Tag Archives: authors

Marcus Sakey and Sean Chercover Story Structure Secrets

Sakey and Chercover, the dynamic duo of mystery fan and writing conferences, held a 90-minute workshop for writers at the recent Murder and Mayhem in Muskego confab that was, in a word, fab.  The topic:  story structure.

I go to conferences primarily to rub shoulders with the great and to learn their secrets.  Often this is a matter of gathering up the wheat among the chaff… the chaff being amusing stories and ruminations, interesting and fun, but not super-helpful to the writer.  So when they’re actually out-and-out telling their secrets – awesome!

Three-part story structure can be summed up as get your hero up a tree in act one, throw rocks at him in act two, and get him down in act three.  Not particularly helpful.

Marcus (left) and Sean share story structure secrets

Sean and Marcus gave a lot more structure to this three-act structure.  Think of your story as Act 1, Act 2A, Act 2B, and Act 3.  Each act has ten scenes, more or less.

Act 1:  In this act, you introduce all your characters, do your foreshadowing, drop in various clues.  It’s all leading up to the pivotal scene, where your protagonist decides to take action.   That’s the transition to Act 2.  Does that mean that you don’t open with a bang?  Nope.  You can still find a body on page 2.  But for your main character, something decisive must happen that ups the stakes.  It’s a critical personal turning point, where the cop decides to lie to his superiors so he can work the case alone, because he’s afraid the killer is his brother.

Act 2:   This act is all the action.  2A is fun and games.  The chase is afoot.  2A is where we fall in love with the characters and learn all about that fictional world.  The Act 1 tease pays off in 2A.  As the writer, you let your protagonist show off  their  strengths and meet the challenges.  At the same time, they are mostly losing… they find out a fact, but it’s not as meaningful as they hoped.  Or it leads them down a rabbit hole.  They start to see how strong and capable the villain is.  How is this possible if you’re writing in the first person?  By their acts, you shall know them.

The transition from 2A to 2B is a critical juncture for the book.  It’s where things suddenly turn much, much worse.  Sometimes there is a false brightness – your protagonist has figured out who the bad guy is and the cops are closing in.  Then the phone rings and it’s her daughter.  She’s been kidnapped by the bad guy.  Now your lead character has to call off the cops, rescue her daughter, and vanquish the foe.  2B is all about digging your protagonist out of a deep, deep hole… one she’s dug for herself, preferably.

Act 3 is resolving the story.  Although this is typically the shortest act, don’t rush it.  Unless you’re Agatha Christie, better not have all the characters in the drawing room with Hercule Poirot pontificating.

My take away:  dang it, the book I’m currently editing is skimpy in 2B.  2B or not 2B?  Act 1, good.  Critical juncture at transition to Act 2?  Good.  Fun and games in  2A?  Yep.  Turning point where things get worse and it’s her own fault?  Also good to go.  2B – things get worse and worse?  Yeah, two scenes.  Too short.  Act 3 – a closing scene (a little bit too Hercule Poirot-like) and epilogue.

I had set myself a goal of finishing up by Sunday.  I think I’ll extend that to New Year’s Eve.

Writing is my drink, too

I subscribe to the RSS feed for Writing is My Drink, a blog about – no surprise! – writing.  Theo Pauline Nestor teaches writing at the University of Washington and is the author of popular memoir, How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed.

Nestor has a thought-provoking post on her blog today regarding the importance of identifying the authors who influence/inspire you.  She has her list of 10, from Woody Allen to Lorrie Moore.  You can read her post here.

I don’t have my tribe of ten identified.  The late, great Laurie Colwin is one.  Anne Lamott?  Likely, very likely.  Judging from my bookshelves, I’d have to list Lawrence Block.  That feels right, too.

I’m going to ponder this some more.  Suggestions welcome.

Lit Fest: D’Amato, Hellmann, Keller shine at Grace Place

Grace Episcopal Church in Chicago’s South Loop is an amazing place… beautiful, unusual architecture that leads to a feeling of community and contemplation.  In short, an amazing place for Lit Fest’s session where the Tribune’s Julia Keller interviewed Barbara D’Amato and Libby Fischer Hellmann.  Of course, the photo here – from the church website – features more sacred use of that place!

