Summer Camp Writing Challenge

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Ah, nothing says summer better than sweaty armpits and chafed inner thighs.

And here in Massachusetts, we’re in for a long stretch of hot, humid weather over the next 10 days.

If you’re crazy like me, you probably can’t wait to step outside into a swamp. But if you’re not, this might be a good time to go camping.

Camp NaNoWriMo, that is.

For anyone who is new to the challenge, as I was, it is “An idyllic writer’s retreat, smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life.” And it takes place during the month of July.

Unlike November’s NaNo, you get to choose the type of project you want to work on and how your progress will be calculated.

Want to write a screenplay or a poem? No problem. What about a series of short stories or a piece of non-fiction? You can do that too. You can even set up a revision project.

You also get the option to track your progress by word count, hours, minutes, lines, or pages.

No longer are you constrained to writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days because this is summer, and in the United States, July is synonymous with freedom and independence.

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I signed up for Camp and entered my project to finish a work-in-progress novel. It remains to be seen if that’s actually the piece I’m going to work on–I kind of want to write a fun murder mystery beach read (because nothing says fun quite like a murder in a beach resort town) or finish my World of Warcraft fanfiction serial. But it would be really nice to finally have this novel finished.

If you’re thinking maybe you should jump start your own prolific writing career or need a little motivation to try a new medium or genre, I encourage you to sign up too.

Another great feature of Camp is that you can choose to join a cabin of 19 other like- or maybe-not-so-like-minded writers for inspiration.

I’m planning to create a private cabin, so if you want to be bunk mates, send a request to clblacke for an invitation through the Camp NaNo message system and be sure to let me know you’re responding to this post.

Writers of all genres and mediums are welcome. You don’t need to be a mystery or young adult writer to join my cabin.

So grab your marshmallows and bug spray and meet me at Camp!

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5 Ways to Start Writing Right Now

There’s this thing we do when we have to take out the trash, scrub the bathtub, or visit the in-laws.

  • “Right after this nap.”
  • “Right after the game ends.”
  • “Right after I hit 110 on this World of Warcraft toon.” (Currently sitting at level 1.)

It’s called procrastinate, and for good reason. No one wants to do chores because we don’t get anything out of them. (Unless you count a fresher smelling kitchen.) That’s why the allure of video games isn’t surprising: you kill something, you get a reward.

So why do we still procrastinate when it comes to something we want to do–like write?

I mean, we don’t hem and haw over whether to eat a cupcake or not.

  • “Nah, I think I’ll eat it next week.”
  • “Maybe after I eat this huge salad.”
  • “I have to go work out first.” (Said no one ever in the face of cake.)

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You do want to write, right? You do dream of sitting in your pajamas every day, writing for hours, chain-smoking and drinking scotch, right? Being a best-selling author, going on whirlwind book tours, speaking at international writing conferences, and being nominated for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, right?

The problem with writing is, we’re not getting a sugar rush or anything else for that matter after putting in the time. Sure, you can fool yourself into thinking you’re getting a reward by actually giving yourself something when you’re done (a cupcake perhaps?), but that’s going to be costly both for your pocketbook and your waistline if that’s your only source of motivation.

What can you do instead? So glad you asked. Here are five ways to start (and keep) writing that don’t involve rewards.

1. Face your fears

You may think you’re not writing as much as you’d like (or at all) because you don’t have time:

  • “I have to take the trash out.”
  • “I have to scrub the bathtub this very second.”
  • “I have to visit the in-laws this weekend.”

Or you don’t have a dedicated space:

  • “I’d be able to write if I had an 18th century escritoire.”
  • “I need to buy some post-it notes first.”
  • “The kids will bother me more if I close the door.”

You may even think you need more time to let your ideas percolate before committing them to paper.

If you find yourself coming up with excuses as to why you don’t write, it’s because deep down you have some fear of the outcome. It could be fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of never having another creative idea, fear of missing out on something else, fear everyone will know you’re a fraud, fear you’ll be letting your family down, fear everyone will think you’re awesome, fear people will demand more from you, fear of overwhelming success.

Whatever it is, the only way you’re going to get over it is by acknowledging it.

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Get yourself a journal (or any other notebook, napkin, junk mail envelope because that is not an excuse to not do this exercise) and write about why you’re not writing. Go ahead, start with all your excuses. Take your time. Come back to this exercise as often as you like. This process will suck and make you feel worse, but you have to do it. It’s like an infection festering deep inside that once it finally bursts through the skin like a big, fat pimple, it hurts like hell for a while. Then you slap some cream on it and wait while it heals.

I guarantee once you find the real reason behind why you’re not writing, you can overcome it.

(Hey look, you just wrote something!)

2. Once more with feeling

Now that you’ve cleared away those excuses and named your fears, it’s time to stop feeling bad about them. If you procrastinate instead of writing because you fear rejection, then what would it feel like to be accepted? Who do you want to feel acceptance from–your parents, a publishing company, your classmates at a high school reunion, a bookstore full of fans lining up to buy the fourth installment in your highly acclaimed detective series?

