CON REVIEW & WHAT I LEARNED AT DEADLY INK ACADEMY FOR CRIME FICTION WRITERS
AMBER LOVE 08-AUG-2016 I was thrilled to be at this year’s Deadly Ink. I attended last year and didn’t think I’d be able to get there this year, but things worked out and I attended day one which is their “academy” for crime fiction writers. The rest of the weekend is a bigger conference with a fancy dinner and more attendees, but I had another obligation for my weekend.
DEADLY INK REPORT CARD
Deadly Ink is supported and hosted by the Mystery Writers of America – New York Chapter and the local Sisters in Crime central NJ chapter.
There were some notable improvements this year. First off, the parking was not only discounted in the convenient Hyatt garage, it was only $1 for all of Friday! Registration was simple and speedy if you knew to go directly upstairs to the second floor reception counter where the Deadly Ink volunteers were stationed.
Last year’s swag bag had a rather outdated “how to query” book that wasn’t particularly relevant in the age of electronic submissions. A much better book was given to us this year in the afternoon session. It’s Jane Cleland’s guide book, Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories That Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats. There’s a section on onomatopoeia which is useful for comic book writers.
The primary complaints I heard were that there was no coffee and tea service at all for the Friday attendees; and that the hotel’s tavern lacked service and was of course overpriced as hotel restaurants usually are. The room had too many chairs and they were so uncomfortable. The conference had attendees registered, so they knew how many to expect at most. It was cramped like coach seating on a plane. We also would have benefited greatly from tables. So maybe in a room with less chairs but with tables for us to write on (some people were typing) we would have been more comfortable. That’s how it was when I attended a much larger MWA event.
The program guide was improved from last year, but still in dire need of someone who understands that internet resolution for graphics is not the same as printed resolution. Even the logo on the cover was sadly pixelated. There is a nice yearbook style section of the volunteers and speakers.
I do wish I could have managed to catch some of the weekend activities like the hard-boiled and soft-boiled mysteries session since I firmly label my Farrah Wethers stories as medium-boiled (leaning towards cozy); I have to file as cozy because there is no medium-boiled category in Amazon. If our characters are supposed to be realistic, then my characters will have potty mouths like I do and they can swear without graphic violence of noir. Perhaps, it’s best that I did miss that lecture or I would have been grinding my teeth the whole time.
I managed to stave off two panic attacks in the workshops so brava, me. I was also able to connect with humans this time and didn’t lunch alone. Five of us dined in the hotel tavern which of course messed up my order. I carefully went through the entire menu with the waitress explaining my dietary needs and we found a pasta dish ($15) that would work; a kitchen worker came out and said they made it with cheese so I had to say, no, that’s not okay, please make it without cheese. Cheese wasn’t even in the description.
With under 20 attendees for the Friday workshops, it was easy to count that three were men. Here’s a typical, everyday form of sexism: all three men shared their answers as often as possible and frequently interjected at other times to talk about their works while the women, the clear majority, had to be coaxed to speak up. Men love to hear themselves. There are studies done on it so if you think I’m being bitchy, just google it.
“PLOT YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS” WITH S.W. HUBBARD
The first half the day was lead by author S.W. HUBBARD, best known for her estate sale themed mysteries and police procedurals. Even after being traditionally published and successful with the Adirondack police series, Hubbard found better success when she self-published Another Man’s Treasure and Treasure of Darkness.
Hubbard teaches at the County College of Morris. She opened up about how long some of her projects took to complete and matter-of-factly mentioned some abandoned projects. One book took ten years on and off.
When it came to submitting queries and stacking up the rejection letters, one letter stood out. There was a handwritten note at the bottom of a photocopied form letter telling her to keep trying. It may have been a small amount of effort and energy for an agent or publisher to sign a few words, but that encouragement was important to her and did motivate her to keep at this writing game.
Success with the publisher Pocket Books didn’t last. They closed their mystery line and authors found themselves and their books without contracts. Hubbard said she tried to write books like ones that were popular and selling well. They never worked from her lack of passion with the projects.
“You really have to write the book you like to read,” Hubbard said.
Don’t write to the market. Another Man’s Treasure seemed like it would be picked up by a publishing house. It was moved up the chain of command, but when it came to final approval, it kept getting rejected. That’s when she decided that she loved the story too much to abandon it and self-published.
The meat of the early workshop was to get the attendees thinking about elements of their stories. Some basics were reviewed like defining the protagonist, antagonist, and the villain. Popular examples were given for all the topics like Harry Potter characters.
Then we went over external and internal conflicts for both the good guys and the bad guys of our stories. We were given time to complete a stack of worksheets and then a few people shared their answers to the different sections.
One of the important lessons that I got from the morning session was about character goals. I’ve been pretty good identifying what my characters need to do or rather want to do; I think my first book Cardiac Arrest also helped me work through what happens when characters don’t succeed (which can be your ending if you really want). Filling out the worksheet and remembering the book I wrote two years ago which only just came out, I was happy to see that I did address this question: what’s the worst thing that can happen if the goal isn’t achieved?
Also, identifying the difference between turning points and tension or conflicts. There was decent emphasis in both workshops about how conflict doesn’t equate to nor have to lead to violence (something that superhero movies mash together interchangeably).
After this workshop, I have a bit more confidence in saying I did a good job with Cardiac Arrest and the sequel, Full Body Manslaughter. Book three, Miscarriage of Justice, is so rough right now, I’m not sure anyone would care for it until after it’s revised a lot. It was also the most painful one to write.
“HOW TO CREATE SUSPENSE: MAKE YOUR READERS SWEAT” PRESENTED BY JANE CLELAND
JANE CLELAND was one of the speakers I got to see in 2015 when she workshopped red herrings. This year she did a great job covering plot structure and the elements of twists, reversals, and dangers (TRDs). How to weave in subplots was covered at an introductory level too; anything more involved would be a whole semester’s class. Those are just a couple things that are also in her new book which MWA gifted to the attendees.
Cleland is known for her Josie Prescott mysteries which have ten books out, the eleventh coming soon. She also has a passion for business, something I wish I possessed, but have zero interest in (trying to balance my Patreon statement gives me a headache). So among her offerings of books and speaking engagements, you can also look for her advice on corporate training.
She’s also a college professor. She said that at Lehmann, most of her students are either immigrants or the first generation of children of immigrants (mostly from Latin America) and that they are often the first in their families to go to college. She was incredibly human whenever she talked about her fans and students, sometimes tearing up. I still don’t know how people have demanding jobs and manage to write novels or make comics.
A key factor besides needing good guys and bad guys in your story, Cleland said there has to be a personal reason for your protagonist to get involved in the crime solving (for amateur sleuths not police procedurals).
She also shared a lot of favorite quotes which is something I look for many times a week for comfort.
A few of the plotting elements to bear in mind are:
- Keep raising the stakes.
- Use the different tones of short bursts of surprise, longer periods of tension, and moments of quiet decompression.
- Find the danger in your setting (ex: empty serene beach offers no place to hide).
- Don’t forget your readers have expectations.
- Let the answers to the puzzles come slowly.
- Have a roadmap for your TRDs and subplots to allow the best pacing possible.
It took the entire afternoon session to go over the 13 steps to plot structure. It went fast for me. I was shocked to check my phone and see it was 4PM. I took the scenic route home and would easily sell my soul to never sit in traffic again.
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