The Edgar Awards are tonight! Before the ceremony, why not take a look at part 2 of our massive roundtable discussion on the state of the genre, featuring nearly 40 nominees for the Edgars. Thanks so much to all who contributed! In this second installment of the discussion, authors discuss craft, classic crime novels, writing advice, and (in a surprise twist) the question with by far the most answers: to plot or to pants? So raise a glass, toast your favorite authors, and enjoy this lively discussion.
Which books do you re-read? Why?
Seraphina Nova Glass (nominated for Best Paperback Original – On a Quiet Street): It’s the books that I was forced to read in a college literature class that I would have never picked up on my own at that age that have become my favorites—books that speak to my soul and changed me in some way. Virginia Wolfe, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and Kate Chopin are all authors that come to mind when I think about books I have kept over the years and still pick up when I’m looking for inspiration.
Juliana Goodman (nominated for Best Young Adult – The Black Girls Left Standing): Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson, Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara and Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans. I find myself returning to these books often because they embody the kind of work I aspire to produce myself. I love the characters, the voices and the authenticity of the experiences within the stories.
Eli Cranor (nominated for Best First Novel – Don’t Know Tough): I try to go back and read True Grit each year. It’s a masterclass in voice.
Nita Prose (nominated for Best Novel – The Maid): When I’m setting out on a new manuscript, I re-read anything and everything that might inform scenes, moments, characters or a certain tone I’m after in my book. With The Maid, I reread widely, wildly and voraciously. At one point, I found myself rereading Shakespeare’s Othello and thinking deeply about Desdemona’s handmaid in that book and the beguiling and intimate relationship she had with her charge. This informed a key relationship (between Molly and Giselle) in my novel The Maid.
Mark de Castrique (nominated for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award – Secret Lives): Other than the Sherlock Holmes canon, which has been just plain fun to re-read many times since I was in sixth grade, I have re-read Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon multiple times. The book is full of memorable scenes with sharp dialogue, tight descriptions, and the selection of a point of view that heightens the impact on the reader. Hammett’s POV isn’t arbitrary. Sam Spade appears in every scene, but the POV isn’t first-person. The reader is an observer in a close third-person objective relationship. The narrator presents that objective view without describing any thoughts. The closest he comes is the frequent descriptions of characters’ eyes and gestures. SPOILER ALERT: The point of the POV is to have the reader, like the characters Spade is engaged with, overlook his true motive. In searching for the Falcon, Spade is searching for the person who killed his partner. The impact of the final scene would have been severely lessened had we known what Spade was thinking. Just answering this question makes me want to read it again.
Marthe Jocelyn (nominated for Best Juvenile – Aggie Morton Mystery Queen: The Seaside Corpse): I re-read favourites from childhood because I write books for young readers and want to remember the source of my life’s work. As corny as that sounds!
Martin Edwards (nominated for Best Critical/Biographical – The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and Their Creators): Life is short, so I have to be selective in my re-reading, since there are so many books I want to read for the first time. But re-reading is a source of enormous pleasure to me. And you can also learn from it. Even if I know whodunit in an Agatha Christie or an Anthony Berkeley novel from the Golden Age, I can admire the skill of the authors’ techniques and study the way they structured the story. Sometimes re-reading gives one a fresh perspective and it’s not unusual for me to enjoy a book more the second time around than I did the first. That’s true, I’ve found, of some of Patricia Highsmith’s less famous novels such as The Tremor of Forgery and some books I’ve reread for publication as British Library Crime Classics, such as The Widow of Bath.
Emilya Naymark (nominated for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award – Behind the Lie): I have authors I turn to over and over, but there aren’t many. On the list: Anne Rice, Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, Bret Easton Ellis, Tana French. Although I just discovered him recently, I’m sure Adrian McKinty is going on this list.
These authors are masters at world building and character. Their books are engrossing and transporting, and nothing like my life, which is the exact point. Every one of these authors can write a mean sentence, and I love words beautifully assembled.
Max Allan Collins (nominated for Best Paperback Original – Quarry’s Blood): I re-read Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, Christie and especially Rex Stout, who was perhaps the most entertaining of all of us. You can always learn from the masters.
D. M. Rowell (nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award – Never Name the Dead): Everything by Phoebe Atwood Taylor. Many consider Agatha Christie the queen of mysteries, but American-born Phoebe Atwood Taylor ruled supreme. The two wrote during the same period, but Taylor added humor to her murders. She wrote twenty-two novels featuring Asey Mayo, a detective that followed the clues to an always surprising deduction. Taylor’s Asey Mayo mysteries were true who-dun-it.
Taylor’s Asey Mayo mysteries are like comfort food for the soul. I remember discovering the books and reading them for the first time as a thirteen-year-old. It was a rush to catch the carefully hidden clues, not be distracted by Taylor’s colorful characters and foreign-sounding east coast setting and figure it all out before the big reveal.
Taylor was a master at hiding subtle clues while delivering a fast-paced mystery. I find that I reread her books for comfort and to make note of her clue dropping techniques. I like to read books through first to enjoy the story, then a second time to examine technique. Taylor was a master I can still read and learn from.
William Burton McCormick (nominated for Best Short Story – “Locked-In,” Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine): Because I’ve come to love the novella form, I find myself re-reading H.P. Lovecraft’s late period work: The Whisperer in Darkness, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, At the Mountains of Madness, The Colour Out of Space, and the earlier The Rats in the Walls. I must read one of those almost weekly. We all know Lovecraft’s weaknesses as a writer and person, but his ability to use ambiguity to elicit horror and dread is unmatched. What did Danforth see at the end of At the Mountains of Madness? Not knowing is scarier than anything that could be described. In my nominated story “Locked-In” you never see the antagonist fully. He’s little described beyond his shoes, raspy voice and single glazed eye. And not knowing his appearance – and motivation – makes him a lot scarier, I hope. As Lovecraft famously said: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
Carol Goodman (nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award – The Disinvited Guest): I reread the books that stay in my mind and heart, the ones that I find myself thinking about and wanting to return to. I re-read a classic like Jane Eyre to re-immerse myself in a world that first awakened my desire to be a writer. I re-read a (relatively) newer favorite like The Secret History by Donna Tartt or The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters to remind myself of what the best kind of books can do. And I re-read my contemporaries—Lori Rader-Day, Lisa Unger, Harlan Coban, Ruth Ware, Ann Cleeves—to figure out how the heck they do it and keep doing it.
