Archive for writing

Mystery’s Magic Number

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


A crowded party is almost always considered successful. When the guests pile in and you can’t even reach the buffet, it means you are at a happening place. This is why there are maxims like, don’t spread a party too thinly through a house and garden. Get everyone in the living room, or around the pool, so the energy explodes.

In books, it’s a different matter. Too many characters can subtly derail the story, no matter how necessary and fascinating they seem. The chief problem is readers forget who they are.

One of the biggest challenges for me as a writer is whittling down the characters coming to the party. It isn’t until a book is close to done that I realize I allowed in too many characters.

I’m writing mysteries set in  Bombay. Even in 1921, the city was crowded. I can rationalize all the way from the docks to the hills that my story must have plenty of characters because that’s the way that cities are. Regardless of time period, most mystery series have “regulars” reappearing in various books who might be fellow crime-solving associates, family members and friends, and the suspects. The trick is giving everyone just enough time—and vacations away, if they really don’t serve a purpose in a particular story.

Daily activity in early 1900s Bombay

Right now, I’m working on a mystery set mostly in a Bombay college. I’ve been writing for almost a year. During this time, I’ve created five important undergraduates, five professors, two adminstrators, a college guard, two servants, and the college lawyer. That’s 16 people—about half of the total number of players in the novel, which certainly includes protagonist Perveen Mistry, and Perveen’s family and friends, police and legal figures.

This week I started a reducing plan, but only three have been cut so far. The process made me wonder whether there is a magic number of characters in a mystery.

I am too frantic to take time away from my book to read several others, so I took the easy route and spent 90 minutes streaming a high-quality mystery program. I am entranced by Endeavour, which features a young Inspector Endeavour Morse in 1960s Oxford. An excellent show in Season One, “Trove,” had nineteen characters of note, with eight supplementary characters (aka extras) speaking just a line or two.

I felt like I followed it all brilliantly. A few days later, could I recount the names of the show’s characters excepting Morse and his boss Fred Thursday?

Absolutely not. That is the big difference between visual and literary storytelling. Watching Endeavour, I only had to recognize a character by sight—and what others said about that person—to know who they were.

There were some things, though, that Endeavour’s writers did that led me to think about some self-improvement. There were rarely more than two characters of the same type—i.e., two people who were friends, two people who were coworkers, a family unit such as mother and child. I could eliminate a few characters that are very similar. Do I really need four boys under the age of twenty?

Another question I’ll ask myself is why each character needs to be in a novel. The most important characters are emotionally rich, not just information-givers. These are recurring players in Perveen’s life, or are people with enough suffering they might feel tempted to commit despicable acts, or shield such acts from knowledge.

Perveen is a lawyer, and I enjoy writing scenes where she is collecting secrets from various characters who’ve been disregarded by the British colonial authorities. Yet I realize Perveen can still learn about minor characters when other people narrate what they said. And fewer interviews mean fewer scenes, and the heavy cloud of cigar smoke begins to lift.

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None has a tight cast

I might throw a party when I finish writing this book. It will not be a standing-room-only bash: the kind of party that I would have loved twenty-five years ago. The gathering I’m thinking about it looks more like one of the early dinner parties in And Then There Were None. 

Not too large, and not too small.

And without terminal losses.

How to Feed a Writer

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

black coffee, blackberry jam, and a dark story

M.F.K. Fisher, the great American food writer, once stated:”A writing cook and a cooking writer must be bold at the desk as well as the stove.”

In the 1930s and ’40s, when Mary Frances began her concurrent explorations of cooking and writing, most writers did not cook, probably because these writers were primarily men. And the earliest published women writers who were lucky enough to have the space and time to do this work—Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf and the like—were typically upper class and had household staff to feed them.

I love to write, and my escape from the stress of writing is cooking. if you follow my blogposts, you’ve seen me wax rhapsodic about mushrooms, about Parsi eggs dishes, and all kinds of food.

