In 2017, Brenda Buchanan invited me to send in a guest post. I am grateful to her and all our team over the years and, still getting better after some knee surgery, have been reading lots of our past work. And found myself taking some notes of what we’ve shared over the years I’ve been a part of the Crime Writers Team.
Here’s my first. (Thanks Brenda.)
I’m delighted to welcome Sandra Neily back to Maine Crime Writers today for her thoughts on the craft of writing. A native of East Boothbay, Sandy’s novel Deadly Trespass has won a National Mystery Writers of America award and was a national finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association’s “Rising Star” contest.
The Maine outdoors is Sandy’s element, and her deep commitment to conservation of the woods and its creatures shines through in her work. If you enjoy crime fiction where the immensity of the natural world is a character, you’ll like Deadly Trespass. Sandy’s lively prose and the intriguing plot will keep you turning pages late into the night.
She now divides her time between Westport Island and Greenville, or as she puts it, between the Sheepscot River and “Antler Camp” on Moosehead Lake.
Today her topic is the craft of writing. Take it away, Sandy
CRAFT & CRAFT-Y
I burst into tears when I first held my fingers over the keys to write fiction. I paced around, knowing I needed help. Lots of help. I stemmed the tears by turning the names of five friends into a mantra, sure that if they were in my living room, they would be cheering me on. Then I taped paper up on my camp wall, and scrawled “CRAFT. BE CRAFT-Y” at the top.
This ever-growing advice list, collected from webinars, seminars, workshops, friends, author mentors, articles, books, and the writing cosmos, is my compass and bible. It goes everywhere I go. (Looking pretty ragged now: squashed bugs, grease smears, and something that looks like squash, but I don’t really want to know.)
I like the word crafty because it’s an adjective we can put in front of our names telling us we are sly, creative, skilled, calculating, and potentially proficient. And that we are people who assemble something out of raw materials. Like artists who work in clay, metal, or paint, we shape something raw into a novel way of seeing the same old world. We are builders of stories. Assemblers of unique worlds. Creators of unforgettable characters. Sly typists who bury clues, calculating how we can hang readers out there until we skillfully reveal the unexpected.
So in no particular order, here are some craft and craft-y items from my wall with the kind of internal commentary they trigger for me.
Authentic Self: Go deep and use it. I memorized this from the craft master, Donald Maass, author of Writing 21st Century Fiction, a must-have: “To write 21st century fiction, you must start by becoming highly personal . . . You must become your most authentic self.”
After a few boring drafts I saw that Maass meant, go deep. Very deep. Undress. Use your own life and its truths to pump real life and emotion into the story. So I offered up the frustration of having to wrench a wedding ring off an aging arthritic finger, the deep sadness from touching the soft nose of a dead moose, and the anger of losing wild places to greed.
What’s at Stake? Failure Must Have Huge Consequences: A “high concept” novel is one where, if the protagonist fails, there are significant consequences that ripple out to touch more people or impact the larger world.
Huge is relative but still huge. It might be the demise of the family clambake business and loss of their livelihood, as in Barbara Ross’s Clambake mysteries. My protagonist saves a pack of wolves, hoping they’ve saved a forest. The threat of failure must always loom, threatening pain and loss.
Want & Desire Drive Character & Characters: Each scene, everyone must want something, even just a class of water. To track each character’s various thirsts, large and small, I make a “gap” chart for what each wants and if I will give it to her or to him.
Create 5 Things Readers Expect; Disappoint Them on 2 or 3: Of course, the resolution should not disappoint, but expected story elements, once frustrated, contribute to the surprise of turning a corner (or page) and meeting the unexpected. This advice is from the amazing Elizabeth George. When I shared it at Crime Bake, even famous authors bent to take notes.
Imagine the Worst. Make It Happen: Go there. When Kate Flora forces us to watch someone cooked alive through the terror of her protagonist, Thea Kozak in Death Warmed Over, she has certainly imagined the worst for her readers.
“Don’t do it! Don’t do it!!” Goes with imagine-the-worst, but create at least one scene where readers want to scream this at your protagonist.
Sex That’s Not Sex: Sex is rarely about sex. Hallie Ephron had us listing reasons for sex: anger, fear, revenge, lust, reward, curiosity, farewells, boredom, gratitude. Pretty endless. She told us to match up two characters who had different reasons and write the scene. Boom! I think Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge does this so very well.
Backstory: Most is not interesting. Here’s the whole Stephen King quote from On Writing: “The most important things to remember about back story are (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are.”
4 Cups of Tea: Compress time with action that always moves plot or characterization forward. Cut slow stuff. Four cups of tea later, Helmand was dead on the floor. After a week of burnt toast, Anna stuffed clothes into a paper bag and hitched to Idaho.
Research: Maine author Paul Doiron reminds us to avoid too much book stuff. Go there if you can. I spent time with some dead moose and some live wolves. When researching Deadly Turn, my upcoming mystery, I hung out at wind power sites. The book’s narrator Patton is hired to collect dead birds. Who says it all has to be fun research?
Edward Abbey! Get up! Get out! Fill up! Yes, whole quote’s on my wall and fridge. From The Monkey Wrench Gang: “…: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space.”
Now You: There’s more on my wall, but it’s time for the writer and reader community to weigh in. Thank you!
Sandy’s 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. The second Mystery in Maine, “Deadly Turn,” was published in 2021. Her third “Deadly Assault” is due out in 2023. Find her novels at all Shermans Books (Maine) and on Amazon. Find more info on Sandy’s website.
Sandy, this is a great post. Thanks for sharing it. My wall is so blank right now…just editing symbols and small notes trying to help me remember my passwords. This is always an epic fail. The only useful bit is a yellow sticky on which I’ve scrawled “fear scent.” I need to upgrade my wall.
There is a lot in this post that I will be adding to my wall as well. Thank you for sharing this well-curated batch of wise words, Sandy.
Oh Kate, I added your sticky note in tiny print to the “wall.” It could mean sooooo many things that I like it. Maybe that’s all you need right now.
Ooops. forgot to sign off on this post. Oh Kate, I added your sticky note in tiny print to the “wall.” It could mean sooooo many things that I like it. Maybe that’s all you need right now.
Sandy, thanks for this thoughtful recap of crafting a plot. No matter how many books one has written, reviewing the essentials can inform the next project. Here’s my addition to the craft challenge Kate gave us.
In popular fiction, whether romance or mystery or thriller, the first few pages and the first chapters are of utmost importance in grabbing a reader. I cannot state that too strongly. In writing my books I’ve had to rewrite my first chapters many times in order to get what I felt was the right balance of information, tension, emotion, detail, and questions. Writing those first pages means deciding on where in the story to begin, who should be the focal character in the scene, and what to show in that scene. A tall order because whatever you decide sets the tone for the entire book. It’s important to begin as you mean to go on.
Great post. I keep a couple of simple “words of wisdom” in mind whenever I write. One is “don’t give up” and the other is “it takes as long as it takes” (to finish the book).
“It takes as long as it takes” has been my mantra lately. True, that!
This is going on my wall. Thank you.
Welcome back to Maine Crime Writers, Sandra. I love the Gorey quote!
Thanks Barb! Thought I might elevate what I especially needed to pay attention to (as I wrote book #2) by writing this post. Think I like how the learning never ends. My best!