Tamara Berry (nominated for the Lillian Jackson Braun Memorial Award – Buried in a Good Book): I’m currently re-listening to the entire Amelia Peabody series on audiobook. (Barbara Rosenblat does a phenomenal job bringing these characters to life.) For re-reads, I tend to stick to the classics like the Amelia Peabody books, Agatha Christie, and even Nancy Drew. The nostalgia factor is strong with these ones, and I enjoy reconnecting with what drove me to become a cozy mystery writer in the first place. Every time I read the books, I fall in love all over again!
Alexa Donne (nominated for Best Young Adult – Pretty Dead Queens): I’m always drawn back to books that make me feel something—shocked or moved or simply marvelously entertained. Ones I’ve come back to repeatedly are the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch by Alison Arngrim, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and both Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion by Jane Austen. A slightly strange spread, but all of these impacted me the first time I read them, and I’ve reread in order to sink back into those feelings, and into that moment in time. Oh and every so often I’ll reread a thriller for a masterclass on how the author executed a twist.
Julie Buxbaum (nominated for Best Juvenile – The Area 51 Files): I tend not to be a huge re-reader, mostly because there are so many books I want to read and so little time. I only re-visit a book if I feel like a novel has something to teach me, but even then, I may only re-visit it partly or skim read.
Mark Harrison (recipient of the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for “Dogs in the Canyon” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine): I most frequently revisit James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, and Ross MacDonald’s The Underground Man. These books are among my favorites so I reread them when I can.
Eva V. Gibson (nominated for Best Young Adult – Frightmares): I’m a huge re-reader. I love looking for details I missed and spending more time with characters I love. Sometimes I want to revisit a particular line or passage that struck me, or reexperience the way a certain story made me feel. I love studying literature in general, interpreting turns of phrase, looking for nuance and layers of intention in a text, or appreciating superbly crafted stories across genres. Jennifer McMahon, Stephen King, Toni Morrison, Dorothy Allison, Chuck Palahniuk, Fannie Flagg, Neil Gaiman, John Douglas, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates—I can pick up anything by those authors and dive in at random. As a child, most of my books came from the library, but the ones I owned I’d re-read until the covers fell off. When I was eight, my dad bought me this little paperback collection of four Poe stories, which I used to read over and over, under a blanket with a flashlight. And I must have read Little Women and the Anne of Green Gables series a hundred times. Just answering this question makes me want to go dig into some old favorites.
Connie Berry (nominated for the Lilian Jackson Braun Memorial Award – The Shadow of Memory): Obviously not to find out what happens. I reread books for two reasons: first when I’ve fallen in love with the language—the way the words sound in my ear and the way they’re laid out on the page; and second, when I love the story world so much, I want to hang out there for a while. Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame falls into that last category for me. I never tire of the gentle, silly adventures of Mole, Ratty, Badger, and Mr. Toad. These days I usually listen to audiobooks first. If I really love a book, I’ll purchase a hard copy for my library.
Alicia Bessette (nominated for the Lillian Jackson Braun Memorial Award – Smile Beach Murder): Every few years I reread my favorite novel, Jane Eyre. I’m a sucker for an orphan story, for a bildungsroman, and for an intimate first-person narrative. Jane Eyre nails all three. While obviously not a crime novel, it’s evocative and suspenseful, and every time Jane’s earnest voice enters my head, I love her a little more.
Louisa Luna (nominated for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award – Hideout): Mrs. Dalloway I’ve read about 20 times since the first time in college. I used to try to coordinate it so I’d read that and The Hours in mid-June when they take place, but I’ve been off my game for a few years. The collection, Tenth of December, by George Saunders—I’ve also read that a lot. Each story is like its own little magic trick. The Big Sleep, of course, for tone, architecture. It’s just perfect. A few others.
What’s the throughline, you say, between these examples? Not sure I know, myself. But if I had to hazard a guess, I think it has something to do with strong interior voices, present in all three.
Who’s a crime writer ripe for rediscovery?
D. M. Rowell: Joseph Hansen. His 1970s Dave Brandstetter mysteries were groundbreaking. In an era when the majority of Americans opposed same-sex relationships, Hansen created a series featuring a tough, hardboiled, no-nonsense detective who just happened to be homosexual, and Harper & Row had the courage to publish the Dave Brandstetter mysteries.
It’s not only that Hansen was the first to write of a proud, openly gay investigator, Hansen was also an incredible writer. His Brandstetter books are smart, crisp mysteries that keep you guessing to the end. The Los Angeles Times called the first Brandstetter mystery, Fadeout a “classic California private eye novel”. Hansen’s twelve book series spans over twenty years with the first book set in the late 1960s. I was thrilled to see that Soho Syndicate Books is republishing the series, beginning with the first three – Fadeout, Death Claims and Troublemaker.
Eli Cranor: Elmore Leonard. I’m not sure if “Dutch” needs rediscovering, but I’ve read all 42 of his novels and highly recommend them. James Crumley is also way up on my list.
William Burton McCormick: I am not sure if Ambrose Bierce, Wilkie Collins, Eric Ambler or Alistair MacLean need “rediscovery” but if the young folks don’t read them, they should. I’d definitely recommend Lucille Fletcher. Read her “Sorry, Wrong Number” and “The Hitch-Hiker” or listen to the radio adaptions by Orson Welles and others. If I ever write anything half as suspenseful, I’ll die a happy writer (and hopefully not murdered in my bed exactly as the 11:15 train passes by outside). As I am a fanatical Alfred Hitchcock devotee, the fact that Fletcher was Bernard Herrmann’s wife only adds to her considerable coolness.