Barbara D'Amato

Both Barb and Libby have been president of the national organization Sisters in Crime, founded by Sara Paretsky and others to bring attention to the clear preference among publishers, reviewers, and others for male authors.   The movement began with a letter from novelist Phyllis Whitney to the Mystery Writers of America re: sex discrimination in the awarding of the Edgar Awards.  At that time, in 41 years, only seven women had received Edgars.

Libby Fischer Hellmann

Asked by Keller about Sisters in Crime, the panelists shared that the organization still monitors reviews, reporting that a full 70% of books reviewed have a male author.  By pointing out the lack of balance directly to the reviewers, some progress had been made (60/40), but backsliding has definitely occurred.  SINC looks at published reviews, and everyone agreed that although these are highly visible and very important, the growth in reviews on the internet, through blogs, Amazon, and the like, has become a big factor in recent years, and this is more egalitarian.

I’m a member of both the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and support them both.  But it is interesting to see the trajectory of various authors, and there does seem to be a “pecking order” that places thrillers above police procedurals above cozies, for example.

But there’s no doubt Barb D’Amato and Libby Fischer Hellmann are masters of the craft, and they shared some pearls with the audience, many of whom were aspiring authors:

  • Libby makes sure to put a clue in the first few pages; she likes to “play fair” with the readers and thinks that withholding all the clues until late in the book is not doing so.
  • Barb uses a couple of sheets from a legal pad to plot out all the “surprises” in the book… mostly “to keep them all from showing up in chapter 3.”
  • Both women have experienced “pauses” – it hasn’t all been success and roses.  Barb had two books published, then six fallow years.  Libby said her first book sold was actually the fourth book written.  She didn’t want to revisit, though she has cannibalized characters!
  • Although both Barb and Libby are almost constantly writing, they agree that “the book you’re not writing yet is the best one.”  Julia commented that Iris Murdoch said that “every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.”
  • What authors do these authors enjoy reading?  Agatha Christie, Val McDermid, Peter Robinson, Marcus Sakey, Kent Krueger, Sean Chercover, Declan Hughes, and Dennis Lehane were all mentioned.

The conversation was very ably moderated by Julia Keller, who writes for the Tribune and is a published author herself, with two previous books and her first mystery coming out in the coming months.  She’s articulate and insightful, and listening to her in conversation is as pleasurable as reading her work in print.  

Making time

You know how some people think that life happens, and other people think that you make your life?  I’m that second kind of person.  Tragedies aside, I think most people pretty much get the life they make.

That’s why it’s especially problematic that I have not been making time to write. When I do write, it’s great (not necessarily what’s written, but the process itself), and it seems like the only thing better than actually writing is having written.  Such satisfaction.

However, it appears that walking the pugs, commuting, working, doing housework/laundry, watching TV,  painting and furnishing my office, reading, and even writing this blog are all more important to me than writing fiction.  Because every time I do one of those other things when I could be writing, I am choosing.  And I am doing it over and over and over.  Augh.

But it’s not like I’m choosing ice cream over brussels sprouts.  Or having a massage instead of getting beaten.  Sometimes I’m picking cleaning the toilet over writing.  So bizarre.

Evidently, I am not alone.  Just google “making time to write” and see how many entries pop up (that’s right, 803 million).  Most of them are motivational:  you can do it!  you’re worth it!  Many are helpful, time-management-oriented: rise each morning at 4:30 a.m. for two hours of uninterrupted writing time before your little children wake up.  One was pretty funny:  John Scalzi has no patience for all the whiners:

But if you want to be a writer, than be a writer, for god’s sake. It’s not that hard, and it doesn’t require that much effort on a day to day basis. Find the time or make the time. Sit down, shut up and put your words together. Work at it and keep working at it. And if you need inspiration, think of yourself on your deathbed saying “well, at least I watched a lot of TV.”  If saying such a thing as your life ebbs away fills you with existential horror, well, then. I think you know what to do.

I gotta say, I actually agree with John.  I’d like the perfect writing life… defined as enough time to write three to five hours a day while enjoying the other hours in the day and getting enough sleep.  But I don’t have that and I won’t have it for quite some time, so I’ll have to do my best.  Without whining.