Whether you want to feel accomplished, light, energized, successful, or something completely different, meditate on it. Feel it. In your soul. Sit with your eyes closed and be in that moment. See yourself typing your last words of the day and hitting “Save.” You stretch back and feel __________.

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What you’re doing right now is setting yourself up for success. You’re programming your mind and body to replicate those feelings every time you write. Trust me, it will be a much more enjoyable experience than the usual self-flagellation you would normally inflict because your subconscious used to associate writing with fear.

Practice how you want writing to feel every day. Before getting out of bed, before going to bed, before writing, or whenever you get a chance. Connect with it, and soon your subconscious will associate the new feeling with writing instead.

3. Be your own cheerleader

You should be feeling pretty psyched up to write by now. Further this excitement (or cement it in place) by telling yourself how excited you are to go home and write. I know you talk to yourself out loud anyway, and I bet most of what you say is pretty negative.

  • “I can’t believe I just said that. I’m so stupid.”
  • “What was I thinking eating that cupcake?”
  • “I just wasted my whole weekend binge-watching Sherlock instead of writingI’m such a loser.” (But really, who could blame you on that one?)

Let’s turn that around by using the power of crazy talk to inspire yourself.

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Keep telling yourself, all day, every day, how excited you are to write and pretty soon you’ll be believing it. Now watch as the first thing you pick up when you get home is your laptop (much to the delight of your cat if she’s anything like mine).

4. Spare no details

Once you’ve identified how you want to feel, write about it.

Grab your journal or the back of your kid’s math homework (because who needs math when you’re a best-selling author?) and write out how you envision your perfect writing life. You can start with the moment your eyes open or the moment your butt hits the chair at your 18th century escritoire. You could be well into your millions or be about to accept an offer on a four-book deal. Spare no details.

Where do you live? What does your work space look like? Who is with you (no one? lucky you!)? How long do you write for? What are you writing? What do you do before you write? What do you do when you’re done? Do you drink a pot of tea and eat gingerbread scones while writing? What do they taste like? Are birds singing, is music playing, can you hear the winds howling around the eaves? How do you feel while you’re writing?

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Use as much sensory detail as possible. And most importantly, use the feelings you identified in #2 as often as possible. Take as much time as you need for this exercise. Go back to it over the course of several days or whenever you have time, adding more and more detail.

This doesn’t have to be polished or perfect. You do not have to be poetic. No one is ever going to read this but you. But it must move you and it must call up your feeling du jour.

Now, every day for as long as it takes (days, weeks, months, years), reread what you wrote and reconnect to that feeling.

Alternatively, you can do this exercise as many times as you want, rewriting your perfect day of writing so you are in your  dream space or your current digs, your ideal situation or your chaotic life.

(See what I did there? I just got you to write and you liked it.)

5. Write for low stakes

If you’re just starting to get into the writing game or you’re trying to build a habit, don’t crush it with some lofty goal like writing a novel every agent will fight over that will make you a million dollars so you’ll never have to work that boring desk job again.

Instead, find something you like to write for fun. Maybe it’s working on #4 above, maybe it’s using writing prompts. Maybe it’s writing World of Warcraft serial fan-fiction starring your own character. Whatever you choose, it should be something you do for yourself. It doesn’t mean no one else will never read it, but you aren’t placing any unreal expectations on it either. If you never shop that short story around, it won’t be the end of the world.

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When I searched for images labeled “success,” this is what I got. This is what you should aspire to when just starting out. Be zany. Be creative. Be wild. Have fun.

That doesn’t mean you can never aspire to finish your novel. It means, you should wait until your subconscious associates writing with having fun and feeling (fill in the blank) and your habit becomes automatic and something you look forward to. Again, this could take days, weeks, months, years.

If you’ve followed along with these (very helpful) suggestions, you’ve probably noticed you got some writing done too. Yay you!

You didn’t procrastinate, it didn’t kill you, and your fears never actualized. I call that success.

If this post helped you in any way, drop me a comment. I’d love to hear about all your amazing success stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Draft Mindset

In a May/June 2017 interview, winner of The 12th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards, Travis Madden, offers this piece of writing advice, “Just get that first draft completed, knowing it’s not going to be anywhere remotely near the quality of your finished work. And be OK with that!”