John Darnielle (nominated for Best Novel – Devil House): Sciascia, the Sicilian mystery writer — Granta put his stuff back in print recently but it didn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. He’s a true master of mood & scene; his books often involve the mafia, but not the mafia we know from the movies. His stories are genuinely ~mysterious~, they leave you wondering about stuff like classic noir. So good.
Connie Berry: I’m a huge fan of the Golden Agers and the members of The Detection Club. Every year I try to read at least one classic crime novel I’ve never read. This past year I read two—Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert and Bats in the Belfry by E.C. R. Lorac. Both authors deserve to be rediscovered by modern readers. And I love the Midsomer books by Caroline Graham. The long-running TV series has overshadowed the originals, which is too bad. One of my favorite passages of all time is Graham’s description of Miss Bellringer in The Killings at Badger’s Drift—“She looked like a tattered eagle.”
Kathleen Hale (nominated for Best Fact Crime – Slenderman: Online Obsession, Mental Illness, and the Violent Crime of Two Midwestern Girls): I’m not sure she needs to be “re”-discovered, because she’s already so famous, but I can never get enough of Ann Rule. She wrote over thirty books prior to her death, and although she’s most famous for The Stranger Beside Me, which chronicles Rule’s friendship with Ted Bundy (she was writing a book about his crimes BEFORE he was fingered as the culprit, which is completely insane) ALL of her books are incredible resources for true crime readers and writers. I also regularly re-read Shirley Jackson.
Carol Goodman: While still well known as a children’s book author, Joan Aiken’s gothic suspense novels, such as The Silence of Herondale and Died on a Rainy Sunday, deserve a wider audience.
Martin Edwards: In the United States, I’d say Fredric Brown. He’s better remembered for his science fiction but his crime novels (such as The Screaming Mimi) and short stories (such as ‘Don’t Look Behind You’) were terrific and deserve to be better known. He was legendary for his mastery of plot but what I particularly admire is the way he was never content to write the same-old, same-old and was always interested in trying something new. This approach isn’t necessarily a recipe for fame and fortune, but it’s the mark of a high-calibre writer.
Danya Kukafka (nominated for Best Novel – Notes on an Execution): Daphne DuMaurier. I’m notoriously bad at reading classic literature, but I discovered REBECCA a few years ago, along with the rest of the world, and I found her sensibilities so modern. Her craft is immaculate.
Marthe Jocelyn: I am not alone in thinking that Josephine Tey is a marvel, but she deserves world-wide recognition.
Charles John Harper (nominated for Best Short Story – “Backstory,” Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine): I’m not sure he’s ever been forgotten or overlooked for long, but Raymond Chander is always worth revisiting. Some people assume that Chandler’s writing is little more than a “Guy Noir” sendup on “A Prairie Home Companion.” Nothing could be further from the truth. His writing contains both a literary muscle and an artistic dexterity that transcends the hardboiled genre. And from a practical perspective, his prose inspires me to think more broadly when I’m writing, particularly with similes and descriptions. Consider this paragraph from his short story, “I’ll Be Waiting”: “At one o’clock in the morning, Carl, the night porter, turned down the last of three table lamps in the main lobby of the Windermere Hotel. The blue carpet darkened a shade or two and the walls drew back into remoteness. The chairs were filled with shadowy loungers. In the corners were memories like cobwebs.” Many writers when describing those corners might settle for “In the corners were cobwebs like memories.” But Chandler has the nerve to flip them, deepening the sense of a hotel no longer in its prime by placing the emphasis on its past—the memories—rather than on any current unkempt condition—cobwebs. Discoveries like that abound in every one of his stories. An equally rewarding alternative is Ross Macdonald, the heir apparent to Chandler who somehow managed to blend compassion and psychology with hardboiled detection. Both writers are true masters and well worth rediscovery.
What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received? Or the worst?
D. M. Rowell: I’ve received two great pieces of advice on writing, both difficult to master.
The first; just do it! Get out of your head and write. Let your story out.
And the second; don’t forget to live. Enjoy the moments in life. Don’t let writing keep you from living and appreciating life.
“[D]on’t forget to live. Enjoy the moments in life. Don’t let writing keep you from living and appreciating life.” –D.M. Rowell
Grace M. Li (nominated for Best First Novel – Portrait of a Thief): For writing, I always try to remember that the process should be fun (even when it’s hard!). I’m a big believer in self-indulgence in writing; my favorite books to read are always deeply personal and wonderfully idiosyncratic. In terms of publishing advice, a friend of mine asked me years ago—as I was watching so many friends achieve their dreams while mine were still stagnating—if I would trade my book for theirs, along with all the accompanying accolades. I come back to that question often. So much of publishing is outside our control, but we do control the work of writing. That work, I hope, can also be rewarding enough in itself.
Danya Kukafka: I think often of this quote from Jia Tolentino: “As a writer, the only thing that you can guarantee yourself pleasure and challenge from is inside your own writing process. If you can work in such a way that the process will be pleasurable enough that even if nothing comes of it, the work is an end in and of itself—then you’ll be okay.” (The Creative Independent).
Juliana Goodman: The best writing advice I’ve ever received is to write what you know.
Nita Prose: Best: When you’re finished writing for the day, resist the urge to complete your sentence. Leave it hanging, incomplete, as that will help you pick up the thread the next day. Worst: Judge your progress by your word count.
Eli Cranor: Bill Boyle has three rules that have stuck with me: Be a fan first. Don’t get bitter. Make weird choices.
Mary Anna Evans (nominated for Best Critical/Biographical – The Bloomsbury Handbook to Agatha Christie): The best piece of writing advice I ever received was this: “Make them feel something.”
