AMBER LOVE 29-JUNE-2014 Yesterday was my first time attending a MYSTERY WRITERS OF AMERICA event. I’m familiar with the organization because of The Edgar Awards they annually bestow but I’ve never felt qualified to become a member and honestly, it’s been many years since I could afford annual dues in anything.
I took a fair amount of notes but didn’t have to since the event had packets prepared for all students. My estimate would be that there were about 80 attendees which seemed to be about evenly split male:female in a middle-aged range of 30-65 and only a few people of color. Overall, every presenter was top caliber. Each one had a strength they played to. There were a couple disappointments that I want to address along with praising as much as possible. I feel honored merely by the fact that MWA came to Philly and put on an event I could afford; the 8 hours included an hour each with six award-nominated/winning writers, the best food I’ve had at a convention, and a good location where parking was expensive but easy to find. I don’t think I’ve ever ventured to this part of Philadelphia before. It was Dock Street in Society Hill. My car and I did not expect cobblestone streets which are lovely to look at but not fun to walk or drive over.
Something that bothered me was that this modern generation of authors really seem to dislike Agatha Christie, the queen of mysteries. There are awards named in her honor and it’s a really big deal to be nominated, no less win one. Christie wasn’t afraid to withhold information from the reader and she ended all her books with the sleuth going one-by-one through the suspects, all contained politely in a room, explaining motives and opportunities before finally telling the real killer. These MWA writers have those methods on their “Don’t” list for how to write a story. It also bothers me when established writers condemn the pulp sentence style of short staccato as if you aren’t allowed to do that anymore because it’s 2014 therefore you can never be “that.” You can never be Chandler so make your sentences poetic and filled with metaphors. What if you don’t want to write that way? What if you want to write the way the books are that you enjoy to read? If that means short beats or an info-dump reveal, you can have the story you want, in my barely-published-never-nominated opinion.
JESS LOUREY was the first presenter who was tasked with discussing methods for beginning your story after you have an idea. Lourey is notable for her Murder-by-Month mysteries and is a professor at a Minnesota college. She taught about a pyramid structure for developing your idea: beginning with one single sentence (the elevator pitch) through outlines, character bibles, synopsis and map of your environment, to finally, the big finished story. She also had advice for those “pantsers” out there, writers who don’t outline and can sit down clacking away without having a written plan in front of them: you can take a book you like and deconstruct it seeing where the finished product can be highlighted to make an outline then a one-page synopsis, then a paragraph, then a single sentence. I’ve also heard this advice given to people wanting to learn how to write comics. Lourey was one of the only instructors that gave us tasks and paused to let us take some time to achieve them. Of all the presentations, After the Idea was most like being a classroom learning about how to write.
Lourey was perfect to kick off the event after being introduced by MWA Executive Vice President Ted Hertel, Jr. introduced the workshop. Lourey is definitely the kind of professor I would have enjoyed in my college or even high school days. She was funny and clearly deadline-driven. She teaches full-time and still follows a reasonably tight calendar for writing. This intimidated the entire room, at least it seemed so from where I was sitting in the third row. Lourey is able to create a first draft in only three months and then needs only a week or two for revisions.
To drive home how organized she is, I’m impressed that on her website, she has a Press Kit area with approved high resolution author and book cover images. This makes me want to help promote her because she makes my job easier. Lourey was also the best kind of presenter in another way: all of us heard her mention her latest novel NOVEMBER HUNT but she never once tried to pitch it and sell it to us. While drafting this post, I navigated to Amazon and gifted Lourey’s first in the series, MAY DAY, to my Mum’s Kindle.
HALLIE EPHRON lead students into more practical steps in the section called Dramatic Structure and Plot. Right away, I loved how personable this woman was. She seemed like the sort of person you’d run into on the street then go have coffee together. She reviews mysteries for the Boston Globe and has been nominated for many awards. She also has a good Press Kit area on her site (maybe authors realize they need to do that once they’ve been nominated for awards). And yes, she is part of The Ephrons of Hollywood from famous screenwriting parents and sisters. I tell you what, if all of them were still alive, that’s a family I’d say deserves a TV show. She was casual and funny during her lecture. I wanted to be best friends with her immediately.
