Archive for writing

The Mint-Flavored Novel

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Sujata, Jeffery Deaver, and Mid-Atlantic MWA chapter prez Donna Andrews

A week ago Sunday, I sat in a crowded conference room in Bethesda and listened to a few comparison of novels to toothpaste. When you go looking for toothpaste at the drugstore, what would you think if your favorite one was missing—because Proctor & Gamble hadn’t felt inspired to make any toothpaste that month?

And if you were planning to launch a toothpaste for humans, would you flavor it with liver because it was your great original idea, or would you choose mint?

These were some of the provocative questions posed by Jeffery Deaver, the current president of Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and the bestselling author of 35 thrillers, most recently The Burial Hour. Mr. Deaver had kindly come to Bethesda, MD to teach a writing craft workshop, “Taking It To The Next Level,” for the Mid-Atlantic chapter of MWA. Not all of he had to say was new to me, but honestly, we writers forget what we should be doing. The care and revision taken with a first novel can easily fall by the wayside once a writer’s on a yearly publishing schedule. Listening to Mr. Deaver’s multi-page presentation (he gave us all typed notes on clipboards!) was like imbibing a very healthy smoothie after years of too much coffee.

Our guru started our morning by explaining the toothpaste metaphor: “You write for people, you don’t write for yourself. You are a professional running a business. And with the regard to the flavor of your book—think if it has an audience. You need to ask is this concept, “mint”? Is the plotting “mint,” are the character names “mint”?

This advice doesn’t exactly line up with the “write the book you want to read that doesn’t yet exist” tip that explains how I’ve come up with my concepts for two mystery series. I believe his concept of “mint,” though, doesn’t mean writing something that’s already out there. It refers to creating a book that’s easy for readers to fall in love with, that tastes good from the very first page.

He spent gobs of time talking about how to plan a book—because that’s how he spends eight months every year, doing research (always saved in his own words) and a plot outline that’s usually 150 pages long. He likens the craft of building a book by following directions, just as aviation engineers put together an airplane. Would the engineers stick a wing or a tail in a random place just because they felt like it?  No! They always follow directions.

Mr. Deaver points out the time that will be saved if you plan rather than experiment. I too am an outliner, but the longest outline I’ve written was just shy of thirty pages. And I’ve never solved every nuance of the mystery in my outlines, which he says is the lynchpin to writing a satisfying mystery or thriller.

He acknowledged writers can go forward without having plotted everything, but they will spend much more time thinking of what to write than actually writing.

The hardest thing for me is looking at an elaborate sequence of linked events that lead to a startling conclusion that makes complete sense. I freeze when it comes to writing twisty plots—but when Mr. Deaver was talking about it, I suddenly realized that it might be fun to try—and I could keep track of each idea by putting it on a Post-It note.

So, the day after the workshop, I tried. Not only with the plot of my next book, but with a family tree for my characters. With deep outlining, I could track my backstory of the mystery as well as the chief adventure. However, I was doing this outlining at the midpoint of writing book 2, not before the whole shebang. But that was fine. I was seeing new opportunities for using my characters since I’d been working with them a few months already.

Back to “Taking It To The Next Level.” I perked up after a coffee break, when the topic turned to writing stories that hook readers emotionally. Mr. Deaver had plenty to say—more than I can reprise here (he will teach this course again). I appreciated his point about the writer frequently raising questions that have important consequences. This means lots of cliffhangers and “wow moments”—rather than just one big climax, as is the structure in a lot of mysteries. “Promise and don’t deliver!” he said, reminding me of someone in Washington, DC. He meant raising questions in the reader’s mind and delaying answering them for as long as possible.

And then there’s the issue of making good on all the suspicious aspects you’ve raised. Don’t leave the red herrings uncooked! Jeffery Deaver strives to resolve every conflict, character, clue and subplot by the end. He will go through a manuscript 30 to 40 times to make sure this happens, and that the language sounds utterly natural. By the time such a book is finished, it is a “mint” example of quality mystery.

In the last minutes of the class Mr. Deaver warned us to never allow our characters to get in jeopardy because of a stupid act like allowing a phone to go dead. And conversely, I’m relieved that not one of the writers’ mobile phones rang during the workshop.

Bullet Journal For a Writer

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Every December and January, calendars are on my agenda.

I’m drawn to paper calendars of every type, whether they are freebies from the Baltimore City Department of Public Works or Japanese ones from art museums. However, book-sized planners that fit into my handbag are the Holy Grail.

