Sometimes, I wonder why I’m so easy. It’s as if I have a tattoo on my forehead that reads: ASK ME! I’LL SAY YES!
My recent “YES!” came when Kathleen Antrim asked me if I’d present a workshop at CraftFest, the sort of “pre-ThrillerFest” craft portion of the programming.
The thing is, I need to TAKE some of those classes. I’ve always enjoyed listening to better storytellers than me share their wisdom. I don’t always agree with them, but I always take away a golden nugget that then becomes a valuable tool in my writers toolkit.
For example, Suzanne Brockmann, a fabulous NYT bestselling author, gave a workshop two months before I got my agent and sold. It was about writing connected books. Not specifically a series, like our Tess or Toni or Brett, but books where a secondary character gets a future story. I’d been thinking about writing something like that–when I first started writing THE PREY, I imagined the three Flynn siblings would each get their own book, which is why I signed up for the class in the first place (and because it was Suzanne Brockmann, storytelling extraordinaire.) But one of the brothers ends up dead, and the sister I didn’t feel any connection with by the time I was done writing, so I finished the book as a stand-alone.
Now, if anyone knows Suzanne, you know that she’s an uber-anal plotter. She has color-coded character charts and timelines. She has a 100+ page color-coded outline that takes her longer to write than the actual book. She has multi-book character-arcs. Did I mention they, too, are color-coded?
She shared with the class a link to her color-coded multi-book character chart. I nearly died. I thought, “If I have to do this to sell, I will never sell. I’m doomed.” I’m not joking, folks. I started to panic. I can’t plot to save my life. I might have hyperventilated. I’m sure I poured another glass of wine.
You might think I didn’t learn anything from Suzanne’s class. On the contrary, I learned at least two valuable lessons. 1) Every author writes differently. I don’t need to be a plotter or an organic writer or an outliner or a free-spirit. All I need is to put one word after another and finish the story–however I am able to do it. And 2) when writing connected stories, secondary characters are important. Throwing out a named character who has even a small role in the book will undoubtably lead to reader mail, and you’re pretty much wed to their backstory as you gave it in the intro book.
This actually caused me some problems in writing SUDDEN DEATH because I introduced Jack and gave him a mysterious backstory. I had absolutely NO idea what his backstory was–all I knew was that he had come home twice in 18 years–once for his nephew’s funeral, and once when his sister was kidnapped. Why? Hell if I knew then. But I was handcuffed into the details I did share about Jack, and had to develop a story with those restrictions.
Yet, it was even harder to write FATAL SECRETS where I had two main characters I had never met before and had absolutely no threads to pull from previous stories that grounded them. I had to figure out everything about them as I wrote. (Well, I knew Dean Hooper because he was Will Hooper’s brother from KILLING FEAR, in a scene that I apparently deleted in the copyedits because I can’t find it in the finished book, but I knew he was a year older, was a hotshot with the FBI, and lived in Washington. So even though the scene was gone, I couldn’t ditch that impression of him.)
Anyway, I’ve taken a lot of classes. I took an on-line class on romantic suspense taught by the brilliant and talented Lisa Gardner (who generously gave me a quote for my FBI trilogy–I love her even more now!) Margie Lawson, a brilliant psychologist, teaches a class on editing that, ahem, truly tested me. She uses color-coding to dissect writing in order to empower your stories. Yes, color-coding (sheesh, does everyone else use color-coding? Am I the only black-and-white writer out there? Black=ink; white=paper.) But I learned from Margie how to fix my prose. When I edit, I usually read outloud–and sometimes, the rhythm is off but I don’t know why. While I don’t get out my highlighter and start marking up my manuscript, I think about her advice on weak words, unnecessary repetition, and finding the emotional key of the scene. I was able to absorb her lectures and use the lessons that fit in with my writing style.
I’ve taken classes from cops, from retired CSIs, from attorneys. Before I was published, I took classes on how to write a synopsis (I still can’t write one to save my soul, but Laurie Campbell‘s fantastic class “Writing the Selling Synopsis” really helped me put together something half-way decent for THE PREY by focusing on the selling points of the story, not necessarily what I as the author thought was important.) At Romance Writers of America, I’m presenting a workshop with our Toni, her publisher Matthew Shear, and our agent Kim Whalen called “Smart Women, Short Skirts” about writing kick-ass, intelligent female characters who are STILL women.
I’ve given several workshops with Toni, and taken several, and I can tell you . . . if you’re going to RWA, you don’t want to miss this. So many workshops focus on the heroes, that writers–especially romance writers–sometimes forget to make the heroine stellar in her own right.
RWA always has an incredible list of presentations for all levels of writers, from the unpublished to the newly contracted to the seasoned professional (and they also have a special track of workshops just for published authors.) I’m particularly looking forward to the Chat with Nora Roberts, which I always seem to miss every year; Evil 101: Where True Crime Meets Terrific Fiction presented by a retired judge; and He Said, She Said: Doing the Other Sex and Doing Them Well by Andrew Gross and Carla Neggers. And more. A couple years ago, the published author keynote was a panel of book-buyers from Borders, Walmart, BN and BAMM and it was to this day the single best presentation I’ve ever heard at a conference. I learned more about distribution, buy-in, sell-through, and shelving than before and since.
