Your main goal in writing a mystery, or any kind of fictional work, is to create story questions in the reader’s mind. This creates suspense that you need to propel the story forward. Even as you are plotting the book, assuming you’re a plotter like me and not a pantser (figuring it out as you go), you need to keep asking yourself ongoing questions. Let’s take a story I have in mind as an example. The setting is a historic house. Suspects may include the head docent, the owner or owner’s children, a board of trustees if they own the place, the gardener, café manager, and gift shop lady. Objects are being stolen from this house one at a time so the theft won’t be noticed. So here we come to several questions. Why is someone stealing valuable objects? The thief needs money. What for? Gambling debts (a bingo addict? Horse races? Jai A’lai games? Illegal online gambling?) Medical care (expensive medications for a hidden disease? Medical treatment for a loved one? Nursing home care for an aged relative?) To pay back a loan or to pay blackmail money Greed (he’s not getting paid enough) To hide financial losses Or the thief is stealing out of a sense of entitlement. The culprit feels these items should be rightfully his because the former owner (a distant relative?) swindled his father out of his inheritance. Or was his father cheated by a business partner, the former owner of the estate? Note that you can assign one of these motives to each suspect without deciding which one is the killer. It’ll make them all seem guilty. Next question would be: Who has access to the house? This could be any of the above named suspects, plus the cleaning staff, repairmen, or other minor players. So the thief steals these items. How does he sell them? Does he go through a person acting as fence? If so, how did he gain this criminal connection? Has he been incarcerated, which is where he got the idea for thievery and learned these skills? Or maybe the culprit is a woman lonely for attention who’s been seduced by a bad boy? What about security? Are the valuable items in locked display cases? Is there video monitoring, motion detectors, glass-break alarms? Or are the objects in plain sight in various rooms guarded by security personnel until closing time? Now we come to the next big question. Who is killed and why? Did the victim witness the thief in action? Maybe he saw the crook hand off the item to his fence in exchange for a wad of cash. Or he stumbled into the culprit and the stolen object tumbled from the thief’s jacket onto the ground. Either way, this appears to be a crime of opportunity. The sleuth finds the body. What is the means of murder? Where does she find the victim? Let’s say the sleuth also discovers one of the stolen items on the estate grounds. How does it get there? Did the thief mean to get rid of the evidence, or did the item fall from his pocket accidentally? Now let’s turn everything around. Thefts have been taking place at this estate, and the suspects all seem to be hiding these secret motives we’ve discussed. But what if the victim’s death was premeditated? The autopsy reveals that this act was set in motion even before the day’s events began. He died from poison, not the knife wound. Plot twist! Now your sleuth has to reexamine all the motives, the access to the victim, and the specialized knowledge needed to commit the murder. If you’re a mystery writer who likes to plan things out in advance, you need to answer all these questions before you begin writing the novel. You might be a pantser who starts with a story crisis and keeps writing, being surprised along the way. But as you can see, a plotter can be surprised as well when these plot twists pop up. I call this process story magic coming into play. The point is to keep asking questions. These same questions will plague your readers, and that creates suspense. When one issue is settled, you’ll need to raise more questions to keep the tension going throughout the book. For more on this topic, see my previous posts on Writing the Mystery CLICK TO TWEET NEWSLETTER I am sending out a newsletter on Tuesday to celebrate my new book release. This will have bonus materials for subscribers only, so sign up now at https://nancyjcohen.com/newsletter/ GIVEAWAY Sept. 17 – 26 Women Sleuth Mysteries Enter Hereto win 30+ Women Sleuth Mysteries, including my book HAIR BRAINED, along with a new eReader. And you get FREE reads just for entering!
