Saturday, October 25, 2014

5 Things I Learned Writing Mysteries

This month I'm finishing another cozy mystery for Annie's Fiction book club, and in the process, I've learned so much--tips and techniques I'm using in all my writing, not just mysteries, since I'm not a one-genre girl.

So on to the lessons I've learned...

1. Outlining is your friend. Until my editor required it, I was a confirmed pantser. Oh, I'd sketch out plot ideas and mini outlines for sections of the book as I went, but the idea of writing a full outline gave me the heebie-jeebies. It's still painful for me, since I have one of those NF brains--intuitive. But the outline process forces me to figure out the plot arc for all the threads and noodle out issues in advance. This makes the writing process go much faster. Of course, an outline is just a guide. As you write, things get rearranged, dropped or added, whatever is needed to make the book stronger.

2. Pace carries your reader through the book. Mysteries not only have strong plot structures, they also have built-in pace. As the sleuth discovers clues, events build to the climax of solving the mystery. Often, chapters end on "cliffhangers"--exciting revelations or events--that keep the reader turning pages. The same technique can apply to any genre. The basic idea is to create suspense by raising an issue or question that will be answered later in the story. Narrative drive is another term--your novel needs an intrinsic energy that propels the reader on a journey.

3. Don't drop the sub-plot. Single-focus books seem to be a thing of the past, even in the crime genre. Detectives have personal lives and problems beyond solving their latest case. Weaving together plot and sub-plot can be tricky since you don't want big blocks of one focus then the other. Instead, include elements of plot and sub-plot in each chapter. Minor subplot can be brought in every few chapters. Creating an arc and/or outline for each sub-plot will help you make sure they weave into the main story perfectly.

4. Motivation and goals enrich your characters. I have to say it again--Deborah Dixon's Goal, Motivation, and Conflict really turned on the light bulbs for me. Yes, my sleuth was motivated to solve the mystery (and why is important, too) but what about the big picture? Identifying my character's internal goals, motivations, and conflicts added so much richness to the story. This also leads to believable reactions and behaviors and creates opportunity for interesting sub-plots and plot twists. There are layers of sophistication here with mirroring and sub-text that I admit I'm still learning about and striving to incorporate.

5. Take your readers somewhere special. The books I enjoy most immerse me into the character's world. Cozies often excel at that, since they are mainly escape reading. Whether the setting is a romantic country inn in autumn, a ski resort in January, or an exotic island getaway, readers want to feel like they are there. Sensual details abound. I've read some books that have a great set-up, characterization, and dialogue, but the setting is as bland as an airport hotel. It could happen anywhere. Great settings don't mean pages of description. Often a few specific and vivid details can convey a richness of experience.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Deadly Pattern Released!

Today I got a nice surprise in the mail--author copies of my second cozy mystery from the Annie's Quilted Mystery series.

From the cover: "The spring season is usually the time for new beginnings, but as Easter approaches, Emma Cotton and Kelly Grace--quilting entrepreneurs from Mystic Harbor, Massachusetts--are finding themselves literally at end of the line. Traveling to Sedona, Arizona in search of the next suspect in the death of their good friend Rose, they find Dakota Longbone, a Native American interpreter and guide." They also discover murder and an art forgery ring.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Readers Rock - The Rest of the Writing Story

Conventional wisdom says don't read reviews. But what if they're emailed to you and are nice?

The Annie's books are discussed on The Cozy Mystery List Blog and the readers are very interactive with the writers.

I got this today and so appreciated it:

Good Afternoon Liz!

Just wanted to take a moment to post about “Deadly Garland”. I completely enjoyed every moment of your book. I’ve posted earlier that I just never got the emotional attachment to Shannon as I did with Annie and her friends. “Deadly Garland” finally got me really liking Shannon. It seemed like she was drawn in similar to how Annie was and so she didn’t come across as being nosy. Also adding a dog into the equation made her much more likeable. In retrospect, I think that the authors writing about Tartan and Boots helped to ground Annie and Ian, making them appear much more “normal”. But I’m an animal lover so finding that trait in a character in a book immediately makes me like that facet of the character and, I’m sure, helps to start forming that relationship between the reader and the character.

So, at long last I found myself liking Shannon. Loved the ending, much as I hoped things would go for quite some time now. Look forward to reading your contributions to the “Unraveled” series!


Virginia is referring to the long-running Annie's Attic series, which I did not write for.

