Tuesday, June 13, 2017

What I Learned at the California Crime Writers Conference

It’s Monday morning in Culver City on a gorgeous Southern California day. From my hotel room window, I can see reflected in the mirrored building across the parking lot the low peaks of Baldwin Hills, the purple of a jacaranda tree just coming into bloom, and the traffic on Hwy. 405—now at a virtual standstill heading north, the direction we need to drive to get home to Santa Cruz.

A good time to set down some of my thoughts about the weekend. I came down here for the California Crime Writers Conference (CCWC), a terrific event presented every two years by the Los Angeles chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, that features panels and workshops on the craft of writing, marketing, publicity, and crime scene and investigative forensics.

But as all of us writers know, the most important part of conferences like these is hanging out with the other attendees, because mystery writers are the most warm, generous, and fun people on the planet. I never fail to come away from CCWC feeling inspired, recharged, and ready to write with renewed vigor.

dinner with a gang of writers at CCWC

Two of the highlights of this year’s conference were the special guests, Hallie Ephron and William Kent Krueger. Hallie gave the keynote talk at Saturday’s lunch, during which she provided a list of her top ten pieces of advice for writers. Since number one was “take notes,” I did as directed, and am therefore able to pass the advice along to you. (I may have gotten some of this wrong, however, as she spoke quickly and I do not know shorthand. Sorry, Hallie, if I did!)

Hallie gives a workshop about characters driving plot

1) Take notes. Hallie recounted the story of how, when her famous screenwriter mother was dying at age 57 of cirrhosis of the liver brought on by alcoholism, the mother’s equally famous daughter, Nora (Hallie’s older sister), was by her beside. “You’re a writer,” the mom said to Nora. “Take notes.”

2) Make your own space for writing. This is both physical—a place where you can be alone to write—but also in your head. Don’t be distracted by Facebook, email, etc. If you use a timer and write solidly, without interruption, for only 40 minutes a day, you’ll have a book in six months.

3) Pay attention to things that interest you. Hallie used the example of the scene in the Hitchcock film, Suspicion, where Cary Grant carries the glass of milk upstairs to Jane Fontaine, and how the shadows grow sinister and the milk seems to glow in the glass. (Hitchcock put a light in the glass, Hallie informed us, to obtain this effect.) Take note of the little things—like Hitchcock did with a simple glass of milk—and how they can be used to great effect in your writing.

4) Be your own cheerleader. Hallie has posted over her desk a fortune cookie she once got, saying “You will succeed in a far our convention.”

5) Read. Only by reading others’ works will you know what good writing sounds like.

6) Hold your nose and write. Even when you don’t want to, force yourself to keep going. “Gallop in the direction of more; inch towards better,” she said. (This may be someone else’s quote, but I couldn’t find it anywhere online.) As noted by Hallie’s sister, Nora, “The hardest thing about writing is writing.”

7) Slash and burn. Delete anything that’s boring. Beware of too much backstory and coincidences (never have more than one in a story). But when you do cut, save it in a separate file, as it may be perfect for a later work!

8) Prepare for rejection. When you send out queries, have the next five ready to go. Aim high—don’t take a bad deal just because you’re afraid of not getting another.

9) Embrace your flaws. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Always be flexible and listen. Don’t be thin-skinned. And, most importantly, realize that only a fool would write a novel.

10) Don’t wait to be published to celebrate. Celebrate after you write your first ten thousand words. And after you finish your novel. And after you do your revisions. And when someone in your writing group laughs during your reading. And when you get asked for a partial submission. And when you get a personalized rejection.

And finally, she said (yes, this one did go to 11): Get used to it. Make it the journey that counts.

After giving us her top ten (plus one) pieces of advice, Hallie told us about being asked, “What made you decide to write mysteries?”

“Because my sisters hadn’t written one,” was her immediate response.

But then she provided the real answer (though I’m guessing the facetious one had more than a grain of truth to it): Genre fiction is less scary than “literature,” because there are rules and reader expectations, such as the three-act structure, the big confrontation at the end, etc. But just as with highbrow literature, you can include all the personal, gut-wrenching issues in mysteries, as well.

William Kent Krueger was our keynote speaker the next day.

Kent (as he’s known) at his workshop

Because I didn’t take notes during his keynote speech, however, here’s a brief recap, instead, of his excellent workshop on how to build suspense:
1) Classic suspense depends on conflict, either between the characters or within the protagonist. Every scene in your novel should have some tension or conflict. Conflict equals visceral suspense.

2) You must have a good hook, right from the start, to pull the reader in.

3) Readers must care about, have an emotional investment in the characters

4) Delay gratification in readers by not meeting their expectations. Suspense is about what will happen next. Ask the question, but then delay the answer. The longer you draw out time, the tauter the suspense.

5) Create obstacles for your protagonist. Insert complications into the story. Isolating the hero is a great way of doing this.

6) Up the ante. Just when your readers think they know what’s going on, make it worse—far worse.

7) Set the clock ticking. Give your protagonist a limited time to save the day.

8) Stretch time. Slow the countdown to the danger (this is similar to no. 4.) Some of the best suspense writing takes several pages to tell what happened in just a few seconds. Kent gave the example of a bomb under a table of poker players. Having the bomb go off with no notice to the reader creates no suspense. But if you show the bomb with 10 seconds left, then go to the players, then go back to the bomb with 5 seconds left, etc., that’s suspenseful.

9) Save the worst for last. All hope is lost. The dramatic climax of the story. (But note that, in a series, it doesn’t work to put your protagonist in danger, because we all know he/she will return for the next book. It’s far better to put someone the hero cares about in danger.)

10) The calm at the storm’s end. Have a last scene where loose ends are tied up, we get to exhale in relief after all the tension that’s come before.

Here’s the whiteboard chart Kent wrote out for us:

If any of you crime writers out there are considering attending a craft conference in the future, the next CCWC will be held in June of 2019, and I heartily recommend that you attend!