Writing Beginnings

Writes of Passage is a collection of essays on writing from Sisters in Crime authors.WRITES-OF-PASSAGE-front-280x425

My piece, on finding a community (yes, that’s you guys,) brought up the end position. The publishers have asked us to write blog posts for them, and today is my turn.  The topic is beginnings, and part of what I talk about is the beginnings of the book I’m working on now.

Click over to the post, here.


In the beginning was the word…

and then the Author decided it was the wrong word, and changed it. Then added a couple more, after which She took those out again and changed the word back to where it had been.

This is where I am at the moment: hacking through the jungle of verbiage to create a nice smooth path for the rest of you to follow.

I sent my editor the first draft of The Murder of Mary Russell at the end of June,murder_of_mary_russell

since I was going to New York for Thriller Fest, so we could schedule a nice long talk about where the story was going and how I could help it get there. And without making this a post filled with spoilers, I can only say that she pointed out some ways of bringing the story into tighter focus, and making it more exciting.

(So if the book keeps you up all night, you know who’s to blame.)

My editor is my First Reader, the set of eyes that sees how closely what I’ve written comes to what I think I’ve written. And because those eyes are linked to a clever mind with decades of experience at making books better, she can gently point out a well-proven means of transport so I don’t end up inventing the wheel time and again. I mean, there are times when the wheel needs reinventing, and other times when it just makes for a slow and bumpy ride.

(I think about this kind of thing sometimes when I listen to people extolling the virtues of self-publishing. I can’t imagine not working with partners in this venture. What, edit myself? Read a first draft and see instantly what it needs? I might as well give myself a back massage, or perform surgery on my own gallstones.)

The rewrite is also time to take my own advice:

When you’re “finished”: the rewrite

* Whether your “finished” novel has 60,000 words or 150,000, the rewrite is the time when you go through every one of those words, to make sure each contributes to the whole.

* If you are a writer of the Organic school, the rewrite is the time to produce your outline, as an analytical tool instead of a tool for planning. It doesn’t matter if your “outline” is of the traditional I/A/1/a format, or if it takes the form of a spread-sheet time-line, a branching tree-graph, or a wall full of arrow-shaped sticky notes: breaking down just what the plot and sub-plots do—and when—can shed strong light on any problems with the plot structure and the book’s pace.

* If you did write your book to an outline, now is the time to compare the outline with the final result. Do the major plot points of your outline actually coincide with the developments of the story, or are some of the high points submerged under peripheral material and sub-plots?

* Are all plot twists clear? Can the reader see not only where they are going and where they come from, but why they are there?

And so on. (That’s from Crime & Thriller Writing.) I generally find it’s the small things that make me craziest: in The Murder of Mary Russell, there’s a necklace that plays a fairly minor role in things, and because I can use it both as a clue and a personality element, I now find that I’ve done three different and conflicting things with it. And it doesn’t really matter which I do, I’m obsessing over this necklace, in part because I have to leave it in this tripartate conflicting state until I work my way through the final sections, for fear that whatever I choose for the earlier parts will screw up the entire plot later on.

You wouldn’t believe how many PostIts are stuck into this manuscript dealing with that bloody necklace.

Maybe I’ll change it to a brooch and have done with it.

Crime Writing: the quirky nugget at the core

Crime and Thriller Writing: one part autobiography (half mine, half that of Michelle Spring), one part nuts-and-bolts writing manual, and one part guest speakers imparting a whole lot of wisdom.Crime-and-Thriller-WritingCrime-and-Thriller-Writing9781472523938_p0_v1_s300x

The middle of the book is a series of essays, on topics of their own choosing, from twenty-six other world-rank crime & thriller writers.  Like Val McDermid: do I need to say anything about Val McDermid? Val-McDermid-007

Every novel starts with an idea. Sometimes it’s a quirky nugget of information that suggests possibilities. Sometimes it’s an anecdote told over a dinner table. Sometimes it’s a throwaway line on the radio. But always, it’s something that sets me thinking, ‘What if …?’ It can take years to learn all the possible answers to that question, but quite early on in the process, it will be clear to me whether the shape and the subject of the story that’s emerging fits existing series characters.

Crime and Thriller Writing, by Michelle Spring and Laurie R. King, in paperback (signed, if you like, from Bookshop Santa Cruz) or from Barnes & Noble/Nook, or from Amazon/Kindle.

Twenty-eight experts for the price of one.

Crime Writers

Crime and Thriller Writing, co-authored by me and my friend Michelle Spring, has three sections to it.  The first is our reflections on our writing life; the third is the nuts-and-bolts how-to section.  But the middle section is a little of everything–and everyone.Crime-and-Thriller-WritingCrime-and-Thriller-Writing9781472523938_p0_v1_s300x

Part two is a series of essays by twenty-six other fantastic crime & thriller writers, on topics ranging from Alafair Burke’s “Watching the World with Empathy” to Charles Todd on settings. One of our aims was to draw from both sides of the Atlantic, so we included a number of writers more at home in the UK than in the US.  One of those is the excellent and subtle Sophie Hannah, poet, children’s writer, and writer of psychological thrillers that will have you sleeping with the lights on.


The reason I’ve always loved mystery stories, and probably the reason, also, that I became a crime writer, is because, in my real life, I’ve always been obsessed with the need to know, a need that so often goes unquenched. There are so many unknowns in our day-to-day existence, so many unfathomable mysteries – not associated with murders usually, but fascinating none the less. When everything is known, life is, let’s face it, boring. But when you yearn for information that is either deliberately withheld from you or for some other reason not available, you can’t bear the thought that this burning question might never be resolved. The comfort of crime fiction is that, except for in the most experimental of mystery novels, the puzzle always is resolved.

