Tag Archives: Sean Chercover

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.

Lit Fest Yet Again: the Dynamic Duo of Sakey and Chercover

Printers Row Lit Fest 2011 closed for me with Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey in conversation… a fun event without a doubt.  And I’d like to include a photo from the program… but no!  For some unknown reason, every panel I went to began with an introduction that basically said “Don’t even THINK about taking pictures.”

So I don’t have a picture that shows Marcus and Sean sitting side by side, both with curly dark hair, both wearing dark jeans and a black, button-up-the-front shirt.  It was like the DoubleMint twins, only not so peppy.

Instead we’ll have to make do with photos “stolen” off the world wide web.  Sean’s hair is now as curly as Marcus’ – perhaps he has let his naturally curly hair grow out.



The guys have been buddies for five years now, since 2006, when they were introduced by Jon Jordan of CrimeSpree.  They went on a book tour together in 2007, and told their program attendees about the worst book-signing ever.  In Kokomo.  Where not too many people showed up, they had four hours to kill, and they were under the full-bore gaze and alarming stories of a serial killer aficionado.  (That John Wayne Gacy!  Now he was a murderer!  And what do you guys think of Richard Speck!  Awful, huh?)

I’ve recently reviewed by works by Sean and Marcus on this blog.  Sean is the author of books about Chicago PI Ray Dudgeon and has a new work coming out – but not a Dudgeon book – soon.  (Can’t be soon enough for me.)  It features a preacher, the charismatic type, who starts out a charlatan.  But what does he end up?

And Lit Fest was actually the occasion of Marcus’ new book, The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes. Yes, I bought it at Lit Fest.  In hardcover.  At full price.  (But I got a ticket for a free beer at the launch party, thus adding to the value.)  I am not done yet, but I will say that there is a point in the book where I actually gasped out loud in shock.  Then I closed the book and marveled at how he managed to completely fool me.  But fairly.  Good work so far, Marcus.

The Sakey star seems to be rising, with two books optioned by big-name movie stars (Ben Affleck, Tobey Maguire) , although self-deprecating Marcus said that was because someone in their respective entourages read it and liked it.  He’s also doing a TV show on the Travel Channel.  Several fun stories about that… Evidently as cooperative as people are with fiction writers (and they are), they are gaga over TV.  Hidden City looks at cities through the lens of famous crimes, and the cops couldn’t be more cooperative.  (Would Mr. Sakey like to go up in the helicopter?  Yes, Mr. Sakey would.)

So that’s it for this year’s Lit Fest.  It was fun and inspirational.  See you all next year.

This year’s Lit Fest: Plan ahead!

The 2009 Printers’ Row Lit Fest was the topic for the first-ever Literary Lunchbox blog post… and here we are, two years 140 posts later, about to head to Lit Fest again.  After last year’s rainy Fest, this year’s weather forecast leads me to plan my 2011 Printers’ Row Lit Fest trip for Saturday, June 4.  It’ll be hot and sunny and before the expected storms on Sunday.

Saturday does look like a good day.  There are numerous mystery-themed events on stage, starting out with Murder Most Cozy at 10 a.m. at the Harold Washington Library.  Moderated by FB friend Julie Hyzy, it should be good even though I’m not personally acquainted with panelists Betty Hechtman, Ellery Adams, and Joelle Charbonneau.   I have  few days and a Kindle.

The always-excellent Julia Keller is moderating a panel, A Killer History, at 12:30 pm at Grace Place.  It features personal faves Libby Fischer Hellmann and Barbara D’Amato, with Graham Moore.  (Not that he isn’t deserving of fave status.  I’m sure after seeing him, he’ll be one.)

1:45 will be a tough, tough time slot.  At the University Center, Tasha Alexander is moderating The Future of the Mystery Novel, with David Heinzmann, Andrew Grant, Sharon Fiffer and the lovely-and-popular Luisa Buehler.   At the same time at the Hotel Blake, Victoria Lautman is interviewing Ann Packer, who wrote The Dive From Clausen’s Pier (one of my all-time favorites) and her new and well-reviewed work, Swim Back to Me.  How to decide? It’d be tough, but The Future panel is already sold out (limited seating in this venue requires tickets).  So it’s Ann Packer for me.

3:30 is dreamboat time (you know you agree with me) with the pair-up of Marcus Sakey and Sean Chercover at the Harold Washington Library.  Great authors, enthralling books, and members of the Chicagoland literary-and-articulate-yet-ever-so-slightly-dangerous-mystery-author set.  It’s a small group, but if you’re in, you know who you are.

This is followed by a Pitchapalooza at Center Stage with David Henry Sterry and Arielle Eckstut, coauthors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.  I’m not sure what this entails, but hope to find out before Saturday.  I’ll have my 60-second pitch ready, just in case.

This is a pretty heavy schedule which leaves me little time for wandering through the stalls, looking at books, snapping iPhone photos of the city dogs of various sizes that trail behind their wandering masters, stopping off for coffee, and whatnot.  Plus if memory serves, there’s an awesome bookstore right there (sort of a coals-to-Newcastle kind of thing).  I foresee a lot of frantic dashing hither and yon.

Note to those attending:  events happening at the Harold Washington Library or the University Center require tickets… plan ahead!

Sean Chercover… I’m anxiously awaiting your new book!

Chicagoan Sean Chercover has been a private eye in New Orleans and Chicago- hopefully not facing the the same kind of rough treatment that his protagonist Ray Dudgeon faces!  (And also not the same kind of tumultuous love life that Ray experiences.)

I thought I’d never read a Chercover book, and my friend Addy strongly recommended him, so I read Big City, Bad Blood.  It turned out I had already read it, but even on a second go-round, it was a great read.

Now I’ve read Trigger City.  Another great read.  

But BCBB came out in 2008.  TC came out in 2009.  2010 passed – no Chercover book!  2011 is here… fingers crossed for a new Ray Dudgeon book.

Lollapalooza of Literary Events: Columbia Story Week

My friend Anne asked me if I was planning to go to anything for Columbia College Chicago’s Story Week, and I have to admit, I was only dimly aware it was coming up.  This despite the fact that my son is a sophomore there (vocal performance major and the 2011 American Idol).  It’s March 14-19 and the theme for this year’s week is right up my alley: Genre Bending: The Faces of Fiction, reflecting the increasingly porous boundaries between literary and genre fiction.

Perfect for the theme is omniliterary author Joyce Carol Oates as featured reader, with two sessions on Monday, March 15.

Other highlights of note include a panel called Genre Bending – the Faces of Fiction featuring Mort Castle, On Writing Horror; Maggie Estep, Ruby Murphy mystery series; David Morrell, First BloodKevin NancePoets & Writers / Host: Joe MenoThe Great Perhaps. You’ll know David Morrell as the guy who invented Rambo and, if you’re into short stories via iPod, you probably know Mort Castle from his short stories on Sniplits.  That’s on March 17 at 2:30; 6:00 will bring a reading by Mort, David, and Maggie.

Students from the department have multiple opportunities to showcase their work, and a selection of published alumni will read on Friday, March 19th at 7 pm, including Phyllis Eisenstein, Sorcerer’s Son; Mike Black, Hostile Takeovers; Sean Chercover, Big City, Bad Blood; Stephanie Kuehnert, Ballads of Suburbia; Marc Paoletti, Scorch; Earl Sewell, Have Mercy. I’ve heard Mike Black – crime fiction & mystery writer/real-life cop – and know Earl Sewell, so this would be a panel to come out for.

Programs are free and most are open to the public.