Thursday, October 30, 2014

You're Done. Now the Work Starts

Photo Credit: Jim Nedelka

This is the way I’d always envisioned the writer’s life. 
And you get to live it . . .    
for about one month after your book’s published. You get to chat about your book with mystery readers on guest blogs, talk about it on library panels with famous writers, and show up at bookstores where people have come to see you, listen to you read, ask you questions about your book, and laugh at your jokes (your friends in the audience will even laugh at the ones they’ve heard too many times before).

Then you have to get back to writing.

After the interruptions in my routine, pleasant as they have been, it’s been hard to settle back in fully. 

Among writers, we have a word for this: procrastination.

Wallace Stroby, Mistina Bates and I laughing at something Dennis Tafoya said at a
library panel in Chatham NJ. At the unseen end of the table, also laughing, is Dave White, Derringer Award-winning author of the Jackson Donne series. Sorry, Dave, but I chose this particular shot because it's a great picture of me.
Photo Credit: Rob Daniher

But I’ve been thinking a lot about writing. And about some of the questions I’ve been asked in the last month from new writers trying to sell their first books.

If you're not a writer, let me quickly explain the process. When you’re trying to get a book published, you generally need an agent. So you send a pitch letter, making your book sound as scrumptious as possible. If your pitch letter sparks interest, you’re asked to submit sample chapters. This part of an author’s life is known as Pure Hell. You will generally be rejected. And the rejection letters won’t necessarily help you figure out what might be wrong with the book. “Love the villain; the story’s not quite there yet.” “Terrific tale; villain needs some work.”

And once you’ve been rejected by an agent, that door is generally closed for that particular book.

Soooooo... If you’re a new writer, and you’re thinking about sending out that just-finished first book, here are a few random thoughts for your consideration from a woman whose first book took more than 10 years to "finish": 

1.  Your book isn’t finished, not unless you’re on draft 240. So, let’s move on to #2.
2. Write the best book you can. Okay, okay, I can hear you go, “Well, duh.” But sometimes, new writers are under the impression that “a lot of books out there just aren’t that good.” This is dangerous thought. You’ll convince yourself that doing less than your best will be enough. It isn’t.
3. Kill off your extras before they kill your plot. Don’t make the reader keep track of too many characters, and I say this as a recovering characteraholic. Ah, the sweet lure of just one more new voice in the story. But before you know it, you’ve got 20 characters, all necessary to the plot. And don’t introduce more than 3 at the same time. Even Rex Stout couldn’t pull that off — see The League of Frightened Men, Chapter 5. So, how do you keep yourself in line?
4. Put your characters in a line-up. Keep a detailed file. Don’t wing this; write it down. You might think you'll recall all the details about them because they’re so precious to you. But you won’t. List them, describe them, and include the descriptions you used in the book so you can remove repetitions later on. (This will also help you if your book turns into a series. You never have to scramble to recall how you described a continuing character in previous books.) Set down their motives, opportunities, and their contribution to the mystery. You’ll have a clearer picture of which characters can be combined, and which suspects aren't necessary and can be bumped off (the page). 
5. Don’t try to play journalist. Think long and hard before adding a plot element or character that would require quoting portions of news articles. Even excellent writers have terrible trouble pulling off writing like a journalist. 
6. Sing out, Louise. Read your chapters out loud. And read them like you’re telling an intriguing story, not reciting the Gettysburg Address in fifth grade. You’ll discover where the momentum breaks down, where your interest flags. You’ll find places where the rhythm is off. If your heroine is sweeping diva-style across a room, the prose flow will be much different than if she’s crawling through a pitch-black house, looking for a way out before the killer finds her. Read in the voices of your characters — even if you don’t perform them very well. Nobody has to hear you reading. But don't assume that just because you watch Downton Abbey you can write a British character. Vet dialog with people who actually come from the place whose syntax you’re trying to mimic.
7. Write the best book you can. Sometimes, we have to be reminded. 

Thank you, Michael Connelly, for making that so clear to me in the very first writing symposium I ever attended. In the end, it’s about the writing.

I think I’ll get back to that now.

At Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, being introduced by manager Ian Kern.
Photo Credit: Mariann Moery

REMINDER: At Goodreads, there's still time to register to win a signed copy of NO BROKEN HEARTS: Enter to Win a Copy. Goodreads uses an algorithm to select the winners, on October 31, which takes the selection pressure off the writer. 


  1. This is very good. And you are very photogenic! tjstraw

    1. You only see the pictures I want the world to see!

    2. I also seem to be gifted with friends who know how to take pictures.

  2. Great essay! And I bet you mix a mean cocktail, too.

    1. I'm more of a wine drinker, but I do love a nice cocktail on the weekends. The one in my hand is a Broken Heart, which we invented for the launch party. Good thing none of us was driving home.

  3. GREAT advice, Sheila. To which I add: Never Give Up! I say this as a person whose first book took ten years to get published.

    1. I learned the hard way about the character file. You never, never want to have to flip through your entire first book (because when you wrote it, you were so clueless you didn't know about series) to find out if you'd ever mentioned the color of your hero's eyes

  4. Tell us how you make a Broken Heart!

  5. Thought you'd never ask.... he Broken Heart
    2 parts gin
    1 part grenadine
    1 part vermouth rosso
    1 part pomegranate juice
    1/4 to 1/2 part Campari, to taste (It’s a Broken Heart. You need at least a hint of bitterness at the end.)

    Place ingredients in a shaker with a good handful of ice cubes. Shake gently just till the cold begins to hurt the hand at the bottom of the shaker (a bartender’s trick for knowing when a drink’s properly chilled). Strain into martini glasses. Garnish with a half strawberry, its core cut out to form a broken heart. [If you don’t have a shaker, stir ingredients with the cubes in a tall glass or small pitcher till well chilled.]

    Just like a real broken heart, this one packs a wallop, so don’t mix up a batch if anybody’s going to drive. Stay home and watch a Golden Age film!

  6. Plan to try it. But what is vermouth rosso? I'm just a hick in Manhattan and never heard of it! tjs P.S. I REALLY, TRULY am a hick!!!!

    1. Honey, you are talking to a coal miner's granddaughter, so I know something about being from way out there in the out of the way. It's a red-hued vermouth. You should be able to find it at any decent-sized liquor store.