Tom Schreck and Libby Hellman emcee Murder & Mayhem

I spent today at the Muskego Public Library in Wisconsin, at the Sixth Annual Murder and Mayhem in Muskego conference.   This all-day conference for mystery fans was headlined by Libby Fischer Hellmann and Tom Schreck. Libby – former videographer and now full-time author – writes the Ellie Forman and Georgia Davis mystery series.  Tom used to be a drug counselor and is now a world championship boxing official.  He writes the Duffy Dumbrowski mystery series.  I’ve read Libby – she’s reliably interesting, solid stories and characters you want to get to know.  Tom is new to me but I have it on good authority that his books are hilarious.  Needless to say, they were a great tag team as our hosts for the day.   Repartee was witty.

It was a wonderful day – the panels were packed full of interesting authors, the attendees were all good natured, most fans but many writers, children’s librarian Penny who organized the whole thing a genial magician making it all happen.  The cozy panel went over bigger than the one on noir and Ridley Pearson, as the guest of honor, was ridiculously entertaining.  The $25 entry fee included a canvas bag full of books, a full day of programming, and lunch.  I’ve spent more for just lunch!

I’ll write more when in a future post or two.  But for now, kudos to all and my hearty recommendation for Murder and Mayhem in Muskego VII – look for it this time next year.

Published! Almost.

I got some great news today – Sniplits has accepted two of my short stories for publication and will be sending a contract for the audio rights!

I could not be more thrilled.  Getting short stories published is tough, there are so few outlets and the submissions are so time-consuming.  So to be accepted by Sniplits is huge.  I’m already a fan.  The stories are great, many authors are familiar names, and the narrators are excellent.  Plus, this year Sniplits was named one of 12 approved periodical and online pubishers by the Mystery Writers of America, which means that I will move into their “active member” category. I am seriously pumped.

I’m excited about the stories that were accepted, too.  One (Dumpsville) is a chapter from my first, as yet unpublished novel.  It’s a modern story of star-crossed lovers that end up together, but not without a lot of complications.  It’s a fun read and would make a great movie.  The other (Do the Right Thing) is one story in a series about a female Chicago cop. These stories tend to be procedurals but have a dark, funny edge, and this one features Det. Kathy Martinez’ after-hours efforts to keep a mother and daughter safe.

I have no idea how long it will take before my stories are recorded and up on the Sniplits site.  I do have the opportunity to listen to the various narrators and suggest who I would like to have read each one, and that’s just amazing.

Gee, I hope I can get to sleep tonight.

She Writes community

Making connections with other writers.  It’s why we go to conferences.  Take classes.  Join organizations like Mystery Writers of America or Sisters in Crime (to name two that I belong to!).  Form writing groups.  And although I’ve never been a big believer in the “virtual community,” I must admit, She Writes is starting to change my mind.

She Writes is a community for writers.  Mostly women, but men are not excluded.  After all, how much would women like it if there were a great community called He Writes that we couldn’t belong to?  It offers groups:  a group for stay-at-home moms who write; a group for funny women; a group for memoir writers; a group for bloggers; another for screenwriters.   Anyone can start a group.

She Writes also offers webinars and other educational resources to help women succeed with their writing, financially and otherwise.   The Forum features discussion threads addressing topics of interest.  And while anyone may blog on She Writes (I have a page there, as I see many others do, as well), there are also several featured blogs.

I’m still getting used to She Writes, dipping my toes in.  I’ve started posting my literary lunchbox blogposts on She Writes, with a link back to this page.  I peruse the discussion threads and add my two cents where I can be helpful or have an opinion.  I read others’ posts and blogs, looking into groups where I might find a closer community.  Small groups – like the Book Reviewers Corner, with four people – make me a little sad.  There’s no Mystery Writing group. Perhaps I should start one?

She Writes’ latest activity runs down the right hand side of the page; I noticed that all the posts were by one person.  How desperate must she be, I wondered?  Then I looked her up and she’s a community manager for She Writes.  She posted a number of “welcome to She Writes” comments to folks who just joined.  This tells me something about myself – I’m the one who doesn’t want to be seen as desperate!

At any rate, with more time and more familiarity, perhaps I’ll start to make connections with the actual people behind the words on She Writes.  For a number of blogs I follow, I do feel as if I know them, even if they don’t know me.  The magic behind She Writes is the opportunity for that experience to run both ways.