So a shout-out to wonderful readers! Thank you for taking the time to tell us you enjoy our work. It keeps us going when we're struggling in the middle of the WIP or waiting for answers to submissions. All the less fun parts of the writing journey, LOL.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Book and Story News!

Over the past couple of weeks, I've gotten exciting news related to my fiction. First, my Gothic short story, The Roadhouse, was accepted for the next print edition of the NH Pulp Fiction series.

Set in 1883 Franconia Notch, The Roadhouse features an iconic Concord stagecoach, as will all the stories in this edition.

Some of my favorite books are those I call past/present, where there are two juicy stories that intertwine. I'm going to be writing one called Whispers of Florence for the new Annie's Fiction historical series. Whispers has two of my favorite settings: Vermont and Florence, Italy. Lots of art, fashion, yummy food, and, of course, murder and mystery. The main character in Vermont is of Italian descent, as am I. My ancestors came from Barga, Italy, near Florence. Note: I am also going to write book 4 in this series, tentatively set in Scotland 1745, and book 8, set in on the Yorkshire Moors.

I'm also going to write a book for another Annie's present-day series, not announced yet. I'm excited and grateful for these opportunities! The road to publishing in fiction is often a long one.  It has been for me.

PS that's my 1931 thesaurus above. I adore using a Roget's right for whatever period I'm writing in.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Putting Flesh on the Bones: Structure and Meat in Your Story

Cookie photo by Anneheathen

Until recently I was a pantser. A character, a setting, a situation would come to me and I'd be off. Sometimes I knew where I wanted the story to end up--but I muddled through the middle all the way. 

I've written mysteries where I, along with my future readers, didn't know whodunnit. 

When I started writing for Annie's, my editor said an outline was a requirement. To that point, I'd only done mini-outlines as I wrote--sketching out the next few scenes. 

Ouch and ugh. Instinct wasn't going to cut it anymore.

My editor provided materials to help. At Entangled, too, authors are given tools to help ensure that their books have solid "beats" - plot points that structure the story.

I groaned my way through the outline and got the contract. When it came to writing the book, it was amazingly fast and required very little revision. Most of the sticky places had been thought through in advance. I still had to add scenes and work through some issues, of course.

Now I'm applying these tools to my YA romance and other projects I'm tossing around. I now see how a solid grasp of the plot arc will help me write a book for maximum impact. And how defining the characters' goals and motivations will enrich both the plot and the book as a whole.

Major light bulbs went off when an Entangled editor recommended Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon to an author. In Dixon's approach, goals (what) and motivations (why) create characters with depth and a personal path. Along the path, they encounter--and must overcome--conflict.  Understanding a character's goals and both internal and external motivations help you increase the stakes in a story. I can't recommend this book enough.

It immediately helped me hone the goals and motivations of my couple in Last Summer in Eden. They both feel boxed in by their place in society and long for creative freedom. The fulfillment of those desires comes into conflict for my MC due to the mores of the day, although in the 1920s, much was shifting--for women and in the setting of my book.

An often recommended tool for plotting is Blake Snyder's beat sheet. Blake is now gone, unfortunately, but his screenplay methods are still being taught. I use the beat sheet to plot the major incidents and turning points of a book. The page numbers cited are for a screenplay but you can convert the beats into percentages and apply to a novel.

The concept of key events at certain points in a book or film is promoted by other writers. Screen guru Michael Hague discusses the five turning points of a story. Specifically concerning YA novels, Anne Greenwood Brown posted on Writer Unboxed about applying two plot points another screen expert Christopher Vogler calls crossing over and near-death to YA novels. A crossing over point--a significant event--occurs at 25%. Examples Brown cites include turning 18, getting a new job, leaving home, etc. At 50%, the near-death occurs, a high conflict, often game-changing, scene. I made sure that my YA romance has one of those, although it has to do with my B-story--another Snyder term. But it greatly affects my MC and directly leads to dramatic events later in the story that influence her choices.