Crime and Thriller Writing, by Michelle Spring and Laurie R. King, in paperback (signed from Bookshop Santa Cruz) or from Barnes & Noble/Nook, or from Amazon/Kindle.

Twenty-eight expert, passionate tutors for the price of one.

So Thrilling, it’s Criminal

Crime and Thriller Writing is the how-to book I wrote with Michelle Spring. If you’d like to win a copy, joining the fanfic “Letters of Mary” will put your name in the hat–see below.Crime-and-Thriller-WritingCrime-and-Thriller-Writing9781472523938_p0_v1_s300x

It’s a collection of reflections followed by step-by-step recommendations on how, what, and why to write.  Michelle, unlike me (I am definitely an Organic Writer), is an Organized Writer down to her bones, but both of us agreed that we needed to include a series of essays from a bunch of other crime & thriller writers.  Twenty-six of them, to be precise, names that appear regularly on bestseller and awards lists across the globe.

Like Laura Lippman. Laura has won pretty much everything there is to win, she hits the charts every time, she has a long string of superb books behind her–and like every one of us, old-timer or newbie, Laura writes by putting down one word at a time.  Why does she do it?  Because it’s a life that lets her make things up.  Here, let Laura introduce her own piece:


… it seems to me that a lot of writers have lost faith in their imaginations. They talk about their research. They confess which moving passages have been lifted, virtually intact, from their own lives. Both are fine, good, even. But whatever happened to making stuff up? That’s what I heard Donald Westlake say early in my writing life. ‘I became a writer so I could make things up.’ Bingo!

The problem, I think, is that we believe imagination is magical and therefore not something we can control. You can’t will yourself to have an idea, can you? Well … actually, you can.

Crime and Thriller Writing, by Michelle Spring and Laurie R. King, in paperback (signed by at least half of the two authors, if you like, at Bookshop Santa Cruz) or from Barnes & Noble/Nook, or from Amazon/Kindle.

Twenty-eight experts for the price of one.


Happy birthday, Letters of Mary!

If you’d like to exercise your writing skills in the company of amiable, talented, and like-minded Friends of Mary Russell, you might look at joining the group Letters of Mary, here.  This is strictly a fan group–I am not involved with it, although I am friends with many of the members.  To celebrate the eighth anniversary of this vibrant community, they are doing a giveaway of ten copies of Crime & Thriller Writing during the month of September. Drop in, take a look, and tell ’em Laurie said hi!

Criminally Thrilling Writing

Crime and Thriller Writing is my how-to book—or, about half mine. Crime-and-Thriller-WritingCrime-and-Thriller-Writing9781472523938_p0_v1_s300x

I wrote this how-to book of crime writing with Michelle Spring, but it’s not just us: we asked twenty-six other bestselling crime writers to write an essay on…anything.  That’s right, we just asked them to write us a few pages on whatever was on their mind, or they wished someone had told them when they were getting started: some element of their work distilled into a few pages. Last week I posted a snippet of Lee Child’s blast of the trumpet.  But I’d also like you to see what my friend Meg Gardiner has to say:

People ask me why I write thrillers. What, they wonder, provokes me to tell stories of crime and suspense and deadly adventure?

Sometimes, the question they really want to ask is left unsaid: ‘How can you write that stuff? You don’t seem overtly bloodthirsty,’ or ‘You were such an innocuous child – what happened to you?’

The implication is that I must love violence, or want to see people suffer. Hardly.


Meg’s new thriller!

I write thrillers because they get to the heart of the human condition. Thrillers, like all crime fiction, are about people facing severe danger, or confronting an evil that has invaded their world. A thriller tells the story of characters who must tackle the most critical problem of their lives. They must do it under huge pressure, often with their survival and the survival of their families, friends or community at stake. The heroes must find the resources to fight back – now. They must muster the courage to act against seemingly overwhelming opposition – now. They must rise to the challenge. Or not. Or die trying.

Crime and Thriller Writing, by Michelle Spring, Laurie R. King,and 26 others.  Available in paperback (which I’ll sign, if you like, at Bookshop Santa Cruz) or from Barnes & Noble/Nook, or from Amazon/Kindle.


Crime & Thriller stars

Crime and Thriller Writing is my how-to book—or, about half mine. Crime-and-Thriller-WritingCrime-and-Thriller-Writing9781472523938_p0_v1_s300x

(And it’s now available as an ebook.) I co-wrote this exploration of the mysteries of crime writing with Michelle Spring, who unlike me (an Organic Writer) is an Organized Writer down to her bones. But one of the best parts of the book is the series of essays from twenty-six other fabulous, bestselling crime & thriller writers. Such as the inimitable Lee Child, whose essay on Thrillers as the original form of storytelling I adored so much, I want to see the phrase “the boat on which other genres ride” emblazoned on a banner to fly proudly over BoucherCon and the ITW conference.

… as a thriller writer, I smile to myself when critics imply that popular fiction is a recent and trashy invention. No, I think, so-called literature is the recent invention. And it was invented only because my story-telling ancestors helped the species stick around long enough to invent it. Thriller fiction is the genre. The original form, the essential form, the vital form, the boat on which other genres ride like barnacles. That’s why readers enjoy it so much.


Lee Child. I mean honestly, would you argue with this man?

Crime and Thriller Writing, by Michelle Spring and Laurie R. King, in paperback (which I’ll sign, if you like, at Bookshop Santa Cruz) or from Barnes & Noble/Nook, or from Amazon/Kindle.

Twenty-eight experts for the price of one.