By Jackie Houchin
[Originally published at jackiehouchin.com]
Although I don't actually write crime fiction (I read and review it), I took the Writing Craft workshops at the California Crime Writers Conference, all taught by an impressive lineup of top-notch writers.
"Grammar for Dummies, Part I," presented by author/copy editor June Casagrande, was a fact-filled session that tested our knowledge (in a 66-example quiz), surprised us by revealing many common errors and challenged us to use the best reference manuals (Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, and Garner's Modern American Usage).
In "Part II," June explained basic sentence structures (simple, compound, complex), showed many examples of each and powered through 16 specific tips for improving our sentences.
"Cut back on commas!" she said. "I'd rather be in a room with a roaring drunk than see too many commas and semicolons."
Oh, that our elementary school teachers were so informative and fun!
"Crime writers are not expected to be perfect in grammar," she said, "but they do need to come off as professionals." Her workshops and "keeper" handouts will help both newbie and seasoned writers to do just that.
"What's the purpose of dialogue?" asked author Gary Phillips in his "How to Talk" workshop. He picked up a marker, held it poised over a pad clipped to a tripod and looked at his audience.
"To create characters," said one attendee, breaking the ice for further suggestions.
"To move the story along."
"To convey information."
As others spoke, Phillips distributed a handout with snippets of dialogue by several well-known authors.
"Who will volunteer to read the first page?" he asked.
Attendees read aloud paragraphs by Robert B. Parker, Laura Lippman and SJ Rozan, then discussed style, technique and ratio of dialogue to narration.
"There are two purposes for dialogue," Phillips stated,"... to service the plot (summing up information to speed the plot forward) and to reveal characters (the emotional stuff)."
He challenged us to write a scene "about two characters who were high school friends, an ex-prisoner and a college grad, meeting up again for some reason."
Some really good results were then read aloud and critiqued.
In a bit of humorous advice, SJ Rozan told attendees of her "How to Avoid the Sagging Middle" workshop to: "Write 40,000 words of beginning, then start writing the ending."
After the laughter subsided, she taught specifics on how to deal with that most important part of a story.
"What you do depends on the type of problem you have. Are you completely lost? Or have you 'hit a wall' with no place for your characters to go?
"If you are completely lost, you can ... kill someone or discuss your problem with your editor. Write a 'reverse outline' from where you are stuck back to the beginning to see what's missing. Or remember why you wanted to write this book (the theme).
"If you are up against a wall with your characters, you can - on Raymond Chandler's advice - 'Have a guy come in with a gun.' In other words, think outside the box, conjure up five of the most bizarre things that could happen that are not part of the plot (a UFO lands ... a dog runs through with something weird in its mouth ...).
"Trust your subconscious. Offer it some ideas to work out. Remember what your character knows (not you as writer) and think what she would logically do next."
And finally, "If you give up in the middle, you'll never get another one done."
Juliet Blackwell had us take a cold hard look at our commitment to writing in her "Get Over It" motivation workshop by asking, "How badly do you want to write? What is your true writing goal? To be published... make money... get famous? How important is that goal to you - and what are you willing to give up to get there?"
She showed us practical ways to stop sabotaging ourselves and encouraged us by saying, "Young adults are reading a lot right now. They'll be adults soon and they'll want to read your books."
Jan Burke's "Bad Guys and Side Kicks" was another session packed with helpful advice.
"Start with the villain," was her opening comment.
"Why? Well, consider what a mystery is – a whodunnit – a who done it?"
He's the source of tension and conflict. Figure out what he wants and why, and get him into the story quickly.
"Readers learn a lot about the protagonist from the villain."
The victim is also important - and not just a "dead body." Make sure you show the reason why the villain chose this victim. Consider the seven deadly sins. The kind of villain - and his means of killing - depends on the genre. Is it a cozy, a thriller, a classic detective? What drives the villain (revenge, notoriety, fear of discovery, unusual appetite)?
Run out of ways the killer can threaten? Ask what scares you. Brainstorm 50 scary things that don't necessarily cause death (a flushing toilet in the middle of the night).
Other characters need to be tied to the victim, too. Sidekicks can't solve the crime, but they can inform the sleuth, inform the reader, accidentally mislead, have a sense of humor and provide a person the sleuth can discuss the case with.
Burke's best writing advice was to "find three books you love and three books you hate. Study them to see how/why the bad ones failed and the subtle ways the good ones succeeded."
In a "Keynote Dialogue" with Denise Hamilton (Okay, I deviated from the craft tract one time because I was a little afraid of Dorothy Howell's "Love and Sex" workshop), SJ Rozan talked about writing rituals (she needs her mug of Queen Anne tea first), word count (she likes 750-1,000 words per day), brainstorming and spare writing.
"Words are powerful. You don't need that many of them," she said.
Rozan also candidly confessed, "Someday I want to write a James Michener epic with multiple POVs, maybe not even a crime novel."
The wildly entertaining Kerry Madden, in "Understanding the Story Arc," advised us to "get the memories down" and "write through the fear."
She also said, "Don't worry about plot, just write the story and the plot will take care of itself."
This made sense when I remembered SJ Rosen's description of plot. It's the "car" that takes your story to the end - how it all happens. Story is the "journey" of your characters - what the book is about. If the plot isn't working, get a new "car."
Too soon, the conference and the weekend were over. Other writers took the Business, Matters of Crime, and Nuts & Bolts tracks and went home just as determined to put what they'd learned into their writing. Many also left with promises from agents to read their work. All were encouraged by the talented authors who freely shared their knowledge.
"Writing should be a pleasure," said T. Jefferson Parker. "Read something wonderful, something that makes you happy and edifies you. Then go write."
Jackie Houchin is a freelance writer, book reviewer, and theatre critic. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America and California Writers Club.