Tag Archive for: writing how to


by Bethany Maines

Recently, I’ve been working on the sequel to my murder
mystery An Unseen Current.  While
thematically not that different from my other books (a young person struggles
with unusual circumstances while navigating the choppy waters of family, love,
and friends), mysteries bring a special level of challenge to the mix.  For one thing, people expect clues.  Oh, there’s a dead body?  Well, writer, where are the clues?  Chop, chop! Produce the clues!
However, it’s not just about clues; it’s about when to reveal
those clues.  Too early and readers are
bored because they already solved it. 
Too late and it seems like the author is cheating and wedging
information to justify who the killer is at the last second.  Then, even if the writer does pop a clue in
the right place, she can’t be too precious about it.  The author can’t present it on a silver
platter with a neon arrow stating: Clue Here!! 
To accomplish the correct where and when of clue placement requires a
stronger outline than other genres.  And
that means that I must do what every writer hates doing—not writing.
Outlining and the synopsis are vital to a successful book.  But they aren’t the FUN part of writing.  The fun part is churning out scenes and
spending time with the made up people who populate my brain.  Outlining requires problem solving and all
the leg work of deciding back stories and motivations and the literal who,
what, when, where and why of who was murdered. (It was Professor Plumb in the
Library with the Candlestick, in case you were wondering.)  But mostly it leaves me thinking: Are we
there yet? What about now?  Can I start
writing now?
Fortunately, the answer is getting closer to being yes.  So wish me luck as I work out the kinks of how the dead body
ended up behind a bar in Anacortes.

You never know what’s beneath the surface.
When Seattle native Tish Yearly finds herself
fired and evicted all in one afternoon, she knows she’s in deep water.
Unemployed and desperate, the 26 year old ex-actress heads for the one place
she knows she’ll be welcome – the house of her cantankerous ex-CIA agent
grandfather, Tobias Yearly, in the San Juan Islands. And when she discovers the
strangled corpse of Tobias’s best friend, she knows she’s in over her head.
Tish is thrown head-long into a mystery that pits her against a handsome but
straight-laced Sheriff’s Deputy, a group of eccentric and clannish local
residents, and a killer who knows the island far better than she does. Now Tish
must swim against the current, depending on her nearly forgotten acting skills
and her grandfather’s spy craft, to con a killer and keep them both alive.

Bethany Maines is the author of the Carrie
Mae Mysteries
, Wild Waters, Tales
from the City of Destiny
and An
Unseen Current
You can also view the Carrie Mae youtube video
or catch up with her on Twitter and Facebook.

Winging It

by J.M. Phillippe

Earlier this month, fellow Stiletto Gang author Bethany Maines posted a great blog about how she organizes her novels using spreadsheets and graphs — all online! I was super impressed. And then intimidated. Because my organization of a novel looks a lot more like this:

Images of writing notebooks
Sometimes I can’t even read my own writing.

 I don’t even remember to put all my notes about the same story in the same notebook.

I do start out trying to be super organized. I spend a lot of time procrastinating…er…pre-writing by creating elaborate systems and files that some part of me knows I will never maintain. I understand that that the more up-front work I do, the less back-end work I’ll have to do. And yet, inevitably, at some point during a writing project I find myself digging through various notebooks and poorly named Word files, trying to find that one piece of information I need to complete whatever section I’m working on. I have to scan first drafts specifically for continuity errors (like the spelling of a name), and if it wasn’t for eagle-eyed readers and editors, I’d miss small changes I made in even basic descriptions (did that room have a brown leather chair or a burgundy leather chair?).

Vader is not impressed with me.

I also only ever make it half-way through a novel outline before the drafting process takes over, and characters and plots move in totally different directions. It’s a little bit because I find outlines kind of boring, and a little bit more that if I get too detailed and figure out how it will all end, I lose interest. Generally, I never start with more than a vague sense of where I want to end up, and I find drafting it out so much more satisfying. And yet I know that an outline would probably make the entire process a lot less messy — and faster — if maybe not as spontaneous.

