The Author as Student

Allison Brennan

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?


23 thoughts on “The Author as Student

  1. billie

    LOL about the color coding and doing it in black (ink) and white (paper)!! The idea of color coding also makes me panic. I will occasionally sketch out timelines and character lifelines and they are helpful in the moment. But if I get too caught up in organizing the book that way, I get lost in the organization and lose the flow I need to move forward.

    I do love workshops and panels, and some of the ones you’ve described are making me wish I were at a conference right now.

    Three things three different writing mentors/teachers taught me, and I keep these simple things in mind all the time as I work:

    what’s at stake (Peggy Payne)
    dive deep (Laurel Goldman)
    put them (the characters) in the room and let them have at each other (Suzanne Newton)

    Early on, I had a tendency to do two things – protect the characters, and protect the reader. On some level I didn’t want either to get too freaked out by the story. šŸ™‚

    It still surprises me a little bit when I feel myself pulling back or losing the flow while writing, and one or the other of these three things pops into my head. I do it, and voila – back on track.

  2. Chris Hamilton

    I’ve got a spreadsheet with my characters, but I don’t have a 100-page color-coded thing. I didn’t know what one of my main characters (the protagonist’s dead wife) looked like until I passed a Tower Imaging Center billboard on the way to work about a month ago. Not only was that woman cute, she was also–immediately on my seeing her–what Lindsey looks like.

    Margie Lawson is appearing at the Florida Writers Conference this year. She has a full-day session the day before, and going over early just to see her. Any time you spend on character is time you get back writing the book. If you know your characters, I think the plot should move along fairly well. (And once I get published, I can say that with authority.)

  3. Brett Battes

    The day I stop learning, is the day I die. I’m very much like you, Allison. I love to grab nuggets of information wherever I can.

    And as far as your class at CraftFest…you’re going to do great. The information you know about characters is so ingrained in you, that you don’t even realize it. It’ll just flow out when necessary!

  4. toni mcgee causey

    I remember that napkin thing–we were at a luncheon at RWA and you cracked me up. You said you didn’t know act structure and I grabbed the napkin to show you that you did. You kept saying that it was a revelation and I kept telling you that you were doing it already, organically. šŸ˜‰

    I’m somewhere in the middle plotting/organic-wise. I use that graph structure because it’s so simple for me, it’s how I think in terms of acts. I’ve tried other methods and they feel too complicated. Bill Cameron and Anne Fraiser and I were tweeting yesterday on this very subject. Bill and Anne liked using cards they could physically manipulate. I shudder at the idea of having to keep track of cards. I have a huge whiteboard that I use for a general sort of act break-down. I used to do lots and lots of notes to myself (stream of consciousness, working out character needs, wants, obstacles, goals, plot twists), and I used to do that in a notebook, but then I could never find something when I needed it. I’ve transferred that process over to Scrivener for this new book.

    I feel the same way about workshops (and nobody gives better workshops than Allison. It is a complete privilege to get to be on a panel with her. I will be nodding a LOT.) I wish I was going to Tfest and could spend all summer just listening to other writers talk.

  5. Allison Brennan

    Billie, you hit a key problem with unpublished authors: protecting their characters. It’s like they don’t want to hurt them. Hurt them! Torture them! Pull out all the stops and throw everything at them! If they don’t survive, they’re not a true hero or heroine anyway. Part of what readers love in suspense and thrillers is that our characters growth and become stronger in spite of, or because of, their suffering along the way. But even in romance, if you leave a scene where the heroine and heroine resolved their conflict, why is there another scene? I’ve read a few partials where every scene started with conflict and ended in resolution. I think it was Robert McKee who said a scene is a series of questions. At the beginning you ask a lot of questions, then answer one or two, but in the answers you ask another question. So you’re constantly challenging your reader, they want to know what’s going to happen, but you give them a little something so they’re satisfied. This is for both the plot and the characters backstory. I often throw things out there and have NO IDEA what they’re for or how they relate to the story, but usually by the end of the book I realized I planted something.

    Chris, you will love Margie Lawson. She’s an incredible teacher, and a kind and happy person. I like happy people. Why surround yourself with misery? You’ll learn a lot, no matter what type of writer you are.