The worst piece of writing advice I ever received? I guess it’s the suggestion that a novel has to have a certain amount of sex, violence or other controversial material in it, if the writer hopes to sell a lot of copies. Some fantastic and bestselling books are just dripping with sex and violence, while other fantastic and bestselling novels are so focused on other matters–conflict, grief, loss, fear, love, whatever–that to stop the action for a knife fight or a romantic interlude would just feel wrong. A novel needs what it needs.
Seraphina Nova Glass: As a professor, I tell my acting students to go to their audition, and when they walk out, forget about it. On to the next project or audition or monologue preparation, or what have you. I have received similar advice about writing. Once the book is finished, on to the next project. Don’t worry about reviews. It can be paralyzing. This is terrific advice. Carson McCullers said: “I never read my reviews. If they’re good, they might give me a big head, and if they are unfavorable, I would be depressed, so why bother?”
Gosh, what sound advice. The problem is that I don’t actually follow it even though I recognize it as wise. It’s especially good advice now that reviews do not reside quietly in print media written by literary critics, but instead they hang around on all social media platforms and any average reader can offer an opinion. So as the cliché goes, if you receive ninety-nine good reviews, and one bad, the negative review is all you’ll remember. It’s a weird, potentially toxic thing, I think for writers to have access to everyone’s opinion about their work. On the other hand, it’s sort of fascinating to have this real-time feedback. Either way you approach it, I think you either need to have a thick skin or ignore negative comments. I’m still working on both.
William Burton McCormick: I have received a lot of good advice. Steve Berry taught me to identify my protagonist in the first few words of the first line. R.L. Stine said in order to write a good story, start with a great title and great ending and then fill in everything else. (I wish I were better at coming up with enticing titles). Because much of my work has historical settings, I always refer back to what my MA tutor, British author Martyn Bedford, said about historical accuracy and detail: “Be as accurate as you can, but the needs of the story come first.”
Emilya Naymark: I had two life altering pieces of advice in my writing career. One was more of a general outlook on writing, and it came from Gotham Writing classes—write clean, use good verbs, spurn cliches and adverbs, and if your characters do boring stuff, no need to put it down on paper (might be obvious, but…).
The second phenomenally important piece of advice was to write and submit short stories while working on a novel. Short stories take significantly less time to write than a novel, can be submitted to a great number of publications large and small, without an agent, and once you get published, you have writing credits! And they’re fantastic fun to write.
Marthe Jocelyn: “Just write it better” probably comes under both those headings.
Robert Thorogood (nominated for the Lillian Jackson Braun Award – The Marlow Murder Club): ‘Just keep swimming’, as Dory says in Finding Nemo. There are times when you’re deep in a novel and you feel completely lost, demoralised and lacking in all inspiration. The story feels boring, there’s no way you’ll get to the end, and on and on the negative thoughts assault you, but you just have to keep going. Every day. Even if you only write 100 words that day, or only 10, if you write something every time you sit down, you’ll still get to the end. Eventually. It may take longer than you expect, but you’ll still get to write ‘The End’ at some point, and every writer who finishes a story is a hero as far as I’m concerned.
Erika Krouse (nominated for Best Fact Crime – Tell Me Everything: The Story of a Private Investigation): It was more of a question than it was writing advice. Over a decade and two books ago, I was whining about my interminable novel to my buddy Brad Wetzler, who was a journalist then (and also a memoirist now). He asked, “What’s your angle on the story?” And I couldn’t answer. “This situation/character/problem exists!” is not an angle, nor is “this is interesting,” nor “Isn’t this messed up?” I had to find a unique perspective and try to take a new thematic stand, to justify the story. I try to apply that question to both fiction and nonfiction, and it’s helped me to direct my work.
Alexa Donne: The best for me was to stop editing as I went, to fight perfectionism, and that you “can’t edit a blank page.” Pushing through to get something on the page was by far my greatest hurdle starting out, and a mantra I repeat to myself often is: the goal is progress, not perfection. And the worst was very early well-meaning advice from fellow writers who were overly prescriptive, particularly “you have to outline.” The best writing process is the one that works for you!
Claire Kells (nominated for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award – An Unforgiving Place): The best: your characters are well-drawn and compelling, but there’s no story here. You need to learn to tell a story, then come back and talk to me (this was from a literary agent years before I published my first book).
The worst: you should write this…or this…or this. I wasn’t good at those things. I’ve learned over the years to stay true to myself as a writer and a storyteller.
Max Allan Collins: Well, Mickey Spillane gave me the following piece of advice: “Always take your wallet out of your back pocket before you start typing.” I responded by reminding him that his wallet was thicker than mine. My advice would be to re-read your favorite novels analytically—study them. Look at the first sentence, look at the first and last paragraphs in chapters, look at the last sentence, break it down structurally (the three-act format is mostly preached by screenwriters who have never had anything made), look at how the dialogue is set up. Don’t take detailed advice, though, like Elmore Leonard’s ten rules, from famous writers because they will only teach you how to write like them…and there’s already an Elmore Leonard.
Alicia Bessette: Turn your weakness into a strength. Even though I’d been reading mysteries for decades, I balked at writing one; mystery writers excel at plot, and plot was the aspect of writing that gave me the most frustration. Over breakfast a few years ago, I was moaning about my then-weak plot skills to my husband, also a writer. He shrugged. “Who cares if plot doesn’t come naturally to you? Turn your weakness into a strength.” I resisted this advice (“It’s just not that simple!”) for twenty-four hours before admitting his attitude might be healthy. I became a serious student of plot, particularly of the techniques recommended by Jane Cleland in her excellent Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot. The outline I developed while reading Mastering became the scaffolding for Smile Beach Murder. A writer might not transform a weakness into a full-blown strength, but any concerted effort toward that goal will result in more confidence. And confidence is a big part of writing.