In my quest to spend more time on writing, I am striving to be more balanced in the kitchen—and to also explore whether certain food powers my brain to focus better. I’ve read several cookbooks with recipes promising better neurological health, but my goal is not to work with cookbooks as often as I’ve been doing.

This year I asked myself: what is the healthiest way to fill both the stomach and the imagination? How can a person too easily diverted by cooking avoid such temptation when she’s alone at home?

pumpernickel is a powerful base for a breakfast sandwich

Plenty of writers have decided it makes sense to write outside of the house—and to eat there as well. In this era, they are mostly at Starbucks. I prefer to think of Dorothy Parker striding into the restaurant inside the Algonquin Hotel for breakfast and lunch with her friends. Not that she used a pen at the table! It was all about joking, drinking, and probably not getting much done in the afternoon.

Okay, let’s return to the present. Have you ever tried going to a real restaurant with your laptop? While it’s nice to have eggs and toast brought to me at the table, once I’m finished with my plate and continue to write, I feel like a barnacle on the side of the establishment. And how does the writer handle bathroom breaks in the restaurant? Do I leave the laptop containing my big project on the table, or carry it to the potty the way I’d bring my purse?

There’s nothing wrong with dining at home on food prepared elsewhere. However, to undertake this needs a good deal of planning, and the food choices that look the most beautiful are often destructive. A sugar-dusted doughnut is tempting with morning coffee, but it will make me shaky and unable to concentrate within a few hours. Gourmet sandwiches from stores often stand six inches high and are made from such thick bread that they also put my insulin into overdrive. And don’t get me started on full-sized entrees from proper restaurants. If you’d like to see me snoring through the afternoon, just serve me a delicious, heavy lunch.

This year, I am streamlining my dining at home. My goal is not to spend longer than 30 minutes cooking anything during my workday. Here’s the M.O.

For breakfast I toast good brown bread from a local bakery, and I top it with a quality cheese or jam, and several times a week the toast topping is an egg scrambled with vegetables. I take vitamins and calcium on the side, and I try to drink a couple of glasses of water. I am seriously dehydrated, all the time.

Ahh, the antioxidants in cherries!

After that, I try to write at least two hours. Fresh or cooked fruit is the second energy shot that I take around 10 in the morning. After that, I break for some activity at the gym.

Lunch is always eagerly anticipated. Like breakfast, I eat it by myself, so I don’t have to worry if anyone else likes what’s going on the plate. A fridge full of leftovers means various cups of soup, beans, small cooked vegetables, kimchee, and rice. Sometimes there’s even a half-serving of chicken or fish or a couple of meatballs. So, how is my meal different from tapas? I can imagine Dorothy Parker poking fun at my lunches, especially since they are washed down with a glass of water and a couple of Vitamin D gummy raspberry chews for dessert.

A simple homemade carrot soup

Chicken curry, rice and a melange of potatoes, yams and green beans

I work again. Around 4 p.m. I’m often craving salt. The standard snack to fill the void used to be crackers and cheese, but now that I am trying to reduce dairy, I dip raw vegetables or plantain chips in hummus or munch some almonds or cashews. If I have a sweet craving, I might slather peanut butter on a toasted waffle (I keep a few homemade ones in the freezer) or Nutella on a digestive biscuit.

A homemade waffle with almond butter, banana, and chia topping

The writing day is done by five and cooking is once again allowed! I I relish the chance to sway between the fridge and stove and bend to lift up pots and pans. I usually cook meat or fish with vegetables and some form of rice. Usually it’s Asian or Mediterranean food—easy dishes flavored with spices and herbs—true friends with benefits.  I often use the InstantPot to pressure cook dried beans or to concoct a dal that can be eaten at a few different meals during the week. My husband likes this kind of food. My children do not.

You might have noticed something missing in my diet. It is coffee, the infamous element in a lot of writers’ rituals.

