Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What I Wish I'd Known

By Nancy Martin

This year marks the 30th year I’ve been writing and publishing books. What do I wish I’d known when I first sat down at a keyboard to write?

Lots of things. But there’s one biggie that jumps out at me: I spent the first 12 years writing by the seat of my pants — that is, I made up the plot as I wrote the book. At the end of every chapter, I asked myself, “What happens next?” And I wrote whatever I dreamed up. I enjoyed writing that way. My readers seemed to like my books, too. (I wrote romances back then.) But I firmly believe I would have gotten a lot further in my career if I’d done my homework.

I wish I had immersed myself in my craft much earlier than I did. I wish I’d learned everything about how to plot a story much sooner. It’s not that I’d have stopped writing by the seat of my pants — at heart, I’ll always be a bit of a “pantser”— but I wish I hadn’t resisted learning about more technical approaches to writing stories. Yes, I feared I might lose my “muse,” or that the magic might leave if I learned too much.

How wrong I was. My first real instruction about plot came from the late Gary Provost, who taught a wonderful workshop based on fairy tales. Learning to see a story in terms of goal, motivation to reach the goal and the consequences of failure was eye-opening for me. I went home and applied his thinking to my next romance novel — and I received my first starred review! Next up? Dean Koontz’s early how-too book, How to Write Bestselling Fiction, was equally helpful. (Put your characters into “terrible trouble” right away and keep making the trouble worse and worse.) His theories weren’t as complicated as I thought they’d be. As I put Koontz’s information to use, suddenly my own books got a lot more entertaining!

“Why haven’t I learned this stuff before?” I cried to myself.

Syd Field’s book, The Screenwriter's Workbook, taught me about story structure in very basic terms — nothing that really threatened my seat-of-the-pants approach, but certainly enhanced it. At the recommendation of a fellow Sister in Crime, I read Christopher Vogler’s The Writer's Journey — and I discovered how the mythic storytelling elements work not just for The Lord of the Rings-style of books, but for mystery novels, too.

Encouraged by the critical success of the books I wrote using Vogler’s theory, I traveled to New York City and took Robert McKee’s three-day course based on his book, Story. That weekend was life-changing! Okay, McKee had more to say about screenwriting than writing novels, but there are gems in his method that work for book-length fiction, too.

I finally realized the more I knew about writing stories, the better a storyteller I became. To my great relief, I wasn’t killing the magic by learning about my craft.

Since then, I think I’ve memorized parts of Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. And lately, I found the Save the Cat books about screenwriting. I admire Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog, "The Dark Salon." The Snowflake Method breaks plotting down into so few steps that even the most dedicated pantser can’t be intimidated.

I wish I hadn’t waited so long to learn everything I could about how to do my work. I was foolish to be intimidated. It was silly to be worried I’d spoil things for myself. Instead, by learning about plotting, I’ve become a better writer. I only wish I’d done it sooner.

I'm always looking for more ways to learn about my craft. What's your favorite writing-related resource? Please share!

Nancy Martin is the author of nearly 50 popular fiction novels, including the Blackbird Sisters mystery series and the Roxy Abruzzo mysteries. She teaches writing workshops around the country and blogs at The Lipstick Chronicles. Nancy currently serves on the board of Sisters in Crime, editing SinC Links and helping with the Sisters in Crime/Bowker reader research project. Her most recent books are Foxy Roxy and Sticky Fingers (in stores March 30, 2011). For more information, go to


Judy Clemens said...

Thanks, Nancy! It is so important that we all keep on learning. I attended the first SinC into Great Writing workshop in 2009, when Donald Maass was the speaker, and really got a lot out of his way of looking at plot. His book, The Fire in Fiction, is very accessible, and a great companion to writing.

Ramona said...

Ditto what Judy said about the importance of continually learning. I have a shelf of craft books. Some are more useful than others, but every time I read a chapter, I think about the subject and learn from that.

Thanks for sharing!

Pauline Alldred said...

Thanks for the reminder, Nancy. There are so many good books about the craft of writing. Often, when I'm reading one of them, I'm struck by an idea or a way to change something I'm working on.

Nancy said...

Donald Maass does a terrific in-person workshop, too. If you ever get a chance to hear him, jump on it!

I'm thinking of trying online courses. Anybody have a good one to recommend?

Dawn Alexander said...

I love that you said it did not change your style, but improved your writing. I have always been a "pantser" so to speak. When I first started learning about the craft, I worried all this plotting, outlining and character arc stuff would change my voice somehow.

Glad to hear it just makes you a "better you"!

Laurie Moore said...

Thanks, Nancy, for all of the helpful information. Guess I'd better get to work!

Nancy said...

Dawn,I think your style remains unchanged, but your storytelling becomes more self-assured. More complex, too. Layers usually make a story better.

Donnell said...

Nancy, this is a wonderful post, thank you. I suspect if we sat down at the keyboard knowing everything we know as we advance in writing, we would have never sat down. Talk about a spine tingler, or a thriller. Some writers/authors write intrinsically. I'm not one of them. I did exactly like you and did the panster, but when it comes to a mystery, you waste a lot of time doing it that way; would you agree?

You have to put in twists and turns and red herrings and in the midst, unless you're one of those intrinsic folks again, doesn't lend itself to panster writing.

I have most of the books you've mentioned with the exception of your screen writing books. I attended Randy Ingermanson's workshop where he talked about his Snowflake method.

I'm a huge fan of David Morrell's a Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing and Getting the Words Right by Theodore A Rhys Cheney. There's a fantastic quote in Cheney's book from Ernest Hemingway. When asked why a certain novel took him so long, he wrote, "I was getting the words right."

Congratulations on doing just that!

Colette Garmer said...

I have to hand it to you. Your advice is always so spot on. There are writing books that have caused me to write until I had to get out of the chair for fear of paralysis. But then there are some that I don't get. But the ones that hit home with me are dog-eared and embedded in my brain. Don't Murder Your Mystery is the one I'm reading right now. It has opened up my eyes on a lot of things I never saw before.

Thanks for a great post. Now I have a few books to look up.

Colette Garmer said...

Donald Maas in person was more helpful to me than the book series, Writing the Breakout Novel. I'm not saying it wasn't good. I think that I learn easier in a live situation.

Nancy said...

Funny, Colette, that's how I felt about the McKee workshop. The book is a TOME. And he basically recites all 400+ pages over the course of a weekend. (YOu don't dare interrupt him, or he'll start a chapter all over again from the beginning.) But I found myself absorbing his material better in person.

Nancy said...

Well, that's a first for me! AT least I know who to call if I get into a scrape in Vegas!

Ellis Vidler said...

I went to one of Gary Provost's workshops--he was terrific. I have two of his books and love them. Your post reminded me that I need to reread them. Another good one is Sol Stein's Stein on Writing.

Nancy said...

Thanks, Ellis. I meant to mention agent Evan Marshall's book THE MARSHALL PLAN, too.

Tracy H. said...

Thanks for this post! I'm a newbie and have been devouring writing books, so I'm excited to have some recommendations of others to read.

J.J. Murphy said...

Great post! Another good book: "Telling Lies for Fun & Profit" by mystery writer Lawrence Block. It offers a lot of encouraging, nuts-and-bolts advice you can put to use right away--and it's a funny and entertaining read, too.

Kathy Bennett said...

I'm still struggling with the 'plotter/pantster' thing. I like the security of being a plotter, but love the excitement of writing as a pantster.

Carol Herder said...

Nancy, how right you are. I've been perusing Save the Cat and a delicious find entitled "The Joy of Writing Sex"!