Thursday, September 3, 2020

Eleventh Hour Herrings - by guest-blogger Laura Jensen Walker

Craft: Do you think about craft while you are writing? (how to construct good characters, settings, plot) Or do you just let her rip and worry about that “later?”

Catriona writes: I'm delighted, today, to be hosting Laura Jensen Walker, as she celebrates the launch (next Tuesday) of her mystery debut, MURDER MOST SWEET. Readers who love character, humour and cakes, read on. Writers who're feeling insecure, maybe stop now. Because this is a debut cozy, but Laura is far from a debut author and she's alarmingly capable and cheerful. I'm kidding, obviously (because breathing), but there truly are no fainting couches here. 

And now, Laura:


Yes and no. I’m a total pantser. I don’t outline, plot, or plan out the story in advance—apart from a brief synopsis. I always know where the story’s going to start, and I have a general idea of the ending before I begin (although that has changed as the story unfolds) but everything in between those two points is a surprise. I’ve even changed the murderer a couple times from who I originally thought it would be.

I’m a very character-driven writer, so I do think a lot about how to construct a good, strong character—particularly my main character—as I’m writing. For secondary characters, however, they usually start out a bit vague and undefined and I go back and flesh them out later, once I’ve finished my first draft. I love writing dialogue and that comes easily to me, so I always have fun with that, and will always look at conversations critically and ask myself if that’s the best/funniest way for the character to say something. Often, because I don’t know what the full story is until I’ve finished the first draft, and it’s unfolding organically as I write and I just want to get it down on paper, I’ll write a scene and then make a note to myself: “BORING! Fix!” I’m always making notes to myself in the manuscript, like, “Ugh, make funnier. Find better word. Add more description.”

Setting/description is one of my weak areas—I’m always impressed by writers like you, Catriona, who create such fabulously atmospheric settings in your books. [Aw, thank you for the kind words, Laura - C] I’m getting better though and was delighted when some readers on Goodreads recently commented how much they liked the setting and descriptions in my first two cozies. While I’m first-drafting, I’ll sketch in a very basic setting, and then come back later and fill it out during rewrites. I rewrite multiple times. Who was it that said, ‘writing is rewriting?” Definitely true for me.

Plot was the scariest thing for me when I started writing my first cozy mystery. Mysteries are all about plot, and I am not a plotter. That worried me at first that I wouldn’t be able to write a mystery. (My husband, Michael, used to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be easier for you and save a lot of time if you plotted things out in advance? Then you wouldn’t have to rewrite so much.’) He doesn’t say that anymore. Having just finished my tenth novel, and third mystery, he now sees that my pantser process works for me. I’ve learned to trust that process. I tried a few times to plan some of the plot out in advance by writing scenes that I ‘planned’ to happen later in the book, but each time, the story unfolded differently, and I’d have to scrap those scenes. Now I don’t waste time writing scenes in advance. Like Anne Lamott says, I take it ‘bird by bird.’ I write chronologically and let the story unfold organically. Luckily, I’m a fast writer (thank you, journalism training and daily deadlines) so the rewriting isn’t arduous. I suppose this means after all that I do just “let her rip and worry about the craft later.” For instance, in the book I just finished (Deadly Delights, the second Bookish Baker mystery) plot-wise, I knew who the murderer was from the beginning, but as I was reaching the end of the first draft, I saw that some of the actions of other characters didn’t work and were too obvious. I realized I needed better red herrings so at the eleventh hour, I added them in, and had a blast doing so. It involved more rewriting, but in the end, it made the story stronger, the mystery better, and gave me—and my readers—an unexpected plot twist. Which is what we want from our mysteries, right?
 
Catriona again: Laura's launch event is hosted by Capitol Books on K, via Crowdcast, on Tuesday 8th Sept. Sign-up here.


Laura Jensen Walker
 has loved mysteries ever since she read Trixie Belden in the fourth grade in her hometown of Racine, Wisconsin—America’s kringle capital. A former journalist and the author of several chick-lit novels and humorous non-fiction books, including Thanks for the Mammogram! Laura flew a typewriter across Europe in her twenties in Uncle Sam’s Air Force. She lives in Northern California with her Renaissance-man husband and their canine daughter, Mellie. Laura is a member of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. Visit her website at www.laurajensenwalker.com

13 comments:

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well said, Laura. Thanks for sharing and thanks for dropping in.

Brenda Chapman said...

Thanks for stopping by 7 Criminal Minds, Laura! I always like hearing how other pantsters work:-) Congratulations on your new release.

Terry said...

Thank you for this. I'm having a crisis of confidence about being a "mostly" pantser, and you give me courage. I especially like your comment that you flesh out secondary characters and setting Later. Sometimes I laugh when I reread my first draft and think, "Where are the these characters? Are the standing in air?'

Good luck with your new book!

Laura Jensen Walker said...

Thanks, Dietrich--I'm delighted to be a guest at Crimina minds. Brenda, we panthers have to stick together :)

Terry, so glad this gave you courage. I'm right there with you during the first draft, thinking, "where the heck ARE these characters anyway?" Thank God for second drafts. And third. And fourth...

James Ziskin said...

Welcome, Laura! Great post. I do a lot of the same things you do. One thing I'm going to take away from this is the notes you write to yourself in the ms. That's brilliant.

Congrats on Murder Most Sweet!

Jim

Laura Jensen Walker said...

Thanks, Jim. And thanks for saying that something I do in my writing is "brilliant." Wow! Coming from you, that's an honor. You. Made. My. Day.

Cathy Ace said...

Welcome Laura...thanks for this. It's made me laugh - I am a slightly OCD plotter, so it's always interesting to get a pantster's take on things. You're right, we all need to know what works for us!

Susan C Shea said...

Hi Laura, and welcome. Congratulations on your new mystery series!

Catriona McPherson said...

Hi Laura, And welcome to the first of what I hope will be many guest slots at Criminal Minds. Cx

Laura Jensen Walker said...

Thanks, Cathy. Glad I made you laugh :) Although I've devoured mysteries since I read my first Trixie Belden in the (3rd or 4th) grade, and have loved them all my life--my favorite genre--I never considered writing a mystery because mysteries are all about plot and I'm NOT a plotter. What a delightful and unexpected surprise to discover that this total pantser CAN in fact write a mystery! (And not just one--I just finished edits on my third.) Who knew? I'm thrilled to bits to be writing mysteries at this stage of my life and to be a part of the mystery community--everyone's so gracious and welcoming!

Thanks, Susan. I'm excited! Only 5 more days until my first cozy debuts. Still can't believe it.

Thanks, Catriona. I'm delighted to be here. From your lips...

Frank Zafiro said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Frank Zafiro said...

Thanks for dropping by and sharing some insightful thoughts.

I heard something a while back that kind of closed the whole "plotter or pantser/do I or don't I outline" question for me. The author simply said that we ALL outline. A plotter does so from the start. A pantser? Their first draft is their outline.

It was an interesting thought.

Anyhow, thanks again for sharing your process, and cool cover! Does that dog know treats are bad for it?

Laura Jensen Walker said...

Definitely an interesting thought, Frank. (Although that would be a really long outline :)

Thanks for you nice words about the cover--I love it! Crooked Lane did a great job on it.