    Thanks for the vote of confidence Brett. I’m hoping that when I stand there, words will come. šŸ™‚ I use a lot of examples, because I learn by example (another reason I love Margie–she teaches by example.) So I’ll talk about some of my favorite characters and why and segue into goals, motivation and conflict.

  6. Murderati

    I have the greatest admiration for writers who can double as teachers. Talk about something that shoves me out of my comfort zone. I don’t feel remotely qualified to teach someone else how to write. I’ve done it, and gotten decent feedback, but it’s not something I have a drive to do.

    And sadly, I’ve not attended any workshops or writing classes. And I’m missing the great lineup at Craftfest this year – it’s going to be awesome and I’m sorry I can’t be there.

    That whole act structure thingy? I learned it from Alex here at Murderati. I think Murderati is a daily workshop, to be honest. I’ve learned so much from the writers here. So thanks, folks.

  7. Louise Ure

    Allison, hopefully I’m doing the same organic plotting you are, as I still don’t cleave to the 3-arc or 4-arc story structure I’ve heard described.

    And the best nugget from panels? It’s not one thing. It’s a renewed sense of excitement in getting back to try it all again. Enthusiasm is indeed contagious.

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thanks for that awesome post, Allison. Gawd, now I want to go to every panel I can find, by every author I read. It’s true, one never stops learning. That is what’s so wonderful about writing – you’re a student forever. It gives us the best opportunity for being the jack-of-all-trades.
    One book that I keep going back to is Joseph Campbell’s "The Hero with a Thousand Faces," which analyzes the mythologies of the various religions and cultures throughout the world. I can never get enough of that. And the concepts are simplified for writers in Christopher Vogler’s book "The Writer’s Journey." I thumb through it every year. I managed to get through five years of film development on thousands of screenplays using Campbell and Vogler as my touchstone. Every protagonist has his/her journey and if the journey follows the traditional mythological structures, then it will amount to a compelling story. George Lucas based his original Star Wars trilogy on Campbell’s work. So I keep coming back to it and it never disappoints.
    I could sure use some more workshops, though! I love them!

  9. Pari

    Like JT said, I learn from everyone here — and everyday that I care to listen.

    I wish I could see you on a panel or attend one of your workshops, Allison. That’s also true of every other ‘Rati writer.

    It gives me something to look forward to.

  10. toni mcgee causey


    I forgot to email Allison the winners from last week so that she could list them in her blog. All five will receive Allison’s SUDDEN DEATH:


    I need all of you to email me at toni [dot] causey [at] gmail [dot] com and I will get those books out to you immediately!

  11. Chris Hamilton

    I’m not one who loves my character. He exists for abuse.

    My guy’s wife is killed because he’s too busy watching a baseball game to go to the store and get groceries. She’s killed on getting out of his car (presumably) because of his profession. His mother-in-law blames him for it and the cops all but accuse him of setting it up. To ease his pain, one night while he’s drunk, he winds up sleeping with his wife’s friend. His mother in law figures that out and adds it to the list of accusations.

    I was thinking of having the bad guys tie him to a chair and make him watch The Suite Life of Zack and Cody on Disney Channel for six consecutive days, but I think that’s just too much. (If you have to ask what that show is, consider yourself blessed and leave it at that.)

  12. Allison Brennan

    Yeah, Toni, I was so flummoxed by the act structure I thought for sure I was missing something important. I realized after your brilliant explanation that I did (sort of) do it without knowing it. That midpoint thing is really cool, too. But now that I know about it, I tend to start looking for it around page 220-240 in my manuscript. That’s bad, bad, bad. It almost killed PLAYING DEAD when I kept writing toward what I thought was the midpoint scene and having to go back and rewrite and rewrite.

    Stephen, I love Vogler and THE WRITERS JOURNEY. I have Campbell, but he’s too smart for me, I like Vogler’s cliff notes version much better šŸ™‚ I sold before reading it, and realized that I hit most of the journey without knowing it. Understanding it–though I don’t structure my stories around it–really helps me when I’m stuck.

