsider if she turns out to be the killer.”
“Fri 7/26 Did a short stint Wed before we headed to Missoula, then in the car, I realized I DON’T NEED THE SOCCER MOM story line and the whole thing will be much better. Instead of trying to cram a problematic story line in, GET RID OF IT! And follow the Maddie-Pepper thread, wherever IT goes.
Maybe it was Maddie who Pat stayed home to meet – a secret meeting to work out a compromise? Wouldn’t he have made notes? Maybe she took them.
Deanna as killer? I wanted a man…
And what about ghost signs?
WHAT IF – an old bldg had been torn down in the 1970s and replaced with an icky one; now it was going to be replaced again and the neighborhood wanted it to fit in better…
A new theme is emerging: A not-so-perfect Maddie.”
Grafton often told a story on herself that illustrated the usefulness of her book journal. She got to a particular point in that year’s book when she was sure she couldn’t pull it off. She told her husband, who said “you said that last year at this point.” “Well, maybe, but this not time. This might be the time when I really can’t figure it out.” “You said that last year, too.” And when she opened the previous year’s book journal, by golly, he was right. She laughed at herself, got back to work, and with the help of her book journal, pulled it off.
It’s an odd thing, but one of the best techniques I know for keeping my bottom in the chair and my mind on the page is setting a timer. It’s as if my brain knows it doesn’t have to think about or do anything else for that short burst of time, that its only job is to write.
And by golly, it works.
These days, I set the timer on my iPhone for 30 minutes, and I am almost always surprised when it buzzes, because I’m so deep in the work. If you’re prone to distraction from your phone’s beeps and buzzes, turn it off or tuck it in a drawer and use a kitchen timer. I landed on 25 minutes almost by accident—20 seemed too short, 30 too long—and only later discovered that the time management expert who developed the Pomodoro Technique advocates 25 minute sessions. (Why pomodoro? It’s Italian for tomato and he uses, and sells, a tomato-shaped timer.) Now that I’ve done this for a while, 30 minutes is just right.
Give yourself no more than 5 minutes for a break. Do a few deliberate stretches, pee, refill your coffee or water, sit back down, set the timer, and forget it. Don’t go online until your day’s writing session is over. Any longer break, or one that engages your attention in any significant way, will break the connection between your conscious and subconscious minds and disrupt the flow.
I often talk here about the importance to writers of reading as a writer, of developing the ability to identify why a book or essay or poem has a particular effect. When you begin to understand the power of certain tools, you can decide how, or whether, to use them in your own work.
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the US. We’ve all heard recordings of Dr. King’s speeches and we know that part of their power came from his delivery—his voice, his use of dynamics, his pauses and gestures. But you can feel the power even when you read the words on the page, as my college rhetoric professor, a wonderful old Jesuit, showed me 40 years ago. Smarter people than I have dissected King’s use of rhetorical devices—the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech is particularly noteworthy—and their research is worth a closer look. Let me pique your interest with a quick look at three commonly-quoted lines.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” — The two key phrases, “injustice anywhere” and “justice anywhere,” are parallel in structure, but justice is contrasted against injustice, and the change from anywhere to everywhere uses parallel, rhyme, and contrast, emphasized by the potent phrase “a threat” in between. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” — Another powerful example of parallels and contrast. “The time is always right to do what is right.” — This short line combines two cliches, but takes its power from contrast, through the use of the wo different meanings of the simple word “right.”
Think about how you use contrast and parallel structure in your sentences. Dialogue and scene and chapter endings offer lots of opportunities to use these tools. A common tool in revision is to identify the strongest line of dialogue and make sure everything else leads to it. Can you give that line even more punch with rhetorical devices—the ones I’ve mentioned or others? What about the last line in a scene or chapter, which sums up the action and creates a turning point? How can you use rhetorical structure to make sure the reader keeps reading? As you read or listen to Dr. King’s speeches today, and as you hear other speeches in the days ahead,listen as a writer.
