Dream on. But don’t open your story with a dream sequence.

When I teach writing workshops, I always warn students about what not to do. In particular, I strongly urge them not to open their stories in these ways:

  • With the protagonist staring out the window, thinking about his past.
  • With the detective squinting into the sunrise, hung over.
  • With the protagonist waking up.
  • With a dream sequence.

Why? Because these are cliches — they’ve been done ten thousand times. They’re tired. And because, if your story opens in one of these ways, nothing is happening. 

In the case of dream sequences, there’s an additional reason. When readers reach the end of the scene and read, “And then she woke up,” they feel cheated.

As readers, we immerse ourselves in a story by suspending disbelief. That is, while we read, we willingly suspend our knowledge that a story is fiction and accept it as true.  (Thank Samuel Taylor Coleridge for the concept.) But readers generally give an author only one shot at this. If a story opens with an amazingly dramatic, action-packed, emotionally resonant scene that turns out to be a dream, readers are likely to feel that the author has pulled a bait and switch.

Oh. The hero didn’t REALLY save his wife from a mob shootout. He just fell asleep on the sofa.

Huh. The heroine didn’t REALLY leap into the ocean from the deck of a burning ship. She just ate too much pizza and had a nightmare.

Readers invest themselves in the story. When it turns out that the drama is all in a character’s sleeping mind, they’re likely to bail.

Inevitably, when I urge students to avoid dream sequences, one or two will tell me that’s how their novel opens. When I ask why, they say they want the story to open with a punch — but that nothing dramatic happens until chapter five, so the dream is the only way to get some action on the page. Or they tell me they want to show the characters’ fears, longings, or memories, and “there’s no other way.”

There’s always another way. And ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it will be better than opening with a character’s unconscious fantasies. If you want readers to come along for the entire ride, you need your characters to be awake and in action in the physical world from the word go.

Wednesday, January 27: In Conversation with Alafair Burke


One of the best things about being an author is getting to know other writers. And this Wednesday, I have the chance to interview the wonderful Alafair Burke about her new novel, The Ex. 

It’s a legal thriller about a criminal defense attorney who defends her ex-boyfriend against a multiple murder charge. I’m champing at the bit to talk to Alafair about the book. If you’re in the Houston area, come on down to Murder by the Book and join the conversation.

Alafair Burke in Conversation with Meg Gardiner
Wednesday, January 27, 2016 – 6:30pm
Murder by the Book
2342 Bissonnet St
Houston, TX 77005

Coming in September: Echoes of Sherlock Holmes

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Here’s something cool and exciting: the cover for the upcoming anthology Echoes of Sherlock Holmes. It will be the third volume in the bestselling, award-winning series edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger. I’m thrilled that one of the stories in the anthology is mine.

These are “stories inspired by the Holmes canon.” Authors were given the freedom to write whatever we wanted, as long as the Sherlock Holmes tales somehow informed our work. Some of the stories will probably be Holmes pastiches, set in 19th century London. Others, including mine, take place in modern times, and connect to Arthur Conan Doyle’s work at an oblique angle. This should be an eclectic and dynamic anthology, and a lot of fun.

Echoes of Sherlock Holmes will be published in September. I’ll have more details nearer to the date.

Thank you, David Bowie

One day in my twenties, I picked my dad up at the airport. As I drove him home, we chatted about his trip.

It was good, he said. He paused. “At LAX, I ran into David Bowie.”

“You… did?” I managed not to say, You know who David Bowie is?

My dad said that he was changing terminals and when he stepped outside, Bowie was standing at the curb, waiting for his ride.

“Did you speak to him?” I said, though I already knew the answer to that. My dad never shied from anything.

“I told him I admired his music. We talked about his influences, from twentieth century classical composers to the avant-garde.”

They chatted for a minute, then my dad hustled to his terminal and Bowie climbed into his limo.