I drink about one and a half-cups of locally roasted coffee made in a French press at breakfast. I might have another cup in the mid-afternoon if I’m dead-tired and have to go out and drive the carpool or drive to a faraway book signing. But chain-drinking coffee does not make me feel grounded and focused on work—it gives me the jitters. Some therapeutic drinks that work for me throughout the day are water, black tea, green tea, mint tea, and before bed, the venerable chamomile.

Writing a book is slow work, and in my experience, it can be detrimental to the body. There have been years when I would sneak downstairs from my study to snack as a way to escape the half-written page. I’m no saint—if I know there’s chocolate in the cupboard, I may have an afternoon binge. But overall, I take a great deal of pleasure in eating this way.

Am I feeding my mind?

I don’t know about that—but I do feel sated.

Digital White-Out

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


When the snow fell last weekend, I welcomed it, not just for its beauty, but the way it stops time.

I grew up in Minnesota, where children are hardwired to appreciate the beauty of snow and also to expect it as a normal rhythm of the winter, rather than a natural disaster. As an adult I am able to admit that snow is not just fun and games. I can’t decide what is more treacherous; the flat packed snow that forms a shiny, slick surface; the thick ice lurking under snow; or the thick salt crystals scattered over the sidewalks that sting my dogs’ paws.

Even though snow trips me up, I still love it.

Snow only falls a few times each winter in Maryland—but often it’s a storm, rather than a casual sprinkling. Supposedly it’s because of the freezing air coming down from Antarctic meeting up with the warmer Atlantic. And when we have snowstorms in Baltimore, we never have  enough plows. In bad winters, the whole Eastern Seaboard runs out of salt and sand. In my city, the protocol is to concentrate on freeways and major roads while the storm is ongoing, and to address the rest of the city later. Or not.

Last Sunday, when Baltimore was snowed in, a tremendous quiet descended over my world. I bundled up and went for a walk around nine in the morning with my husband. The streets and lanes had only a few car tracks. On my way back, I slipped on one of the slick snow patches on an unplowed street, but no lasting harm was done.

Unspoiled snow gives the feeling of open time. It is the opposite of an ordinary day dominated by rapid-fire texts and emails demanding answers. The snow seems to wipe all of that out.

This weekend’s snow came just before I started reading a book called Deep Work written by Georgetown professor Cal Newport. Dr. Newport examines what a lot of us already know: that toggling between different kinds of intellectual activities leads to a poorer quality of life and produced work. Using studies and examples of scientists, psychologists, tycoons—as well as his own hard-fought academic writing accomplishments—he talks about the need to limit shallow work that distracts from the deep snowbank of joyful, rewarding work.

I’ve become very interested and inspired by this theory of deep work, though I cannot of course end my daily life as a person raising children and dogs, helping with my husband’s business, and keeping in touch with readers. But I know that I do many more distracting activities now than twenty years ago, when I was starting my fiction career. Now I understand why focusing was easier.

One of Dr. Newport’s suggestions for managing smaller job-related responsibilities  is to address them in batches rather than every day. For instance, I could write a couple of Murder is Everywhere posts over one day or two days and then I’d be ready for the month. In that same week of managing small writing assignments, I could write my monthly author newsletter and cue up some Instagram posts. And in the other weeks of the month—at least three!—I could immerse myself in 1921 Bombay, the very un-snowy setting of my current novel.

So I’ve got an idea. Regardless of what the weather predictions are, a metaphoric storm is headed to my house tomorrow morning.

It will be a white-out from the digital world. I aim to concentrate on my neglected next novel, which means I can answer email just thrice daily. And podcasts, radio and TV will have to wait two weeks as well. My mind doesn’t need any more jumbling.

I intend to listen hard enough in the silence that I can hear snowflakes fall.

When Writing Series, Third Time’s the Charm

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Daisy’s checking up on the day’s progress

Did anybody ever tell you that it’s easier to raise three children than two?

I am fine with the two that I have, but I’m beginning to believe the saying could be true.

Especially when I think about books.