In my Building Character class, one of the tools I describe is the free write, an exercise to delve deeper into a character. Use it with a character who is not forthcoming about their experiences, one who is very different from you, or even one you know well. In writing the stand-alone currently circulating with publishers, I used a free-write session with the main character who is in many ways much like me but whose particular motivation wasn’t clear on the page. I’ve also used it in revision, as with the forthcoming Bitterroot Lake, when my editor suggested that the killer’s motivation needed more depth. I combined a free-write with some emotional research to delve deeper and even found the basis for another scene I knew I needed but had resisted adding because I didn’t know what the story needed.
A student new to the concept asked how to get started. The keys are to write by hand, write in first person, and open yourself to the voice and experience of that character.
Why by hand? Grapho-therapist Jamie Mason Cohen said in an interview that “[w]hen you write by hand, the act itself slows you down, resulting in single-tasking and focused concentration on what you’re doing in the moment and fully present.”
I believe that free-writing these snippets of our characters’ inner lives by hand frees our creativity by creating a direct link to the subconscious. It frees us from judgment. This same effect comes from writing in first person, in the voice of the character we’re exploring, even if the story itself is in third, or in first but in the voice of a different character. For a few minutes—five to twenty—you’re giving that character a chance to speak directly to you. To tell you their story. You may not use it all on the page, but you’ll learn details and detect emotions that will help you understand that character, their emotional responses to the story events, and what they do as a result. In other words, this simple exercise will advance both characterization and plot
Try asking yourself a some questions, almost like a guided meditation. One of my favorites for mystery and crime writers comes from my friend Ramona DeFelice Long, a writer and editor, who called it channeling your inner OJ. You’ll remember that after OJ Simpson was acquitted of double murder, he claimed to be in search of the real killer and wrote a book called If I Did It, giving a hypothetical description of the murders and how and why they might have occurred. Talk to your suspect and let him or her tell you how and why they might have done it. Pay particular attention to the why, their motivation, and see what surprises they reveal.
Other prompts to ask your character, writing for at least five minutes: What I most want is… If I don’t get this, I will … The thing that stands in my way is… What I am most afraid of is…
I wrote about the importance of reading like a writer a few months ago, but today I want to suggest that over the next week or two, you should just read because you love it. Read because it feeds your soul and reminds you why you write. Read because you’ve been reading since you were five or six years old and few things connect you to who you really, truly are than a good book. Read not because you want to learn how Elizabeth George handles shifts in POV (masterfully), how Laura Lippman writes the modern noir in Sunburn, or how Ken Follett makes building a cathedral fascinating—although it’s perfectly fine to notice those things, and even to make a few notes for your own WIP. Read to get lost in a book, to forget what time of day it is or where you are. Read to meet new people, eat new food, explore a new community, and find out what happens, as my friend Barbara Ross says in her “cozy covenant.”
I promise, if you take a little extra time during this holiday season to read for pure joy, you’ll return to the WIP invigorated and inspired.
My favorite writing blog—it may be the only one I still subscribe to—is a group blog called Writer Unboxed, subtitled “about the craft and business of fiction.” Founded by novelists Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton, it’s a group blog with more than thirty regular contributors along with a cast of occasional contributors and guests, offering posts on craft, business, and inspiration. The craft posts are detailed—agent and teacher Don Maass, for example, raises a provocative topic then offers specific questions for you to ask yourself about your WIP. Novelist and teacher David Corbett writes often about character, and I’ve come to value craft posts from Kathryn Craft, Barbara Linn Probst, Barbara O’Neal, Heather Webb, and others. Editor Dave King, co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, often posts snippets from manuscripts he’s worked on, showing his edits and annotating them with his thinking. Editor and novelist Ray Rhamey dissects the opening pages of NY Times best-sellers in his “Flog A Pro” segment. Other posts give a practical look at the business of writing. I was particularly inspired by a Barbara O’Neal post on using collage to better visualize a WIP, and drink in posts on refilling the well and nurturing the creative spirit. Dialogue often erupts in the comments, giving additional suggestions and ideas.