On Saturday, I attended “It Takes a Village to Publish a Book” with various panelists at Bouchercon World Mystery Convention talking about what happens behind the scenes before a book gets published in terms of cover design, getting reviews, etc. It’s not something that can happen overnight with a traditional publisher. This is why it may take a year for your book to go from sale to publication. The next panel I attended was on Podcasts. This seemed to be more about producing your own podcast than how to get on one as a guest. It was interesting to hear why each podcast producer got started in the field and what their goals are for their audiences. The rest of the time I spent schmoozing with my fellow authors, hanging out in the bookroom, or pacing the corridors of the historic hotel. It was pleasing to meet fans and librarians as well as new writer friends, such as Marilyn Levinson, Neil Plakcy, and Diane A.S. Stuckart. Here’s Deborah Shlian with Joan Cochran and Diane Capri. Then we have Joanne Sinchuk and Sue Wilder from Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore. This last person in the photo wins the award for most unusual hairstyle.
On our way home on Sunday, we stopped by Parkesdale Market in Plant City to buy loaves of their infamous strawberry bread plus other goodies. This is a fun stop along I-4 between Orlando and Tampa. See all my photos HERE. GIVEAWAYS Sept. 1 – 18 Booklovers Bench Monthly Giveaway Enter Hereto win a $25 Amazon/BN gift card at Booklover’s Bench. Sept. 17 – 26 Women Sleuths on Booksweeps Enter Sept. 17 – 26 to win 30+ Women Sleuth Mysteries, including books from authors like Lisa Gardner and Laura Durham, along with FREE reads just for entering. You could also win a copy of MY book, Hair Brained.CLICK HERE TO ENTER
Friday morning was the Sisters in Crime breakfast at Bouchercon World Mystery Convention. This is always a fun event where we learn what SinC is doing and how we can participate. Here I am with friends R.V. Reyes, Rick Wymer, Mary Lou Benvenutto, Harriet Ottenheimer, and Deborah Shlian, among others. Later, I attended a panel on Audiobooks, and it was interesting to hear the viewpoints of the panelists who were authors, narrators, and producers. I wished they’d discussed marketing for indie authors, but it wasn’t a topic brought up. Then there was lunch with Lisa Scottoline who gave an inspiring and witty talk. Seated at my table were Olive Pollak and Suzanne Baginskie. Friday night was the most fun of all. Florida Chapter of MWA held a party for all its members in the area, and we had a great time reconnecting with friends and meeting some new people. The chapter Board did a great job organizing this event. Too many members to mention here, but you can check out our chapter at https://mwaflorida.org/ See all my photos HERE. Coming next: Bouchercon Day 3 Sept. 1 – 18 Booklovers Bench Monthly Giveaway Enter Here to win a $25 Amazon/BN gift card at Booklover’s Bench.
I started off at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention speaking on “The Business is Cozy” panel on Thursday morning. Fellow panelists were Cheryl Hollon, R.V. Reyes, and Jane Cleland with Emily Giglierano moderating. We had good attendance and numerous questions during the Q&A session. Earlier I had attended a panel on writing suspense. Don Bruns moderated. Here is a rundown of points learned: · The best suspense comes from character rather than action · The “What’s Next?” question creates suspense. As writers, how do we delay this answer while drawing readers in? · You have to include suspense in the first paragraph of your story. Raise questions for the reader right away. · You draw readers in with your first question. You bring readers back with your last question. · Don’t follow other people’s rules. What works best for them might not apply to you. After lunch, I sat in on “Make ‘Em Laugh – Writing Humor.” The panelists discussed how murder isn’t funny, but characters can be. It’s their quirks and the situations they find themselves in that provide mirth. Of course, schmoozing is the real work at a conference. You go to see and be seen and to make new friends. In these photos, excluding me, from left to right: Cheryl Hollon, Victoria Landis, Rick Wymer, Mary Lou Benvenutto, Marlene Stringer, and Marty Ambrose. See all my photos HERE. Coming Next: Day 2 at Bouchercon Sept. 1 – 18 Booklovers Bench Monthly Giveaway
Do you get so caught up in reading blogs, webinars, and posts and/or listening to podcasts, that you get nothing else done? I have been catching up on reading newsletters from my professional writing organizations, trade journals to which I subscribe, plus blogs on marketing and other business aspects of writing. If only I could clear my Inbox, I tell myself, I’d turn my focus to the nine backlist titles that I still have to reissue. And yet the more of these articles that I read, the more that keep popping up in my email. Moreover, reading this advice makes me feel terribly guilty. Why am I not able to do all these things? The articles offer wonderful marketing strategies and tips, and yet I’d need to be either thirty years younger to have the energy or three clones to manage it all. Meanwhile, I am accomplishing nothing else. Is it because I’ve lost my mojo? Or is it that I can’t move on to new material until I get these backlist titles done? Then again, maybe it’s burnout and time for a break. It used to be that I put my writing goals first in the morning before glancing at email or social media. What happened to this self-discipline? So I’ve decided to skim these articles, file the information for later, and do only what I can for now. It’s more important to move on to the next project. This means I need to practice BICHOK more often – Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. Get off the couch, and go to work. This goes for you, too, my fellow writers. Let’s pay less attention to the “should” demons (i.e. the things you should be doing) and more time to the work we can control. Your success is only as good as the next book. It’s not dependent on how many social media posts with cute memes you’ve posted. GIVEAWAY Enter Here Aug 9 – 23 to win a signed advance reading copy of TRIMMED TO DEATH, #15 in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries.