I should not have been surprised by any of this. My dad, who looked every inch the English professor he was, also was a classical pianist and professional organist. What delights me is how my dad just ambled up, chill as all get-out, and started talking to Bowie about his music. Bowie engaged with a complete stranger, warmly and genuinely.

Thank you, David Bowie, for being so cool, and for helping me understand that my dad was cool too.

We can be heroes, just for one day
We can be us, just for one day.

May 12, Key West: “How Lawyers Can Become Novelists”

save the date 2016 card

Here’s something fun — and unusual. In May I’m speaking at an American Bar Association conference in Key West, Florida. One afternoon of the conference will be devoted to how lawyers can become novelists. I’ll be speaking along with Joel Goldman, Nicolle Schippers, and Steph Cha. The entire legal conference is three days, but the writing seminar lasts an afternoon… and anyone can sign up. Check it out.

“How Lawyers Can Become Novelists”
American Bar Association Group Legal Services Division and Solo, Small Firm & General Practice Division Joint 2016 Spring Meeting
Thursday, May 12, 2016
1 – 4:30 PM
Key West Marriott Beachside Hotel
3841 North Roosevelt Blvd., Key West, FL 33040

I’ll be giving the talk, “To Be Continued: How to Structure a Novel and Build a Series on It.”

How my characters spend time over the holidays

Last week on Twitter, mystery reader JayeL wrote:

Then she named some authors including me, and said: “Challenge issued.”

Well, if it’s a challenge…

This was fun — short fiction, 140 characters at a time. It also says something about how readers perceive characters, and how writers structure suspense novels.

Readers love vivid characters. Especially series characters, who come back time after time to face new challenges and adventures. But when those characters feature in crime fiction — mystery, suspense, thrillers — the challenges they face involve mayhem, danger, and death. The characters must face those challenges, or it’s not a crime novel.

Readers have asked me why the pace in my novels is fast. Why must the characters race to solve mysteries under time pressure? Why can’t they enjoy a leisurely lunch, or spend a week on the beach, or take a painting class?

Because that’s not even a story.

Here’s a secret. My characters all live full, rounded lives. They throw New Year’s Eve parties and deliver Meals on Wheels and spend long weekends reading Sue Grafton and binge watching The Sopranos. But the portion of their lives that makes it to my thrillers involves danger and daring.

A couple of years ago, a forensic psychiatrist wrote a journal article about how that specialty is portrayed in popular fiction. I was thrilled that she included Jo Beckett. And I was amused that she noted, somewhat skeptically, that in all the Beckett novels, Jo solves the case. Of course she does. The only cases I write about in the Beckett novels are the ones Jo solves. The cases her colleagues solve aren’t part of the story.

But just for the holidays, I’ll let you imagine Evan Delaney, Jesse Blackburn, Jo Beckett, and Gabe Quintana chilling on the beach in Santa Barbara. Ho ho ho and Happy New Year.

Surprising yet inevitable: Here’s the story

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When I took a creative writing course in college, the instructor, Ron Hansen, told us that the ending of a story should be surprising yet inevitable. We all stared at him like, Huh? How is that possible? But this advice is perfect. In any story — short story, novel, play, or movie — the seeds of the ending should be set up as the story builds. Though character traits, decisions characters make, hints the author gives… and when the ending hits, readers will think, Wow, I didn’t see that coming. And, after reflection, But now it all makes sense. 

And now when I teach creative writing, I always tell my students that endings should be surprising yet inevitable. My favorite example is the ending of The Empire Strikes Back. Remember the first time you saw it? Thinking: What the hell? Not possible! No! Nooooo! And then: Ohhhhh, I see it now. Of course.

That’s why I love the text message above. I wrote, “How was it?” to my youngest son just after he saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. His reaction made me incredibly happy. First, because “AMAZING” is what I’ve been hoping to hear about the movie. Second, because “Not what I expected, but exactly what I expected,” is another way of saying surprising yet inevitable.