Sometimes characters have experiences we haven’t had. In my Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, Erin lost her father to a hit & run accident when she was 17. My father died when I was 30. Those are very different experience. I knew some of the emotion she might feel from observing people as a lawyer, in personal injury cases. But I needed to know more. I sat down and wrote by hand about every person I could think of that I knew – well or not well – who’d lost a parent when they were a child. I was drawing on my own observation, some incomplete, some 30 years old, but it turned out that I knew a lot. I wrote about the high school classmate whose father died the year after we graduated, and whose own husband died in his early 40s, leaving her with a small child, giving me a dual perspective. I wrote about my reaction and that of my classmates when a boy in our class was killed in a car accident our junior year, research that triggered a huge swath of the ms. that’s currently out on submission.
Talk to people who’ve had the experience, if you feel you can, or to people involved with it in other ways—your friend who teaches junior high, or your walking buddy who’s a social worker.
I searched online for guides for teachers and school counselors on dealing with students who lost a parent. You could also read memoir, personal accounts, or YA novels involving that situation.
And from all of that, I was able to see how Erin would have responded, the different ways her older brother and sister responded, and how the loss affected her relationship with her mother at the time, and how it affects their relationship Francesca still wants to protect Erin, who’s 32 now, and knows she can’t, any more than she could when Erin went off to college that fall. What does that lead her to do – and say – when she sees her daughter investigating murder?
This all has ripple effects. The loss led Erin to be a bit aloof in college, focused on school. She barely noticed a guy who was really into her. She meets him again, 15 years later. How does that history influence their relationship? And the impact on her relationship with her BFF is a big driver of the story as well, because the woman is now a sheriff’s detective in their hometown.
For Bitterroot Lake, my suspense debut written as Alicia Beckman (Crooked Lane, April 2021), I did the emotional research during revision in response to questions from my editor. I thought about people I knew who, from my perspective, were driven by bitterness and resentment. I read articles online in Psychology Today and other sources. All that helped me flesh out my personal observations. It gave me specifics on how such a person views the world, and the language they use, and helped me see what this particular character in this town, in this crisis, might do.
So when you’re checking on the time of sunrise and sunset and what wildflowers might be in bloom during your story time, don’t forget the emotional research, too.
I’m at the stage in the next book, Bitterroot Lake, my suspense debut, written as Alicia Beckman (Crooked Lane Books, April 2021), where I’m reviewing the publisher’s copy edits and I have no idea what’s what. Or what is what.
Most writers think we’re pretty good with grammar and punctuation. And I thought I’d turned in a pretty clean manuscript. I did, in fact; there weren’t a lot of corrections. But some of them are, well, humbling.
This is the stage when a professional copy editor, a man or woman who sleeps with the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, close to one hand and the latest Merriam-Webster near the other hand, who knows the house style (the publisher’s own practices) like they know their own name, and can spot an italicized comma at a hundred yards, reviews the ms. with the proverbial fine-tooth comb. They won’t comment on the comb as a cliché; instead, they’ll insert that hyphen if you didn’t.
I’m deeply grateful to copyeditors (CE, in Word’s Track Changes function) for saving me from myself.
In reviewing their edits, I do some research of my own. I discovered for the first time that according to the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Wildflowers, a volume that lives on our library shelves when it’s not in a daypack for a hike, my favorite wildflower (which is one word, not two) is capitalized as Arrowleaf Balsamroot, not arrowleaf balsamroot, as I’d always thought. Let’s hope I remember.
It’s humbling, to discover that something that sounds right to me, Garner’s Modern American Usage views as “either a typo or a serious grammatical error.” (Neither … or instead of neither … nor. And Garner also considers the pronunciation I grew up with, nyether instead of neether “slightly pretentious.” Ouch.)
The explanation for other errors is less painful. I wrote “ordinary time,” not “ordinary times,” revealing my Catholic upbringing. I was so pleased with myself, with this ms., for finally learning where to use en dashes vs. em dashes. Oops! (Hide—and—seek; claw—foot tub.) Turns out that mistake is probably a function of the software: I write my drafts in Word Perfect and convert to Word for submissions; the conversion is usually seemless—oops, seamless—but only if created properly, not using a shortcut. Oops!
