Monday, November 18, 2019

When not writing, Hallie's teaching...

HALLIE EPHRON: Welcome to another week-long episode of WHAT WE'RE WRITING! I get to kick off with another installment of WHAT I'M NOT WRITING. Promoting and teaching have been keeping more than busy these last few months.

Since CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR launched, I’ve been running around speaking at bookstores and libraries and events and teaching at writing conferences. Since August I’ve given writing workshops at:






  • Surrey International Writers Conference in Vancouver, BC, teaching a new workshop I call "Classic Fiction Writing Rules and When You Can Break Them" plus "Suspense 3 Ways" (which turned out to be Suspense 5 Ways.)


I love to teach, and I’ve been a teacher for far longer than I’ve been a writer. I think of my book on how to write a mystery novel as my ‘ticket to ride.’ 


There's no greater thrill than returning to a writing conference, meeting writers whom I met with a year or two earlier, and hearing how their work is progressing and the epiphanies they've had along the way. 

You’d think by now I’d have at least a dozen ‘canned’ presentations ready to go, but I hate teaching exactly the same thing twice, and each time out I have new things to say about those old chestnuts: character, setting, plot, dialogue, suspense, viewpoint… 

Recently I noticed one of the problem many aspiring writers had was figuring out what exactly they were writing. It often boiled down to: mystery, thriller, or suspense? Of course most crime novels are a mixture but when you’re pitching your idea, it’s good to know where it most comfortably fits. It’s not that easy to articulate the differences. Like porn, you know it when you see it.

But I gave it a shot. Beginning with the idea that some novels fit neatly into one category. Then starting with some examples, we went from the cover, to the author photo, to the jacket copy, talking about mystery/suspense/thriller, and the fundamental question the novels addresses:
Whodunnit? A mystery
What’s going on here? Suspense
What’s going to happen next? Thriller

Some novels fit neatly into one category. 




Others are a blend.




And, most importantly, each of us has a sweet spot, somewhere in that Venn diagram. As a writer or as a reader, what’s yours?

44 comments:

  1. Interesting questions, Hallie. By your definition, what I'm working on now would be a mystery/suspense novel. There's also the time-honored three-act structure, which I like to think of as "What's Going on Here?" "That's Not What's REALLY Going On," and "How do We Clean Up This Mess?"

    I have your book and it's a really great guide, but it has been a while since I looked at it. Maybe it's time for a re-read!

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  2. Time for a reread for me, too, Hallie, as I'm in the "no idea what to do with this book" stage.

    And I do hope you are at least thinking about the next book while doing all this wonderful teaching:-)

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    1. I AM thinking! And soooooon, I'll start writing. (I'm also taking advantage of this break to do a lot of reading.)

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  3. Mine are definitely mystery, but as I close in on the ending, they start to drift into suspense and warp up more in the thriller category.

    Hallie, I love your book. Wore one copy out and bought a second. When I'm in between projects and convinced I'll never have another good idea EVER, sitting down with it never fails to inspire and trigger a few plots. THANK YOU.

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    1. Annette, that makes me SO happy! Love your books! I think we met when you were just coming out with your first.

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  4. What Annette said! I primarily write mystery, but what good mystery doesn't also include suspense and some thrills? Even cozies do.

    I've taught adults in several areas, but barely yet about writing. I'm teaching two courses next summer at the Cape Cod Writers Conference and have a lot of work ahead of me before that happens. Will be recommending your book, of course, Hallie (and leaning on it as I prepare, I suspect.)

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    1. I love the Cape Cod Writers Conference. It was the first conference I ever took a class at (with Phil Craig) ages and ages ago (it was a one-day back then). For years I was on their board, too. So many writers I met through them. You'll have a great time!

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  5. I can't decide if I'd want my book to be a mystery or thriller, but obviously a little bit of each would come into play in order to make for what I'd hope would be an exciting read for anyone (everyone!) to pick up and buy.

