Writing Wednesday — Plotter or Pantser? A few things I know for sure

Leslie’s desk

When I speak to groups of writers, I’m often asked if I’m a plotter or a pantser. * In groups of readers, I’m sometimes asked if I know the end of a book before I start it.

I confess I hate this question, at least the plotter-pantser aspect of it. (Readers are curious about our process and I get that and love it.) I’m a planner. Plot flows from specific characters being put in a specific situation, so I think a lot about the scenario, the setting, and who the people are. I make notes about the characters and what might happen. I jot down snippets of conversation, bits of description, and ideas sparked by my research. Then I put my notes in a rough chronological order, filling in additional things that occur to me as I go. In the course of this process, I do usually figure out the end and the killer, although both can change, as I get to know the characters and conflicts better. There are gaps. Sometimes I simply write “more stuff happens,” or “Pepper investigates,” or make notes for what I think might happen even though I don’t yet see how it all fits together. When I feel like I know generally what the major conflicts and motivations are and generally how it might play out, then I’m ready to start writing sentences and scenes.

I call this an outline. I once heard a writer describe exactly this same process and insist that she would never outline; outlining, she insisted, kills creativity and was to be avoided at all costs. I don’t know what she did call her notes, and I don’t know what happened in the 5th grade that made her hate the very word outline so much. I know I felt, still feel, kind of sorry for her, because she seemed too stuck on her perception of process; I am all but certain that unless she can see the value in being flexible in our process, when she runs into a story that won’t behave the way she thinks it should, she’ll get stuck on the page as well.

Then I heard an account of an author at a recent conference claiming that their process—I don’t know what it was—was the only way to write, and my heart sank a little.

I’m here to suggest we do three things:

  1. Let go of absolutes. They aren’t useful and they too often turn into judgments. Saying your way is the best or the only way, or shaking your head and putting on a knowing smile that conveys your skepticism, creates hard feelings. It confuses beginners and can actually stifle or stop them. And it does you no favors. I get that it’s hard to understand how a process so different from your own can work, but clearly, it does. Brilliant and successful novels have been written with and without outlines, road maps, or whatever we call them.
  2. Acknowledge that none of us is a purist. If you consider yourself a pantser who does little if any advance work, but you write a series on proposal, you do in fact already know a lot before you start Page 1. You know your setting, your major characters, and the tone and style of your story. If you’re a plotter or planner, the term I prefer, you know you need to be flexible and let things change, as I did in my second novel when I realized that the person I thought was the killer would not kill to get what he wanted—he needed the victim alive. And yet, there was a dead body. I looked more closely and realized the real killer had been hiding from me all along.
  3. Be willing to challenge our assumptions. It’s common to hear “do whatever works for you,” and of course that is the bottom line. But I also see writers taking that truism as permission to stick with what they’ve always done. I can’t say a whole lot for sure, but after 15 published books, I can say that there will come a time when what you’ve always done is not going to work. A pantser will need to stop and write out what happens in the next three scenes or chapters, then write them, then sketch out the next few scenes and write them, before regaining the momentum that carries her to the end. A planner is going to write 60% of an outline and the ending, without knowing what happens in between, then start Chapter 1. Maybe she’ll finish that outline as she goes, maybe not; maybe she’ll get to 60% of a draft, take a break, and come back knowing what happens next and write out the rest of the outline, as I did with BLIND FAITH. Maybe she’ll write her way to the end “by the seat of her pants.”

The point is that whatever works is rarely going to be the same twice. We do ourselves and our community no favors by pretending that process is static. Different stories, different challenges may require a different approach. Our process may change over time, as we gain more confidence and as we take on bigger challenges.

We’re all discovering the story. We just do it in different ways, in different stages. Let’s practice a little grace along the way.

*Writing by the seat of the pants, that is, without an outline.

Writing Wednesday — “Sleep on it”

Leslie’s desk

When we’ve got a problem to solve, we’re often advised to “sleep on it.” And when i surveyed the writers of the Sisters in Crime Guppies chapter about brainstorming techniques,* many said they posed the problem to themselves before bed and let their subconscious mind work it out.

Turns out there’s a good reason for that sage advice.

