Category Archives: Writing

Signature’s 2017 Ultimate Writing Guide

SignatureUltimateWritingGuide.jpeg

Y’all know I don’t just love to write. I love to talk about writing, and teach writing, and write about writing.

When UNSUB was published a few months ago, I wrote an article for Signature, the Penguin Random House online magazine. “Writing a New Series: A Guide to Creating a World from Scratch.” Now Signature has included the article in its annual writing guide — which you can download for free.

Signature’s 2017 Ultimate Writing Guide includes writing advice from twenty-two authors, including Jill Santopolo, Ammon Shea, Jan Karon, Tess Gerritsen, and me. It includes articles about how to:

  • Banish writer’s block,
  • Revise a draft without losing your mind,
  • Turn off your internal editor while writing,
  • Craft a believable world,
  • And much more.

The guide is cosponsored by Merriam-Webster. What are you waiting for? Download it now.

Editing: from idea to printed page

ITBNproofing

My next novel, Into the Black Nowhere, will be published in early 2018. It’s almost ready to go. I spent this week proofreading the “first pass” of the typeset pages.

Editing, like everything else in writing, is a process. It’s a back-and-forth: between me and my ideas; with my agent and editor; with the copyeditor and proofreader; and, finally, with my own judgment that the novel in its entirety — the story, structure, characters, suspense, pacing, voice, and wording of every sentence — is the best I can make it.

Each step in the process comes with its own challenges. And each version of the story I write gets comments. For this novel — the sequel to UNSUB — here’s how the notes and editorial suggestions I’ve received have evolved.

Outline:

  • This novel is a cat-and-mouse thriller in which Caitlin Hendrix pursues a charming, devious killer across the western US. Why do you insert a convoluted subplot about one victim’s greedy grandparents attempting to steal an inheritance?
  • The mid-novel murder is dramatic, splashy, and completely predictable. What if you flipped the situation on its head?

(Me: If I do that… hey! A whole fresh, unexpected plot line appears.)

First draft:

  • The pace in the first half is, to put it kindly, leisurely. Okay, it’s slow. Remember the reviews you got for UNSUB, which praised its tautness and drive? Yeah, do that again.
  • The ending needs more brains, less brawn. For instance: Why is Caitlin clinging to the roof rack of a careening SUV? Get her off of there. Now.

Second draft:

  • So many cops! So many FBI agents! New ones seem to pop up every few pages. They roam the novel in groups, holding constant conversations. Send some of them home.
  • Why does one character describe a life-and-death struggle after the fact, through dialogue? You’re missing a chance to show a badass fight. WRITE THE SCENE.

Final draft:

  • SO MUCH WEATHER.

Copyedited manuscript:

  • Does this scene take place on Wednesday? (Me: Yes. Obviously.)
  • Are you positive this scene takes place on Wednesday? (Me: Completely.)
  • Then why is it still Tuesday? (Me: GAH.)

First pass pages:

  • Me: Delete “fast.” Insert “quick.”
  • Me: Delete “printout.” Insert “documents.”
  • Me: Delete “asshole.” Insert: “jackass.”

As I said, it’s a process.

And, if you want to see how I put all these suggestions into practice, you can preorder the novel.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Coming up in November: Texas Book Festival

TexasBookFest2017
I’m delighted that I’ll be appearing at the 2017 Texas Book Festival. It’s a huge, exciting event — often, 40,000 people attend — and I’m honored to be invited. It’s also a whole lot of fun. If you have a chance to get to Austin the weekend of November 4-5, check it out.

My schedule:

Texas Book Festival
Austin, Texas
“The Long Arm of Crime”
Saturday, 
November 4, 2017
Time:
 10:00-10:45 a.m.
Session Location:
 Texas State Capitol Extension 2.030
Signing Location: Main Signing Tent

October 27-29: La Jolla Writer’s Conference

La Jolla Writer's Conference

Next month I’ll be teaching at the La Jolla Writer’s Conference in San Diego. I’ll also be giving a keynote address to the conference. To say I’m happy about getting a chance to spend a weekend in beautiful La Jolla, talking about writing, would be an understatement.

