The Writer’s Life A-Z
As Killer Nashville Special Projects Coordinator, Beth Terrell has worked with many writers. She has calculated from their successes; she has avoided pitfalls by observing their failures. And through this association and her own tenacity, Beth Terrell (writing as Jaden Terrell) has also become a Killer Nashville success story, a story that is well deserved, and a story for which we at Killer Nashville are ecstatic. We could not be prouder.
Now, Beth is passing what she has learned to you.
In this monthly column, Beth will share her journey while also referencing the paths of different writers who have come into our Killer Nashville family. It is a journey worth learning from and it will save years – maybe decades – if you will only follow her along. From writing to promoting, a writer’s job never ends.
Where is the best place to start this series? At the beginning: with The Idea.
The Writer’s Life Coming Up with the Idea for Your Novel
By Beth Terrell
SO YOU WANT TO WRITE A NOVEL?
So, you want to write a novel? Specifically, you want to write a mystery, thriller, or other type if crime fiction. Maybe you’ve always dreamed of being a writer. Maybe you’ve pursued other dreams and are just now coming to the realization that writing a book is something you’d really like to do.
Good for you!
Most people secretly dream of writing a book; yet, most never even finish a first draft.
This series of upcoming articles is designed to take you from the seed of an idea through your first draft, the revision process, publishing, and marketing your novel. I’m not going to tell you the “right” way to write a book. There is no one right way, only the way that works for you. But I can show you one way to write a novel, and then help you tailor it to your individual needs.
Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing a great novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.” So you won’t find any ironclad rules here, only processes that can help you clarify your ideas and organize them into a coherent, and eventually, a polished story.
Much of the process involves asking yourself questions.
WHAT DO YOU KNOW RIGHT NOW?
The first one is, what do you already know about your book? Maybe you already have a main character. Maybe you know you want to write a cozy, a thriller, or police procedural. Maybe you already have a plot sketched out, or maybe you just have an image, like the one of a little girl in muddy underpants that gave birth to William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
However much or little you know about your book, you’ll answer subsequent questions within the context of what you’ve already decided. If you make a choice that doesn’t mesh with your previous decisions, you’ll either need to change one or more of your earlier choices, or figure out a way to make the incompatibility work in your favor.
Let’s say you want to write a gritty, high-tech thriller with lots of violence and explosions. A frail, near-sighted beekeeper with sciatica whose hobby is stamp-collecting and who is so technologically challenged he doesn’t even own a computer or a cell phone would be an unlikely protagonist.
First, you’ll need to give your beekeeper a reason to get involved in your thriller plot (maybe he saw something he shouldn’t), a motivation to continue (now his life or the life of a loved one is in danger), and a believable means of overcoming his physical limitations (perhaps with the help of a secondary character who does possess the necessary skills). He should find a way to use his knowledge of bees, stamps, or sciatica to overcome or outwit the villains. He’ll need to have strengths he never knew he possessed. And the reader will need to see a hint of those strengths early in the story.
You can write a great book by going against expectations, but you have to do some work to make it believable.
What questions you ask yourself and the order in which you ask them depends on what you already know about your story, but since we have to start somewhere, let’s start at the very beginning: what kind of book do you want to write?
WRITE WHAT YOU READ
There’s a good chance the book you should write is like the ones you like to read. If you love romantic suspense, that might be a good genre for you to start with. If you despise romantic novels, but think you could just dash one off and make a bushel of money because they sell like hotcakes, maybe you should consider another genre. It’s almost impossible to write well in a genre for which you feel contempt; readers who love the genre will sense your disdain and resent it. (Bigfoot porn seems to be an exception to this rule. You might be able to haul in a boatload with money with some dashed-off Bigfoot porn.)
There are no bad genres. The best of any genre is just as literary as the best literary novel. Think The Big Sleep, In Cold Blood, and To Kill a Mockingbird. These are considered great literature, but what are they, if not crime novels?
Pick a genre or subgenre you like and feel comfortable writing in, and don’t worry about whether it’s “literary” or not. It should be the kind you like to read, but also one you can write knowledgeably about—or one that you can (and want to) research well enough to write knowledgeably about.
Sometimes the amount or kind of research you’re willing and able to do influences your decision about what book to write. Maybe you like books set in ancient Egypt, but you know nothing about ancient Egypt and don’t particularly want to do the intensive study it would take to find out. Then by all means, keep reading mysteries set in ancient Egypt, but choose something different to write about.