If each book a writer births is like a child, I have fourteen. I am like the old woman in the shoe, and all my children are troublesome in different ways.

But this week it’s been a lot easier. Every day that I’ve powered on my laptop to write, I’ve had an idea of the next sentence.  The words have been flowing now better than they have in years. That is because the book I’m writing is Untitled Perveen Mistry, the third book in a series.

Having been in print for more than a couple decades, I’m starting to draw some conclusions. Don’t hire me to teach any writing courses yet, but I’ll tell you that the third book is the magical point when a writer finally gets comfortable writing a series.

Okay, I’ll admit the first book is usually the most exciting part of writing a series. Book One is totally novel. A first book lays out the protagonist’s backstory and introduces me to her family, lover, friends, career, and the world where it all takes place.

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Book One for Perveen Mistry!

Because it’s a first book, there is plenty of time to flesh the characters and build the location. Editors don’t usually accept Book One without it being written in totality, so there’s not so much pressure (this was completely different for The Widows of Malabar Hill, which was written on spec for Soho Press. But the pub date stretched so I could revise it to my heart’s content).

My very first Book One was published in 1997 and had the typical lifestyle for such a creature. I wrote it over the course of four years of suffering and was thrilled beyond my imagination when The Salaryman’s Wife was accepted by HarperCollins. I will take off my hat to everyone who has finished writing a first novel, whether or not it made it to print.

After writing this first book in my Rei Shimura series, I discovered that the second one, Zen Attitude, came surprisingly slowly. Even though I had a due date to motivate me and could reuse characters from the first book, I still felt stalled. I remember trying many drastic

behavior changes to push myself to be someone stronger and capable of writing Book Two.  I changed my diet to avoid meat (it lasted two years). I ran daily around the Hopkins track. I went on research trips, not just to Japan but to a Buddhist monastery in update New York. I was thirty-three, childless and without the curse of a day job. I had no real pressures in life outside of the book… yet  I stared at my desktop day after day and wondered if I really could write more than one book.

The first three books of the Rei Shimura series

Rei Shimura’s Book Three, The Flower Master, was—ha, another story! I don’t remember much about the process, except I began the book in India when I was staying there due to delays with my daughter’s adoption. I did not have so much as a laptop with me, so to work on Book Three I had to go to my grandfather’s office where there was an old desktop with viruses galore where I could ply my trade. I had a lot on my mind—but I still was able to proceed at a reasonable pace with this book. Frankly, it was kind of mental retreat.

I have enjoyed writing the Rei series, but as time passed, I wanted to try something new. I had spent all that time in India–and I wanted to go back. In 2006 I began writing a long historical suspense novel titled The Sleeping Dictionary. That first-book process lasted more than four years, and the book was hard to sell. By the time it came out as a Simon & Schuster paperback in 2013, I felt all the work I’d done made it a natural opener for a new series. I figured that Book Two would occur several years later, when the daughter of the protagonist in Book One could grow up to be a moody teenager caught up in the horrific violence after India’s partition. I knew my characters well and felt the plot was sound, but as I worked on this book, showing my agent revision after revision, I never got farther in than a few chapters.

Writing a second book is always a struggle, and during that time, I was busy with two children and had no energy for tricks like changing my diet or starting a new sport. Also, there was no contract for the unwritten Book 2, which translated into no time pressure to press on with it. I also understood the book’s themes of violence against women and religious intolerance were darker than anything I’d ever written. Would my longtime readers be willing to spend so much time in sadness, when I thought writing this could put me into depression?

The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey

This “book of my heart,” first in a series that might never be.

The second book in the Daughters of Bengal series was simply too daunting for me. I chucked it. Although I did not give up on the idea of revisiting it someday.

