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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.,
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