According to Steve Calechman, writing in “Sleep to Solve a Problem” on the Harvard Health Publishing blog in May 2021, the brain is designed to find connections to problems while we are sleeping so we can act on them when we’re awake. That’s the reason we so often wake in the morning knowing what we want to do — or not do — even though we can’t necessarily articulate why; we don’t remember going through the logic, but our sleeping brain did it for us.

For some people, the process wakes them up and they find themselves regurgitating the day instead of sleeping; if that’s you, the article suggests some solutions. But we’re writers. Our goal is to use sleep to help us solve problems on the page. Sometimes ideas occur to us just as we’re falling asleep; at other times, the work is happening in the REM state of the 5:00 to 6:00 am hour. How to enhance that process? Trust it. Ask your subconscious mind to work on an issue — tell it the problem. “How does Pepper solve the conflict with Nate?” “How does my young reporter convince her editor to let her write this story?” Keep a pen and pad by your bed and write down all the ideas that wake you, without judging their merits. (Take your notepad into the bathroom if you need a light and don’t want to wake your partner!) The moment you wake up, remind yourself that you asked for help and scan your mind for its offerings. Jot them down. Build that trust. Build the process.

Way more fun than counting sheep.

*This became my article, “What Happens Next? 9 Tried-and-True Brainstorming Strategies for Fiction Writers,” in The Writer, February 2022.

Writing Wednesday — All the Scentses

Leslie’s desk

When I was writing Blind Faith, my second stand-alone suspense novel, I quickly knew that a secondary character named Irene Danich was very fond of roses. Irene was a strong-willed woman, born in 1919 in a small Montana mining town. Irene lost both her husband and her daughter early, leaving her to raise two young granddaughters—one of whom, Carrie, is a major character with her own story line and POV. Beautiful and with a strong personal sense of style, but without a lot of money, Irene loved pretty things but was rarely able to indulge in them.

What, I wondered, was Irene’s signature scent? My own mother, a little younger than Irene, was not able to help me, and the only department store in the area with a perfume counter had closed. I remembered that a Sister in Crime, Angela Saunders, had once posted on the group message board about her love of perfume. I tracked her down and peppered her with questions.

Angie helped me focus on identifying something simple, romantic and floral that would have been available in small-town drugstores in the 1930s to 50s. Drugstore perfumes flourished in that era and some, I learned, were knock-offs of pricey Parisian scents. We settled on an eau de cologne, Yardley’s Red Roses, a good brand but not fancy, also available in soap and bath powder. She might have flirted with other brands over the years, but always returned to this one.

And oh, those lovely bottles! I remembered how much I loved my own mother’s collection, watching her choose one to wear, and being allowed to dab on a precious drop or two myself. They changed over time, and Carrie keeps three of them, each different, on a display shelf in her bungalow.

The point of the cologne was not just to characterize Irene, whom we see in action just twice, but also to characterize Carrie’s memory of Irene and of their relationship, which is pivotal. Readers can’t smell the pages, of course, and they may not have any association with a classic mid-century scent. But my hope is that the mention of it, and the reference to the bottles, will help readers create their own sense of this woman, even if the scent that emerges from their memories is nothing like what arises in mine.

Maybe you can do something similar with one of your characters. A man who wears Gray Flannel is very different from one who wears Old Spice, just as a woman who dabs on a scent created at a custom perfumerie in Paris is very different from one who gives off waves of lavender and lemon grass essential oils.

BLIND FAITH, written as Alicia Beckman, is out this week in hardcover, ebook, and audio.

Long-buried secrets come back with a vengeance in a cold case gone red-hot in Agatha Award-winning author Alicia Beckman’s second novel, perfect for fans of Laura Lippman and Greer Hendricks.

A photograph. A memory. A murdered priest.

A passion for justice.

A vow never to return.

Two women whose paths crossed in Montana years ago discover they share keys to a deadly secret that exposes a killer—and changes everything they thought they knew about themselves.

Find it here: Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Books-A-Million
Bookshop.org
Indie Bound
And your local booksellers!

Read an excerpt and early reviews on my website.