So how do you get to be OK with that when you’re constantly thinking about how to incorporate all the things you’ve learned about storytelling?writer-1421099_640

First, forget everything you’ve learned about storytelling. Honestly, you don’t need to know how to create compelling characters, how to raise the stakes, how to pace, plot, hook the reader, etc. to write a first draft. That’s what revision is for. Instead, you need to just write. Maybe you have an idea for a character or a vague sense of setting with no plot. Maybe you have a plot but your characters are flat and cliché. Who cares? You write first drafts to explore these things and figure out what story you’re trying to tell. With that being said, you shouldn’t formally outline before you start a first draft either. Let the words and the plot and the characters come and go as they please without trying to mold them. Save the outline, character sketches, plot summaries, setting descriptions, etc. for revision. I mean, how can you make those things better before they’re even written?

img_0278-1024x683Indeed, first drafts are a lot like corn mazes– you don’t know how to get yourself out of them ahead of time. That’s why they’re so much fun. Sometimes you can only see a few feet in front of you at a time and never know whether the next turn will bring a dead-end or another path to the next fork in the road. You’re excited at the adventure of it and a little anxious about getting lost (and possibly afraid of a Bible-thumping 9-year old named Isaac jumping out at you), but it doesn’t stop you from entering the maze and having fun.

Secondly, adopt the mindset that first drafts should be like creative, unstructured child’s play. I grew up in a time when we didn’t have computers or video games or even VCRs. My parents never sat my sister and me in front of the TV to keep us entertained. We played outside in all kinds of weather, building entire houses out of snow or pine needles. We created menus and played restaurant with my mother’s dishes. I played Wonder Woman, paper dolls, Barbie, bank, shoe store, house, and school. I turned my bike upside down and pretended it was an ice cream shop. 4aeb9200a5c8eccce526a2c407f5ef60

There are no rules in child’s play–at least not in creative, unstructured play. You can be a superhero one moment and a gun-toting stagecoach robber the next. (Yes, I did have a cap gun and no, I didn’t grow up to be a murderer.)

Often when kids make up games, they make up their own rules as they go along as situations call for it. They don’t sit down and plan for every scenario ahead of time the way some writers do. They are true pantsers. Free and unencumbered. They never feel the need to go back and “re-play” what they did earlier because they changed something.

Next, start your story where you need to not where you have to. If that includes beginning with decades of backstory or a dreaded prologue, then so be it. Seriously, how ridiculous is it to try to start your story in the middle of things if you don’t even know where the middle is because you haven’t gotten to the end yet?

As humans, we literally start every day anew when we wake up. So if you have to follow your main character from the moment he opens his eyes until the time something life-altering happens, so be it. That’s what the Delete button is for.young-man-wake-up-morning-rub-eyes-stretch-89053809

This is also why NaNoWriMo is so popular. It allows writers to throw down anything and everything and just write with reckless abandon. Who cares if you followed all the rules? Who cares if it doesn’t make sense in the end? Who cares if your story started out as fantasy and morphed into contemporary realism? You just wrote 50,000 words! Fifty-thousand words you didn’t have time to deliberate over. Fifty-thousand words with a better idea of what kind of story you want to tell and what to revise to get it there.

And finally, don’t ask for critiques or share your first drafts with other writers. It’s tempting to want feedback to see if you’re on the right track. Only you don’t know what the right track is yet. You don’t know how your baby is going to grow up, if it’s even going to make it. This thing you’re writing is like a newborn. parentIt can be infected with other people’s germs super easily and get really sick. It can also turn out to be something you never wanted, depending on who’s taking care of it. So protect it (and your self-confidence) in the process. Remember, no one likes being called a bad parent

To recap, here are four ways to change your mindset around first drafts:

  1. Forget everything you’ve ever learned about writing and just write.
  2. Know there are no rules in creativity. (We never would have been able to send men in outer space unless someone dreamed it was possible. Only then did rules about physics and engineering apply.)
  3. Start your story where you need to, not where you’re supposed to.
  4. Protect that baby from backseat critiquers until it’s fully developed.

What’s your current mindset about first drafts? Do you get trapped in the never-ending cycle of editing? What other advice would you give someone about writing a first draft?

 

Sunday Inspiration: Neil Gaiman

Working on stories was something I did for fun. I didn’t have any grandiose aspirations of becoming published or being a best selling author. (Well, I did, but those were dreams I never thought would actually come true.) I just loved to create characters and send them on exciting and often dangerous adventures. I particularly remember feeling excitement and joy at the prospect of working on my stories during the summers when I was getting my Bachelor’s degree because I worked full time and went to school full time, which didn’t leave time for anything else.

Somewhere along the way though, specifically after graduating from my MFA program, I lost that feeling of excitement and joy to write. I had adopted the mindset that my writing had to perfect, it had to be “of publishible quality” (like they taught in grad school or you wouldn’t pass). I believed my writing had to be perfect not just after months and months of revisions but on first drafts too. After all, I’d been on a schedule of both revising 30 pages and writing 30 new pages every 30 days for two years, which was a ridiculous schedule and did not lead to writing “of publishible quality.” I’d effectively lost my joy.

That mindset of perfection and never being able to achieve it eventually warped into thinking and feeling that writing was hard and laborous and torturous and something to be avoided at all costs (to, you know, wash the dishes or clean the litter box). Of course, not writing just perpetuated feelings of guilt and shame (especially when my mother asked me if I was working on anything) because that was all I knew how to do, that’s all I really wanted to do, and I had let my higher or my younger self down.