This past weekend, writing coach Joyce Sweeney gave a workshop on The Plot Clock at the August meeting of Mystery Writers of America Florida Chapter. You can sign up for a webinar on this topic at her website: http://www.sweeneywritingcoach.com/. Here’s what I learned. Any errors are due to my misinterpretation. Start with this question before you begin plotting: What will happen to your protagonist so he has to change and transform? In a mystery, how will the murder challenge your main character? Act One of this four-act structure includes the Inciting Event. The person who doesn’t want to change meets an event that will cause him to transform. At this stage, he is reluctant to get involved. He fights against the inevitable until something compelling happens that he can’t avoid. This is called the Binding Point. Act Two finds the hero entering the special world of the story. In a mystery, this is when the sleuth commits to solving the crime. But the protagonist hasn’t changed yet and makes mistakes. Things go badly for him. As a writer, ask yourself what’s the worst thing that can happen to this character? He keeps losing ground and struggles to carry on until he reaches a Low Point. This happens in the middle of the book. In Act Three, the hero determines to improve and fight on. By doing the right thing, he gains ground. He may have followed the wrong path and has changed direction. Now he is on the proper trail. But we still need to escalate tension. As the protagonist gets closer to identifying the murderer, the bad guy reacts. More deaths may occur. Attempts on the hero’s life might threaten him. The sleuth is doing better at solving the crime, but the killer is now on to him. For every action the hero makes, the villain makes a countermove. The Turning Point comes out of left field and moves us into Act Four. Nobody could have anticipated this plot twist. It derails the main character so that he questions his purpose and wants to quit, or “turn away.” Here you must raise the stakes so he can’t quit. He rallies and “turns back” to solve the mystery. The Climax comes close to the end. You should be layering in the explanations about the suspects’ motives so the Denouement is short and doesn’t drag on. For more details, visit Joyce’s site at http://www.sweeneywritingcoach.com/ GIVEAWAY Enter Here Aug 9 – 23 to win a signed advance reading copy of TRIMMED TO DEATH
Writer’s Block is often interpreted to mean that a writer stumbles over what to write next. Or he comes to a complete halt due to outside distractions or loss of confidence. But what about when he has so many ideas, that he can’t complete a single one? This can be conceived as another type of writer’s block. “I have too many ideas at once, and I don’t know which one to pick,” an aspiring author wrote to me. “What is your advice on this issue?”
It’s great if you have lots of story ideas. It’s not so good if you allow them to distract you until you can’t write anything. Or maybe you’ll write a bit on each one but never finish a single novel. My suggestion would be to pick the one idea that excites you the most and keep writing until you finish the first draft. Yes, it’s that simple. “You’ve had two series going on together. How did you manage it, both mentally and during the actual writing? Was it difficult going back and forth? Is it easier to finish one at a time?” I can only work on one project at a time. Even when I was writing two series in different genres, I would focus on one book until it was finished and in the hands of my editor. When that book was completely done, I would turn to the next project.