Writing Wednesday — Listening to how our Characters Speak

When Peppermint Barked, my 6th Spice Shop mystery, came out a few weeks ago, the owner of the local kitchen shop asked me to come by, chat with customers, and sign books. She’s sold a lot of my books – in a town without a bookstore, authors have to look for other partners and outlets – and I was delighted to hang out in the shop for an hour or so on a summer Saturday

The shop sells a line of infused olive oils and vinegars, and when I wasn’t chatting with potential readers, I listened in as two of the saleswomen gave samples and talked up the flavors, how the products could be used, what combos went well with each other and with what dishes. I’m a foodie, so I ate it up. But what I really loved was the language – and that’s why I want to share this moment with you. The terminology or lingo our characters use, the passion they speak with, even the sounds of their voices as they slip into something they know well and love – that’s another tool for bringing them alive on the page.

Think about that the next time you’re out and about. Eavesdrop, make notes, listen to what people say and how they talk about what interests them, whether its plants or tools or pets, or oil and vinegar.

Writing Wednesday – Charlie Chaplin and suspense

Leslie’s desk

A few weeks ago, Mr. Right and I took a road trip through central Montana, where we grew up, though in different towns. We spent a couple of nights in Great Falls, staying in a historic hotel where I cribbed details for my WIP. Prowled the galleries at the Charles M. Russell Museum, which we love, and visited a few other favorite spots. And Saturday evening, we went to the Mansfield Civic Center to watch Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, his 1931 silent romantic comedy, accompanied by the Great Falls Symphony playing Chaplin’s original score. (The last time we heard them? With guest artist Joshua Bell. So, yeah, we knew they can play. And play they did.)

The entire experience was wacky and delightful. Though we’d both seen snippets of the movie, with Chaplin as the Little Tramp, neither of us had seen the full movie.

What struck me was how Chaplin pushes the gags. The Little Tramp is in a fancy club with his billionaire friend, eating noodles on New Year’s Eve. He’s slurping them up, one at a time. A curly streamer drops down and winds around a noodle and he keeps slurping. And slurping. And slurping. Just watching makes you respond physically. You lean forward. You wonder how long this can go on. You physically need some relief. And when it comes, your body relaxes and you laugh and laugh. And then it happens again, with the Tramp and the Billionaire lighting a cigar, and the Tramp and the lady whose dress he’s set on fire and another man exchanging seats in a sort of game of musical chairs. The gag goes on to the point where it is almost but not quite too long. You want, you need, a resolution, and when it comes, he has you.

As writers, we can’t do that the way music or physical comedy can. But we can make our readers physically respond, make them want and need a resolution of the tension on the page.

What other lessons can you learn from other art forms? Have you seen City Lights? If you get a chance to see it with a live orchestra, go! And be prepared to laugh, silly and wacky as it is.

BY THE WAY, you’re a writer. That’s why you subscribe to this blog. I don’t very often post here about my books, except around launch time, which is coming up — Peppermint Barked, the 6th Spice Shop Mystery, will be out July 19, and Blind Faith, Alicia’s second suspense novel will be out October 11. If you are interested in more book news, including what I’m writing and reading, where I’ll be and more, I do hope you’ll subscribe to my newsletter, through this link. Subscribers get a free download for a short story, currently “The End of the Line” (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Dec, 2006) featuring an elderly Greek man who seriously hates change.

Writing Wednesay – The Language of Setting

Leslie’s desk

A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation to the Mystery Writers of America Northwest Chapter on setting. I love crafting the settings of my stories, and preparing the presentation—a new topic for me—was great fun. The audience was very complimentary and I hope to give the presentation again to other writers’ groups. (Drop me a line if you’re interested.)

But of course, you can’t say everything! And one aspect I didn’t talk about was the language of a locale.

Language and place are highly interconnected. How do your story people talk about the places where your story occurs? Are they intimately familiar with them, or still trying to figure the place out? How does the language of setting relate to the plot or characterization?

Listen to actual usage. Do locals say the highway, the freeway, the Interstate, the toll road, or something else? I-5, 101, the 101? When a character uses the wrong term, does another correct them, mock them, dismiss them? Does your gangster recognize that the newcomer is really new and begin to suspect him?

In my small town, the original townsite, now home to restaurants and retail but few essential services, is always referred to as “the village.” Anywhere else it would probably be downtown. Towns can outgrow geographic references, even though everyone still uses them—I’m thinking of the Northside and the West End in Billings, neither of which is north or west anymore. Neighborhoods can emerge through development or good PR and acquire a name some residents won’t recognize, like the Tangletown area in Seattle that used to just be a corner of Green Lake or a spot north of Wallingford.