In her presentation, Ephron covered the basics of a three-act structure and further broke it down to five then seven points:
- “Out of whack” event
- Rising action
- Falling action
Ephron reminded that you need to open with a hook, however, she cautioned, don’t let your hook ruin the suspense of the entire story by giving away too much. Some of her tips included a point that I am forever seeking validation about regarding protagonists, antagonists and villains. Some forget that the story you are telling is about point of view. Like the wildly successful movie MALEFICENT, the protagonist can be your “bad guy” and the villain is not the same character as the antagonist. This makes a great deal of sense in a lot of comics. You may read about a character like Batman going after some mafioso but the real villain tends to be a character with enough money to keep his own hands clean. Superman’s Lex Luthor is a prime example of this.
One part of Ephron’s lecture I’m unsure of it is how she emphasized needing a tangible object to be the symbol of the plot. To explain this, she used THE WIZARD OF OZ and Dorothy’s slippers as the example. I struggle to figure out a physical MacGuffin in one of the stories I’ve been working on for years. The item sought after would be things like freedom and ability to live one’s life without oppression. So it’s something I’ll have to think about if I can bear to revise the darn thing and get it to an artist.
In Ephron’s “endings to avoid,” she gave some examples about things that will disappoint your readers. Among them the “you’ve got to be kidding me” ending. This is precisely how I feel about Rowling/Galbraith’s THE CUCKOO’S CALLING. The book was going along brilliantly and I mean, truly incredibly brilliantly and then…. the reveal of the killer was the stupidest thing I had ever read.
DANIEL STASHOWER gave the last presentation before lunch. He’s the sort of man that you look at and just know he’s academic and literary. If Central Casting put out a call for a middle-aged white writer with maybe a little too much confidence instead of charm, Stashower would be the guy. It took about 45 minutes until I felt like he was warming up. Stashower has amazing credentials and has won three Edgars and the Raymond Chandler Fulbright Fellowship in Detective and Crime Fiction Writing. Stashower’s talk was about environment, world-building, and following the “show, don’t tell” method in the hour called Setting and Description.
I have to admit his lecture was a bit on the dry side. He tried to inject humor by using examples of “bad writing” pitted against masterful writing. It didn’t work on me the way Lourey and Ephron did. Stashower took the famous opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” from the 1830 novel PAUL CLIFFORD which serves to make me think only of Snoopy typing on top of his doghouse. This is another one of those areas like the Agatha Christie criticisms that bothers me. “It was a dark and stormy night,” has nothing wrong with it. It tells you something. Maybe today’s readers need to have their weather worked into a sentence better like, “His coat was saturated from the storm that hit during his midnight walk,” but I don’t know. I just don’t think it’s all that awful. I know. I know. I’m in the minority on pretty much everything as my MALEFICENT exposé proved.
After lunch, REED FARREL COLEMAN took the spotlight. Like Stashower did with my image of tweed bedecked writer, Coleman was the kind of man that I should have been having drinks with later and talking about poisons, guns, made men and dames. Coleman was featured in the June issue of Crimespree Magazine where he graced the cover backed by the snowy Coney Island. He’s a three-time Edgar nominee and three-time winner of the Shamus Award. His job this afternoon was to talk about character development which he did using a “ripped from the headlines but more like page 20 police blotter” story about a fisherman that discovered a dog’s body inside a lobster trap. He engaged the audience asking for suggestions on other ways to interpret the story. In teaching the Character portion, Coleman reminded everyone that even the most despicable people responsible for the greatest horrors imaginable tend to have something in them that keeps them a part of humanity; his prime examples were mass murders that have a beloved pet dog. Showing your villain doing something nice is what gives them another dimension.