  13. Allison Brennan

    Pari, I have fun doing workshops, but I would much rather listen to others! I really want to go to the Lee Child workshop, but I have a meeting that day and I don’t think I’ll be done in time šŸ™

    JT, I would never be able to teach writers to write. I like workshops that are more like sharing different ways of looking at the business or storytelling. I’ve never taken a writing class since English and Creative Writing in high school, but I’ve gone to dozens of workshops where I learned different ways of looking at things, incorporating what works (organically of course!) . . . My favorite workshop to teach is called NO PLOTTERS ALLOWED which I’ve given three times, twice in person and once online. It’s subtitled: Solutions for Writers Block for those who Can’t, Won’t or Don’t Plot. I have so much fun with it where I give lots of ideas for how to keep writing by 1) identifying WHY you’re blocked (it’s either because you don’t have the skill, you have personal issues like an unsupportive spouse or passive-aggressive friend or sick parent, or because you’re forcing your characters/don’t know them well enough.); 2) solutions to those problems that may (or may not!) work, but it doesn’t hurt to try. The workshop ends up more as a motivational seminar, LOL.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    See, the workshop I most want to take is NO PLOTTERS ALLOWED, because I would feel like I was getting away with something, and because the teacher is so awesome.

    So many people I learn from all the time. I’ve sung John Truby’s praises a million times, and I agree with Stephen about Joseph Campbell and Chris Vogler.

    You know what’s great is to watch "The Actor’s Studio". Man, do people condescend to actors, when in reality, great acting is a miracle. And we have so much to learn from them.

  15. Allison Brennan

    Alex, I’ll probably do the no plotters workshop at RWA in 2010. I usually do it every other year. Another favorite workshop of mine is "Breaking Rules to Break In or Break Out." I think I’m giving it at the NJRWA conference in October . . . . but I’m speaking at the lunch there. I have to WRITE a speech. I winged it in Seattle last year, writing bullet points, but I got side-tracked in a story and couldn’t for the life of me remember what I wanted to talk about, so I think I need to write a speech. Which scares me to death.

    Actors are often treated like writers–everyone thinks they can act and write. But few can do it well.

  16. Gretchen Jones

    Sol Stein (whose books really resonate with me) points out it’s really all about the reader. As a newbie fiction writer that’s not as obvious as you’d think. I’m about halfway through his Growing a Novel and today I churned a rewrite on the first page of my wip based on his advice that burned holes through the old one. It was one of his techniques that gave me the idea for the rewrite. I need to go back and read On Writing again.

    Margie Lawson’s EDITS system really gave me a tool to look at the composition of my paragraphs in a way that helped me improve. And gave me a great excuse to go to the office supply store for a fresh batch of highlighters.

    Laurie Campbell’s synopsis and enneagram workshops worked for me as well. I don’t really have the attention span to adhere to the processes she outlines but key points about opposition of the characters made a lot of sense.

    Cherry Adair’s admonition: "FINISH THE DAMNED BOOK" seems to make a great deal of sense most days.

  17. Allison Brennan

    LOL Gretchen–when I heard Cherry’s speech at the emerald city conference, I just wanted to run to my room and start writing–I feared she’d start whipping me if I didn’t!

    I like Sol Stein, though he’s not my favorite. There are a couple chapters, however, in STEIN ON WRITING that I read several times, specificially Chapter 29 "Particularity" and Chap 31 on "Increasing the Effect on the Reader through Resonance." Things I do subconsciously, but the way he presented the information made me see the importance.

  18. Kathy Crouch

    Allison you and I were in that last Margie Lawson class together, she even used some of your writing to show us how great you are. Iā€™m taking her deep editing class; this time around, I hate to admit I got lost. I think with Margie I need two doses of her classes to catch it. Although I could blame life getting in the way due to sudden increase in problems with my husband’s health. One more reason for me to invest in a lap top lol. I read three of your books and enjoyed them immensely. I can only imagine what the ones after Margie’s class are going to be so powerful.
    It’s nice to hear not everyone does story boards, plotlines and other things. I can’t figure those out. I sit in the chair and write the story. I love taking all these online classes since I have a full time job that ties me down. I did make my first conference this April in Dallas. I took a chance and attended Dreamin in Dallas enjoyed all of it. If it was a mini preview of Nationals, I only hope to attend next year in Nashville.

  19. Allison Brennan

    Kathy, thank you! Margie picked me up at the airport when I was speaking in Colorado. We went to dinner with a few others in her chapter, and we started talking about themes. I told her I didn’t have one. She insisted I did, and then told me what they were. LOL. The woman is brilliant. I’m truly honored that she’s used some of my writing as examples in her classes. Since I learn by example, those sections are always the most valuable to me. Sorry about your husband being sick. šŸ™


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