What words do locals know that might need an explanation?
My husband and I were driving through farm and ranch country in central Montana. I spotted a compound of long low buildings, some obviously metal farm buildings, others wooden and harder to see.
Me: Is that a colony?
Him: I think so.
Half a mile later, we saw the sign for Miller Colony, Fresh Flowers, Eggs. We knew what we meant, no further details required. But a tourist or newcomer unfamiliar with the area might not know what they were seeing or what we were saying. (A colony is a settlement of Hutterites, a German-speaking Anabaptist community similar to the Amish or Mennonites, located mainly in MT, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. The group lives and farms and ranches communally.)

It’s a craft challenge to convey that insider knowledge. If the details advance plot, setting, or characterization, then try conveying it through context, rather than an info dump, like my parenthetical. If it doesn’t advance at least two of the three elements, you may not need it.

An example:
Her, driving through farm country: Is that a colony?
Him: Must be. (Silence.) Did I ever tell you the story about hustling the Hutterites at Hussmans?
Her: And then one of the guys looked at Brian’s cousin’s girlfriend too long and he went after him with the pool cue?
Him: I always wondered what happened to her. She was way too sweet for him.

Not the best example, maybe, but it shows how language and context can be used to convey both an element of setting and the relationship between this couple. They’ve been together long enough to know each other’s stories, and they feel comfortable skipping the detail and cutting to the punch line. Of course, you’d only include even a short snippet like this if it was relevant to some larger aspect of the story.

How will the language of and about place affect your story?

Writing Wednesday — evoking emotion on the page

Leslie’s desk

I’ve read a couple of books lately that were totally solid — interesting premise, fun characters, solid plot, a good use of setting. But I didn’t always feel like the characters were responding emotionally to the events on the page. And because they weren’t, neither did I.

Techer and literary agent Don Maass writes a lot about the importance of giving a reader an emotional experience, in both The Fire in Fiction and The Emotional Craft of Fiction, as well as in his posts on Writer UnBoxed and the in-person and online workshops he gives through Free Expressions. He stresses that the trick is not describing emotion on the page—telling a reader what to feel—but evoking it in the reader.

It’s a big subject, and there are a lot of ways to do it, but I want to share with you a post I wrote a little over a year ago for The Kill Zone blog, on emotional research — on how to better understand experiences we haven’t had, or go deeper into experiences we have had. Emotional research goes a long way toward helping us identify those gestures, thoughts, actions and reactions that truly show a reader what a character is feeling, and evoking her own emotional experience and empathy in the process.

I hope it’s helpful.

Writing Wednesday – Voice

Leslie’s desk

“I could hear your voice throughout,” a friend told me after reading Blind Faith, my standalone coming this fall (written as Alicia Beckman).

That reminded me of a different friend, who read Death al Dente, my first Food Lovers’ Village mystery, when it was newly published and said “it sounds just like you talk.”

And of course, other friends have said Pepper in my Spice Shop mysteries sounds just like me.

I’ve taken great pains to make the books different. To give Lindsay and Erin and Pepper different ways of speaking, of swearing, of talking to themselves. They have different lives, in different places. I’ve been careful to give them different experiences, to write some in first person and some in third.

Did I blow it? Do my main characters really all sound the same? Do they all sound like me? (Lindsay, the main character in Blind Faith, probably shares more of my upbringing and my personal views, even though her life experiences are very different from mine.)

No, not literally. But that’s not what we mean by voice, is it? Yes, it’s in the characteristic phrases, the pet words, the rhythm of the sentences. But it’s also in what the characters care about. How they think of the world.

My characters are concerned about community. About their relationship to their physical surroundings, whether it’s their home, the windswept prairie, or the historic building they work in. If an issue arises in my life, it might show up in one of their lives, because I want to explore it more deeply, and I figure if it snares my attention, it might matter to my readers, too. My main characters are interested in the world around them, even though they don’t all read or watch movies or garden. They do all love food and art! They’re interested in friendships, especially between women. In starting over. In healing the wounds injustice causes.

They sound like me because there’s a little bit of me in each of them. And that’s a good thing, because that’s one of the ways we make our characters come alive.