Mark de Castrique: A novelist friend of mine told me his secret of writing could be described as BIC. No, not BIC pens, although they could be useful. BIC= Butt In Chair. His equation means write even when your muse seems to have taken the day off. I’ve been blessed with times when I’m in a zone and the characters are talking to each other and I’m channeling their conversation. Other days, I struggle to put two sentences together. BIC means pressing forward with something even though you know you’ll rewrite or even unwrite it. For me, it’s analogous to creating some clay so that it can be molded and shaped. Get the words down to have something to work with. And as my friend said and I have to agree, when you look back at the manuscript, there’s not that much difference between the product of the easy days and the difficult ones. Neither will happen without BIC.
Stephen Spotswood (nominated for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award – Secrets Typed in Blood): I’ve had it written on the little white board in my office ever since I heard Walter Mosley say it: Plot is the structure of revelation.
Plot is not just a series of dominos. It’s not just the things that your characters do. It’s a delivery system for how your reader understands the characters, the world, the story. It’s the order in which you want to reveal your secrets.
Eva V. Gibson : The worst has to be an amalgam of all the various times I was advised that, in order to write an acceptable book, I must follow a very specific set of rules, or I will fail as a creative, a human being, and definitely an author. Ignoring that and refusing to limit the scope of possibility allowed me to push past the boundaries of “acceptable” and carve out my place as an author who writes and publishes across genres. Rejecting the worst, though, did eventually lead me to recognize the best, which is to remain true to my own voice and ideas above even the most well-meaning advice.
Kathleen Hale: I’ll share both the best and the worst… Best advice was to only write stories that feel “easy” and creatively exciting, as opposed to onerous writing, like the kind I did in my early 20s, when I was (understandably) desperate for any kind of paid work (at the time, for young women, those gigs seemed mostly relegated to “confessional essays,” a writing craze in which I feel embarrassed to have participated—in retrospect, it was self-exploitation disguised as empowerment)—a guiding principle that allowed me to discover my preferred genre of writing: true crime. Worst advice? Go to grad school. Oops. Luckily, I dropped out.
Mark Harrison: The best piece of writing advice I ever received, though not directly, came from Lawrence Block: “Write to please yourself.”
Connie Berry: I’ve said this before: Hank Phillippi Ryan’s advice for revision transformed my process—“take out everything that isn’t the book.” Revision isn’t just polishing words or making sure the plot unfolds in the right order. Those things are important, of course. But it’s also necessary to tighten the story by deleting anything that doesn’t contribute to character, plot, or setting. I’m not a true pantser, but I am what Laurie R. King calls an “organic” writer. That means when I sit down to write, I usually know the major plot points, but I don’t know how I’m going to get from Point A to Point B. In the first draft, I tend to chuck in everything because I don’t know what will end up being important to the story. Once that first draft is finished, I understand the book and can make those decisions.
“[R]eaders, crime fiction readers in particular, don’t just read one book, and so writers are not in competition with each other.” –Sulari Gentill
Sulari Gentill (nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award – The Woman in the Library): Best piece of advice: At the beginning of my writing career I was told that readers, crime fiction readers in particular, don’t just read one book, and so writers are not in competition with each other. Any writer whose success brings a reader across to crime fiction does so for all of us.
Worst piece of advice: Write what you know. If that were true, serial killers and psychopaths would be best placed to write crime fiction. Most of my work begins with a curiosity about something as opposed to a knowledge.
Charles John Harper: One of the best pieces of writing advice that still resonates with me comes from Raymond Chandler. In his essay, “Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story,” he states that “[t]he most effective way to conceal a simple mystery is behind another mystery. This is literary legerdemain. You do not fool the reader by hiding clues or faking character…but by making him solve the wrong problem.” While that’s easier said than done, I think it not only offers an interesting angle on how I might want to tell the story, but it also helps to avoid the accusation that I wasn’t playing fair with the reader, a capital offense if there ever was one.
How do you arrange your bookshelves at home?
Sulari Gentill: Hmmm arrange is probably too kind a word for how my bookshelves are filled. The books are two deep on each shelf. Originally, I placed the larger format books behind the smaller volumes so that I had some idea of what was in the partially obscured row. But then more books came live with us and I was compelled to place a a row of books on top of the both the back and front rows. There are also extra books squeezed horizontally into any gap. It’s bedlam. Every now and then, I spend a couple of days sorting and trying and establish some sort of order but it isn’t long before entropy reigns again.
D. M. Rowell: By topics, in alpha order by author; except for series, then by series book order. I’m a stickler for reading series in order. Reading familiar characters’ growth and arcs keeps me hooked; it’s like visiting old friends.
William Burton McCormick: As my life is pretty much nomadic these days thanks to Mr. Putin shelling my city, my bookshelves consist of a cluttered hard drive, an Amazon cloud account, and a few dog-eared books and magazines stuffed inside an old ThrillerFest bag from 2017. Back when I had bookshelves, they were arranged into five categories: fiction, nonfiction, books by friends, books and magazines I’ve written or contributed to, and research materials for current projects.
Marthe Jocelyn: Um, what makes you think they’re arranged?
Amanda Flower (nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award – Because I Could Not Stop For Death): I have so many books, I just shelve them where they can fit. Even though I was a librarian for a long time, at home I don’t have a particular system.
Mary Anna Evans: They’re mostly random. My cookbooks, which I don’t use much because the internet is so easy, are still on my bookshelves, and they’re shelved together. The books from my long-ago days as an engineer are on the top shelf, because I only need them twice a decade. Everything else, though, is a complete mishmash.
Nita Prose: Arrange? What is the meaning of this word “arrange”? My books are piled in random stacks in almost every room. Nonfiction and fiction commingle; pulp and genre fiction, Pulitzer Prize winners, and random classics are stacked upon each other with wild abandon and without any respect for categories. This is exactly as it should be. All is right in the world.