I needed to get back to that feeling of excitement and joy, and it needed to start with accepting that first drafts are not meant to be perfect.

Say it with me, kids, “First drafts shouldn’t be perfect.”

The belief that writing was fun and easy naturally followed, and guess what? It is.

I actually look forward to my days off now when I can sit down with my novel and play. My writing hasn’t changed (it still takes me hours to write a scene), but my mindset about it has. And that has made all the difference.

So I invite you to honor your higher self or your younger self who used to get excited to write and felt joy while doing it–not because she was trying to get published or land an agent but because it was fun and that’s what she did.

You are on the cusp of change and your brilliant future awaits. Get excited and get inspired for it by watching Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech at the University of the Arts.

Now go out there and “Make Good Art.”

 

 

Villains, Antagonists, and Everything in Between

In last week’s post, I wrote that one of the most important aspects of writing a mystery is the villain. I chose this word, instead of antagonist, because it sounds delicious.

But there are differences between the two. So here’s the definitive answer on both.

Villains are always villains.

Antagonists are always antagonists.

Sometimes villains can be antagonists.

Sometimes antagonists can be villains.

Sometimes antagonists can be protagonists.

If that didn’t clear things up for you, here’s a better explanation:

Villains are motivated by evil. Not necessarily Satan, though I suppose that could also be true. Villains are cruel and malicious by nature and resort to criminal activity. Their whole existence is to cause harm and destruction. They may feel slighted by humanity or superior to it. They may even feel their diabolical actions are a form of social justice or in the world’s best interest.

Any way you slice it, villains are always villains. They may, however, not always interfere with the sleuth’s investigation. A villain may just go about her merry way killing off all the bellringers in a local competition to atone for the murder of her ancestor over five generations before without ever thwarting the investigation because she wasn’t on the suspect radar until it was too late.

Antagonists, on the other hand, don’t have to be evil at all. They may merely oppose or try to block the sleuth from achieving his external goal, which is to solve the mystery. This can be done without breaking any laws such as by starting rumors, deliberately stalling, lying, or evading. An antagonist may have the same goal as the main character or may just want the main character not to achieve it.

An example of the difference between a villain and an antagonist in a mystery might be:

Little Timmy, seeking revenge on a classmate, causes an accident that kills the classmate. Timmy’s mother, trying to protect her son, obstructs the investigation by hiding physcial evidence and lying to the detective about Timmy’s whereabouts at the time in question.

Timmy is the villain because his motive was to cause harm out of revenge. Timmy’s mother is the antagonist because she literally opposes the sleuth–she does not want your main character to solve the mystery because it would mean something horrible for her child.

Now as I said, villains can sometimes be antagonists. Not only do they commit the crime, but they lead the detective on a wild goose chase as well, perhaps taunting the sleuth with riddles, leaving false clues, and goading her into playing an “I’m smarter than you” game. Many mysteries centering on serial killers will use this device.

Villains as antagonists also love to knock your sleuth unconscious (every Nancy Drew mystery ever) in order to escape or even hold your sleuth captive.

In the same sense, you may have an antagonist who becomes a villain due to circumstances beyond her control, like feeling threatened or being exposed.

Consider a woman who stages her own disappearance in order to leave an abusive marriage. Her husband hires a private investigator to track her down. The woman’s goal is to not get caught and is in direct opposition to the P.I.’s. As the story progresses and the investigator closes in on her, the woman who is desperate and afraid she’s been recognized, murders the potential witness to prolong her freedom.

Though I’ve only seen the movie, I suspect Amazing Amy from Gone Girl is an antagonist who becomes the villain because she uses misdirection first which then escalates to murder as a means to an end.

In most mysteries, the protagonist will be a sleuth, amateur or otherwise. In capers and heists, however, the antagonist becomes the protagonist because we see the story from the thieves’ point of view. The thieves are not considered villains despite resorting to crime because they don’t steal with evil or malicious intent. They do it mostly because they can, mostly to see if they can get away with it. (And I’m sure the money it brings isn’t too bad either.) By definition, capers are lively and playful, often humorous, and you would be hard-pressed to find much more than childhood mischief as motive.

We want the thieves to succeed because the victim of the theft is usually a horrible person and deserves it, so the detective who investigates the crime becomes the adversary or antagonist.

So there you have it, the definitive answer on all things villain vs. antagonist.

Take a look at your own “bad guy.” Where does he or she fall on the scale of villainy?

Do you like your villain or antagonist more than your detective?

Do you want your villain or antagonist to get away with the crime?

10 Things You Need to Write a Killer (or not) Mystery

If you’re thinking of breaking into the mystery market, here’s 10 things (in somewhat order of importance) you need to have.

