I burst into tears when I first held my fingers over the keys to write fiction. I paced around, knowing I needed help. Lots of help. I stemmed the tears by turning the names of five friends into a mantra I repeated, sure that if they were in my living room, they’d cheer me on. Then I taped paper up on my camp wall, and on it I scrawled “CRAFT. BE CRAFT-Y.”
Now it’s huge sheets of paper taped together and always growing, collected from webinars, seminars, workshops, friends, authors, articles, how-to books, and the writing cosmos. It’s my compass and bible and travels with me, tacked up on walls (or trees) wherever I write. (It’s looking pretty ragged now: smashed bugs, grease smears, and something that looks like squash, but I don’t really want to know.)
I came to appreciate the word crafty because it’s an adjective we writers can put in front of our names telling us we might be sly, creative, skilled, calculating, and, yes, manipulative. We are people who assemble something out of raw materials. Like artists who work in clay, metal, or paint, we shape something raw into a novel way of seeing the same old world. (Pun, yes.)
We are builders of stories. Assemblers of unique worlds. Creators of unforgettable characters. Sly typists who bury clues, calculating how we can hang readers out there until we reveal the unexpected.
In no particular order, here’s part of my wall and the thoughts the advice triggers for me.
AUTHENTIC SELF: Go deep and use it. I memorized this from the craft master, Donald Maass: “To write 21st century fiction, you must start by becoming highly personal. . . . You must become your most authentic self.”
After a few lackluster drafts I saw that Maass meant, go deep. Very deep. Undress. Use my own life and its truths to pump real life and emotion into the story. So I offered up the frustration of having to wrench a wedding ring off an aging arthritic finger, the deep sadness of touching the soft nose of a dead moose, and the anger of losing wild places to “No Trespassing” signs and concrete.
WHAT'S AT STAKE? FAILURE MUST HAVE HUGE CONSEQUENCES: A “high concept” novel is one where, if the protagonist fails, there are significant consequences that ripple out to touch more people or affect the larger world. Huge is relative but still huge. My protagonist saves a pack of wolves, hoping they’ve saved a forest. The threat of failure must always loom, threatening pain and loss.
WANT AND DESIRE DRIVE CHARACTER AND CHARACTERS: Each scene, everyone must want something, even just a glass of water. To track each character’s various thirsts, large and small, I make a “gap” chart for what each wants and then decide if I will give it to her or to him.
CREATE 5 THINGS READERS EXPECT; DISAPPOINT THEM ON 2 OR 3: Of course, the ultimate resolution should not disappoint, but expected story elements, once frustrated, contribute to the surprise of turning a corner (or page) and meeting the unexpected.
"DON'T DO IT! DON'T DO IT!" Create at least one scene where readers want to scream this at your protagonist.
SEX THAT'S NOT SEX: I took a class on “Writing Sex.” (Not as fun as it sounds.) Novelist Hallie Ephron had us list reasons for sex: anger, fear, revenge, lust, reward, curiosity, farewells, boredom, gratitude. Pretty endless. She told us to match up two characters who had different reasons and write the scene. Boom!
BACKSTORY: Most is not interesting. Here’s the whole Stephen King quote: “The most important things to remember about back story are (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are.”
FOUR CUPS OF TEA: Compress time with action that always moves plot or characterization forward. Cut slow stuff. Four cups of tea later, Helmand was dead on the floor. After a week of burnt toast, Anna stuffed clothes into a paper bag and hitched to Idaho.
RESEARCH: Maine author Paul Doiron reminds us to avoid too much book stuff; we should trot out to find what we need when we need it. On site, if possible. For “Deadly Trespass” I spent time with dead moose and live wolves. For “Deadly Turn,” my next mystery (2018), I went to wind power sites because Patton (my protagonist) is hired to collect dead birds and bats at one.
HAVE TIPS TO SHARE? TO EXPAND MY WALL? What makes a mystery or thriller keep you up past your bed time? And urge friends to read it, too? I’d love to hear from you!