Monday, October 26, 2009

The Eternal Student

ROBERTA: I have to admit I'm a writing book junkie. I have dozens of them and I'm always looking for tips that will catch my imagination and improve my writing. Just before the mystery convention Bouchercon began, I was fortunate to attend Donald Maass's seminar on writing the breakout novel, sponsored by Sisters in Crime. Who wouldn't want to write the breakout novel, if you're going to all the trouble of writing one anyway? I was quite relieved when he talked mostly about developing complicated characters, rather than outlandish plots. Now I'm going through my novel draft, looking for ways to make the readers care more about my protagonist, to make her human, to make her multidimensional, to bring forth more drama, more conflict, more contradictions. A lot of what he discussed can be found in his excellent new book, THE FIRE IN FICTION. Though sometimes it takes hearing the ideas out loud for them to sink in. Have you heard any tips on writing lately that have caught your imagination and maybe made a difference in what you're writing? Or maybe an oldie but goodie that you tend to fall back on?

HALLIE: When I was at Bouchercon I was on a panel with James Scott Bell who wrote the excellent book, PLOT AND STRUCTURE. He talked about the "doorways of no return." At the end of Act 1 of a novel, for instance, there's a point when the protagonist must have no alternative but to move forward (and do something that character is profoundly uncomfortable doing) -- and once through cannot turn back. Moving through that doorway of no return propels the character into Act 2. It's a much more useful notion than "plot twist."

JAN: I took an online class in screenwritng last fall that was amazingly helpful. I needed it to remind myself how to write a screenplay, but it's also a way to look at novel writing from the point of pure structure. Along the novel writing way, I've developed a system I use for revision -- after the first draft. I was thrilled to find that it worked equally well in revising a screenplay.

On the other hand, I just wrote an essay for an essay collection thats coming out on how crazy parents make themselves over college admissions. And I can tell you, after all these years, an essay is hard every time.

HANK: Writing tips. Yeah. Why are they so provocative? It always seems like there's the perfect one, just the one you need, just around the corner. I'm so bummed I didn't get to hear Donald Maass, and Hallie's class was wonderful and inspirational, as usual. I'm starting a new project and of course, now in my head I'm going through all the "tips" I've ever heard.

And I guess the one I'm stickin' with is: Sit down at the desk. Write the book.

RO: I like Hank's tip. I've taken two classes that I thought were enormously helpful - Hallie's workshop at Crimebake three years ago, and Nancy Pickard's class for SINCNew England a couple of years back.
I bought a lot of books when I first started writing and I leaf through them every time I start a new book. Time to start leafing again.

ROBERTA: Jan, do spill the name of your screenwriter teacher when you get a chance. And please chime in with your favorite writing tips. And come back often this week--tomorrow we'll feature suspense writer Libby Hellmann, then James Benn on Wednesday, and on Friday--stay tuned for the Hallopolooza!


  1. I also sat in on a class at Sleuthfest with the late, greatly missed Stuart Kaminsky a few years back. I wish I had taped it. He was like the teacher you always wished you had in school, but never did. Some of the tips seem so obvious but when you hear them from a master it makes a difference..make each character unique, watch out for cliches, ask yourself if your character would really do that, really behave that way..

  2. Hallie's writing book is great, of course. Alex Sokoloff's blog on applying screenwriting tips to novels gets a big thumbs up from me too.

    I had read Stephen King's On Writing quite a while ago and it's full of great advice. (Write the first draft with the door closed and the second with the door open.) But what I found really helpful was a book on CD of On Writing that was recorded by King himself.

    I always have a book on CD going in the car when I drive to and from work. (Which for me is two round-trips a day because I'm lucky enough to live in a place I can go home for lunch. Heaven!) On Writing in Stephen King's own voice just knocks me out. It's like I hear things when he TELLS me better than I did when I read it. More like advice you get over the phone from a friend. I wonder if that would work for other writing books. Hmmmm.

  3. I admire greatly the writing masters Stephen King, Donald Maass, Hallie Ephron, James Scott Bell and others, but I have to say the *best* writing advice I've ever received was from Colonel Jimmie Butler, Founder of the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. He told us "Stay in the Phone Booth with the Gorilla." In other words keep your writing active. It made so much sense to this writer, and to this day, if I'm tempted to include an information dump or back story, I automatically think, "Stay in the phone booth with the Gorilla."

  4. Donnell! I LOVE that. Truly, life-changing. Thank you!

    Love these tips...

    And I agree about the Stephen King On Writing. Inspirational.

  5. I would be the writing school drop-out. I don't know where my stories are going. I certainly don't write to the three act structure. I stumble blindly behind my sleuth and you know what? It all works out quite nicely in the end.
    I just find this approach works better for me. I need to write scared. I need to feel that I don't know what will happen next. Then my reader also picks up that suspense. If I had planned an outline, I'd feel that my work on the book was done.
    But one tip I would share: if your plot has stalled it's because you are trying to make your character do something he or she would not do and they are digging their heels in!

  6. One of the first books I read, after Stephen King and Anne Lamott, was YOU CAN WRITE A MYSTERY by Gillian Roberts. Her first chapter contains Fifteen Commandments for Mystery Writers Who Want to Be Published that I copied and posted on the wall near my computer. Whenever I faltered, I reread the commandments. Commandment II. Thou Shalt begin and keep going until you're through, was particularly helpful in reminding me to keep going, that writing is rewriting, and you can always make it better after you finish a draft.


  7. Those are great suggestions, everyone! And the bottom line is, we use what works. Rhys proves that maxim to be true!

  8. Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain is my Bible. It's an oldie and dry and like a text book but it has the basics. I love the mention of Jimmy Butler! He was such a wonderful mentor. What he taught me about commas can still make me weep.

  9. Thanks for the recommendations. Time for more writing books for me.

  10. What helped me the most came from a Kris Neri online class, sponsored by the Guppies.

    Start plotting the story from the villain's POV because the sleuth, up until about halfway through, is reactive.

  11. The screenwriting teacher was Mark Troy. I think I took his class through Writers On the Net, which is

  12. The first...actually just about the only 'fiction writing' class I ever took was with the wonderful Arthur Edelstein, sadly now deceased. The BIG Aha! I took from that class was to presence your characters...make them physically present on the page. There was much more, of course. He's sorely missed. (this is why writers have **props**).

  13. "Feel free to write the worst ----(junk) in America!"--Natalie Goldberg. Great first draft advice. Keep your pen moving, don't cross out, keep writing fast to quiet the editor in us that is saying :SHUT UP!!"

  14. Okay,clearly I need to reread James Scott Bell again--I'm staring at that doorway and pretty sure it doesn't yet have NO RETURN stamped all over it. And maybe I should actually take Fire in Fiction off my shelf! :)