I’ve a history of buying personal diaries. For most of my adult life, I’ve used (and never thrown out) a motley series of  faux-leather planners containing my appointments, necessary phone numbers, and shopping lists. These little books make sense. When traveling, there’s no easier way to keep track of necessary phone numbers and appointments.

The emotional power of the agenda book is beautifully described in Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther. Mrs. Miniver, a suburban mother living in 1930s England, has traveled into London for shopping. She buys a practical brown calfskin diary costing three shillings nine-pence, although she prefers the look of a green lizard-skin diary marked at seven-and-sixpence.

After leaving the stationer  (most likely Smythson’s) Mrs. Miniver regrets her frugality and jumps off the bus to make a return.

“She walked back to Sloane Square as fast as she could. At this very moment, perhaps, the green lizard-skin diary was being bought by somebody else—some wholly unsuitable person who merely wanted to get one in a hurry: a rich, earnest woman who would fill it with committee meetings, or a business man who would not even glance at the binding when he opened it to jot down the words ‘Dine George.’ While she herself, with all her dearest activities soberly confined in brown calf, would be thinking about it in an agony of regret.”

2017 Smythson calf-skin Cosmic Agenda ($500!)

Ouch, those Smythson agendas are expensive today! Even more than the famed Filofaxes that people loved in 90s before the Palm Pilot and the Blackberry were released. You would have thought with those sexy new toys, then that the handwritten agenda book would die off.

It did not.

Pictured above is a handful of the drugstore and giftshop agenda books I’ve used over the last few years. You might wonder why I don’t throw them away. The answer is that they are chock-full of phone numbers of old friends I might one day wish to call. One never knows when one will be in Yokohama or New Delhi or Minneapolis!

My husband has mentioned we share a free, easy to use calendar that we can synch to better handle our lives. Naturally, he’s speaking of the iPhone’s calendar app. In the interest of marital harmony, I  began scheduling events on the phone. While the iPhone Calendar makes a lot of sense for a person on the go, I’ve noticed some appointments inexplicably disappear—and also, how really stupid events from Facebook get pushed into my calendar.

These tech problems can be sorted out, but it’s a pain. While in Mumbai, I listed a few appointments happening later on in Baltimore. Because of its too-clever reliance on Greenwich Mean Time, the iPhone registered the events—including carpool pickups!—during the middle of the night.

Given the measly space an iPhone calendar allows, one cannot include a shopping list, a book title, a friend’s phone number, and a to-do list. It’s all too easy to hit the wrong numbers when you’re touch-screening and record a useless E-ticket number.

This is why paper and pen still rule.

bulletjournal.com became an international phenomenon

I’m not alone in my feelings. This past December, I began hearing the phrase “Bullet Journal” while listening to podcasts. People were suggesting these so-called bullet journals were a way for people to handcraft their own social diaries and take control of their lives in an easier way than with technology.

Ryder Carroll, a young graphic designer in New York, adopted a plan of converting a simple notebook into a handwritten daily calendar for himself which would feature elements like a future log of upcoming activities, a week at a glance, and to-do lists for each day. A round bullet next to each line is either Xed when the project is completed, or given an arrow to push it onto a future day’s list. It is truly as simple as it sounds. You can use any notebook in the world, any kind of pen, although Ryder sells products through his website (and bullet journal is a trademarked word).

Here is an example of how Ryder Carroll “rapid logs” his day:

for the complete getting started guide, go to bulletjournal.com

Other creatives and organizers have combined the adult hobby of coloring and doodling to push their bullet journals to new highs. Boho Berry and Tiny Ray of Sunshine are two very popular bloggers who have inspired followers to designate pages in their journal related to gratitude, affirmations, quarterly goals, and so on. They help people with handwriting practice, so the bullet journals are beautiful to read, rather than inscrutable (a concern for me).

you can visit bohoberry.com for templates and guidance

Journalers (I cannot call them journalists with a straight face) also share tips on what to use. The best are notebooks with archival, acid-free pages that don’t show bleed-through from pens, and the very best fine-tipped markers to use. Still, the most popular notebooks are many times cheaper than a formatted Filofax or Smythson. For example, a rule-lined Moleskine notebook in the 8×5-inch size runs $US 18-20, and a dotted-paged Leuchtturm rings in at $US 20-33. All of the top books are hardcover and have an elastic string to keep them from falling open and becoming as destroyed as the agendas I’ve treasured.

This fun article from The Guardian is a smack-down comparison between the UK’s beloved Moleskine and Germany’s Leuchtturm (the name means “Beacon” or “Lighthouse”).

I couldn’t decide which was going to suit me better, so I bought both!

I’ll wager a lot of writers are already keeping notebooks related to their work. But this is the first time I’ve merged my writing plans with daily life. And it’s GREAT.