It's interesting that many of these tools come from screenwriting, and even Dixon uses movies as her teaching tools. I had some initial reluctance toward beat plotting because the last thing I want to create is a predictable, formulaic work, whether it's one of my screenplays or a novel. Sometimes plot points are applied in a clunky way. "Here comes the XYZ scene." But I believe that if you know your characters well enough, their goals and motivations and therefore their actions and response to conflict will be organic--meaning that the story will feel logical and natural. Yet hopefully will have suspense and narrative drive...but that's a topic for another day.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Chocolate and Coffee for the Writer's Journey

Photo courtesy of Cafe D'Arte

One of the best things about writing in the Internet age (besides electronic submissions, research, and e-books) is the online writer's community. In the dark ages of purely paper communication, writers often labored alone, parsing form rejection letters for hints how to improve. Or the answer to the big question: do I suck? Some may have had access to in-person groups but if you lived in a remote, rural area--forget about it.

Pre-pubished or pro, you can find comfort (chocolate) and inspiration (coffee) to keep you fueled for an often long, bumpy, and arduous road. Below are links to posts and people I find especially inspiring.

When you wonder if you'll ever make it to publication: Suspense Your Disbelief
Best-selling author Jenny Milchman not only shares her long journey to publication, she hosts 300 tales from other writers about their own hard-won made-it moments.

If you're getting contradictory query responses (love premise, can't relate to voice and vice versa), you're not alone. And you're close.  E.M. Castellan has an excellent post on this quandary.

Sometimes we work and work, forgetting that inspiration can't be forced. Bethany Smith discusses allowing your writer's intuition to guide you. After all, it's your creativity and imagination that gave you the impetus to write in the first place, right? And it's the source of your unique voice.

 Conversely, sometimes our writing needs a creative jump start. Or you have the main character or setting but what about the PLOT? Laura Salters has written about connecting the plot dots in a way unique to you.

I hope you enjoy today's serving of chocolate and coffee!

Friday, January 31, 2014

A milestone: my first published novel!

Perhaps only other writers will understand...the feeling of finally achieving a milestone...a novel in print. Today I received a box of books from Annie's Publishing--my copies of Deadly Garland, the final installment in the Creative Woman Series. It's a Christmas mystery set in the small town of Apple Grove, Oregon, with a murder at the local tree farm. The pen name is in honor of my mother-in-law, Beverly Blair, who passed away in November 2013.

The desire to write was rather latent for quite a few years although I enjoyed reading and wanted to be an editor. I started my writing career in business communications and journalism. Then the creative side of my brain kicked in and I've been working on fiction ever since.

Success came easily with business writing--not quite so quickly with fiction. But it's pure pleasure (when it doesn't hurt) and I urge you all--keep going. The world needs your voice. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Romance, movies, magic...#TeamMagicPens teasers & links for #PitchWars

This year I had the pleasure of mentoring devouring three luscious manuscripts by the talented and lovely:

Heidi Timmons, Wishing Glass, a sweet magical realism romance that draws from A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life. Actress Brielle must choose the life and love right for her. Heidi is an attorney.

#PitchWars entry

Emma Sloley, The Wanters, a gorgeously written woman's fiction featuring a down-and-out filmmaker. Emma has edited and written for many magazines, including Harper's Bazaar, Australia.

#PitchWars entry

Densie Webb, You'll Be Thinking of Me, a romantic suspense featuring a hot movie star and musician who falls in love with a "normal" girl. Yum. Densie has written seven nonfiction books.

#PitchWars entry

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Cupcakes for Breakfast

I'm busier than ever in several capacities to do with fiction. And loving every minute of it.

I just finished writing my second cozy for Annie's Quilted Mysteries. Next up, a round of edits before submission.

With that deadline soon to be met, I am now working on the book of my heart, my 1929 YA. I'm rewriting it as a romance called Last Summer in Eden.

I read all my #PitchWars submissions and returned notes. They will present their pitches and excerpts during the agent round January 22-24. These books are GOOD! Look for:

Heidi Timmons, Wishing Glass, a sweet magical realism romance that draws from A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life. Heidi is an attorney.

Emma Sloley, The Wanters, a gorgeously written woman's fiction featuring a down-and-out filmmaker. Emma has edited and written for many magazines, including Harper's Bazaar, Australia.

Densie Webb, You'll Be Thinking of Me, a romantic suspense featuring a hot movie star and musician who falls in love with a "normal" girl. Yum. Densie has written seven nonfiction books.

Heidi pointed out something--all three of my picks have something to do with film. Her main character is an actress. This was not a conscious factor in deciding, swear.

For Entangled, I'm doing first-pass edits on submissions and also reviewing a couple of referrals I made. What fun to find books and have the ability to perhaps get them published.

Doing this work--writing, critiquing, and editing--is like have cupcakes for breakfast!