If you’re interested in attending the weekend, check it out: La Jolla Writer’s Conference.

Saturday: Clifton, Texas Writes

Clifton Texas Writes Full Day Flyer EDITED (1)-page-001

This Saturday, September 23, I’m giving a workshop as part of a full day program of writing instruction and discussion for Texas Writes. As always, the program will be given at a rural Texas library. It’s free and open to the public, but if you want to attend, you should call and preregister.

My session:

PLOTTING TO KILL: WRITING MYSTERIES AND THRILLERS

How do you create compelling characters and put them in memorable conflict? Meg will talk about heroes, villains, and the hook, and discuss techniques to to ramp up the suspense and tension in your story. She’ll show how writers can use point of view, flashbacks, and dialogue to create riveting scenes, keep readers guessing about what will happen next, and have them turning the pages until the end.

Texas Writes at the Bosque Arts Center
215 S. College Hill Drive
Clifton, Texas

To pre-register for this event, contact the Nellie Pederson Library at (254) 675-6495.

Spread the word to your writer friends. I hope I’ll see some of you there.

Writing outlines: Do what works for you

I was recently asked a question about outlining a novel:

“I’m now working on an extensive outline in hopes that doing so will better help me see a novel through to the end. It sounds like doing so made all the difference for you. I am wondering if you could respond and further explain your outlining and writing process and maybe even include some images from the Unsub outline. Do you plot down to the chapter and scene level or is it more of the acts of the story and major plot points? Do you sketch these out on a pad or are you strictly working on Word files? I’d love to see what that actually looks like when done by a pro.”

Here’s the gist of how I responded:

When it comes to outlining stories: Do whatever works. Over the years I’ve found it most helpful to write an outline that’s like a story summary—it will include the beginning, major turning points, and ending. That’s what works for me. The more I can come to understand the characters before I dive into a first draft, and ramp up their motivations and conflicts, the better grasp on the story I’ll have—and the more ideas for how to develop the plot to a slam-bang ending.

I don’t format the outline with Roman numerals or anything that stringent—I write it up as if I’m telling the gist of the story to a friend. I’ll include a quick precis of major scenes, and emphasize the twists and turns in the plot, with particular emphasis on the protagonist and antagonist.

That’s just me. Whatever helps pull ideas from the air (or the unconscious)!

Crafting a novel is a discipline that simply takes time and practice. We all careen along the trail, hoping there will be a brass band at the finish line.

__________

I promised the querier that I would expand on these thoughts in a blog post. So: 

Over time, I’ve come to outline my novels in greater detail and at greater length. For example, for The Shadow Tracer, I wrote a two-page outline. Here’s a screen shot.

Shadow Tracer excerptI hadn’t read that outline for several years. When I did, I was struck to see that it’s mostly summary and backstory.

Actually, I was taken aback. I mean, the outline continues: “Sarah has a desperate secret. Zoe was placed in her care by her dying sister, Beth, who sacrificed her own life to protect her. Beth had unwittingly been put in danger by Zoe’s dad. He was a good-hearted young man who’d fled a nightmarish upbringing.” And it goes on like that for several more paragraphs. It’s almost all setup. The outline doesn’t even reveal the ending.

Since then, I’ve come to understand that getting the central conflict on the page, and explaining it in terms of the push-and-pull between the hero and antagonist, are incredibly helpful. What matters is to tell the story in the outline with as much drive and verve as possible. So now when I outline, I write the summary the way I write the book: I dive straight in. The action comes first; any explanation or backstory comes later. What counts is to dig into the heart of the characters’ emotional lives and excavate what’s at stake in the story.

So I’ve moved toward writing what are essentially story treatments for the novel. These are longer documents that include some mini-scenes and bring the story more immediately to life.