Emilya Naymark: By size! Large cookbooks and art books on the bottom, smaller cookbooks and coffee table books above that, hardcovers above that and paperbacks on the top. Then, I fill in the spaces with more paperbacks across the tops, like Stonehenge. And as to why I have so many coffee table books—in a previous life I was a photo editor and edited a heck ton of them.
Eli Cranor: I have two kids under the age of six. In other words, nothing in my home is organized.
Robert Thorogood: I’ve got a floor to ceiling bookcase of classic Penguin books from the 1940s-1950s, with orange spines for fiction, green for crime, blue for poetry and so on, and I organize them entirely by color. They are my absolute pride and joy. As for all of my other books, I somewhat perversely take pride in having no order to them at all. Instead, I try to remember where each book is by memory alone and pluck it down on request in a way that I always hope makes me look cool, but I know actually makes me look like an obsessive who spends way too long looking at the mess of books on his shelves (which I am, and do).
John Darnielle: They are chaotic—there’s one shelf that’s supposed to be the “stuff in the queue” shelf, but it’s not really that at all, there are books that have been on there for ten years. There’s a shelf in the living room that’s “books by favorite writers,” so I’ve got big runs of William Gass and Joan Didion out there. There’s a poetry shelf, but there’s also plenty of poetry on the other shelves, and no alphabetization anywhere, and lots of stuff besides books on the shelves. Magic cards. Action figures. Spare change. Yo-yos.
Alexa Donne: I’ve always sorted roughly and haphazardly by genre. So you’ll find the YA thriller, the adult mystery, the classics, non-fiction, SFF, etc. groups roughly together, but never are all the books of one kind in the same place. So every bookshelf has some thrillers, some fantasy, some non-fiction, and so on, with multiple works by favorite authors always together, always in the order of publication. I mix hardcover and paperback, though begrudgingly with a paperback breaking up a row of hardcover if I have only that edition of an author’s work alongside hardcover (I am definitely a completionist and love to have either all-hardcover or all-paperback sets when possible). I have too many books (impossible?) and not enough shelf space, so I shelve them two-rows deep in some places. I have teetering stacks on shelf edges, and a physical to-be-read pile by my bed. The aesthetic-loving part of me wishes I had appealing rainbow shelves, but I know having books by different authors separated by color would drive me bonkers, logistically speaking.
Max Allan Collins: In my office I keep authors together in two bookcases that have most of my favorite novels. An old-fashioned revolving bookcase has comic art and movie books, mostly oversize. I have one shelf of my own books, mostly for reference when I’m writing a series entry. I have a bookcase of collectible stuff in a guest bedroom where I don’t allow guests.
Julie Buxbaum: Please don’t kick me out of the publishing community, but I have to confess I do have a bookshelf arranged by color!
Juliana Goodman: I have a section for my all-time favorite books, new books, books that I’m planning to read within the next month and then a separate space for my library books so I can keep track of them.
Eva V. Gibson: My bookshelves generally look like the result of walking into the most chaotic of used bookstores, pushing all the books onto the floor, and reshelving them wherever they seem to fit best from a non-aesthetic standpoint. Some of them are horizontal. There is a theory in my household that my bookcase remains standing purely on the basis of the books’ weight, rather than its own structural integrity. Bookstagram would not love my shelves. Since becoming published, though, I do have a special bookcase of honor my husband built me, where I keep my own books and the books of my author friends. So maybe there’s hope for me and my shelves in the future.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
John Darnielle: A little from each column—I outline and re-outline, and dream up things within the outline, but I have to be surprising myself to stay interested. When I’m baking or cooking it’s different: just give me the ingredients and the steps and I want to follow them. But when I’m writing a book I have to leave room for the moments when something gets revealed to me from within the book—from the characters, who become pretty real to me, or from necessities of moving the action forward — because those are the magic moments, those are when the book is most alive.
Grace M. Li: I used to be a complete pantser and would start writing a book knowing only the main characters and how I wanted their story to end! When I started writing Portrait of a Thief, though, I knew I couldn’t make up a heist novel as I went along, and so by necessity I became a plotter. I also discovered that plotting makes my writing a lot more efficient—love not to have to delete and rewrite whole acts! I tend to follow four act structure, a variant on three act structure that splits act two in half. This sort of outlining has been really helpful in giving me a direction/scene/turning point to write towards while still retaining the joy of discovery as I’m drafting.
Nita Prose: I’m a mix of both. I need to know where I’m going in a general sense (the major plot points and twists) so that I can surprise myself with invention in every individual scene.
Katie Gutierrez (nominated for Best First Novel – More Than You’ll Ever Know): Both! I start with character work, always, which leads me to plot points that I organize into a loose outline. I almost never know what’s going to happen beyond the 60-70% mark, and I don’t really want to. By that point, the story breathes on its own. Anything I could have planned for the last third would fall flat against the evolving needs of the novel and the press of characters’ desires.
Carole Lawrence: I used to write extensive outlines when I was just starting out, but now I’m more of a pantser, though I do keep elaborate notes as I go along.
“If you really want plotting inspiration, check out Joseph Heller’s brilliant outline for Catch-22. The novel doesn’t even begin until halfway down the outline!” –Erika Krouse
Erika Krouse: I was a pantser two books ago, and that book took me over a decade to finish. Then I was a plotter for my most recent book, and I wrote and revised it in 15 months. Of course, it was a manic 15 months of 12- and 16-hour days and a year and a half of neurotic editing afterward, but still, what a difference. I tend to rebel against even my own directions, so I’ll just revise the plan as I go. I had many different kinds of outlines and spreadsheets for Tell Me Everything: a dated timeline for the case I investigated as a PI and all the characters within, a research outline with newspaper hyperlinks and court document references, an outline for the plot and subplot arcs, character evolutions, relationship changes, tonal and emotional shifts, personal events, weather and world events, etc. I relied on them all. If you really want plotting inspiration, check out Joseph Heller’s brilliant outline for Catch-22. The novel doesn’t even begin until halfway down the outline!