Maybe because I’ve been attending RWA for years and feel comfortable there, I don’t have a problem talking about the few things I’ve learned since I’ve been published.
But ThrillerFest is different.
Maybe because I straddle two genres I don’t know if I’m ready to present a workshop–on my own–at TFest. A panel? No problem. I love panels. If I don’t know anything I can just smile and nod at the wiser person next to me–one year in Arizona it was Sandra Brown, last year in NY it was Carla Neggers. Both very successful, long-time, talented romantic thriller writers. This year, I have a panel with James Rollins et. al., and I’ll gladly defer to the funny and talented Jim. But on my own?
Yet I said yes.
Banging head on desk. Ouch.
Honestly, I love workshops, both presenting and attending. But I still have so much to learn that I don’t know if I can impart nuggets of wisdom on my chosen topic, STORY IS CHARACTER. I believe it, I write it, I live by it. To me, the story is nothing without characters. But can I help anyone? That, I don’t know.
Anyway, I’ve gone through the list of programming at ThrillerFest and once again, I’m floored. I want to go to so many of these workshops because I know that I’ll learn something; yet I’m not going to be able to fit them all into my schedule. And some, sniff sniff, conflict.
Lee Child’s “Creating a Series Character: Some Readers Want Growth, Some Don’t. Where’s the Sweet Spot?” I mean this is exactly what I need because I’m creating a series character! Something I’ve never done before! And Jim Rollins’ class about writing three books a year and still having a life–I write three books a year, but I have no life. I want to find out where I get one. And Jim’s also on a panel on Friday about blending genre, which he did solo for my RWA chapter a few years ago and what I learned there I’ve applied to my writing. I’d love to hear him and the rest of the panel talk about the pros and cons. Then there’s the publisher/writer relationship presented by top editors and agents–something that is a must for every published author, I’d think. And of course the gun panel . . . “How to go Ballistic . . . gotta go to that one. And the panel that has Carla Neggers, Lisa Gardner, Jeffrey Deaver, John Lescroart, and more . . . I’d listen to them talk about anything. Why? Because I know that I’ll learn something. I always do.
And that’s the reason I go to the panels. To learn. Even if it’s a topic I know a lot about, often the way the information is presented makes me grow as an author and businesswoman. The minute I think I know everything about writing, the moment I say, “Well, it’s only James Rollins, what does he know?” is the minute I fail. If I’m ever going to improve as a writer, a storyteller, a businesswoman, or a person, I need to keep listening to others. It’s why I still read craft books, re-read my favorites, attend workshops, enjoy speeches, and even present workshops. Because even in the presentation, I’m learning something through the questions and through my preparation (ok, I don’t prepare for workshops. I’ll just admit that now and get it over with. It’s too much like plotting. It’s why I love Q&A best.)
One of the best teachers out there is our Toni. She gave an incredible workshop at the PASIC conference about writing for Hollywood–and shared several side-splitting stories. Sometimes, you sit down and talk with Toni and she’s just one of the gals. Fun, funny, smart, but just regular folk like me. But when she goes into “the teacher mode” she rocks. If you ever get a chance to take a workshop from her, run to it and get a front seat.
Sometimes, it’s not the workshops at conferences that yield the best nuggets of wisdom. I remember two years ago when Toni and I were at the RWA conference–or was it the ITW conference?–and she explained acts to me.
Yes, you’re thinking I’m dense. And I am when it comes to story structure. I really don’t think in terms of acts or scenes or turning points. And I don’t know how Toni and I got on the subject of story structure, but she took out a little piece of paper and drew a bunch of line graphs. One she split into a three act structure with neat little peaks and valleys, leading to the final climax, with a dip for the final resolution (the hero rides off in the sunset with his horse.) Then she drew out how someone, and I can’t remember who or what movie, changed the way the three act structure was thought about, but going up, up, up, up without the little valleys. I suppose that’s constantly escalating stakes or something, but I don’t know. She also explained the four act structure with the midpoint. I’d recently listened to a story analyst speak to my San Francisco RWA chapter about the four act structure and then ran home to check the midpoint of all my published books, certain that I didn’t have a midpoint as he defined it. But, ironically, I did have a major turning point–all seems golden, or all seems lost–at every midpoint within 10 pages. I was shocked. I just pulled open FATAL SECRETS (okay, BSP moment here, the book came out last Tuesday.) The midpoint is where the hero and heroine are learning a steady stream of information in their investigation and they are thinking they are close to victory . . . only to have everything fall apart on them shortly thereafter. And then more and more losses. And more bad news. In SUDDEN DEATH, they are at the end of their rope, the bottom of the investigation, they have no idea who’s killing these people, and then they get even worse news.
But I didn’t plan it that way. It just . . . happened.
I don’t think writers need to know why all the time. Writing is so personal in so many ways, that to dissect it kind of makes it mechanical. I don’t mind looking at the story after the fact–usually in copyedits where the process seems more clinical anyway–but I don’t consciously plan the story, plot the story, or push the story in any direction. Yet, looking back, I can see how the advice, suggestions and guidelines of great writers, storytellers, agents, editors and friends, have all unconsciously become part of my process.
We all take classes, whether writers or readers, for a day job or just for fun. What’s the best thing you’ve learned, the tidbit or teacher that keeps you coming back for more?