Here’s the opening of the UNSUB outline.

UNSUB excerpt

The UNSUB outline runs to almost twenty pages. Writing it took me months. And months, and more months. But when I finished it, I knew who the characters were. I knew what they meant to each other. And what they would do to each other. The UNSUB outline put all the elements of the plot on the page, with every major twist and turn, from beginning to end. And, importantly, it did so while delving into the emotional connections between the characters, and highlighting every major conflict, surprise, and revelation in the story.

Because of that, it took much less time to write the first draft of the book than to write the outline. And that first draft didn’t meander or require extensive cutting. When it came to plot and character development, I’d done the heavy lifting already.

Your mileage may vary. You may decide not to outline a single word of a story or novel. But if you get nothing else from this blog post, take this away: Even after writing thirteen novels, I’m still learning how to do it better.

How do authors get readers to cheer for the bad guy?

I was searching the blog archives this morning and found a comment on a post from waaaay back that I never answered. The post is “My Breaking Bad injury, or why good writing is dangerous.” The comment is from loyal blog reader Dana Jean:

Maybe you can answer this for me. I can’t STAND Skyler. I just loathe her, but why? She has every right to be pissed. She has every right to feel betrayed and hurt. But, when she starts with that face she gets and that attitude, I really want to smack her.

Walt is a bad guy. He did wrong things for the right reasons — at first. And even when he continues to do very bad things, I see his reasoning behind it. I supported Dexter too.

How are these authors making me cheer for the bad guy?

How indeed? What tricksy methods to writers use to get viewers, and readers, to cheer for villains and anti-heroes? Here are some reasons why we cheer for the bad guys:

They’re well-rounded. We see the entirety of their lives. And we see their lives from a compassionate perspective. Walter White starts from the most sympathetic position possible. He’s a brilliant, dedicated teacher, whose knowledge and passion for science are ignored by his students. To pay the bills, he has to work a humiliating second job at a car wash. He’s a devoted husband to his pregnant wife and father to his teenage son, who has a disability. And then he learns he has terminal cancer.

They have laudable motivations. Walter White starts cooking meth to provide for his family after he’s gone. He knows it’s illegal. It’s not a good thing to do. It puts him in danger. But time is running out, and he’s desperate. And the fact that he does something so dangerous actually makes Walt more sympathetic, at least at first.

They’re powerful. We like to read about (or watch) powerful people. We admire their power. We treat it — and them — with respect. Power helps them get things done. Think of The Godfather. Don Corleone is a mobster, but he can make miracles happen (it seems) for the helpless people who petition him for aid. In Breaking Bad, Walt starts out powerless, and we want him to gain agency, and respect, and independence, and revenge… and, yes, power.

Of course, power doesn’t solve Walt’s problems. By the time he says one of television’s all-time greatest lines to Skyler (“I am the one who knocks”), he’s far down the road to corruption. But we’re along for the ride with him.

The other guys are worse. Skillful writers make their bad guys look good by comparison. Who is Walter White up against? Tuco and Tio Salamanca. The cousins. Uncle Jack and his neo-Nazis. People who are remorseless and disgusting. Walt has to become tough to deal with them. We want to see him stand up and defeat these guys.

By comparison to Walt, Skyler can seem petty. Ungrateful, even. (Isn’t he doing all this for her?) She finds herself powerless, but the way she tries to strike back at Walt and get out from under the situation make us think poorly of her. (For example, at her wits’ end trying to get Walter to move out of the house, she sleeps with her boss, then tells Walt — in the kitchen at home, at dinnertime, as crudely as possible.) And, at heart, Walt is the anti-hero of the story. Skyler becomes an antagonist. She would stop him. And, thanks to the skill of the writers and Bryan Cranston’s brilliant portrayal, we don’t want that to happen.

Sorry it took me three-and-a-half years to answer your question, Dana Jean.