I’m working on my third series now. It’s about Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first woman lawyer working in the 1920s. I’ll admit that while The Widows of Malabar Hill (Book One) was very exciting to work on, Book Two was a pain to write. This time I could partially blame my struggles on a health issue. Lyme Disease was diagnosed after nine months and I bucked up with medicine, acupuncture, and Ayurvedic herbs. Heck, I got so excited about Ayurvedic herbs I worked them into Book 2 (because it’s set in the mountains of India, it’s not such a stretch). And this Book Two, The Satapur Moonstone, had a deadline. I turned it in a month late, it still needed serious revision, but I’d done it!

I’ve come to understand that only when I slay the dragon that is called Book Two can I get to the love affair with Book Three. And while it won’t be a romance that makes writing every series book feel like fun, it feels like being on honeymoon this week.

Book Two of the Perveen series slated for May 2019

Longest Deadline on Earth…Stay Posted!

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Once again, this is not a typical blogpost. I’m still on deadline—a new one!

I did not realize before I became published is there’s not just one deadline per book. There’s the deadline to turn in your unedited manuscript. It’s followed by a deadline to turn in a completely revised manuscript (completed two weeks ago). And now I’m on a deadline to approve edits to that revised manuscript and add in whole new sentences and paragraphs to clarify points. I’ve got one week to go through 370 pages—a feat I’m not sure I can accomplish. There will be a deadline later for me to look at the copy edit, with only very minimal alterations allowed, and another chance to look at bound galleys for errors.

Does this sound like creative, inspirational work? You’re right, it’s not. However, a well-edited book is so satisfactory. It lasts longer in people’s minds than the average novel does. And that’s what I want to create.

I have illustrated this brief posting with some dog photographs to make up for the lack of content. My dogs, Charlie the Beagle and Daisy the Chorkie, do not approve of deadlines.  Sure, I’m around the house more than usual—but I’m parked at a table ignoring them.  They disapprove of the attention I’m giving the gray metal box with the funny light on the back. Daisy walks across the laptop sometimes, to prove a point.

Deadlines will be met! I am keeping an eye on the prize and will not let go of my spirits.

Deadline!

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

My comments this week will be my briefest yet. I am on deadline with Book 2 in my Perveen Mistry series. A writer is always working on a book, but there are many times in the early days of a novel that it must be handed back and forth between the author and the publisher. And this process turns the work from private to teamwork, and can create stress.

The first time this particular tale met a deadline was back in February, when I handed in an 80,000-word book about 4 weeks later than planned. My editor wrestled with it and returned it to me in March, at which point I began the big improvement campaign. Most writers don’t spend months on a rewrite, like I do. Typically, novelists rewrite in a month or less. But I have learned I’m not the kind of writer who just swaps in a few words.  I delete sentences, create new paragraph after paragraph, and write many more pages. I do plenty of cutting as well. About ten weeks and 20,000 words since the handoff for Book 2, I am elated to be almost through, although I still have a supermarket’s worth of names and titles and typos to address. After I submit it, I expect to have to rewrite more bits (but not as much), and then there is the line by line evaluation of the copy-edit, followed by a couple of rounds with galleys. You could say rewriting and editing is a job in itself, but I should have started Book 3 back in February, when I was researching it in India.

Being close to a deadline—or knowing I’ve just missed it—changes my life. I exercise and cook less, I forgo social events, and worst of all, I SIT for hours. My back is often stiff and there’s a permanent dull pain in my unexercised hamstrings. The dogs are becoming too accustomed to having me home, staring at my laptop either at the dining room table, at my desk on the sleeping porch or my study, or on the living room couch. Daisy, pictured above, thinks nothing of walking across the keyboard to make the point that I should pay attention to something else (her).

Deadline is a concept I first met when I was a newspaper journalist. During those years I wrote articles that were conceptualized, researched and written by me and edited by someone else in the same eight-hour time span. The story would be printed in the next day’s paper. It seemed like plenty of pressure, but in hindsight, a 600-word story is not that hard to pull off. Getting the facts straight was the most important part of the journalism process, whereas fiction writing, it is not just facts but expository language, dialogue, and a sense of heart.