    As for what I'm writing, I'm working on my series The Cassette Chronicles as always. I have 3 more regular installments for the year, plus a year end best of piece. I was also asked to write a small piece on one of the albums that is making the website's Best of 2019 albums list.

    I've got a couple of CD reviews to do for another site before the end of the year as well. Let's hope that I like albums by Crashdiet and Steve Grimmett's Grim Reaper.

    I'm looking forward to getting my next batch of ARCs for review purposes as well. And I will end up doing my own personal Top 10 Mysteries and Thrillers list by the end of the year.

    None of it is as exciting as writing a book for the masses but small steps I guess.

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    1. For the rest of us who want to know more about what Jay is up to: https://limelightmagazine.com/category/cassette-chronicles/

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    2. Jeez, thanks Hallie. I usually try to leave out links to my stuff unless absolutely essential, so thanks for the promo.

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  6. First, where is Joan's comment ? I hope she is OK.
    My sweet spot is mostly mystery. With a little suspense is correct. Thrillers are often too hard for me but it certainly differs with the writer. When I like an author, I usually tend to like her writing ( I usually read more from feminine authors , the voice isn't the same) .

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  7. This is such a wise idea, Hallie! I have yellow stickies on my computer that say “psychological” you remind me at every turn that this is what my book IS. Because it is so easy to veer from the goal.

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    1. I think my yellow sticky that reads DEEPEN CHARACTER is the same kind of thing. Every once in a while I have to slow down the plot and think about motivation, back story, and of course secrets.

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  8. I can't say that it really matters to me, a good book is a good book! Sometimes labels put me off, especially those that say Thriller. Always makes me think of spies or car chases and a lot of gunfire. Not sure where that idea ever came from since I have read many "thrillers" that were not the least bit thrilling, so I guess I really don't get it.

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    1. I think it shouldn't matter what the label is during the writing process -- writers should just tell the story that bubbles up from those inner depths. But when you come to sell and market the book, it matters. And sometimes it's tough to put a label on but bookstores and librarians like to know what books to recommend to readers (based on their history of liking other books). And agents need to know how to pitch the book.

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  9. Ah the variety! I don't write, but I read all three genres and everything in between.

    Hallie, you are the quintessential teacher. This came to mind during a panel you moderated at Bouchercon. You were funny, warm, interesting, and completely in control. This is a good thing. Panelists sometimes grab the ball and are off down the field, leaving their moderator and fellows far behind, not to mention the audience. I can't see you letting that happen, nor can I imagine you letting a classroom of junior high kids get the best of you. Kudos.

    And you, not Marie Kondo, have inspired me to organize my closet and dresser drawers. I'm all set for winter, matching long johns and flannel nighties sorted, and everything that doesn't bring me joy is packed up and ready to go to the JCC clothing bin.

    I like Venn diagrams. John Venn has a whopper of an idea when he developed that concept. It works for almost every set sorting task I can think of, up to and including deciding what to cook for dinner!

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    1. Dear Ann - I'm printing this comment and sticking it on my computer for encouragement. THANK YOU! That panel was great fun - it was about picking weapons. I looked at that title and thought, oh sheesh, how are we going to fill an hour talking about that. But then... it turned out there's plenty to say. Especially when you have panelists like Tori Eldredge, Tracey S. Phillips, Carl Vondereau, and S.G. Wong.

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    2. Tori Eldredge did have something of an advantage, being a weapon herself!

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    3. No kidding. She's fierce... holds a fifth-degree black belt in To-Shin Do Ninjutsu, her debut novel called THE NINJA DAUGHTER.

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    4. And I’ve read it. Well worth the time. And terrifying

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  10. “Like porn you know it when you see it.” LOL! Love the diagrams! After 35+ “cozy” mysteries, I’m comfortable in mystery but I love weaving in elements of thriller or suspense. Great post, Hallie! Lots to think about.