1. A CRIME: aka The Mystery, aka Whatever Your Sleuth Has to Solve crime

The Crime wins first place in order of appearance because without it, there would be no story. Sure, some of you may balk at the idea of basing your novel on plot rather than character, but if you don’t have a handle on the who, what, where, when, why and how of your mystery, then you really have no story.

Mysteries are all about misdirection, reversals, knowing what to reveal when, and keeping your reader (and your sleuth) guessing.

And though it’s a perennial favorite, not all mysteries have to revolve around murder. (I mean, I don’t recall Nancy Drew or Scooby Doo ever stumbling over a dead body on one of their cases.) And there are plenty of other options out there, especially if you’re writing for children or are just the non-violent type (which apparently, I am not).

A few ideas to get you started include: finding a missing item, a missing person; a mysterious person; uncovering the reasons behind a mysterious disappearance, a mysterious event from the past, a tragic accident; solving a burglary, a kidnapping, a poisoning; revealing a blackmail scheme, a crime ring, a crime spree, a drug ring, a drug spree; investigating a seemingly supernatural event, a not-so seemingly supernatural event, a stolen identity, a missing identity, a mistaken identity.

The options are endless, and you could just as easily use a dead body to uncover the real mystery or vice versa.

2. A VILLAIN:

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It goes without saying that every crime needs a villain to commit it. A real live, tangible person who gets what’s coming to him. And while it’s tempting to create a crazed psycho serial killer, it’d be much more interesting for the reader to meet, say, two elderly spinster ladies  who poison lonely old men out of charity.

Get fun and creative with your villain before you start writing. He may be as affable as Casper Gutman or as perverted as Antony Bruno, but either way he (or she) will need to be completely developed before ever hitting the page. Unlike, say, your sleuth who will necessarily become more complex and (hopefully) change in some way as the story progresses.

It may also be tempting to redeem your villain by the end of the story so that he or she feels remorse for whatever crimes were committed and/or possibly commit suicide before spending an eternity in jail, but that is not the point of a mystery. We read mysteries because we want people to get what they deserve. We’re tired of seeing real-world crimes go unsolved, real-world villains get away with murder, real-world victims go unrecognized. We’re just tired. We want justice.

3. A VICTIM

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Just as with villains, every crime needs a victim. When we think of victims, we think of poor, innocent people whose lives are irrevocably changed (or terminated) because of the dastardly deeds of some unscrupulous bastard. And while it does help the case against your villain to nick off a defenseless old lady, not all victims are blameless or defenseless. Sometimes bad things happen to bad people. So if your sleuth is a stand-up gal, she will still feel compelled to solve the crime in the name of truth, justice, and the American way. Or because she just likes a good puzzle.

So remember, victims don’t all have to be puppy dogs and lollipop-licking kids, high school seniors, senior citizens, or battered housewives. In fact, think about the moral dilemmas your sleuth (and your readers) will have if the victim is more villain than not. Do we still want justice? You betcha. (And you can probably throw in a little poetic justice for the victim as well.)

4. A SLEUTH

Fashion Nancy Drew

Were you wondering when I was going to get to the detective? Well, the possibilities for character, here too, are endless. Really, anyone with keener-than-the-average-person’s observation skills and the desire to solve a puzzle can become the sleuth in your mystery. (For that matter, you could also make a bumbling French detective work.)

There are of course professionals who have extensive resources such as police detectives, private investigators, insurance recovery specialists, lawyers, medical examiners, bounty hunters, FBI agents, MI-6 operatives, etc. These characters will have an easier time of it because 1) it’s their job and 2) they’ll have more practice, so that means you will also have to make the crime harder to solve, the villain harder to identify.

Of course you could always go the route of average Joe turns amateur sleuth, the basis of most cozies. Some tried and true options include: archaeology professors, art historians, clairvoyants, librarians, mystery writers, old ladies, old ladies who are mystery writers, shopkeepers, schoolteachers, postal workers, old men, village vicars, old men who are village vicars, teenage girls, teenage boys, talking dogs, talking cats. Heck, you can even relocate your NYC police detective to Cabot Cove, Maine; or your Cabot Cove, Maine sheriff to New York City.

More often than not, the amateur detectives will have to rely on their ingenuity, analytical skills, women’s intuition, or penchant for gossip rather than forensics and crime databases.

Really, anyone and anything can be a detective. What sets yours apart is what sets millions of characters apart in millions of books: it’s all in how you write them.

5. A DISTINCT NARRATIVE VOICE 

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Speaking of how you write your characters, at some point you’ll have to consider the narrative voice of your story. Many writers confuse voice with point of view. In fact, I read an entire article in Writer’s Digest called, “Amplify Your Narrative Voice,” which was basically three pages describing the difference between first person, third person limited, and third person omniscient perspective. And it had little to do with how what was being said was being said.

