Thursday, January 11, 2018

Writing Better Mysteries...Without Writing a Word: Guest Post by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Andrew Welsh-Huggins:
Writing Better Mysteries . . .
Without Writing A Word 

Show, don’t tell. Avoid the passive voice. Revise, revise, revise.

These days, no one writing a mystery—or any kind of fiction, for that matter—can complain of a lack of writing tips. Advice for the best ways to plot, kill, create memorable characters, and hide clues is as close as multiple blog sites and no farther than that shelf bulging with how-to books across the room.

But time is short. We can’t write all day, nor should we have to. We need to eat, read, tolerate loved ones, often deal with that pesky day job, and catch up on Netflix shows. Yet the pressure to create is constant. Is there a solution to this dilemma, I asked myself recently? A way to hone my mystery composition skills without writing a single word? To work while not working? I believe there is. Therefore, in the spirit of efficiency, and with a nod to the lazy gene in us all, I present my five steps to better mystery writing without ever touching pen, pencil or keyboard.

First, consider keeping your phone in your pocket from time to time.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my smart phone. I love the fact I can use it to read books, watch TV shows and movies, listen to music, get directions, surf the web, and check my email, and even, on occasion, call someone. The phone is a content consumer’s dream friend. But too often, it’s a content producer’s enemy. Why? Because of its potential to rob us of one of the most important tools we have as writers: day dreaming.

By day dreaming, I mean the chance to drive down the road or stand in line at the grocery store or pause at a street corner waiting for the “cross” sign to appear and think about nothing—and everything. The everything could include plot twists, character development, descriptions. The nothing could be literally nothing—the chance for the brain to recharge, to wander here and there, to relax its synaptic producing muscles until suddenly, a thought appears. A clue drops into your lap. A motive emerges.

 “The good idea comes in the moment of rest. It comes in the shower. It comes when you’re doodling or playing trains with your son,” Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of a certain hit musical you may have heard of, told the New York Times. Trust me, or trust Miranda: the ideas you form waiting for the cashier to ring you up while you study the ceiling tiles or your shoes or the purchases of the shopper ahead of you will serve you far, far better than your friend’s latest Facebook update.

Next, think about that old saying, 'God gave us one mouth and two ears.' It’s a little hokey, sure, yet in my experience, asking questions is one of the most useful things a writer can do. We know so little, after all, and the people around us know so much. Stuart Kaminsky tells the story of taking his mother to the emergency room after she fell dizzy one day. In the room where she rested, he quizzed everyone who came by, from the cleaning lady to the head doctor. “Instead of sitting bored for five hours,” he wrote, “I filled a small notebook with material I could use for a scene I knew I would have in an emergency room.” Not that bold? How about this: don’t think of a cocktail party as a chance to shill for your latest book. Consider it a room full of experts on a variety of topics they’re dying to tell you about if you’ll just stop talking and start asking.

My third suggestion is probably the least fun, though earphones and a good audio book or podcast can help (if you’re not in the mood to follow the phone rule). But the fact is, some of the most important time a writer can spend not writing is cleaning up her or his work space. Take a few minutes to put away some papers, rearrange your desktop—real and virtual—vacuum up all that cat fur and straighten the bookshelves. A bit of decluttering can go a long way to creating a relaxing environment for the real task at hand: creating a mess of characters, clues and conversation to draw the reader into your next novel. “Keep your sink clean and shiny,” is the first of the FlyLady’s 11 Commandments as developed by anti-clutter guru Marla Cilley. Think of your desk as the sink, and the calm that follows as your signal to create.

Speaking of commandments, “Omit extraneous words” may be the top rule for writers engaged in the burdensome task of actually writing, as directed by E.B. White and William Strunk in the The Elements of Style.  For my fourth tip, I’d suggest a paraphrase of that concept is just as true of your time: Omit Needless Obligations. The pitfall we all face as writers is pretend duties that get in the way of our primary focus. Pick four or five priorities—family, day job, health, eliminating all that cat fur—and jettison the rest. John Steinbeck said, “The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.” You may have to give up some TV. You may have to serve on fewer civic group committees. Fertilizing your lawn? Don’t even. Strip your responsibilities to the minimum needed to sustain a balanced life while affording you the proper amount of time and means to write.

My fifth suggestion is reminiscent of limiting your phone use, with a twist. Last year, I grew dissatisfied with the direction that The Third Brother, my upcoming Andy Hayes private eye mystery, was taking (coming from Swallow Press in March). In response, I rearranged my schedule to give myself a solid two hours each morning before work to devote to writing. Things immediately improved. When I analyzed the change, however, what struck me was that the improvements weren’t due to having more time to write. It was the extra time for not writing in the midst of the allotted writing time. The benefits of giving myself permission to take breaks—sometimes a lot of them—to think things through, whether staring at the screen, pulling out my hair, cursing God, letting the dog in and out, stomping around the house, or just pouring more coffee. “If you think writing is all about sitting at a computer and banging out words, you’re wrong,” William Shaw wrote in a recent Mystery Fanfare blog post. “My kids, when they see me wandering around the house, or strumming an instrument with a vacant expression on my face, snigger and say, ‘Yeah. Writing again, is he?’ But most of the ideas don’t happen when you’re sitting down at a desk.”

Which brings us back to phones, or rather, keeping phones in your pockets and unleashing your brain. So let’s get to it. Ready, stop writing, work!


AP news guy, husband, father, runner, owner of too many pets, Andrew Welsh-Huggins, is the author of the Andy Hayes private eye mystery series, including The Hunt. He is the winner of the 2017 Al Blanchard Award for best New England short fiction story for  "The Murderous Type." His story "Family Business" is in the current Down & Out Magazine, Volume 1, issue 2. Sign up for his newsletter: Facebook: Twitter: @awhcolumbus


Michelle Kubitz said...

This is a great list. Thank you for sharing!

Molly MacRae said...

This is wonderful advice!

O'Neil De Noux said...

Good article. Our writing IS the most important thing in the world.