Marthe Jocelyn: Definitely a pantser, though I wish we could come up with a new term. What about ‘scribbler’ or ‘writing in the dark’ or ‘free flyer’? Let’s have a contest…
Juliana Goodman: I used to be a pantser but I found it wasn’t really conducive to keeping my writing schedule on track. I would end up with manuscripts that were 200 pages too long and all over the place. Now, I try to plot out each chapter before I start writing so I can keep myself organized.
Alexa Donne: Since moving into mystery writing, I’ve merged my old die-hard pantser ways with moderate plotting. I’m a plantser or discovery writer at heart. I work backwards for mystery, starting with the end—the who or the why, though often the setting, primary driving trope, or a main character are in mind at the same time. But I must know how it all ends—that big ending twist, and third act climax set piece. Before putting pen to page, I figure out the inciting incident and sometimes, but not always, the mid-point turn, and that’s enough to jump in and go. I’m always barreling toward that ending and set piece, with the freedom to brainstorm on the fly, which is how I arrive at some of my best characters, red herrings, and additional twists and turns. With Pretty Dead Queens, for example, the whole book came about because I had a twist in mind, which sprung forth from one of my favorite Internet jokes. Then I had to construct an actual plot to facilitate that big twist.
Amanda Flower: I am a 100% panster. I’ve tried to plot before many times, and it’s always a disaster.
Carol Goodman: I think I’m somewhere between a plotter and a pantser. When I first catch the glimmer of an idea for a book I write copious notes, long rambling synopses, labyrinthine maps, and incoherent timelines. I often have the beginning and the end, while the middle yawns like a bottomless crevasse that must be traversed by the ricketiest of string bridges. As I write on the right-hand side of my notebook, the left side fills with notes, questions, and pleas for deliverance. I can usually outline one to two chapters out, as if I’m keeping just ahead of a shadowy pursuer. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, panting with the solution to one of those questions or in fear I have no idea where the book is going. So yes, definitely a plotpanter.
Julie Buxbaum: Pantser for my non-mystery books, and a very rough plotter for The Area 51 Files.
Seraphina Nova Glass: I am a huge plotter. I cannot start the first page until I have a detailed outline I can really trust. I admire writers who can wing it, but I also can’t imagine not knowing the end I’m writing to. I always start at the end so I know what the twist or reveals might be. I get asked a lot if I then work backwards, and I don’t. Once I’m satisfied with where these characters will land in the end, I start from the beginning. I don’t find it limiting to outline. I think it creates a lot of freedom, actually. Once all the main plot points are nailed down and I know loosely what needs to happen and when, I can have fun diving into the world and not feel held back by a lot of guessing and hoping it takes me in the right direction.
Andrew Neiderman: I believe in organic plotting, which means you have a premise, you create a true character and then you follow what the character does or says. You don’t force the character which is often the case with outlines influenced by others, i.e. agents and editors. Let the story grow and become. And never end the day with the end of a chapter. Always end in the middle.
Sulari Gentill: I am an extreme pantser. I write chronologically with no idea what’s gong to happen in the next paragraph let alone at the end of the book, and I don’t rewrite. I realise who the killer is only a page or two before my protagonist or the reader does. It is, admittedly, a risky way to write. About 75% of the way through every book I find myself thinking “Oh no, I’ve written myself into a corner…. I can’t land this book! Why didn’t I write a plot, and outline, notes… anything?” The only way to resolve it is to take a deep breath, gather your courage and write on regardless. And somewhere in that desperate attempt, from that strange place in the soul where stories are made, will come the final twist that makes it all work.
Robert Thorogood: Because I write ‘fair play’ mysteries, I have to plot the whole book out before I start. I have to know what clues appear at what moments, who’s present to witness or hear that clue, and so on, and I have to make sure that all of the revelations come in an order that best hides the killer from the reader. Because that’s basically the parlour game I’m playing when I write a book. I try to make it fun and engaging, to have comedy set pieces and B-stories, but above all else I’m laying down a challenge: ‘Here are five suspects, see if you can guess which one of them is the killer’. (By the way, I’m always happy if a reader guesses ‘whodunnit’—all that matters to me is that the reader feels engaged enough to play the game).
Eva V. Gibson: I’m mostly a pantser, since my brain functions best when I avoid limitations in the creative process. Getting too caught up in how the story is “supposed to unfold” works at odds with getting in the zone and interrupts the natural flow of my best writing. I do, however, usually go into a draft with a clear idea of beginning, middle, and end. Usually.
William Burton McCormick: Mainly a plotter. I outline heavily, do flow charts for character arcs, and make bullet point lists of information, clues and red herrings. I sometimes “pants” an opening scene or chapter when the muse takes me but often that scene will be replaced or heavily revised during final editing as I did not know my characters well during the initial wellspring and by the end of a draft, they are not who I thought they were.
Alicia Bessette: I pantsed my whole life up until a few years ago, when I decided to try my hand at writing mystery. Making the switch was daunting, but I can’t imagine I’ll ever go back. When I’m working off a meaty outline, a strange paradox occurs—namely, that my predetermined plot points pave the way for spontaneous surprises in the writing. Back in my pantsing days, those fun connections rarely happened, for reasons I’ll probably never understand. Though I am Team Plotter through and through, I also am Team Whatever Works. Whatever writing method sees you through to the end—do that, whether it’s pantsing, plotting, or some type of self-designed hybrid. Process is a spectrum. Trial and error will eventually land you in your own happy place on that spectrum.