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  11. Hallie, I can only imagine the kind of difference you made to your kids' lives as a teacher--it's so clear that you are passionate, caring, and kind as a teacher to the adults in your writing classes! The give-away comment, for me, was how you never like to boilerplate your writing classes, but are always looking for new ideas.

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    1. My ids? OMG if you ask them they'd say it was humiliating having a smart-ass teacher for a mom. When I felt one of my kid's teachers was doing a lousy job (encouraging cliques, handing out endless worksheets and then self-correct all day long..) I spent a day in that classroom "observing" and then went to share my observations with an administrator. My daughter did not really appreciate it... and in retrospect I'm not sure it was the smartest thing to do. Being right isn't always the best outcome.

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    2. Well, I was thinking more along the lines of your classroom kids--the ones you taught. I know it can be hard on your own kids when you have strong opinions about what is happening (or not!) in their classrooms!

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    3. In connection to one's own children and writing, I was a writing portfolio coach at my son's elementary school when he was in the fourth grade, the first grade the writing portfolios were required for in Kentucky. He was not too thrilled with me making him rewrite pieces or parts of them and work really hard, but he did get a superior on his portfolio, and I considered myself not so much hard on him, or others, but as believing in his and their abilities to achieve.

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    4. I wish I knew what happened to the terrific kids I taught at PS 189 on manhattan...

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  12. Like Annette and Edith, I'm in the "this is mostly mystery, until we get closer to the end and then there's some suspense and thrills."

    I need to crack open this book.

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    1. and I'm in it's mostly suspense until we get closer to the end and there's a mystery!

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  13. I'm with Jenn - love the porn joke and especially the diagrams. Your diagrams always kill. Swear by your book and your teaching skills, Hallie. Thanks for being so generous, always, with your time and wisdom.

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    1. Porn definition: Comes from the Supreme Court... In 1964, Justice Potter Stewart tried to explain what is obscene, by saying, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced... [b]ut I know it when I see it ..."

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  14. I enjoy picking up a book, expecting one thing but finding it’s more complicated than that. Good for you and your workshops, Hallie! Nothing compares to being taught by a teacher who loves to share his/her knowledge.

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  15. When I posted on my FB page about your being awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at Crime Bake, Hallie, I mentioned your teaching and mentoring, as well as your writing. I love hearing about writing, and I hope I can catch a writing class of yours at a convention sometime. I think it would be fascinating. And, I love that you enjoy the teaching so much. Enthusiasm is so important to being an effective teacher, and I'm betting that all your students have gained from hearing and working with you. Kudos to the teacher!

    My sweet spot is probably mystery and suspense, although as Edith says, a good mystery usually has elements of suspense and thrill, too.

    And, I'm a bit concerned about Joan, too.

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  16. Goodness, I’m so sorry to have worried anyone . . . I’m fine, thank you. We were unexpectedly traveling and this is the first opportunity I’ve had to get to my computer and get online . . . .


    Congratulations, Hallie, on you so-well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award . . . those are lucky students sitting in your classes.

    I’ve never given much thought to categorizing the books I read, but I guess I’d choose mystery/suspense [and I’m assuming the psychologically-driven stories fit into those same categories].
    Really, though, if it’s a good story with believable characters, I’m a happy reader . . . .

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    1. Thank you for checking in, Joan. I think we all will rest easier now. It's somehow comforting to see your comments at the top of the comments every day.

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    2. Joan so happy to hear your‘voice’

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  17. Congratulations on your award, Hallie. What a great conference it must have been (attention, Edith Maxwell) Love the Venn diagrams. My sweet spot is definitely mystery, whether I am reading or writing. I have to remind myself about including the necessary suspense,more of a challenge for me. And also to remember I am telling a story, not writing history. Blending them is the other sweet spot for me.

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  18. Congrats on your reward! I still have my packet from your Mad Anthony workshop (Hamilton, Ohio) tucked into your mystery-writing manual. Great critique and workshop. I write cozy/traditional mysteries and cozy short stories.

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