Of course, come revision time, I then I have to backtrack and do all the work that I maybe shoulda coulda woulda done in the pre-writing process. I create a reverse outline of my chapters and sections. I make a style sheet and finally decide on a single spelling of a name (the search and replace feature in Word is very much my friend). Changes are always intentionally planned. I invest heavily in the revision process, and the story can change dramatically from draft to draft.

In many ways, starting off by winging it and then going back and organizing what I’ve written lets me discover the story in two different ways — as I write it, and after I go back and read what I’ve written. That process of discovery keeps me interested in the story, even if it is very labor intensive.

Still, I can’t help but look at the ways other writers organize themselves and wistfully daydream about my own set of spread sheets and graphs. Sometimes though, I’d settle for remembering exactly where I put that really great breakdown of the third act I thought of while on the bus two months ago. All I have to do is figure out what notebook I had with me that day…

J.M. Phillippe is the author of Perfect Likeness. She has lived in the deserts of California, the
suburbs of Seattle, and the mad rush of New York City.  She worked as a freelance journalist before
earning a masters’ in social work.  She
works as a family therapist in Brooklyn, New York and spends her free-time
decorating her tiny apartment to her cat Oscar Wilde’s liking, drinking cider
at her favorite British-style pub, and training to be the next Karate Kid, one
wax-on at a time.

Organizing My World(s)

by Bethany Maines

An author’s job is not just to tell a story, but to decide how a story should be told. Is it better
in first or third person? Is it told in one long march of words or are their
chapters? We have to decide genre, tone and feeling. And once those decisions
have been made an author must create and track the main plot of the story – the
one that we struggle to capture in the blurb text on the back cover – as well as
the sub-plots, underlying themes, and finally, the characters themselves.  All of those pieces require not just the ability
to write, but also the ability to track information. Because, as any serious
reader will tell you (sometimes at great length), consistency and details
matter greatly to a well written book, and while we can rely on an editor for
some items, they are only human and can only catch so much.  It is in an author’s best interest to provide
the cleanest manuscript possible.
I’m currently working on two vastly different stories: the
fourth Carrie Mae Mystery Glossed Cause and a Romance Horror
novella Wild Waters.  Each story comes
with an array of characters, research and plot twists that to be perfectly
honest I can’t hold in my brain. 
Possibly pre-production of a toddler I could have kept hold of all the
details, but no longer. Now, to keep all my worlds organized, I must rely on a system of notes, plot outlines and

For the Carrie Mae books I track characters with a spread sheet
that notes who they are (name, basic role, job or company) and also what book
they have appeared in or if they have been deleted or omitted from a book.  I also have a rather extensive style sheet
that helps me keep track of how certain things, such as chapter headings are
formatted and whether or not I’m consistently formatting things like “AK-47”
and “INTERPOL” the same way over multiple books.
For Wild Waters I’m writing in two
different time periods – WWII and Vietnam ­– and they each use distinctive
slang that I organize in a couple of basic lists.  There are
also multiple character points of view and it is important to keep track of
what characters know and when they know it, so that each plot point is revealed
at the correct time. Tracking character
arcs are more difficult and sometimes require multiple ways of
visualizing.  I will frequently write out
the plot from each characters point of view or I will graph it out on a virtual
whiteboard, utilizing the main plot points.

There is no perfect system of course, and each author must
work the way that works for them. But when examining a well-written book, I am
frequently in awe, not just of the beautifully constructed words or strong turn
of phrase, but the underlying construction of a book.  Sometimes, I find it amazing that any books
get written at all.

Bethany Maines is the author of the Carrie
Mae Mysteries
, Tales from the City of
and An Unseen Current.
You can also view the Carrie Mae youtube video
or catch up with her on Twitter and Facebook.