What happens when you have so many ideas that they interfere with your concentration? Write them down. Keep a “New Idea” file or a “Plotting” file and jot down your notes. Then put them aside until you finish your current project. Set yourself daily and weekly writing goals for your story of choice. Then sit your butt in the chair and drive yourself each day until you meet your quota. Do not stop if one of those tempting ideas entices you. Concentrate on the book at hand. Later on, those ideas will either be viable or not. You’ll know better when you gain some perspective. For now, you have one project only that you need to finish. To reiterate: · Pick your project. · Set your writing goals. · Write down all the distracting ideas in your head and set them aside. · Begin on your daily writing quota. · Keep writing until you finish the first draft. Next come revisions, and that’s another topic we’ve already addressed here. Your book isn’t done until it’s done. Edited, Revised, Polished, and Submitted. Then and only then, you may turn to your list of potential new projects. If you’re writing a series, you will need to begin the next installment. If not, listen to your heart and determine which idea is calling to you. Your passion will shine through in your words. Have some ideas that don’t resonate anymore? Scratch them off the list. You want to be excited enough that the buoyancy will sustain you throughout an entire novel. One idea at a time. One day at a time. One page at a time. GIVEAWAY Enter Here to win a $25 Amazon/BN gift card from Booklovers Bench.
Panel discussions at the Mystery Fest Key West on Saturday afternoon began after lunch with a panel on Co-Writing a Mystery and next on Writing Historical Mysteries. Below are panelists Alyssa Maxwell, Diane A.S. Stuckart, Robert Coburn, John Guerra, and Charles Todd. A panel discussion on Audiobooks followed. After an on-site booksigning run by Books & Books from Key West, we took a conch train from our hotel to the Key West Lighthouse. At the historic lighthouse, Shirrel Rhodes introduced Ace Atkins and Otto Penzler, who spoke about publishing and the mystery genre. The conference concluded on Sunday morning with a brunch at the Schooner Wharf Bar in Key West’s Historic Seaport district. We hit the road heading north for our last view of seascapes on either side of the highway. It was time to return to reality. See all my Key West photos here: https://www.facebook.com/NancyJCohenAuthor/
The first workshop on Friday afternoon at Mystery Fest Key West writers conference had Debbie Richardson and Shirrel Rhodes speaking about the business of writing. Next, we heard author Lisa Black give an informative talk on fingerprints. I learned there are three types of fingerprint patterns, which are loop, arch, and whorl. Glossy, smooth surfaces like porcelain or marble are good for fingerprints while wet or rough surfaces, upholstery, and laminate aren’t so great. However, no matter the surface, it appears there’s a method for obtaining prints. This is good info to know for any mystery writer. Photos below include Debbie Richardson, Heather Graham, Michael Joy, Suzanne Baginskie, Olive Pollack, Lisa Black. Two more panels followed on How to Write and Sell a First Novel with Dianna Collier and Crisis Negotiation with an expert in the field. Then we met at a poolside room for appetizers and drinks. It was nice to have a chance to circulate and meet my fellow attendees. Heather Graham gave a welcome talk and we all got busy schmoozing for the rest of the evening. Photos below include Alyssa Maxwell, Michael Joy, Paul Manuel, Richard Cohen, Diane A.S. Stuckart. Second row has Olive Pollak, Suzanne Baginskie, Catalina Egan, Lou Ann Williams, Patrick Kendrick, Carol Tedesco. Saturday started early with a panel on the State of the Publishing Industry. Moderated by Diane A. S. Stuckart, the panel included Patrick Kendrick, Dianna Collier, Alyssa Maxwell, and Otto Penzler. The general outlook was positive, and I was happy to hear that cozies are doing well. Next I sat on a panel about Promoting Your Book. My fellow panelists were Lewis C. Haskell and Wayne Stinnett with Patrick Kendrick as moderator. We discussed different techniques that we each found useful and exchanged ideas for getting word out about our books. Shirrel Rhodes introduced the winners of The Whodunit Mystery Writing Award, who each read from their work before lunch. Prime Ribs was the star feature on the buffet line. Keynote Speaker and Bestselling Author Ace Atkins gave a talk during the meal. See all my Key West Photos here: https://www.facebook.com/NancyJCohenAuthor/