Thursday, December 15, 2011

Letting Go In Order to Write

By Ellen Byerrum

[Originally published online at]

Every book gets written in spite of fear, anxiety, and the world at large - or maybe they are written in spite of ourselves, when we manage to get out of our own way. And so there comes a point in every mystery novel where I have to let go of my fears and preconceptions about what it should be and who it has to please, and simply write the story. I have to let go in order to reach a new and different level in my writing.

That seems self-evident, and yet it's easy to allow little things to stump me and stop me. I have to remember what I enjoy about writing. That often seems impossible. And it means kicking all the invisible critics off my shoulders and ignoring the visible ones. It means I have to remember why I like my characters and their stories in the first place. Why I started writing in the first place.

After writing the Crime of Fashion mystery series for eight books, it becomes way too easy to get wrapped up in conflicting expectations. The geometry of the plot, for example. How many suspects should there be? Where and who are the red herrings? What is the story arc? Where do I introduce a new character? How do the mechanics work? Am I ignoring regulars in the series that people love, but who just don’t have a big role in this book? How do I make room for new characters I'm excited about bringing to life?

And then there are the ... Fashion Bites! Believe me, including "Fashion Bites" in the books was never my idea in the first place. In my first novel (Killer Hair), I included a few tiny snippets of the reporting and fashion columns written by my heroine, fashion reporter Lacey Smithsonian, just enough to give a flavor of her writing and her job at her newspaper. But my editor at the time (a terrific editor I'm still friends with, by the way) eagerly suggested how much fun it would be to turn these snippets into full columns in the books.

Fun?! The last thing I think about when I write them is fun. I worry if I have enough of them (four or five per book). I worry if they're smart and funny. Are they useful as actual fashion advice? Do they reflect the plot and move it forward? Are they in the right places, right order, right mood? Do they carry Lacey's unique voice and viewpoint? Do they work? Do they bite? (Yes, they often do.)

All those things can get in the way of the story. They can drain the energy, the spontaneity and the zest of the book. The story needs to spring to life as if it can't wait to be told. When the dialog is just okay and the opening is top-loaded with exposition, it reflects too much attention to the geometry and the plot set-up to make it enjoyable.

Overall, I have to remember that a mystery, though plotted carefully, is not an algorithm. In my experience, writing the required outline can strip away the moment-to-moment surprises like nothing else. Can you really write well if you’re burdened by some formula? If a = suspects, b = complications, c = corpse and d = detective, do you add blind alleys and red herrings, and divide by y (means, motive and opportunity) in order to find x (the culprit). Or does that just make it stale?

You may solve the mystery that way, but it does not necessarily add up to a good mystery. Formulas and algorithms for writing do not account for the effervescence, the will o' the wisp, the life and soul of a book. If you write it to a formula, it will read like a formula.
  • “Couldn’t you add a cat? Mystery readers love cats!” Don’t think so. I’m allergic to them in Real Life, so I can’t conduct the proper research.
  • “Have you considered a crime-fighting parrot?” Please, I’m trying to write. Although, in comic terms, the parrot is intriguing. Polly, want a clue? Wait, don’t distract me!
  • “This is too gritty/dark/light/comic for your readers.” Really? How do you know? Are my readers so delicate, so Victorian, they can’t take a touch of gritty realism? Will they faint if Lacey Smithsonian finds herself between a murderer and a hard place or investigates a skin-crawling, heartbreaking crime? Do they never laugh through the tears in Real Life? I suspect my readers are made of sterner (and deeper) stuff than formulaic mysteries. And I hope I am, too. And even though my books are comic, they are not fluffy. They have subtext. They have life.
So I am reminding myself to enjoy the process, to let the characters have their way and their say. I have to trust that the book is there within me. Yes, I am writing a book for my readers, my agent, my editor and my publisher. But I’m also writing it for myself. I can’t cram my mysteries into a preconceived idea. The bottom line is: First, I have to like it! I have to please myself. That means I cannot please everyone. And letting go of too many expectations is the first step.

So why is that so hard to remember?

Ellen Byerrum is the author of the Crime of Fashion mysteries. Two of her books -- Killer Hair and Hostile Makeover -- were adapted for film by the Lifetime Movie Network. The seventh and latest installment in the series is Shot Through Velvet.


Pauline Alldred said...

Writing groups are so supportive and help shape my writing but I become entangled in social obligations and forget my own goals. You are so right--I've read so much advice that it rattles around in my head whenever I sit down to write. Just letting go and focusing on the story and characters is hard and I wish there was a simple mantra word that would take me to the zone.

J.J. Murphy said...

Ellen, you should definitely add a cat. How about a cat fashion show, at least?

Cat Fashion Show

Sandra Parshall said...

Wonderful post, Ellen. Write from your heart, don't allow any outside distractions, and you will never go wrong.

ellenbyerrum said...

It's particularly hard to let go at this time of year, Pauline. There are so many obligations.

And a cat fashion show! J.J. I had no idea. All I can say is oh, my.

Lishie said...

Stick to fashion "bites", cat's scratch ;)

As an entertained & appreciative reader, thank you for all of the thought you put into it! And most of all, for the spontaneity!

Ellenbyerrum said...

Thank you, Sandra. You seem to be able to shut out the distractions and concentrate as s well as anyone I know. And Lishie, it's so nice to have other voices like yours out there to keep up our spirits. Especially when the writing comes so hard.

With a cross-country move, packing, unpacking, painting, repairing, and getting the house in shape so I can concentrate, it's been especially challenging to sit down and write.

Tracy said...

I really needed to read this post! Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Ellen. I'm often torn between writing what seems to flow naturally, and those "shoulds" I've read in books on writing well, expert articles, etc. It's a balance I'm working on bringing to my laptop.

Best of luck in getting your house in order and enjoy the holidays!

Mollie Bryan said...

Fabulous post. It's good to know that I'm not the only on that struggles with these issues.