People sometimes ask what happens if a writer doesn’t meet a deadline. Will you lose the chance to have your book published? The answer typically is no. The book will still come out, but it’s likely it will shift to another month to allow time for editing, marketing and printing. If a book is late and the pub month can’t be adjusted,  it will be a major challenge for the book’s publicity arm to get clean galleys out to critics and the publisher’s sales force. That said, back in the 1990s I was with another publisher that suddenly axed a lot of writers with late books, actually demanding they repay their advances. Chief among them were authors who had signed contracts with due dates years earlier that were not met. It seems that turning books in late is a very common thing.

Deadlines are a necessity to keep books coming to the shelves. But serious editors and writers  agree that the quality of the book is the most important factor. A truly exceptional book coming in late is welcomed because it really is that good. However, a bad book arriving on the dot, driven there for fear of being late, hurts everyone involved its publication.

And the reader, too!

A Writer’s Lament, Revised

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A ragged, handwritten sign has been taped to my study wall for about a year.

I love this job!

A quarter-century ago, I was working full-time in university public relations and desperately longed to be a fiction writer. It seemed like an impossible dream, to stay home all day and use as much of it as I wanted for fiction. I thought I’d use each day to the fullest and greet my husband every evening with a smile and a reports of many pages written.

As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

I did leave that job, and began writing full-time at the age of thirty-two. And here I am, twenty-two years later, in the same job, but with the rose-colored glasses removed. With the sale of my first book came a lifestyle where I pretty much always have a deadline. It’s a lifestyle in which I can work every day but never be finished.

When I’m struggling with a chapter that’s going slowly,  it’s hard to remember that I once longed to be in this place. In a writing day—for me, that’s three to four hours—I write 500 to 1000 words, when in the old days, I could do 3000-4000. Is it because my brain has fewer cells? Probably.  Tat and the fact I’m writing historical mysteries, which make dashing off scenes and casual conversations more of a complex effort.

I am grateful to be published, and I love meeting readers and understand that my books are a fun escape for them. I wish I wasn’t looking for my own escapes within my writing day—activities like cooking, reading, napping, aqua aerobics, yoga, walking, lunch with a friend. Actually, all of these are healthy things to do. But they are methods of evading the hard business of thinking, which is Part A of writing. That’s the worst thing about writing—thinking up the sentences that I consider worthy of keeping rather than deleting. Sometimes, I feel as inexperienced and awkward as before I was even published.

A lot of writers say that they enjoy “having written” more than the writing itself. But I think that if I want to keep going at this ten or twenty more years, I’d better start enjoying the writing more. It would mean closing my laptop and moving on to dinner and evening activities in an upbeat mood,rather than a frustrated one.

We want the life that is just beyond us. Perhaps the idea of escape is something I can work with.

What if I reversed my thinking what my responsibilities are? Could I tell myself that I am working full-time again—but for needy dogs and people? What if the act of writing could be transformed into a kind of sanctuary? It would mean pretending that I didn’t have a deadline.

Okay, I’m game.

From this point forward, I am doing things that make it seem more like that. If I want to write snuggled up in bed for a couple of hours, I will allow myself to do that.

There is beautiful sunlight in my third floor study in the mornings, and that’s when I want to be there. Only then. On dark mornings,  I can sit in my dining room and look straight across the hallway to the gas fireplace and two sweet dogs napping nearby.

Then there are times I am restless and know I will wind up in the kitchen making toast. In that case, I will pack my laptop, drive five minutes, and sit among the students in the Eisenhower library at Johns Hopkins University, where I was once a student.

Moving on from place to page. One strategy is to approach my work with curiosity. Surprises will come as I discover the story that was waiting all along.Why don’t I play with words rather than task myself with hammering them out? Can I try to enjoy my characters as if they’re in a film (or a really terrific BBC historical miniseries) playing before my eyes? Does the line of dialog I’ve written truly show anger, humor, or tenderness?

Being mindful about writing could make the process feel more like pleasure reading. Which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

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.