April 3rd MWA Panel, Part 2: Where Do You Get Your (Criminal) Ideas?

In this part: that favorite tool of writers, eavesdropping; logic and world-building; and how to structure a mystery novel.

Flickr photo by soonerpa

Richie Narvaez: How about you, Jonathan? Where do you get your ideas?

Jonathan Maberry: Most writers have more ideas than they have time. The characters start talking to me in my head. I worked as a tv salesman, and a guy would come in in a black trenchcoat, buttoned up, sweating; he looked at the same tv each day, but he didn’t buy it. He’d just leave. My boss probably just thought he was a freak, and left it at that, but in my imagination, there was a story there. Clearly, the guy originally owned this tv, and there was something buried inside it…

When I was 14 and met Ray Bradbury, he told me: “Writing is 99% thinking about it. The rest is typing.” It’s hard to get your spouse to understand this, sometimes.

Writers are perfect eavesdroppers—people will sometimes think I’m an introvert, because I’ll be standing at a party pretty quietly, but, really, I’m watching everyone. I was at a party where a guy was four different people with each group. With co-workers, he was using all the latest buzz and lingo; with teenagers, he was the kind dad.

Richie: Is there a difference in gathering ideas for YA versus gathering them for adult fiction?

Chris Grabenstein: It’s the same process of keeping your eyes and ears open. I try to remember what it was like in sixth grade. I usually go to schools to give talks once a week, and I eavesdrop.

I have to live in New York, because if I need a character I just walk around the block.

Most middle-grade [fiction] is: “Who am I?” There’s something at age 10, 11, 12, going on in there—look at Harry Potter. “Who am I? I don’t belong with these people. I really belong at this school for wizards.”

Alison Gaylin: I have a ten-year-old daughter, and I was trying to write something she could read. What I wanted to write was—well, as my day job, I work at InTouch Weekly, and we write a lot about reality shows, and I’m fascinated by the kids in these families. They didn’t ask to be famous. What if you were growing up in a reality show? I got to read it to my daughter as I wrote it, and she loved it. She was casting it with the actors from Glee, and she was putting more pressure on me than any editor I ever had.

To engage a kid is a great means to an end.

Jonathan: YA is becoming a bigger part of my career; I have a four-part series that came about because I’ve never quite matured. We make stuff up for a living.

For YA, let’s take the same premise, a post-apocalytpic world. Some survive…and then what? You still have to do ordinary things. What would growing up in the apocalypse be like? The kid is 15, and he has to get a job. Well, how do people earn a living? What’s their culture like? That became the foundation of my story. What would entertainment be for these kids? When I was growing up, I collected and traded cards, so I created zombie cards for the series. All of my ideas are, “What, logically, would this be like?” That won the Bram Stoker award, and the first one in the series has just been optioned.

But everything in it makes sense. No matter how fantastical, in all my stuff, it has to make sense.

Richie: Why do adults love YA?

Chris: The characters are great, it’s pure story, and they’re shorter.

Alison: There’s more story—there’s less ambiguity. There’s more of a responsibility that YA has to readers—you can’t say, to kids, as you might be able to say to adults about a piece of literary fiction, “Well, you just don’t get it.”

Chris: One of the best things I’ve seen is a kid sitting in a corner of a library or classroom, not wanting to leave. They get into that whole world, and adults want to do that, too.

Jonathan: YA is not confined to a specific genre. You just need to tell the best story. There’s a great sense of fun that’s not always there in adult storytelling.

Q & A portion:

Audience: Are there any restrictions on the genre when you write? How do you decide if the story works best as a play, novel, or a short story?

Jonathan: Plays lend themselves to experimental writing. Even if it’s a mystery, you can play with all sorts of things. Every performance is different. As far as deciding—I’m a big believer in keeping it open. I start with a dialogue exchange. Then I find out where it’s going. But it always starts with characters talking.

Chris: I want to make sure I get the crime right (for adult mysteries). I write myself a file on the crime. It’s like playing Clue in your head. As a mystery writer, I then put that away, and figure out how to dribble it into the novel over the course of the story. Why do people like reading mysteries? There’s justice served in the end, and order is restored; and it’s like playing a crossword puzzle. You get to play along. It’s like a game where you’re doling out the cards.

Alison: Mystery writers face big expectations—mystery readers are very smart. It needs to make logical sense, it needs to be surprising, but above all the ending has to be good, or readers will hate the entire book. It has to move you emotionally, you have to have real characters, and there has to be a little humor, but not too much. It’s such a balancing act. I know this because I’ve written bad mysteries.

Chris: The most important part is character. You don’t remember plot, you don’t remember the twists—you do remember Watson and Holmes.

Audience: Are there any books on plot you would recommend?

Jonathan: Donald Maas’s Writing the Breakout Novel and the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. It helps you get at the motivations for these characters. Vince Flynn told me he gets a new copy of the workbook for each new book, and fills it out, answering every question. That’s what I do now.

Chris: Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting. Syd Fields’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. After a first draft, I usually know the tent poles I’m aiming for.

Audience: How do you handle structure when it comes to writing the novel?

Jonathan: I write the ending first. From a plot twist to the end, or in a short story to the end, and then back up. Readers often know the genre better than the writer, so you have to be careful to figure out the twist and build it back in—sort of retrofit it—so that it’s not obvious.

Alison: I love the plot twist. It’s a wonderful thing when someone says, “I was so surprised!” A friend writing a novel once asked me, “What do I do? I have the killer, and no way out.” I asked her, “Does the killer have an associate? Make him the killer.” The interesting part is the intuitive part. I know the end, I know the beginning, I don’t really know the middle. I write 100 pages and get the rest out of those.

I think plotting is the most fun thing in the world.

Audience: What about rejection letters? Do you just keep rewriting the book?

Chris: I did this, and I had an agent ask me, “Do you want to be a writer, or do you want to write this one book?” The answer is: You just have to put that one away, and ask, “Ok, what’s next?”

Audience: What about word count? Does it differ among sub-genres?

Chris: Eighty thousand for mysteries. Amazon used to have a statistics page where you could compare the word count of books in your genre—so you could look, for example, at books that sold with yours and figure out what length to aim for, what length your audience was reading.

Alison: First person is usually shorter than third-person-multiple point of view.

Jonathan: Thrillers are often longer than traditional mysteries because you have to educate the reader—think of medical and legal thrillers, for example.

Audience: What about standalones versus a series?

Alison: The thing I like about a series is that it’s like getting to know a friend better and better.

Jonathan: The best is to have a standalone that works on its own and has series potential.

Pound for pound, these panels consistently offer some of the best nuts-and-bolts mystery-writing advice and insight around. The panelists are honest and generous—and everyone in the audience clearly files away tips and tricks to use, the next time they pull up the “In Progress” file. I’ve been attending these for a year, and only recently started scribbling down the advice—and I know not the only one who now goes home, looks at the manuscript, says, “Aha! Maybe that would work here!,” and gets to work. Thanks to the NYPL, the MWA, and to the writers who keep this series going!

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