Tell me, friends. What does voice in a novel mean to you? Do you think about it as you write? Do you try to cultivate it, to change it from one type of story to another? Can it even be changed? Could we pick up any book of yours and hear you, regardless of the genre or subject matter?

Writing Wednesday – The Power of Community

Leslie’s desk

I’m just back from Albuquerque and Left Coast Crime, one of the three main fan conventions in mystery and crime fiction. And next week, I’m headed to Bethesda, MD, for Malice Domestic. My first conventions in three years! I found myself both unsure and excited. Unsure what to pack. How many bookmarks do I need? How many pairs of shoes? What am I forgetting, besides my mind?

And excited to see my community. Readers, writers, reviewers, booksellers, librarians, people in the publishing business. People who love curling up with a good book—and who love getting together with others to talk about the experience.

One of my writing communities has long been Sisters in Crime and the Guppies chapter, which I helped start. In 2014, SinC published a book called Writes of Passage: Adventures on the Writer’s Journey, ed. by Hank Phillippi Ryan.

Writes of Passage

My essay is titled “Group Power, For the Writer Alone in Her Room.” I was reminded of it recently when a member of an online writers’ group I’m in said of the cons, “I’m not sure I could do that. I’m an introvert.” Let me share this passage:

“I’ve been reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Crown Books, 2012). Like most writers, I’m an introvert, albeit a noisy one, or maybe an ambivert. Cain contends that most institutions in our culture—schools, corporations, even churches—push extroversion and emphasize group activities and teamwork. That emphasis often results in forming a group to tackle a problem, whether that’s really the best solution or not, and discounts key natural strengths of introverts. But while introverts need quiet time—alone in our rooms, with the voices and stories in our heads—we also like to cooperate. We value each group member’s voice, and we encourage innovation.

“That’s what makes the writers’ group so powerful. A group can help us learn new information or sift through it. SinC’s Guppies chapter thrives on that principle, with subgroups for those seeking an agent, learning Scrivener, and setting goals. A dozen writers in my neck of the woods recently formed a business and marketing group. The writer experienced with Mail Chimp presented a tutorial for would-be newsletter authors terrified by the specter of yet more technology. Those without Facebook or Twitter accounts met at a café with wifi and walked through the setup together. I helped the group learn to use our Word Press blog and conduct a blog tour. We teach, puzzle, brainstorm—and toast sales with champagne.

What groups do best, in my ambiverted opinion, is encourage its members and leverage information. Every opportunity and accomplishment I’ve had as a writer started with something I learned from a group. And with SinC and the Guppies, I didn’t even have to put on shoes.”

I do hope you’ll put on shoes and go find your community—on line or when the time is right for you, in person. And if you’re at Malice, please introduce yourself. Just don’t say anything about my shoes.

Writing Wednesday – The Gratitude Email

Leslie’s desk

I’m a big fan of marketing coach and teacher Dan Blank of We Grow Media, who advocates what he calls a human-centered approach to marketing. Yesterday, in a Zoom session, he talked about putting joy in our marketing and promotion, and suggested making a regular practice of sending “gratitude emails,” short thank you notes to someone who has inspired us, encouraged us, or otherwise influenced us, particularly in our creative work.

My first was an actual snail-mail letter, to a 90+ y.o. Jesuit who taught music when I was a college student at Seattle University more than forty years ago. In search of a break from academics, I signed up for classical guitar lessons, even though my guitar playing was limited to folk songs and singing and playing with a group at Mass. My teacher recruited me to join a trio formed by a music major named Karen. I was definitely the weak link. One evening the three of us gathered in my dorm room to practice for Karen’s upcoming senior recital. She had the brilliant idea to ask Father Waters, the dorm rector, to join us. As we played a modern atonal piece that had me stumbling, he stopped us and gave me one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received. “They’ll only know you made a mistake,” he said, speaking of the audience, “if you tell them.” Meaning, of course, through my reaction. It’s a lesson that goes far beyond music performance, and one I’ve never forgotten.

I’m not expecting a reply. I simply wanted to say thanks, and I hope, put a smile on an elderly priest’s face, as the memory and writing the letter have put one on mine.

What do you think? Might a week—or more—of gratitude emails help you find more joy in marketing your books? Reconnect with an old friend? Reassure someone who’s struggling? Add a smile where it might be needed?

(And no, this is not an invitation to thank me, though of course, I always like hearing from you!)