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Monday, May 31 2010

Penny, one of the women in my writing group, is a whiz at incorporating current events and trendy products in her books. Her characters own i-Phones, sip lattes, and wear Prada. A character in one of her most recent books participated in geo-caching hunts that use GPS systems to locate hidden treasures. In the  latest chapter I was reviewing, one of the characters was off to clean up a house where piles of junk had collapsed on a couple of hoarders and they'd starved to death. This little anecdote had nothing to do with the main plot, but I immediately recognized the story as a spin on an article I'd read just the other day. Penny had clearly read the same article, which sparked her imagination and provided fodder for her book. That's an excellent skill in a writer, observing the outside world, identifying nuggets worth keeping, and weaving the information into a story. She's one of those writers who carries a notebook in her purse, jotting down snippets of conversations, taking notes on interesting events.

I think proactive observation is an attribute certain people automatically possess and one I'd love to learn. It's akin to being a natural inventor. Most people say, "Gee, I wish they'd come up with X,Y,or Z to fix that problem." Natural inventors see the problem and come up with their own solution. And it's most likely not a talent they learned, but a trait inherent in their personality.

Back to the world of writing, unless you're writing a historical novel or a book with a specific style, you must include products and speech styles that the majority of the population uses. Otherwise, your work will sound stodgy and out-of-date. I'd written my entire first novel before realizing that no one in the story ever uses a cell phone. How likely is that? And Gwyn found herself in more than one situation where a cell phone would have been handy. Readers would have definitely noticed the absence and questioned it. And once readers start to question a plot point, the entire book is up for scrutiny. So I went back through the book and gave Gwyn a cell. Now she just needs an i-Pad. And I need to read the paper and surf the web with an eye toward what's on everyone's mind so I can ensure my writing reflects real life. Because if people can't immerse themselves in my book, then I haven't done my job as a writer.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 10:31 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 24 2010

The beginning of a novel is easy. The germ of an idea sprouts in my brain and the story grows. I'm so excited to start that the words flow onto the page, tumbling out of my head faster than I can type. The first few chapters practically write themselves as I introduce characters, establish the plot, and describe the setting.

Along the same vein, the ending is fun to write. By that time, I know who the killer should be and have figured out how the final unmasking will occur. The last few chapters are taut with suspense, Gwyn trying to catch the killer, the killer trying to silence Gwyn. Then the wrap-up scene where all is explained, the clues laid out.

And then there's the middle. The biggest part of the book. And the hardest to write. I know where the story starts and where it needs to go, but getting there can be unbearable. Sure, some of the middle chapters are full of action, or at least humor. I get occasional bursts of creativity that make the words magically appear on the page. But then comes the rest. What I call the transition scenes. Gwyn needs to eat. She needs to sleep. She needs to go home at the end of the day and talk to her family. Something to mark the passage of time that exists in the real world. Or provide a bridge between major occurrences in the book. But, oh, how boring all that is to write sometimes. I actually feel guilty as I drag the sentences, word by word, out of my brain. If it's this awful to write, just imagine how dreadfully boring it is to read. No one should suffer like that. It's inhumane.

But I plug along, forcing myself to write something, anything, promising myself I'll tidy it up later, make it shine. Then, still shaking my head, I'll send the chapter off to my writing group, fighting the urge to apologize in the email for making them review such dreck. But the group is unfailingly kind. They swear the chapters are much more gripping than I believe. Okay, maybe not gripping. Maybe just mildly interesting. But their support encourages me to keep writing, to put one sentence after another down on the page.

Because if I can just slog my way through the middle, I can get to the end. And back to the fun of writing.
Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 02:51 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 17 2010

A good mystery is easy to spot.  Great writing, entertaining characters, and a solid case with clues, detecting, and a satisfying resolution suck the reader in and carry them to the last page.

But what makes a bad mystery? Turns out there are several ways to ruin a perfectly good book, besides just a poor writing style.

Weak plot can easily kill a book. If I'm a hundred pages in and still not sure what the story is about, there's a problem. On more than one occasion, I've found myself flipping to the back cover just to remind myself what the overall arc of a story was. I've done this enough times that I started to doubt my own reading comprehension skills. But a quick trip to Amazon to read others' reviews confirms that the author simply didn't plot their book out well.

Another sign of a bad mystery is when the side plot dominates the story. I've just begun a mystery where the first twenty pages are devoted to a new bride meeting her husband's family. While twenty pages isn't a lot, it's obvious that this subplot is going to play a major role in the book, more than likely overshadowing the main plot.

And don't get me started on books where I spend the entire time shaking my head at how preposterous the plot is. It's fine if the story occurs on Mars or the detective is a blind Las Vegas showgirl who used to be a nun, providing the author can lay the groundwork and make the plot believable. When the author can't be bothered to make an odd situation seem like a reality, I'm too distracted to care about the mystery.

