Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Here's What I Know

By Nancy Martin, guest blogger

Here’s what I know about publishing: The more I write, the less I know. At least, that’s my perception. There’s always something new to learn about writing.

When I started publishing books—egad 30 years ago!—I wrote “by the seat of my pants”—that is, intuitively. That method worked for me because I was writing historical romances by guessing what the heroine would do or feel next. That’s a step plot, of course. One step leads to another and another and another until the—uh—climax. Even when I moved into writing romances from two points of view—the hero as well as the woman of his dreams—I could feel my way through the story by intuition. And I had success as a romance writer. I made good money. One of my romances sold over 5 million copies. My books were translated into 21 languages. I received fan mail from all over the world.

But then my daughters got old enough to read my books, and I decided I didn’t want my girls embracing the basic premise of a romance novel—that a man would come along, engage in a lot of clever banter, propose marriage and make her life perfect. I know, I know—in some romances the heroine learns a lot of other stuff about life, but I wasn’t writing them because . . . I was writing a simple step plot!

In an effort to write books that would both appeal to my daughters and show them that life holds a lot of wonders, challenges and goals beyond Prince Charming, I decided to turn to my first love as a reader—the mystery novel.

The mystery is a wonderfully flexible literary form that allows writers to do just about anything they please as long as there’s a dead body and some detecting going on. (My own mysteries are good examples—my Blackbird sisters would probably be afraid of my new character, Roxy Abruzzo!) Yes, I could have written step plot mysteries, but I was looking to do something more thematically complex, and I finally realized something obvious: If writing was my profession, I needed to learn more about it. Especially about plot, because although romance novels didn’t need a lot of attention paid to the plot, mysteries were all about plot—the more intricate the better. And themes must emerge from the action of a plot. I needed to learn from other sources, not just my own experience. I needed to read about writing, learn from other writers, take some workshops—invest in my future as a writer.

This conclusion might seem obvious to those of you who have been reading how-to books from the get-go and taking every workshop you could manage, but for me—a writer isolated in a rural place and trying not to spend my writing income on anything but the mortgage and shoes for the kids—investing the money and time of learning about my profession was a big leap.

There are lots of good resources for writers out there. Early, I fell hard for Dean Koontz’s How to Write Bestselling Fiction (which he later denounced, and it’s now out of print) and later I came to appreciate Evan Marshall’s The Marshall Plan and Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel for helping me learn to break a plot into such elements as heightening stakes, consequences of failure, the emotional impact of sacrifice and the specific questions a writer can ask her characters to create a truly “character-driven” novel. (You’ll notice I’m not talking about the feel-good, inspiring kinds of books about writing. I didn’t need inspiration. I needed hard information!) And although I’d had Robert McKee’s book Story on my shelves for some time, I took his 3-day workshop and came away changed forever as a writer. Christopher Vogler’s peek into the storytelling expertise of a Disney writer in The Writer’s Journey also had a big affect on me—especially when it comes to creating the kinds of secondary characters that truly flesh out a protagonist who engages readers in a subliminal way.

Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is brilliant, and I refer to it often. I like that she breaks down the nebulous idea of “complexity” in a story into sociological, moral, emotional, psychological and even geographical complexity—all elements that create a more layered mystery novel. Elizabeth George’s Write Away taught me why, as a reader, I was immediately engaged by some characters on the first page, while other characters failed to seize my interest at all. It’s because of the “emotional extremis” she espouses.

Now, when I set out to write a book, I bring out a deck of cards I created for myself. Each card contains information I’ve gleaned from some source or other and explains an element I find necessary in the progression of a complex story that pleases me as well as my readers. I tried to write up a kind of standard outline for myself, but I discovered that as I continue to learn about my profession, a written outline was too static. I need the flexibility of my card system that allows constant additions and revision.

In an era when just about anybody thinks they can be a successful writer as long as they do a lot of self-promotion, I try to focus on the goal that gets pushed aside: Becoming a better writer.

