How many personal threats can the protagonist of an amateur sleuth series face? Perhaps you’ve marveled at how often the lead characters in long-running series encounter murders, but then suspended disbelief and kept reading. I’ve done it myself. Then I get distracted by scenes in which friends of the lead character point out the very thing I’ve just put aside. Gosh, you sure you do get involved in a lot of murders. It’s one way for an author to handle the problem, though. Acknowledge it and keep telling the story.
It’s been a while since I blogged about my writing process. At present, I’m in the final revision stage for Chloride Canyon, the eighth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery. I’ve received valuable feedback from several beta readers and critique partners. Now I’m blending their various insights into the plot, cleaning up problems they noticed, and raising the stakes—the one thing three out of four suggested I do.
That’s the hardest part. A professional detective wants to solve a crime, and cares because it’s a job. However, I have that amateur problem. My mysteries aren’t about murder, but they sometimes involve crimes. Others center around wrongs that are harmful, but not criminal. Mae’s reasons to get involved can be deeply personal or tied to people she cares about. In several of the books, she’s hired as a psychic to solve a mystery. In the majority of cases, the stake for Mae is empathic rather than a direct threat. What makes the plot work is a serious risk to the emotional, financial and/or physical well-being of others.
The two antagonists in Chloride Canyon create stress in Mae’s life at college, but they don’t endanger her. Her constant challenges in the series include choices about using her psychic ability and how to handle her sometimes excessive urge to help people. In this book, by helping friends, she ends up also having to help her enemies. Will this be enough to make readers care? Only if there’s enough of a threat. And it can’t always be a threat to Mae if I want the arc of the series to be believable. How can I raise the stakes for her, then? By raising the stakes for characters she cares about.
Okay. I’ve figured it out. Back to work on revisions.
Many writers are participating in NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month—aiming to compete 50,000 words of a first draft in November. I cheer them on, but I won’t be doing it myself. I don’t work well at that speed. I tried writing fast recently, as I was working on chapter three of book nine in the Mae Martin Series, and I realized the next day that I’d ignored the characters deeper inclinations in order to make Something Exciting happen. I had to go back, delete most of it, and change what remained. If I go fast, I also make incomprehensible typos and even end up typing in the middle of a previous line somehow. In the long run, writing slowly while listening to the characters hearts and letting what drives them drive the plot is the best way for me to make Something Exciting happen.
Some writers can do this while producing over 1,600 words a day, or through an outline. Not me. The closest I’ve come was when I outlined the initial premise for each of the short stories in Gifts and Thefts, following the path through my main characters’ lives in 2012 and half of 2013. And even then, a new theme emerged I hadn’t planned on. In response, I improvised the middle story, Guardian Angel, with no plan at all. I guess it’s not a Mae Martin Mystery, since it’s about her boyfriend, not her, and while mysterious, it’s not a mystery to be solved the way the other five stories are. But it fits those stories together like the keystone of an arch.
I mentioned book nine at the beginning of this post, and you may be wondering what happened to book eight. I’ve gotten feedback on it from two critique partners and am waiting to hear from two beta readers later this month. (What’s the difference? Critique partners swap manuscripts and provide feedback to each other; beta readers do the critique without reciprocity. I love beta reading for writers whose series I follow, getting to be the first to read the next book.)
The eighth Mae Martin Mystery will get a final in-depth revision based on those four critiques, and then I’ll send it to my editor. Since Gifts and Thefts came out in spring 2021, I’d love to have book eight, Chloride Canyon, come out in spring 2022. And that’s why I’m starting on book nine already. Maybe I’ll finish it in a year. Chloride Canyon has been in in progress for four years, with breaks to write Shadow Family and Gifts and Thefts. That was slow, even for me.
I’m taking time to reflect on the good people and good fortune that enhance my creative life.
I am grateful for:
- Having had parents who loved books and theater and a grandfather who was a poet. I was raised on Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes and taken to plays before I was in first grade. Language was valued in my family. My mother advised me not to cuss because it made me look as if I had a limited vocabulary—a far greater sin than saying a dirty word. My father was a late adopter of all things electronic and claimed to be a member in good standing of the Lead Pencil Society, which made him as good a letter writer as he was a conversationalist, full of wit and good stories.
- Discovering Sisters in Crime when I was just getting started on my first book. I bought How I Write by Janet Evanovich, even though I may be the only person alive who doesn’t like her Stephanie Plum series. I told myself: “She’s successful. I could learn from her.” She mentioned SinC in the book, and I joined, and through them I have found many of the people I’m grateful for, listed below.
- My first critique partner, an editor and writer. She was supportive of the potential she saw in my early efforts that didn’t turn into a polished book until I’d worked on it for over for three years. She edited it and all my other books, and has taught me about the craft of writing in the process.
- My current and former critique partners, who can tell me when something works or falls flat, offer insight into my plots and characters, and not only help me create better work, but reassure me that I’m not alone in caring about it.
- Readers. Without them I’m an actor in an empty theater. Having my characters live in someone’s mind and heart means a lot to me.
- Readers who review. They don’t have to do it. It takes time to organize thoughts and post them on a review site. They help other readers think about my work and often help them decide to buy the books.
- Tara at Draft2Digital customer service. She’s cheerfully solved many little problems for me, and she remembers me. I’m not just some author with a question. I’m a person.
- My job. Most writers need a day job, and I am blessed to have one that gives me summers off to write. When I’m grading papers until nine at night I tend to forget that—but I am grateful.
- My whole life. From the annoying people who inspired antagonist characters, to the losses and loves and joys that enable me to tell stories with a heart.