A Good Cry & the Do-It-Yourself MFA

Sandra Neily here (also sharing a selection of disparate pics that may wander away a bit)

At a library author talk this past week, I was asked how I wrote a novel when I’d only written non-fiction for work.

I said I burst into tears, got up and paced the room, made a mantra of the names of women friends who said I had a voice and should write, repeated that names mantra over and over … and I sat back down and started typing. Crying but typing.

But I also told them about my do-it-yourself MFA. (Still ongoing …)

I attended some writers’ conferences. (I used a tax refund to audit Middlebury’s Bread Loaf Writers Conference. The next year’s return went to the UMaine’s Stonecoast conference.) I attended several New England Crime Bake mystery writers/readers conferences in Boston, sleeping on a friend’s floor as I couldn’t afford the hotel. (Best seminar? How to write about sex. Not what I expected, but it was right on!)

And helpful books! Favs: Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott. (Don’t miss the “Shitty First Drafts” chapter.) Also, On Writing by Stephen King, The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson and Don’t Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden, and absolutely anything Donald Maass writes.

I found lots of free webinars on line as various people tried to tease me toward buying a tutorial package, but most marketing sessions were helpful. Derek has the best free seminars; just sign up for his newsletter.

And I could not live without Jane Friedman’s newsletter. You’ll just have to sign up to see why. She’s the best source for anything related to publishing. I share out her pathways to publishing chart at least once a week.

I distill essential writing reminders on a wall chart I stick it up wherever I write. (Recently I duct taped it to camper curtains as I worked on a tiny table … Tiny.)

Here’s some of my updated 2021 list.

The first reminder below is about Pain; I’ll l be bringing a special pain to my narrator Patton in Deadly Attack (the 3rd Mystery in Maine.) These pics explain that pain.

Maine mountain wildlands being blasted apart for … in this case…17 miles of remote roads.

CMP’s clearing of wildland vegetation (eventually crossing over 300 streams, ponds and wetland areas) so we can send power to MA.

 BRING THE PAIN to your protagonist and bring it early.


On Emotional Originality: My narrator Patton (whose first name is Cassandra), shares a lot with the mythical Greek Cassandra (painted here). She spoke truth and was ignored. Too bad for the people of Troy. (Wooden horse.)

Deliver “EMOTIONAL ORIGINALITY” (Maass). My narrator chooses outdoors struggles to know she exists; her job diminished her.



DO A LONGMIRE (aka author Craig Johnson). Others describe your character’s M.O. or expected behavior, etc.

Always ask the SITUATIONAL PREMISE: WHAT IF? (re: King)


Worst thing. Your beloved dog disappears down a crack in the melting spring ice. (Deadly Attack). Yes, paid for the pic.

SECRETS: for everyone & in most chapters (Can be simple: hides chocolate to find it as later surprise.) Also, maybe an epic, huge, life-animating/diminishing, under-the-radar secret for protag?

EACH SCENE, Each PG, WHO WANTS WHAT? (can be simple: drink of water or BIG). Thwart the ‘wants’ a lot.


Sidebar: My dog Raven WANTS to chase squirrels, not sit for pics. But I caught her motionless anyway.

EACH PG…EVERYBODY WANTS SOMETHING…even glass of water.  Character defined by wants and needs.  All character is want/desire.

FIRST TIME we SEE PROTAG we see her weakness/strengths, get a sense of her journey.

FIRST WORDS, first impressions ENCAPSULATE CHARACTER.  Each setting, description, word of dialogue, action and reaction and reflection is a CHARACTER BRUSH STROKE.

The open book near my desk is a first hardcover edition of Thoreau’s “The North Woods,” 1909. A few parts of Maine still look like what his prose captured. Thoreau’s words make a few appearances early on in Deadly Attack.

DESCRIBE a location, people, animals, etc. in the EARLIER narration. Don’t slow action or climax w/descriptions. Readers should already know these places and people.

DO SOMETHING during conversation. (Moz carving stick. Kate’s finger through butter.)

Create a DISCONNECT b/w character’s APPEARANCE and true CAPABILITIES

EACH CHAPTER TO HAVE AN ARC! Each chap at least one character has a WANT and frustrations with it. Part of arc.


PLOT is people, emotions & desires at CROSS PURPOSES, getting hotter, fiercer until they rub up against each other and explode.

STRUCTURE: ¼ opening, ½ middle, ¼ climax; false climax (or a crisis that does not resolve ¾ way through)

About the “Code.” Patton always chooses wild ones, even small ones like salamanders, over most anything else. (Who knew Asian restaurants deep fry them alive and import them illegally.)

Case WORKS ON SLEUTH, not just how sleuth works on the case.

REDEMPTIVE ARC Sleuth makes up for something in her past.

Protagonist has a PERSONAL CODE. Adhered to no matter what costs or consequences.  Must protect code like parent protecting child.  CODE IS CHARACTER. (i.e. Reacher)

Patton arriving late when the body’s already under the ice. The WWI knife with brass knuckles? (Was her grandfather’s and I’m still working on that.)

ARRIVE LATE; LEAVE EARLY (start close to action, leave when action just done)


WHAT’S AT STAKE for any character? What happens if she/he fails?

BIG IDEAS NEED TO BE CONTAINED IN SMALL STRUCTURE (i.e. divorce trauma revealed in T-shirt worn inside out)

SCENE ENDINGS: major decision, terrible things, portents, strong emotion, question w/ no answer

DEADLINES: create in story line to move/force action forward

CREATE WORTHY ADVERSARY: spend as much time on her/him

re: the Time Jump. Well. Many pots of make-believe tea and days of crayons and smeared jam everywhere and author Neily started to write again. (Will drop all for the grandgirls.)

JUMP/compress TIME, “two pots of tea and one hour later …”

LISTS to COMPRESS BACK STORY (In high school we’d ….etc)

FOIL READER EXPECTATIONS. Make a list of what readers might expect; decide several ways they won’t get it. (Advice from the great mystery writer, Elizabeth George).

THE ABOUT TO BE MOMENT “Don’t Do It!  Don’t Do It!!!” screams a reader’s brain.

Last thing, but it might be the first thing:  “Because this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?”

 Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

The second Mystery in Maine, Deadly Turn, was published in 2021. Her debut novel, “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine,” won a national Mystery Writers of America award, was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, and was a finalist for a Maine Literary Award. Find her novels at all Shermans Books (Maine) and on Amazon. Find more info on Sandy’s website.



About Sandra Neily

Sandy’s novel “Deadly Trespass” received a Mystery Writers of America award, was named a national finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, a finalist in the Mslexia international novel competition, a runner- up in Maine’s Joy of the Pen competition, and recently, an international SPR fiction finalist. Sandy lives in the woods of Maine and says she’d rather be “fly fishing cold streams, skiing remote trails, paddling near loons, or just generally out there—unless I’m sharing vanishing worlds with my readers. "
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4 Responses to A Good Cry & the Do-It-Yourself MFA

  1. John Clark says:

    Great post. I’m saving it as a refresher to look at frequently.

    • Sandra Neily says:

      Thanks, John! After typing it up, I dove back into a few places that the reminder send me back to. Think maybe having it on the wall was getting too familiar. My best to you….

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thank you. Just read this, now heading upstairs to revise yesterday’s scene where my character was too passive.


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