I made plenty of dumb mistakes I’d have recognized in anyone else’s work. Nick-nack? Doorjam? Please. (Knick-knack and doorjamb.) And how many times I typed breath instead of breathe and never noticed. Eek! Who knew methinks is one word, not two? (Put your hands down. I’m embarrassing myself plenty without your help.)
Publishers’ preferences vary. One drinks chardonnay, another Chardonnay. I had to rework a line referring to cab(ernet) so readers didn’t suddenly think Sarah had called a taxi.
In rejecting a proposed change, it’s important to not just “stet,” meaning leave as is, but to recognize that an underlying glitch triggered CS’s change and rephrase to correct it. Copy-editors understand that dialogue is often ungrammatical, but that narrative should generally be grammatical. But when the third person perspective is particularly close, as mine often is, it too can follow casual usage, not correct usage. (I want to put commas before and after “too” but that was, correctly, corrected.)
Raise your glass—of chardonnay or Chardonnay—to copyeditors everywhere, who dedicate their working lives to making our reading lives a little easier.
Originally published March 5, 2017; reprinted today, in honor of Dame Agatha’s birthday, September 15, 1890.
A few weeks ago, I was asked to introduce the Bigfork Community Players’ production of “Murder on the Nile,” Agatha Christie’s stage play based on her book, Death on the Nile. That got me thinking about Dame Agatha’s continued influence on readers and writers. The play is great fun—different from both book and movie—and it was a delight to be a part of the show for a night. My comments:
I’m Leslie Budewitz, author of the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, set in a fictional version of Bigfork, and the Seattle Spice Shop mysteries.
When Karen Koler asked me to join the fun tonight, we chatted a bit about the play, and our amazement at how widely read – and watched – Agatha Christie remains today.
And that got me thinking about Agatha Christie and her continued influence on mystery writers and readers.
For many of us, her books were the gateway into adult literature. When we’d had enough of Nancy Drew, we gravitated naturally to Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and my favorites, Tommy and Tuppence. I still remember buying my first Agatha Christie, a paperback, in a dime store in Burlington IA when I was ten or twelve. With my own money. I read it by the pool and begged my mother to let me go back and buy more.
Agatha Christie was born in 1890 and died in 1976. She wrote 75 novels, not all of them mysteries, 100 short stories, more than a dozen plays – some based on her novels, and two autobiographies. She was also a prolific diarist. I’m pleased to have won two Agatha Awards, named for the great lady herself, for nonfiction and best first novel. The year I was nominated for Best Nonfiction, one of the other nominees was John Curran, a Brit who’s written two books looking at her secret notebooks, where she sketched out her plots and character ideas, and occasionally wrote the first drafts of her short stories. Her books are still bestsellers, and her plays still draw crowds.
Because she was first and foremost a tremendous storyteller. John Curran attributes that in part to her unconventional education. She also had a tremendous curiosity about the world. She traveled widely with her mother, with her first husband, an army officer, and with her second, an archaeologist. Those trips inspired several novels, including Murder on the Orient Express. Her trip to Egypt was no doubt the spark for her 1934 short story called “Death on the Nile,” featuring Parker Pyne, one of her lesser-known detectives. She then expanded it into the 1937 novel, featuring Hercule Poirot, and later adapted it for the stage as Murder on the Nile, making significant changes along the way.
She wrote what are typically called traditional or cozy mysteries, where a murder happens in a discrete, defined community, and has a deep ripple effect. The murder disrupts the community, and a surprise – even though one happens in every book. The murder must be solved not only for justice to prevail, but to restore the community, and help the individuals get their lives back on track – something we’ll see in this story.
She also created highly memorable detectives. Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are instantly recognizable. They’re both intriguing, he for his experiences, and she for her astuteness despite her apparent lack of experience. That nosy village woman lurks in many of us, and she’s the inspiration for so many modern amateur sleuths, including my own.
Both Miss Marple and Poirot were typically outsiders, although Miss Marple did occasionally investigate an incident in her own village, St. Mary Mead, and that outsider status gave them the ability to see things and make connections others – including the police – couldn’t see. That’s very much an element of the modern traditional mystery, as is the counselor or sounding board role that each often played.
