Saturday, March 31, 2012

When You Don't Know What You Don't Know

Anita Page (Guest Blogger)

About twenty years ago, my husband and I decided to write a mystery. We were both writers—he was a journalist and I’d published a few short stories in addition to working as a freelance journalist—so we knew something about putting one word in front of the other.
I was the avid mystery reader in the family, and assured him there wouldn’t be much of a leap between reading mysteries and writing one.

Scheduling was a problem since I was teaching and he was facing daily deadlines, but we would use our two-week vacation in the Smoky Mountains to plan the book—plenty of time, I thought. As I’m sure is obvious, I was in a state of oblivion, aka: When you don’t know what you don’t know.

The lodge in the Smokies, with its mountain views and wood fires, was the perfect place to write except that our room was the size of a large closet. When we explained the situation to Ginger, the innkeeper, she graciously gave us the use of a large sitting room where we could work undisturbed. She seemed unimpressed by the fact that we were writing a book, which surprised us since we were awfully impressed with ourselves the first morning we sat down with our spiral-bound notebooks and pens.

By the end of two weeks, we had a chunk of the book planned, not as much as I’d hoped, but enough to make a start. We would write alternate chapters, my husband from the point of view of the investigating journalist, I from the point of view of his artist girlfriend. We knew who the killer was and we knew his motive. We also knew the victim. The setting would be Jersey City, New Jersey, where my husband had worked years earlier. Jersey City in those days was a gritty town that probably set a world record for the number of crooked politicians per square foot—perfect for the crime we had in mind.

We continued to work on the book at home, and I think got to chapter five before we hit a wall. So here was my first lesson in writing a mystery: You’ve got to have a plot.

I’m happy to say I figured that out by the time I sat down, twenty years later, to write Damned If You Don’t. Fortunately crime doesn’t go out of style, so I was able to adapt the murder in the first book to the new one.
Lesson two: Never toss your old manuscripts. The new book was set in the Catskills, our home for nine years, and a place where lives are conveniently intertwined, as they tend to be in small towns. My protagonist this time was Hannah Fox, a community activist raised in the sixties on picket lines and peace marches, who takes on town hall when a friend’s land is targeted by an eminent domain scam that ends in murder.

I worked on the manuscript full time for two years, taking it through six or seven drafts, and then spent a year submitting to agents. (My favorite rejection was a terse, “No thanks,” a great improvement over: “Unfortunately, I don’t feel passionate enough, etc. etc.”) Eventually I sent the manuscript to L&L Dreamspell and was offered a contract. Lesson three: While writing mysteries is a great pleasure, it’s also very hard work that comes with no guarantee of success. I realize that’s not everyone’s idea of a good time, but I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.

Anita Page’s first novel, Damned If You Don’t, is set in the Catskill Mountains where she worked as a journalist. Her short stories have appeared in journals, ezines, and anthologies. She received a Derringer Award for Best Short Story in 2010. Anita and her husband live in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley. She can be found online at Women of Mystery and anitapagewriter.blogspot.com.

19 comments:

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Anita and Liz,

A truly great post! Yes, I'm a writer who also believes you need to develop a plot for a mystery before you write it. And I also go through many rewrites. I tell people the same thing: don't throw away old manuscripts. Wishing you every success.

Jacqueline Seewald
THE TRUTH SLEUTH--now in large print
DEATH LEGACY--new release--request at your local library

Nancy Means Wright said...

A compelling blog, Anita, and I can relate to much of it: trying to work with a co-author (in my case my daughter--how we argued, but learned to compromise); the Jersey City landscape (I spent time as a child with cousins there); and the Catskills,where I've often driven through en route to NY from Vt. And most of all, I relate to the plot problem. As a random abstract, I still can't plot ahead except for a general idea of how the book should end.

Pauline Baird Jones said...

Boy, isn't that the truth! The years have taught me that each of us has to find our own way to "the end," for instance. I read a lot of "write my way" books before I figured that out. LOL! Congrats!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Glad to have you with us on Poe's Deadly Daughters, Anita. You already know I loved DAMNED IF YOU DON'T.

Anita Page said...

Jacqueline, Nancy,and Pauline, thank you for stopping by. A special thanks to Liz for hosting and for being so supportive of my book.

Blogger keeps bumping off my responses this morning. Thought it worked the last time, but it apparently didn't. I'll keep trying.

Gail Farrelly said...

Anita,

I LOVED your book.

As soon as I finished reading it on my Kindle, I ordered two print copies for friends. They loved it too.

I wish you lots of success.

Cheers,
Gail

Anita Page said...

Gail, that's so nice to hear. It's lovely of you to let me know.
Thank you!

(Now let's hope Blogger allows me to post this. Everybody, cross your fingers.)

Earl Staggs said...

Anita, I see I'm not the only one who can relate to much of what you described. Particularly with regard to the amount of hard work and time it takes. There are no shortcuts. Best wishes for great success with your new book. You've earned it.

Anita Page said...

You're right about no shortcuts, Earl. Thank you very much for the kind words.

Betty Gordon said...

A post that offers a lot of food for thought. i agree with Pauline that each of us has to find his way to the end. When I begin a new mystery, I have only a vague plot in mind, but it becomes clear after only a few chapters. It's rather like jumping into the ocean and finding all kinds of beautiful creatures -- delightful.

Carole Howard said...

You're so right that we often don't even know what we don't know. As you do know, I thought after writing my first novel that I'd "try my hand at writing a mystery," since most of the women in my writers' group were doing that. Boy, did I not know the first thing about it, including how difficult it is. Yours is so great that it (deceptively, of course) makes it look easy.

Lois Karlin said...

It always looked easy to me, too, until I entered the fray. "Not so." is the understatement of the year. Your novel is terrific, and we're all panting for the next one.

Anita Page said...

Hi Betty, I like that ocean image, and I agree that we all need to find our own way.

Carole and Lois, thank you for the kind words about the book, not to mention the help you've given me in writing it. The writers' group Carole mentions is the one Lois and I and two other women are lucky enough to belong.

Anita Page said...

Thank you, Liz, and all Poe's Deadly Daughters for allowing me to visit.
This was great fun.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Anita,
Congratulations on your terrific book! Gail Farrelly gave me a copy, and when I'd read it, I was stunned that you'd written such a wonderful book on your first outing.
I hope to see Hannah Fox again--but, please, don't make us wait quite so long next time...
Barbara Eliasson

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