Think of it this way, point of view (and the verb tense you use to tell your story) is like a vehicle. It’s a mode of transportation that you control (and can smoke in, if you so desire). Narrative voice is the choice of vehicle you make. It shows off your personality, your preferences, your style. It’s an extension of yourself and your character. It’s the difference between, “Wazzupp?” and “May I inquire how you are doing this evening?” It’s the difference between a shiny, red Maserati and stuffy old man Buick.

6. A KNOWLEDGE OF SUB-GENRE CONVENTIONS

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It goes without saying that your story may fall either completely or mostly in one sub-category of mystery fiction or another, and knowing in which category you’re writing will effectively help you make choices. One of those being narrative voice. So the sooner you realize what type of mystery you want to write, the easier it will be to get your story out.

For instance, if you are writing a noir mystery a la The Maltese Falcon, the tone of your story will be dark, gritty; the world of your story will be steeped in shadows; your characters will be hiding more than they’re revealing, even your sleuth. Especially your sleuth. The narrative voice will be harder, meaner. Descriptions stark and sparse.

Sub-genre conventions will also help you decide what kind of sleuth is appropriate (police procedurals will have, well, police detectives) and lend themselves to specific types of crimes (capers/heists mainly focus on stealing heavily guarded items). Conventions will also inform how technical or descriptive information is given (in cozies, the murder usually happens off-screen and is particularly bloodless in description; in legal thrillers, expect to rely heavily on laws and judicial procedures.)

Of course this goes without saying, there are exceptions to every rule, and if you can pull off a hard-boiled mystery set in the bucolic Scottish countryside, then more power to you. Perhaps this would be a good time to introduce a talking sheep amateur private eye who falls in love with a double-crossing wolf while searching for the Balkan Diamond.

7. AN APPROPRIATE SETTING

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This would also be a good time to talk about setting. As seen in the example above, setting will play a huge role in the nature of the crime, villain, victim, and detective. I’m sure you won’t find many private dicks peeping about people’s windows in a sleepy English hamlet, although if you’ve seen Midsomer Murders, there probably should be.

You’d also be hard-pressed to find Interpol looking into the death of a Russian spy (do they even still have these?) during the Cold War at the Sonic Burger on Route 66.

Or: suppose your story takes place on a Texas cattle ranch where the nearest neighbor is miles away. There’s likely not going to be a lot of witnesses; therefore, your detective will have to rely more on forensic evidence than on interviewing suspects. You also probably won’t find the local sheriff investigating the theft of the T virus on the ranch, although I suppose if it was being injected into cows, you might.

In general, setting will be intrinsically linked to sub-genre conventions and narrative voice.

8. MOTIVE

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Which brings me around to motive. You better have a damn good reason why your villain does what he does and one not so easily figured out if you want to keep your readers guessing. And please don’t use the “crazy psychopath serial killer kills indiscriminately just because he can” or because “the victims all remind him of his abusive mother” motives. I’m sure they can be used in an original story, but it’s not one I want to read.

Oh, there are the old standbys: revenge, greed, lust, even a crime to cover up another crime, but giving your villain, as well as all your other suspects, multiple motives for committing a crime will make your detective’s job that much harder.

For example, an art thief named Falco murders a museum security guard while pulling off a heist, not out of greed or malice, not because the guard could identify him. Instead, he kills the guard because he is the last man standing between Falco and the art smuggler who hired him, who is also holding Falco’s daughter captive until his debts are paid off.

Who is the real villain in this story and what is the real crime? Whom do we want to see brought to justice?

If your motive merely stopped at “the guard was killed because he could identify Falco,” the real crime, the real villain would never be discovered. And you’d probably have a much shorter story.

9. PLOT POINTS, PIVOT POINTS, AND REVERSALS

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If point of view is like the vehicle driving you toward the end of your story, plot points, pivot points, and reversals are like the road signs along the way. They help you figure out where you’re going, how to get there, and if you’re taking too long.

Plot points give your journey structure and move you along. They are like mile markers on a highway telling you that by mile 39 you need to do something so you (and your passenger) don’t fall asleep.

Generally, when your main character makes a decision or takes some form of action, a plot point is born. For instance, your sleuth’s decision to solve the mystery is a plot point because it moves the story forward (and if he doesn’t, the story effectively ends right there). Before this point, your sleuth may have been only mildly interested in the case or even refused to take it, but something forced his hand and now he’s in with both barrels. Likewise, when a new lead or suspect is presented, a new line of interrogation opens up, the story propels forward.

Pivot points, however, are more like exit signs because if you follow one, your journey takes off in a new direction. Think scenic byway instead of straight-shot highway. A bend in the road, a switchback trail. These are the twists and turns that make mysteries exciting. We follow your detective right off the road even if it turns out to be a dead-end because driving on a highway for an extended period of time gets monotonous–the speed, the scenery, the same old CDs. Not to mention sometimes you just need to pee.

