If you are interested in blogging or want to promote your book, please contact E. B. Davis at writerswhokill@gmail.com.

Check out our February author interviews: 2/7-debut author Keenan Powell (Alaskan lawyer), 2/14-Leslie Wheeler (Rattlesnake Hill), 2/21-bestselling author Krista Davis, who unveils a new series, 2/28-Diane Vallere answers my questions about Pajama Frame. Please join us in welcoming these authors to WWK.

Our February Saturday Guest Blogger Schedule: 2/3-Saralyn Richard, 2/10-Kathryn Lane. WWK's Margaret H. Hamilton will blog on 2/17, and Kait Carson on 2/24.

Congratulations to our writers for the following publications:

Shari Randall's "Pets" will be included in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies anthology, which will be published in 2018. In the same anthology "Rasputin," KM Rockwood's short story, will also be published. Her short story "Goldie" will be published in the Busted anthology, which will be released by Level Best Books on April 25th.

In addition, our prolific KM has had the following shorts published as well: "Making Tracks" in Passport to Murder, Bouchercon anthology, October 2017 and "Turkey Underfoot," appears in the anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry: a Fifth Course of Chaos.


Friday, July 30, 2010

The Rookie Writer

A while back, I met a rookie writer. I write “rookie” as opposed to new, unpublished, pre-published or Guppy because that’s how he identified himself: “I’m X and I’m a rookie writer.”

I meet the Rookie while riding the elevator during a writer’s conference. I initiated the exchange with, “Hi, I’m Ramona. What do you write?” because a) I’m friendly; b) chatting makes the ride less awkward; c) I’m genuinely interested in what other writers’ write; and d) I figure if I’m alone in an elevator with a strange man who is really a psychopath attending a conference to stalk victims, he might be a tad less willing to kill me if I ask politely about his writing.

Hey, I work with crime writers. I’m always on the clock.

The Rookie and I walked together to the workshop, at which point he sat in the first row and I went up to the podium. As comprehension dawned, he said, “Oh! I didn’t know you were the teacher!” and proceeded to look embarrassed. I was tempted to tell the Rookie that if he planned on being a writer, he should get accustomed to embarrassing moments, but I was busy organizing my notes and handouts and figuring out the mic. So I just smiled and told him no problem.

The Rookie was attentive during the workshop, but when we got to Q&A, he stayed quiet. Maybe he was shy before a crowd, or maybe he thought I blew him off about his teacher comment. Later, however, at the mingle time before dinner, he sought me out and asked a very interesting question.


“Everybody talks about the hook, the hook, the hook, and how the action needs to rise. But in lots of mysteries I read, after the person is killed, the story slows down and the writer tells all about the people and the town and all that stuff. I like to read all that, but it’s not action. So why do writers write it?”

I told him that he’d asked a good question. Like all good questions, the answer was in the question itself: “I like to read all that.”

Why does a reader like to read the “all that” of a story? Because it’s the “all that” that makes readers care about happened, and what’s going to happen.

With every story, there is a pre-story. Think of it as Life As We Know It. Now comes the inciting incident. Whatever it is—murder, assault, kidnapping, con—it’s a figurative hand grenade thrown into a Protagonist’s life. In an explosion, pieces, or bodies, fall. Some people run away. Some run to help. Some hide. Someone saw who threw the grenade. Someone else knows why. In a mystery, the initial blast has to be big enough that the reader wonders why it happened, who made it happen, how did it happen, what’s going to happen next, and will it happen again.

In short, the hand grenade is the hook.

But a hook is a brief part of the overall story, just as an explosion itself is brief, traumatic moment. There is chaos for a little while, but the aftermath lasts much longer. So in subsequent scenes, the writer guides the reader through the casualties, investigations, questions, consequences, secrets and betrayals. These aftermath elements give the story meaning and make it an entertaining ride. The final aftermath of the hand grenade—the end of the story—is the Protagonist’s Life As We Know It Now. Or, in more writing terminology, the set-up for a sequel.

Showing Life As We Know It is what the Rookie meant when he said the story slowed down after the inciting incident. Mixed in with the big explosion are the setting, the history, and the background of the people affected by it. In order to truly understand the impact of the hook, the reader needs to understand the Protagonist’s normal life. In fiction, as in real life, normal life is full of many minor explosions—messy divorces, stressful jobs, cheating boyfriends, money woes, crazy parents, drinking, drugs, bad acts from the past, and so on. This is all normal, everyday conflict. What the hand grenade does is to add new, bigger, badder conflict, while making the pre-existing conflict worse. Or better.

If the reader is going to stick with the story past the explosive beginning, they’ll need to understand where the Protagonist fits into the entire landscape. The writer shares this so that the reader can understand what’s at stake—why the reader should care. Because what the Protagonist really wants is to have the Life As We Know It back, but that’s impossible. Once a hand grenade is thrown, it can never be un-thrown. So the Protagonist, with the reader, begins the journey to the Life As We Know It Now.

I explained this to the Rookie over a glass of wine before dinner started. Like a good Rookie, he listened and nodded in all the right places. But he didn’t ask any more questions, and as we parted, I wondered if he got it. Did he understand the hand grenade analogy? Did it make an impression on him or was he just being polite? Did my comments to him make an impact?

I saw him again the next morning. I was in line to check out and he was rolling his suitcase through the foyer. It was crowded, so there was no way for me to ask if I had explained why the “all that” of a story is important.

But as he walked by, he caught my eye. He slowed down, raised his hand as a fist, then opened it and said, “Boom!”

I think the Rookie got it.


E. B. Davis said...

So much is said against too much back story, but it is necessary to understand the character and the character's motivation. As in life, conflict often arises from the past or at least complicates the present situation. The problem is in how that back story is presented and how much is revealed at one time. Writers must be judicious in presenting back story, but without it their work will seem two dimensional and artificial.

Kaye George said...

Thanks for an illuminating post, Ramona! Makes sense to this Rookie, too.

Annette said...

The majority of the time, the "all that" in a story is my favorite part of a book.

Ramona said...

Elaine, Kaye, Annette, thanks for the comments. I think we all love the "all that" because we recognize that that's what the story is really about, not the murder and mayhem.

Kaye, I think keeping some of that "rookie" feeling is vital. I learn something from every manuscript I edit and every book I read. I hope to always feel that way.