Tag Archives: writing

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.

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.

Sunday, I swear.

I am so busy at work that I am having an extremely difficult time getting to my writing. That being said, I managed to watch both Glee AND last week’s Detroit 187 on the DVR.

Tomorrow is all tied up with a writing project for the ADA, but Sunday, I swear, is the day.

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.

Edgars: Best First Novel by an American Author

Oh, how I long to be eligible!  The Mystery Writers of America Edgar nominees are out, and there are six in contention for Best First Novel by an American Author.  As I did for Best Novel, I plan to read all six, give a review of each, and provide a ranking.  Top slot will go to the book that would receive the Literary Lunchbox Edgar for best first novel.  And the nominees are:

I started with A Bad Day for Sorry and followed it up with The Weight of Silence, mostly because I was struck by the similarities in the books’ covers.   The first novel features a headless woman in a dress and pink apron holding a big gun.  (To clarify, she’s not a crime victim, the photo is just taken showing from knees to neck.)  The second also features a pink-clad female figure in a knees-to-neck shot, but this time they’re showing a girl from the back.  She’s holding a necklace with a musical note charm.

Important to compare and contrast more than the covers, though!  Sophie Littlefield, in her debut novel, has created a protagonist with a compelling voice and clearly defined character.  Stella Hardesty is now 50, dyes her hair, and packs a solid 180 lbs onto a surprisingly fit and muscular body.  That’s good, because in addition to running a sewing/fabric/notions business in her rural Missouri home town, she has a “side business” as a do-it-yourself parole officer.  Only Stella’s not only the parole officer, she’s the arresting officer and the judge as well, when it comes to men who beat (or otherwise abuse) their wives or girlfriends.  She comes by this inclination honestly, having killed her own abusive husband with his own wrench a few years previously.  Rumors have spread and the women of the county know where they can go for help and the men feel uneasy when she’s around.

A Bad Day for Sorry‘s plot revolves around a frantic young mother, a missing four year old, the Missouri version of La Cosa Nostra, and some red herrings, plus a kind-and-hunky sheriff who is age-appropriate for Stella.  The plot moves quickly, the characters are engaging, and the writing is witty and, though done in third person, strongly reflects Stella’s personality and perspective.  Here’s a sample, as she ponders her years with Ollie (the dead husband):

It was simply because he’d been such an incredibly worthless lay.  All those years… all that bad sex.  That wasn’t even in the top five reasons why he’d deserved what he got, but still, Stella found herself immensely sad to think of how many times she’d lain in this bed with Ollie laboring over her like a man stuffing fiberglass insulation between roof joints on a sweltering day.

Heather Gudenkauf’s The Weight of Silence is told from several different perspectives, including that of Calli, a 7 year old girl who is mute by choice; her older brother, Ben; her mother, Antonia; her best friend, Petra; Petra’s father, Martin; and the deputy sheriff, Louis, who has carried a torch for Toni since their high school romance.  All are in the first person, except for Calli’s chapters – as she does not speak, it seems natural for her chapters to be in third person.  (An epilogue from Calli’s POV is in first person – after she regains her voice.)

Things are not healthy in this small town.   Calli chooses not to speak and therapy isn’t helping; her mother is full of regrets and lives to protect her kids from the rough and alcoholic man she married; her father suspects that he did not father his own children, beats his wife and berates both Ben and Calli; Louis stands by, hopeless to help Toni, even as his own marriage falls apart; there’s an unsolved rape and murder of a child in the recent past; and more undercurrents come to light as the mystery unfolds.

One night when he’s supposed to go fishing with a buddy, Calli’s dad Griff instead drunkenly drags her in the middle of the night into the woods, heading for the home of her “real daddy,” Louis.  They get separated, she is lost, where is he? What is he doing?  This question takes on some urgency when the morning comes and Petra is also not home.  While the adults assume that Griff is fishing and Calli and Petra are together, a search begins.  The suspense ratchets when the fishing buddy returns sans Griff, and Toni begins to suspect her husband of more than mere loutishness.  There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing while the reader worries what’s happening to Petra? Will Calli stay safe?  Can Ben find and protect his sister?  Is Griff a murdering pedophile?  (Spoiler alert  – no.)  The switching perspectives is done smoothly, with each chapter helpfully labelled, but the first person voices are not distinctive.  Heres a sample from a Calli chapter:

Calli placed a dirty hand on Petra’s forehead, nodded to her and patted her arm.  She turned in every direction, looking for him.  He was gone, but she had seen him before, she knew him, he had a funny name an a dog.  He was out there, maybe watching her.  She scuttled backward into the brush and hid.

With two of the six nominees read, I’m ranking them A Bad Day for Sorry first (for excellent characterization, fast-moving plot, and strong writing) and The Weight of Silence second (suspenseful and well-plotted, but choppy).