Pivot points might include the introduction of a new character or following the thread of a subplot. They provide suspense and excitement. They don’t change the destination just the course of the journey. Buffy finding out Angel is a vampire is a plot twist. Did it change her Vampire Slayer destiny? No, it just took it in a new direction because now they’re fighting evil side-by-side. And kind of killing off his own race.

Reversals are just what they seem: they turn the journey around completely. It’s like the reader thought they were going to a cabin in the woods with you but found out you were heading to the beach instead, and they kind of like the beach better. These are moments of heightened danger and unexpected threats. It’s when the reader says, “Ooh!” because she didn’t see that coming. It’s the moment Buffy finds out Angel turned into Angelus after having sex with him and now he’s the enemy. But don’t worry, you can always turn it around again. And again. And again.

The trick with plot points, pivot points, and reversals is to not make them obvious to the reader. Be sneaky.

10. FALSE LEADS AND RED HERRINGS

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Last but not least, some of the above twists, turns, and reversals can be created by supplying your sleuth with some false leads and red herrings, clues that are too good to be true. Suspects that are too good to be real. The more suspects you have with either motive or opportunity for committing said crime, the more side trips you get to take your reader on. It’s fun to mislead and distract. Nobody wants to figure out the mystery by page 50 of 250. And quite frankly, the art of mystery writing centers on knowing what and when to reveal to keep your reader guessing.

By keeping these 10 things in mind, you’ll be crafting killer mysteries with the best of them.

What would you add to the list? What would you take away?

Stay tuned for posts on many of these necessities with further explanations and examples.

 

 

 

 

 

How to Cultivate a Writing Practice in 2017

So you’ve decided to get serious this year, man up, put on your big girl panties and write. Every single day.

Both a worthy and lofty goal, especially if you were less than successful with the same resolution last year.

But how are you going to do it? How are you going to do it differently? Whose advice are you going to follow? Who are you going to believe?

All important questions, grasshopper-san. Let’s see if we can answer them.

  • For starters, get over the notion that it only takes 21 days to form a new habit. Not going to happen. Not scientifically, not theoretically, not even in our wildest dreams. So stop investing in all those 21 (or 30) day fix programs. You’ll most likely miss a day, quit prematurely, or just feel miserable when that 22nd day comes and nothing has changed.

This notion of 21 days’ habit formation comes from a 1960 quote made by plastic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz. He observed that it took a minimum of 21 days for patients to recognize their own faces after, say, getting a nose job or for phantom limb symptoms to disappear after getting an arm or leg amputated.

That pivotal quote, published in Psycho-Cybernetics, was, “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to gel.”

Two things wrong with using that quote to base your 21 day habit formation off of:

  1. He said “minimum.” The number is not absolute. And there is nothing wrong with you if it takes longer.
  2. He was talking about an “old mental image to dissolve.” That is not the same thing as actively trying to change your behavior.

So how long does it take? According to a study published by Phillippa Lally in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days, depending on the person, habit, and circumstances. But more importantly, it takes more than two months.

Ask any parent who has to train her kid to brush his teeth 3x a day, wash his hands before eating, and use the toilet instead of his diaper. If it only took 21 days, we’d have a lot less stressed mommies and daddies in the world.

(For more on this awesome news, read How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science) by the  inspiring behavioral psychology, habit formation, and performance improvement blogger, James Clear.)

  • Now that you’ve decided you’re in for the long haul, set time aside every day to write. Yes, every day. Yes, on Christmas and your birthdays. And on days when you have no time. (Hey, if it works for Stephen King…)

Do you have to spend the same amount of time writing every day? No. If all you can spare is 15 minutes, then that’s all you do. It’s not the amount of time that matters, it’s the act of doing it.

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Creativity coach, author, and speaker, Rosanne Bane, writes often and emphatically about the magic of writing 15 minutes a day. Doing it is the key to habit formation.

So how can we do it more easily? Especially when we don’t “feel like it” or have time.

  • Create a reward system, not only for those days when you don’t feel like it, but for every day you accomplish your goal. Rewards can be big or small, and they can increase in value or size depending on how hard it was for you to sit your ass in that chair or how long you spent in it: a piece of chocolate, a new book, a massage, an hour to binge watch your favorite new show on Netflix, a dollar in your savings account, 15 minutes in the sunshine, 15 minutes on Pinterest. The choices are endless, the preference individual. Spend some time creating your own reward system.

When you start cultivating this new habit, you’re going to feel resistance. You’re going to not feel like doing it. It’s inevitable, and it’s a good thing. I swear.

Todd Herman from thepeakathlete.com says, “Your resistance is a sign that your system is reconfiguring itself toward success.”

If you’ve read The Desire Map by Danielle LaPorte, and I suggest you do, then you have come across this quote and its explanation.