And what of those pesky murder mysteries that contain no clues until the end? I find myself in the last chapter without any indication as to who the killer might be, and suddenly, the detective (usually an amateur one) finds a tell-tale photograph or a scrap of clothing and says, "Aha, I know who did it!" That's not fair! The reader needs hints along the way.  I'm not reading this book for my health. I'm trying to solve the puzzle. Or worse yet, the killer's motive is revealed and it's a minor infraction. The woman killed three people to hide a secret that involved her great, great grandmother? Not likely. It's so frustrating to read a fantastic book that closes with a whimper instead of a bang.

Boy, in looking at the paragraphs above, it's a wonder anyone bothers to write a mystery at all with so many ways to screw it up. And while I whine about other books I've read, who's to say mine doesn't suffer from the same problems? Just because the plot makes sense to me doesn't mean it will to a reader. A reader can't see inside my head for an explanation of those confusing spots. As for my side plots, do they dominate the story? Or have I spent too little time on them in fear that I'll bore the reader? I have no idea. But I'll keep reading those great mysteries for inspiration and guidance. And those bad mysteries too, even if I do pick them apart. Because even a bad mystery can be entertaining.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 12:14 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 10 2010

Turns out an agent waiting for a publisher to respond to a submittal is much like me waiting for an agent to respond to my query. I'm not sure why I expected the two experiences to be so different. Perhaps it's my agent's unfailing enthusiasm and speedy responses. Perhaps it's because two of the publishers received a one-week exclusive, creating an implied deadline. Perhaps it's my insistence in reading success stories about publishers fighting over rights to a book after a crazy weekend of rushing through the manuscript to make a bid. At any rate, I was under the mistaken impression that my agent would send the manuscript off and everyone would report back within a week, one way or the other.

But alas, it's been over two weeks since I finished editing my manuscript and my agent sent it off to the publishers, and I have yet to hear a peep. In a moment of self-realization, I discovered that I'm not nearly as patient as I believed. During that first week, I must have checked my email two hundred times a day. And if my inbox remained dormant for more than thirty minutes, I'd sign off and sign back on, working under the delusion that all my emails were being stored and waiting to be delivered in one fell swoop. When that didn't work, I'd force myself to walk away for an hour or more, sure a bevy of emails would be waiting upon my return. But no.

Then it struck me. If my agent was presented with an offer, surely she'd call to share the wonderful news. Email was so impersonal. So I jumped every time the phone rang, my heart pounding away until I checked Caller ID and realized the caller was just another telemarketer. And when the phone didn't ring often enough, I'd pick up the receiver to hear the dial tone. You never know when the phone lines might go down. It could happen.

At the start of the second week, I still held out hope. The one week exclusive was officially up, which meant the publishers would be rushing to contact my agent. Oh, silly me. When my agent finally sent me an email, she was merely letting me know that she would be sending my manuscript to additional publishers. The first two had not responded yet.

Now that two full weeks have gone by, my frenzied anticipation has slowed to a slightly anxious restlessness. There will be no cut-throat auction, no early offer. But that's okay. If only one publisher is interested in my book, I'll be happy. I just have to survive the waiting game.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 01:09 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 03 2010

This week's blog is a shameless plug for a group blog I've recently joined: The LadyKillers at http://www.theladykillers.typepad.com. While the LadyKillers blog has been around for several years, the group was comprised of only three authors. Now, the group has been revamped to include thirteen total writers who are all crime fiction authors and contribute blogs on a rotating basis. While the majority of the participants are published authors, including Penny Warner, Ann Parker, and Camille Minichino, a couple of us soon-to-be-published (one day! one day!) authors are included. Frankly, I'm tickled to death to be invited to join and am excited to contribute my first blog next Saturday.

Here's how the blog works. Every two weeks, the group picks a theme topic and each writer writes one blog related to that theme, with Sundays being the only day a new blog isn't posted. At first, I was worried that having everyone write about the same topic would result in thirteen similar blogs that would bore people to death (and while death is a necessity in the murder mystery genre, boredom should be avoided at all costs). But then I realized that all the writers come from vastly different backgrounds with a wide range of beliefs, histories, and lives. And the topics themselves are fairly broad. Repetition is a remote possibility.

The first topic, appropriately enough, is Beginnings. That topic is ridiculously timely in my own life since I consider my writing life to be at the start of a new phase now that I have an agent (I swear I tried to make that sentence sound like I wasn't bragging, but it's hard to mention I have an agent without it sounding like all I do is yell, "I have an agent! I have an agent!).

So if you get the chance, check out http://www.theladykillers.typepad.com. We're running a little contest to get the ball rolling, so if you match the most correct tidbits of info with the authors, you win a prize! And even if you don't, I guarantee you'll be entertained.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 02:57 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email