Coleman has wrapped up working on a series after 15 years. He’s often asked if he misses his character. He vehemently stated, “No.” Living with a character in your head for a long time, becomes like annoying relative you can’t shake. He suggested that there are no such things as minor characters – all are important or they shouldn’t appear in the story. To make them fleshed out, come up with history for them that no one else will ever read including deeply hidden embarrassing secrets. Coleman insisted all characters are built from the inside (of the writer) outward. One student kept explaining how she doesn’t like to have unlikeable characters and she seems quite bothered by reinventing them to have flaws she would find personally disturbing in a person.
“We’ve all had bad thoughts. I’ve killed people a lot of ways in my books but I’ve never killed anybody.” REED FARREL COLEMAN
He told students that they need to look in a mirror and ask what it is about themselves that makes them uncomfortable. Take those things and give characters ownership of that stuff. Coleman was a great asset to talk about grittier crime fiction. He clearly had passion and wanted the audience to give even their most hateful characters some heart.
It was a little strange that the MWA chose a theatre professional like KATHLEEN GEORGE to give the presentation on Writing as Re-Writing. Honestly, she barely delivered on the subject of editing. She was a great speaker but was much more fitting for a talk about how to develop scenes. The most inspiring part of her talk was when she explained that her latest novel took 25 years. After the day opened with Lourey’s 3-month schedule, this was pretty incredible to hear and I’m sure validating to other people besides me. She went over a few lazy sentences and had the audience participate in making them better. Then she spent a great deal of time going over the notes for an acting improv exercise. It’s not that this was bad; it just didn’t seem to fit in with editing written words. I have no notes about her presentation exception for one scribble in my notebook that she says you should read your work aloud to hear the beat of the sentences and dialog.
Wrapping up the day was the phenomenally charismatic reporter/novelist HANK PHILLIPI RYAN. She’s a high-maintenance woman that reminded me of Diane Keaton’s character at the beginning of BABY BOOM. The dress, the heels, the haircut that looks like it would cost a woman like me a few weeks salary. She had energy about her that made me question everything in my life that I could ever call a success. Ryan has been undercover in the criminal world. She socializes with other best-selling writers like Tess Gerritson and Sue Grafton and she has 32 Emmys for her journalism. If ever women like this are in the same room with me, I want to crawl under the table and hope the linens hide me. Not to imply she’s cold or impersonable; she rocked. She passed out candy before beginning her lecture because she knew we were drowsy from the presentations and post-lunch time hours that would have been great for a nap. This woman is so fabulous she cosplays and probably doesn’t even know what the word means. I found that picture (right) on her website’s photos section.
Ryan’s part of the university was called The Writing Life. She ended our day by giving the perspective writers a motivational speech about finishing your project in your own time, using the tools from the MWA tips/toolbox lectures that make sense to you, and dealing with rejection.
“You cannot fix something that isn’t finished.” HANK PHILLIPI RYAN
Ryan reminded the group to set attainable tasks. Instead of staring a blank page with fear that you’ll never achieve 100,000 words, set a goal of one sentence then two, then 250 words then 1,000. All of the MWA instructors said there isn’t one right way to write your book.
While Ryan may be a Mary Higgins Clark Award winner now, she also received rejection letters on her first book PRIME TIME. She graciously and with a big smile read those letters to us.
Of all the things that I felt could use some improvement, one is most important. There were no Philadelphia or even New Jersey writers that were on the guest roster. I’m not saying this because I love these folks as friends either. I understand the more award nominations you have, the better your chances of being asked to be a speaker. The Philly area has a fair amount of writers. I can’t imagine that there wasn’t one available to invite.
Even I, a lowly barely-published writer, was interviewed by Tom Avril of the Philadelphia Inquirer. After all is said and done, as long as I have the budget for it, I’d love to get to another MWA event. They said that they would be able to have more events outside of NYC for the six states that fall under the NY Chapter, if they can build up membership from non-NYC writers. Let that be another reason you might consider joining.
I highly recommend ending your day in Philadelphia’s south side at the Tattooed Mom bar for delicious food and drinks. Not exactly my kind of place as far as ambiance goes but the quality of what I consumed and the good company makes it a winning ending in my book.