But if not, she explains the phenomenon of resistance as, “when you enact a significantly positive lifestyle change (new fitness practice, breaking off a toxic relationship, taking on a new job), your brain temporarily floods your body with feel-good neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. It’s your brain’s way of giving you a high-five. The happy-drugs start flowing, fueling your good intentions with seemingly boundless energy. Your commitments seem effortless. This is going to be easier than you thought. You’ve so got this covered. And then, in a cruel-but-necessary act of nature, the party train grinds to a halt. Your neurotransmitters collapse back to their normal output levels (and thank goodness, because otherwise you’d go crazy, in a literal, clinical sense). And like a rushing river that dries up to a trickle, the rah-rah ferocity dissipates.”

This is when you most need to meet that resistance head on, acknowledge it, talk to it in the mirror, embrace it and say, “This resistance and not-feeling-like-it is actually good for me because it means my brain is changing, my habits are starting to stick, and I’m gonna kick its ass. Because that’s what I do.”

  • Literally schedule the time you’re going to write in your planner or calendar.
  • Track your progress to stay accountable then figure out what trips you up and what makes you rock.

This can be done in a number of ways and is again individual. You can use tables, flowcharts, or journal writing. Some things to track might include what time of day you wrote (did you have to squeeze writing in at 11:45 pm because you put it off until the last minute or did you wake up before everyone else so you would have time alone?), what other things were going on in the day (was it your anniversary? were you on a business trip or vacation? was it a day you had nothing else planned?), what you worked on, what you accomplished, what you didn’t accomplish that you wanted to or were supposed to, and how you felt about your writing session.

  • Tap into how you want to feel when you write.

We all visualize ourselves walking into a bookstore and seeing our books on the shelf, or signing copies of our NY Times Bestseller, getting that publishing contract, meeting our agent to negotiate a six-figure deal, etc., etc., etc. But have you ever visualized yourself actually sitting there doing the work, actually writing? Try it. Right down to how you want to feel when you do write: happy, excited, creative. Is it easy, fulfilling, fun? Smile to yourself because you absolutely adore your main character. Cry when your characters cry; laugh when they laugh; get mad when your antagonist takes everything away.

  • Meditate on that feeling often. Revisit the scene of you writing — the feelings you feel — every night before bed, every morning when you wake up, every time you sit down to write.
  • Write about that feeling in your journal. Make it real with as much description as possible. Describe it as if you are a character sitting at her desk writing. How does she feel? What physiological changes are happening in her body? Where does she feel it? In her heart, her stomach, the tips of her toes?
  • Create a writing ritual. Jen Sincero calls this mooching off another habit. It’s when you take a pre-existing habit and attach a new habit to it. The old habit, that you’re already doing, becomes a trigger, so every time you do it, you will use it to create a new habit. For instance, every time you sit down with your first cup of coffee in the morning (or tea), you decide to write for however long it takes you to drink it (or reheat it a million times until you finish it). At some point (maybe not in 21 days), your brain will automatically associate drinking coffee (or tea) with writing. Now, no matter what time of day it is, whenever you reach for your coffee, you’ll start to feel like you want to write. And eventually you just will write. This becomes the ritual.

This will only work if you choose a habit you already do every day and make a conscious effort to attach writing to it, so choose wisely.

  • Make a sacred space for your writing. This can be a desk, a kitchen table, your bed, the couch, or even a seat on the subway. It’s all about inspiration and how you feel when you are there. You don’t have to have a luxury office in the turret of your Victorian home to write. I have a desk, but I never use it except to pile junk on it. It’s in my bedroom where I throw everything I don’t want to see or haven’t had time to put away yet. My bedroom is not inspiring. I feel closed off when I’m in there, which is great for sleeping, but not for feeling connected to anything. Instead, I write usually at my dining table. It has a comfortable chair and it’s at the center of my apartment where I can look out the window or be in the same room with my cat who likes to sleep in the chair next to me. In the summer, I like to write on my balcony because it’s sunny, full of flowers, and my cat likes to hang out there too. Besides, I get to look at the Victorian house across the street and dream about having my own office in a turret someday.

Fill your sacred space with inspiring quotes, pretty stationery, exotic trinkets, or anything else you need to feel comfortable and creative. (Don’t underestimate the value of good chair. In fact, I think the whole design of your space should revolve around it.)

  • Read! Voraciously. Read for pleasure, read for inspiration, read for execution. Take notes and record your thoughts in your journal.
  • Take time for other activities that enhance creativity but have nothing to do with writing. Stephen King walks every day. Laurie Halse Anderson runs. You may want to dance or lift weights, kayak or fish. You may want to take up coloring, sewing, baking, painting, scrapbooking, model building, or anything else that focuses your mind on the task at hand. This gives your brain quiet breathing space in the background to work out issues in your writing without you having to think them to death. You may even find meditation or even just focusing on your breath helps.

Above are some tools that I think are pretty user-friendly and free. You don’t have to invest in a program, a scheme, or even a book. You just have to invest in yourself and do the work.

Was 2016 a blast or a bust? What are you going to do differently this year? 

What techniques have helped you create a writing habit? What advice would you give someone who wants to do the same thing?