The bullet journal is perfect for feeding the muse. You can set up pages titled “brain dump” and collect all sorts of random ideas for your book in progress. You might make another collection page all about the steps needed to publish and promote a book. You can create a habit tracker page that charts how many hours you worked, how many words you wrote, whether you checked in on social media, did your research reading, and remembered to take a walk.

For someone who processes information better on paper than any other way—as a lot of us writers do—such journals are a godsend. And  for the rest of the world, research is showing that if you write something down on paper, it may be retained longer in your brain.

I am thrilled with my brilliant purple Leuchtturm diary. Its dotted paper pages make drawing boxes easier. I like the three-page index in the front and the numbers at the bottom of every page.  I’m regularly listing my appointments—and putting some things on the iPhone, still, if they involve the rest of the family.

There’s so much in the Leuchtturm, though, that would only be of interest to me. I’ve created a monthly tracker where I mark off the good habits I’m trying to maintain. I have a page of quarterly writing goals, and another section where I am sticking in Post-It notes with blog ideas (I use Post-It notes so I can move the ideas around for different weeks as the fancy strikes). I’m not a graphic designer or artist, but I’m now the owner of a set of the popular British felt tip pens (Staedler), some gorgeous metallic Uniball gel pens, and ten rolls of colorful washi tape that can border pages and cover mistakes.

Some of the more reflective parts of the journal are a summary of writing-related milestones of 2016 and how I can use this information to be a better writer in 2017. I also have a growing list of writing commandments to view every morning before I start on my book.

Here are the writing commandments so far:

Bodies speak as loudly as words.

What’s missing in the scene? Animals, people on the street, cracks in the walls, smells of fire, flowers, etc.

Don’t explain too much in literal terms.

The sentence can be hard. Walk away and come back to it, if you can’t think of the right words immediately.

Remember to chart time writing.

Why Fall is a Writer’s Best Season

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Rudbeckia

Sometimes it seems our population has two types of people: those who hate to see summer end, and those who can’t wait.

Last week, school started in Maryland, and I began experiencing the most time for my work than I’ve had in the last 18 years. Chalk it up to one of my children starting college, and the other joining a terrific high school carpool group that departs at 7:15 a.m. and doesn’t return until 6 p.m.

In the last ten years, my lament has always been: if only the day had 27 hours, not 24. Despite loving my children very much, the demands of driving back and forth left me with less than six hours per day to write and do everything else.

Now I’be been given 10.5 hours, five days a week. That is a ton of writing time—and some me time, too.

dog photo

The weather is still balmy enough to write in the “summer office,” as I call the west-facing screened porch on the second floor of our Victorian cottage. This is the very best place I’ve found to create—and only will feel comfortable for a few more weeks, at which time my muse (Charlie the beagle) will become broken hearted.

It feels vacation-like to settle into work at a natural temperature and in dappled shade. The whispering of trees and chattering of squirrels that makes the space seem sacred. That is—until Charlie sees another dog walk the lane fifty feet underneath us and reads him the riot act.

snoozing dog

If it’s rainy, I go to my real office on the third floor, where I’ve got a desk tucked under the eaves. It’s easy to forget time and write, write, write.

There are times that I’m working on a manuscript and just can’t find the right word. Then I step away and do a short household chore. It’s important to remember to stretch. When I come back, I usually know the words that had evaded me earlier.

house in trees

Walking is another delight of a writing routine. It’s easy to get wrapped up in a story and decide not to go to a gym class—but I can’t find an excuse not to walk for thirty minutes or an hour.

The North Baltimore neighborhood where I live is a walker’s paradise. Roland Park was laid out between 1890 and 1920 by the Olmsted Company, a landscape architecture firm that designed parks, college campuses, zoos and residential suburbs. The naturalistic, wild approach to neighborhood design made it a refuge.

hilltop path sign

In less than an hour, I can walk up hills and ridges, traverse curving streets, enjoy the shade of towering native trees, and explore the secret staircases in a network of paths and lanes designed for people and horse-drawn cart traffic. I love to meander off on these mysterious paths that take me to a peaceful place.

walking path

lane stairs

Lately, I’ve been counting monarch butterflies on my walks. In the 1970s, suburban gardens were filled with dozens. As a child, I thought they were as common as flies.

butterfly photo

These days, I rarely spot more than a single monarch on my walks. I know that it’s a matter of not enough milkweed homes around for their caterpillars.

But I’m cheered by the solo flyer doing its daily job, just as I enjoy coming back to the house, taking off my shoes, and getting back to my own work in a silent old house.