I enjoy a good writers’ conference, just like the next author, and I went to one recently. Last Wednesday The Mystery Writers of America put on their annual Edgar symposium in Manhattan. Most of the panelists throughout the day were a combination of well known writers and 2010 Edgar prize nominees. I left feeling stimulated, energized, and excited, with ideas on how to improve my work-in-progress (which I had previously considered finished. Oh, well.)
There were several panels, the usual suspects, so to speak. The first was Dialogue: Telling vs. Showing. The writers, most of whom had backgrounds in either screenplays or theater, explained how it was better to show what was going on through dialogue, rather than with a page of exposition. One of the writers wrote a bilingual type of book. He told the audience how he listened to the way the Spanish was spoken, including the idioms, and used that to make his characters “sound” authentic. There was a stronger than usual admonition to only give attributes of “said” or “asked.” Using terms such as “growled” or “hissed,” was discouraged, but then again, we weren’t talking about romances.
Another panel, Short Stories vs. Novels: The Long and the Short of it, encouraged people not to be afraid of the short form of a story. They never said it was easy, but they made trying it sound worthwhile. It certainly would be a challenge for me. I can’t even say what I had for lunch in fewer than the allotted number of words allowed for some short stories. On the other hand, it could be a good way to get noticed while awaiting publication, or while maintaining the kind of obscurity that I currently enjoy.
After lunch there were more panels. The first was Falling in Love with your Research (not my favorite thing, it leads me on too many interesting tangents and I forget what I was supposed to be doing). The second, Writing Juvenile and Young Adult Mysteries reminded me of how much I wish I could. I work in the children’s room of a library and that last panel had me feeling like a groupie.
An interview with the past and present presidents of Mystery Writers of America concluded the symposium. Coincidentally, they had started out as unknowns at the same time and they were now clearly friends. I was a tad envious. But they didn’t make it sound as if it had been easy. I was left with an overwhelming feeling of having to work a whole lot harder, faster, and, probably, smarter.
I’ve saved the best for last, although it was first. Donald Maass did a workshop on “Writing the Breakout Mystery.” He pushed us to create greater tension by giving our characters more problems and having their solutions continually fail. Most of us know that, but Donald told us to have each problem be compounded to the third degree, and to have not only our hero and heroine have these issues, but secondary characters as well. He was trying to get us to write “Big Books,” a term I hadn’t really understood before. To understand the concept, as least in my world, I associated it with Harry Potter. Not only did Harry have problems, but so did Ron Weasley as well as Hermione and they kept getting worse. Those of us addicted to the wizards had to keep reading to find out what would happen next.
The characters in a breakout book have to be big. The story has to be about more than just the crime. There must be high stakes, high emotions, and 3-D characters. We, as writers, should create a sense of awe in the readers.
It doesn’t sound easy. But the conference offered us courage and optimism. I know my current book will be enhanced; it’s already improved and I have only revised the first sixty pages. I hope I can follow these concepts through till the end and into my future books. They will only be better for it.