Can you suggest a good resource for me? What has worked for you?

Nancy Martin is the author of nearly fifty popular fiction novels including the bestselling Blackbird Sisters mysteries and the newly released Our Lady of Immaculate Deception. She serves on the board of Sisters in Crime, and in 2009 she received the Romantic Times award for Career Achievement in Mystery Writing. She blogs at the trend-setting Lipstick Chronicles.Visit her website at for her appearance schedule and more information about her books.


Sandra Parshall said...

It's a wise writer who realizes there's always more to learn about craft. Thanks for being with us today, Nancy, and congratulations on the success of OUR LADY OF IMMACULATE DECEPTION.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Welcome to Poe's Deadly Daughters, Nancy. And it was great to see you f2f at the Virginia Festival of the Book. Like many other Guppies, I'm a big fan of Chris Roerden's DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY. She's great on the nuances of making every sentence work for you.

nancy martin said...

Thanks for having me, ladies. And Liz, I still haven't picked up a copy of Chris's book.--I must fix that pronto.

Great seeing you at the Virginia festival.--What a lovely event. I especially appreciated the sunshine and flowers!

Joyce Tremel said...

Hi Nancy! It's nice to see you on one of my favorite blogs.

What Nancy doesn't tell you is that she could definitely WRITE a how-to book on writing. Her advice and expertise have been invaluable to me, and I'm sure, to many others.

Laura DiSilverio said...

I find screewriting books immensely helpful. Two of my favorites are SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder and WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT by Karl Iglesias. The latter, especially, has been helpful in taking my writing to a new level.

nancy said...

Laura, I agree that screenwriting techniques definitely translate to novels. Thank you for those suggestions.--I don't have either one of those books! How can that be??

Joyce, once you've studied a gazillion ways to write books, you tend to *think* you can write a how-to, but I discovered all my best material came from other sources!

signlady217 said...

I haven't read them yet, but I've heard good things about "Plot & Structure" and "Revision & Self-Editing", both by James Scott Bell.

H. S. Stavropoulos said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
H. S. Stavropoulos said...

Great book recommendations. But what I really want to know is how do I get my hands on your cards!?!? What a great idea!!

nancy said...

My cards are my own secret code, I guess. I'm not sure they'd make sense to anyone else! ;-) I use them so I don't feel as if I'm re-inventing the wheel every time I sit down to write a book. I encourage every writer to make up her own deck. Saves a lot of heartache!

Sandra Parshall said...

I also find a rigid outline frustrating. It's hard to outline an entire book before I've written any of it -- who knows where the characters will take me? -- and I know I won't be able to stick to it anyway. I think I undestand what you mean when you talk about your card system, Nancy, and I like the idea a lot. It makes more sense to me than agonizing over an outline.

Nancy said...

I use my cards to make a rigid outline, Sandra, but I take a semi-casual attitude when it comes to using that outline. I fear if I "let the characters take me" as you say, that I end up going in directions that are obvious to the reader. I'm constantly trying to direct the reader's attention one direction while leading them in another. For me, the business of mis-direction requires a lot of forethought--and that's one reason why my outline is necessary.

Also, if subplots--as I think Donald Maas says--should both mirror and contradict the main theme or controlling idea of the book, I need to plan those subplots with care. When it works correctly, the reader is hardly aware of the effort, but she is emotionally affected by the result. I'm not accomplished enough to let that happen intuitively. I need the crutch of the outline.

But that's just me. Everyone has a system that works best for her.

Sandra Parshall said...

I will roughly outline the story -- I *have to* know how it's going to end, who the killer is and what the motive is, or I won't be able to write the story at all. What I can't do is produce a very detailed outline that shows what will happen in every scene. As I write, characters I had intended to keep in the background may push forward and turn out to be more important than I expected, and that almost always turns out to be a good thing that enriches subplots in particular.

Creating fiction is a mysterious and wonderful adventure. Don't you pity people who lack active imaginations?