But what if you’re not even sure if you’re writing a detective novel, a police procedural, or a novel with an amateur sleuth? What if you’re not sure what kind of book you’re most drawn to? Or what if you’re an eclectic reader and love all sorts of books?
Let’s try an exercise.
GET OUT A PAPER AND PEN
Write down the titles of your ten favorite crime novels. Ask yourself what you like about each one and what they have in common. Do you see any patterns?
Let’s say you have on your list: Janet Evanovitch, Parnell Hall, Donna Andrews, and Agatha Christie. You might be more comfortable writing a cozy mystery, possibly humorous with little graphic sex or violence, because those are the kinds of books you like to read.
But imagine you have on your list: John Sandford, John Connolly, Thomas Harris, and James Lee Burke. There’s a good chance you’re going to want to write a darker, grittier story.
What if you have an equal mix of both? Then you might feel comfortable writing several different kinds of books, and other concerns, such as characters and theme (which we’ll address later in this series), will help you decide what kind of book you should write now.
My list included writers from both of the above lists, but more from the second. I noticed that my favorite books had a serious tone and complex characters I wanted to re-visit: Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware, William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor, Robert Crais’ Joe Pike and Elvis Cole. I may not remember the plot of A is for Alibi, but I do remember that Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone was orphaned at a young age and was raised by her aunt, that she likes small, enclosed spaces, and that she was once married to a gorgeous but irresponsible musician. I read Grafton’s books because I like Kinsey. I read Janet Evanovitch’s books, even though they’re lighter than I usually read, because I like Stephanie Plum. (Joe Morelli and Ranger have nothing to do with it. No, really… )
What this tells me is that I like books with multi-dimensional characters with deep connections and relationships. Based on my reading habits, this is what I would expect to enjoy writing, and if you look at my Jared McKean series, it turned out to be true. Jared has complex relationships with his brother, his ex-wife, his ex-wife’s new husband, and his roommate (a gay man with AIDS). These relationships drive the story and provide a unifying thread through all the books in the series.
SERIES OR STAND-ALONE?
Another question to consider is whether your novel is part of a series or a stand-alone. If you plan to kill off your protagonist, you’re probably not writing a series, unless your genre is paranormal.
A stand-alone novel has a story arc, in which the protagonist changes or grows in some way over the course of the story. You’re writing about the single most life-changing event in your character’s life. When it’s over, life goes on in an ordinary way, though his or her circumstances or perceptions may have changed considerably.
A series character might (and should) also undergo changes, but within a single book, these changes may be relatively small. Instead, although each book stands alone, there’s a greater story arc that covers the entire series. Think of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder. While Scudder reacts to the events of each book, the major changes of his life take place over the course of the series. He acknowledges his alcoholism, joins AA, and learns to control his urge to drink. He dates a series of women, falls in love with a former prostitute, marries her, and begins to reconcile (after a fashion) with the adult sons of his first marriage. If all that happened in a single book, where would he have left to go?
If you envision a series, your main character needs to be a multi-faceted character with enough complications and entanglements to sustain a reader’s interest for the long haul. If your series contains twenty-six novels (A is for Alibi to Z is for…Ziggurat?), your character had better be up to the task.
In a series, it’s especially important that your protagonist is someone you like well enough to invest a hefty chunk of time with. If you don’t enjoy your character’s company, how can you expect anyone else to? And what if you should be fortunate enough to write a bestseller? With a million readers clamoring for more, will you like this character enough to live with him or her for a decade or longer?
Again, look to your reading habits. Do you like to follow a favorite character through a series of books? Or do you prefer a stand-alone novel, where you meet a character for the first and last time in a single, self-contained story?
YOU CAN ALWAYS CHANGE YOUR MIND
Think about it.
Make your list.
It doesn’t have to be ten writers. It could be two. It could be twenty.
As long as it helps you understand something about what draws you to a story–and what keeps you coming back for more–it’s fine.
And remember, nothing is carved in stone. You can always change your mind later, if a better idea comes to you.
That’s the beauty of writing.
See you next month.
Jaden Terrell (Beth Terrell) is a Shamus Award finalist, a contributor to Now Write! Mysteries (a collection of writing exercises by Tarcher/Penguin), and the author of the Jared McKean private detective novels Racing The Devil, A Cup Full of Midnight, and River of Glass. Terrell is the special programs coordinator for the Killer Nashville conference and the winner of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (SEMWA). A former special education teacher, Terrell is now a writing coach and developmental editor whose leisure activities include ballroom dancing and equine massage therapy. www.jadenterrell.com.