Some of her secondary characters feel like cliches now, but I think that’s the result of time and imitation. She did a brilliant job giving her minor characters the telling details that made them come alive. She also used our assumptions about certain types of characters against us, such as our belief in the innocence of a caring doctor or a devoted child.
We also love her intricate plots. She often recycled plots, or wrote variations of them, which the very prolific can do. The mystery writer Robert Barnard wrote that she could use the same trick a second time – and still fool us. She hid clues in plain sight, and she was a master of the red herring. In fact, we’ll see tonight how she used misdirection to make us think one thing while something entirely different was going on.
She was daring, as anyone who’s read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd will remember, but I won’t say anything more, for those of you who haven’t read it yet.
I admire her ability to create a world. Tonight, we’ll feel ourselves part of the group on the cruise, and feel the friendships and tensions that develop. She had an uncanny eye and ear for the subtle conflicts between people, and as one writer friend pointed out, her subtle hints of inappropriate sexual obsession were way ahead of time. Morality is a recurring theme in her work.
She had wit. The same friend recalls her describing a character’s eyes as the color of “boiled gooseberries.” My friend had no idea what a gooseberry was, but the image totally painted a picture.
And she’s inspired modern day authors quite literally. There’s a mystery set a conference on Christie’s work, another hypothesizing that she wrote a long-lost play during her mysterious 1926 disappearance, and another involving a Golden Age of Mystery book club, structured like her novels. In my books, I use a Cast of Characters, as she often did, as a way to help readers remember who’s who, but also as another form of storytelling.
Dame Agatha remains popular because her stories still tell us something about human nature, and because they’re fun.
I’ll be in the lobby at intermission and after the show, chatting about mysteries – both Dame Agatha’s and my own. And I do have books and bookmarks available.
Thank you – and enjoy your trip down the Nile.
(Thanks to Art Taylor and his article in the Washington Independent Review of Books for the origins of “Murder on the Nile,” and to my friend Ellen Byron for sharing her memories and observations.)
We come to the page first as readers. If you had older siblings, like I did, you probably ached to read as a small child—to decipher those black marks on the white page, or to know what your parents were talking about when they discussed the day’s mail or something one had seen in the newspaper. Then you learned, and a world opened up, and eventually, you knew you had to be part of it.
I’m a big fan of books on writing, on classes and workshops and critique groups. But the best tool you have in improving your craft is to read like a writer. I highly recommend Francine Prose’s 2006 book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them.
My tip: Write your own book reviews. Keep track of what you read and what you thought. I started doing this ages ago when I first started writing, and it’s been hugely important. Use a small spiral notebook, no bigger than 5X9. In the front, reserve two pages for that year’s chronological list. List each title, author, and year of publication. I don’t number my list, but do note every 5th book in the margin, along with the month. I use highlighters to distinguish mysteries and general fiction; you might highlight other genres. If you’re trying to read more books by authors or about main characters vastly different from you, use another color for diversity.
Then write a review of every book. I often make notes as I read on something that delights or annoys me. When I finish the book, I note the date, then write a page or two or three. Summarizing the plot is a good exercise, revealing whether it held together, was memorable, or gaped with holes you didn’t notice as you read. (Why not? Too spell-bound by the language or the main character? Too caught up in the mystery, the what-ifs and whys? Note that, too.) Did the setting stand out? The main character and her motivations? The language? The structure? What other elements worked or didn’t?
Be positive as well as negative. Identify at least one thing you want to emulate—the author’s use of POV or how she weaves physical descriptions in through action. Note the failures, the imagery the author clearly thought important that escaped you, the sentences you never understood despite re-reading them two or three times, the failure to evoke a visceral or emotional response. Why did the story work or not work for you? If you’ve read other books by this author, how does this one compare?
At year end, you might want to see how many mysteries you’ve read, whether any are eligible for awards you’re eligible to vote for, or just look back fondly.
I’ll warn you that when you first start reading as a writer, reading isn’t as much fun as when you were six and enraptured by everything on the page. That will pass; you’ll learn to critique and enjoy.