Charles John Harper: Pantser, though I often wish I wasn’t. I’ve written short stories where even as I reached the final scene of the first draft I wasn’t sure who did it. It keeps the journey interesting, but it also creates anxiety and often leads to a significant rewrite once you figure out who the killer is. And yet, what I love about it is that it challenges me as the writer to find the solution that is hidden within the tone and spirit of the scenes I’ve created, as well as the motifs and metaphors that underlie that specific story. Motifs and metaphors I might not have had in mind when I started. I’m sure that plotters have their moments of surprise along the way, but pantsing, I believe, is dependent upon that journey of discovery. It’s what makes writing so much fun. That “aha” moment when I finally discover what the story I’m trying to tell is trying to tell me.
Michael Craft: I’m definitely a plotter, in part because that’s just the way I’m wired. More broadly, though, I think it’s a sensible way to approach the task of devising and writing a mystery, which tends to be highly plot-centric with a lot of moving parts and interrelated details. The story will still evolve in the writing, but along the way, it’s far easier to tweak a well-crafted outline than it is to make bone-deep revisions to hundreds of pages of a “pantsed” manuscript.
Mark Harrison: I am a plotter. It is much easier for me to write when I have a detailed outline to guide the process.
Louisa Luna: Pantser all the way!
Let your subconscious do the work, you know? Stephen King’s got his guy in the basement; I have the lady in the attic.
Of course, I am way over-simplifying this process. I still have to actually write the book and figure out what goes where. I still need to develop characters and get them to say cool things.
Also, pantsing is not without detriment, if we’re being real. In the second Vega book, The Janes, I painted myself into a corner when I was about 20K words from the end—it was just this plot point that I hadn’t thought about, and I remember I was walking home from the subway, running down the plot in my head, and I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and was like, “Shit. That’s a sizeable rabbit hole.” I didn’t have to start over or anything, but it put me back about a month fixing it. So that would have been a good moment to be a plotter.
At a certain stage, though, I think you’re kind of one or the other. Ultimately being a pantser has worked for me and yielded the best stories I can write so I have to stick with it, even if I tumble down the rabbit hole now and again.
Tamara Berry: I’m a pantser through and through. For a mystery writer, this keeps things very entertaining. For the first half of a book, I basically throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. A boring lull in the narrative? Why not throw in a Bigfoot! Write myself into a corner and can’t find an easy way out? Have a dead body fall suddenly from the sky! The real fun starts when I reach the halfway point and have to figure out a way to make all the loose threads connect.
What are your research methods? How do you find your way through the archives?
Kathleen Hale: As soon as I have new materials, I upload them to a Google Drive. But when I’m exiting the research phase, and moving onto a first draft, I print out everything I have (terrible, I know, environmentally) and organize them into binders. Then I go through with a highlighter, marking anything that grabs me, and transplant those excerpts into a timeline of the crime. On first pass, I usually highlight too much; to me, everything about the story is interesting. But during my second pass, try to be more circumspect, writing out the story around those timeline excerpts. In general, I write long—my first draft of Slenderman was over 600 pages—way too much—and because it was my first true crime book, I made a lot of mistakes, so I ended up needing to do a page 1 rewrite, which took me about another year.
Once everything is on the page, though—sourced, logistically, and fleshed out, narratively—my editorial process becomes a management of tone and execution. On a sentence level, I try to make sure I’m saying things as efficiently as possible—I go through and shorten the sentences as much as I can. On a macro level, it becomes a game of combing through the texts and erasing the undercurrent of passion that drew me to the case to begin with—personally, I don’t like reading moral lectures, so I try to sound as dispassionate as possible on the page, despite feeling incredibly emotional about the content. With Slenderman, it took five years for me to feel like I’d struck the right tonal balance—dispassionate yet compassionate true crime.
Mary Anna Evans: Before making an archival trip, I explore the library’s website, trying to discern what materials it holds, so that I can request that those materials be ready for me when I come. Inevitably, I have a lot of questions that I’m not able to answer remotely, so I get in touch with one of the collection’s archivists. They have been uniformly wonderful in helping me make the most of my time at the archive. In my experience, archivists are experts and they are generous with their knowledge. They’re wonderful people.
Martin Edwards: Reading is the key. The more you read, the more you know and (with any luck) the more you understand. When working on The Life of Crime, over a period of about seven years, I benefited from a lifetime of crime reading. But for a single person to write a history of the whole of crime fiction, across the world, is an ambitious (some might say crazy!) undertaking, so I felt it was important to expose myself to a very wide range of influences and sources of information. I studied books about the genre, notably Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder, and also biographies and autobiographies of crime writers and some academic works. I also talked to people whose views I respect (regardless of whether I always agree with those views). Once I had a handle on the material, the key challenge was how to present it in an entertaining way. The solution lay in adopting novelistic techniques – not simply telling the story of the crime genre’s evolution, but turning the lives of influential writers into mini-narratives that cast light not only on their own work, but also on the type of crime fiction they and others wrote, from their time until the present day.
David Geherin: When I first began writing in the 1970s, most of my research time was spent in the library, rummaging though the stacks to locate articles in periodicals or poring over microfilm in search of newspaper reviews. Thanks to the Internet, this has all changed. Whether preparing a bibliography of material I want to read, searching for interviews or biographical information, or tracking down old newspaper articles and essays in defunct journals, I am now able to do all this at home in front of my computer. This does not eliminate the need for library work, but I am fortunate to live within seven miles of two major university collections.
Robert Thorogood: I use research as a necessary part of the development process. It allows me to unearth facts that are far more interesting than anything I could come up with on my own. However, I also find that research can quite quickly become a vehicle for procrastination, so I also try not to get too bogged down by it, either. After all, the sorts of books I write are operating at quite a ‘heightened’ reality already – with amateur sleuths helping the police solve murders in a quaint English town – and I know that people don’t read them for their gritty verisimilitude.
Marthe Jocelyn: Though most of my books are fiction, they require research too. Especially ones set in the past. I read and read and read, books contemporaneous to the period, with a particular fondness for diaries or household accounts – the parts of history written by women and generally ignored by men.