Tag Archive | Mystery Writers of America

Writing the Breakout Mystery: Donald Maass’ Quickie Version

How do you write the breakout mystery, the novel that transcends genre and takes your work, and perhaps your career, to the next level? Literary agent Donald Maass gave a condensed workshop on the topic at the Mystery Writers of America’s recent Edgar Symposium in New York City. I picked up lots of good pointers and I’m passing on a few of them today, along with an exercise you can use to deepen the plot of your proposed book or your work-in-progress.

I was delighted to realize that Eldercide, my suspense novel about end-of-life issues, has many “breakout” characteristics; here I’ll refer to them to illustrate some of Maass’ key points.

Higher purpose – philosophical questions: breakout novels aren’t simply about an isolated crime. (Eldercide addresses the question: When quality of life declines with age and illness, who decides if you’re better off dead? Our society is rapidly aging, our allotted life spans growing ever longer, but at what cost?)

Multiple points of view and story lines as well as more characters – breakout novels usually utilize multiple third-person voices, often including those of children, old people, or the antagonist. (Eldercide opens with the viewpoint of an elderly Alzheimer’s patient, a client of the home health care agency Compassionate Care. Several of the victims have their own points of view, as does the villain.)

The victims matter more than in the usual crime novel. (In Eldercide, we empathize with the victims, whose struggles with declining health and dignity are described in vivid detail).

There’s at least one three-dimensional, fully developed antagonist, who may or may not be the killer. (My villain, Gabriel, is  charismatic, conflicted and reasonably compassionate. He refuses to harm animals, even if it costs him his job, and he channels his obsession with the protagonist, nursing supervisor Claire Lindstrom, into passionate, expressionistic paintings.)

Here’s Maass’ exercise for creating larger, more multiply layered stories with more resonance:

Give your protagonist a life issue separate from the main story. Now complicate the problem: how does it get worse? Think of a solution – why doesn’t it work? Think of another way the issue gets worse, and the way most people would solve it. Why wouldn’t this work?

In the workshop, Maass challenged us to use this technique with our own novels. (I chose to work on the sequel to Eldercide and explore the travails of Paula Rhodes, the CEO of Compassionate Care, whose experience is inspired by my own eight tumultuous running a home care agency.) Complicate the situation still another way, he told us. Who’s going to get hurt? How does the situation cripple the protagonist? What brings the problem to a crisis?

Next, he said, give the protagonist still another problem, but a less serious one, perhaps something humorous or annoying. (I gave Paula secret problems with clutter and disorganization, topics close to my heart.) Again, envision an easy fix, why it won’t work and how it gets worse. What’s the worst-case scenario?

Maass estimated that enfolding these additional story lines into an existing plot might add an additional 30 or 40 pages for the protagonist, and suggested using the same techniques to enrich additional characters as well. There’ll be more scenes, more events, more characters, but the novel will be the richer for it.

It’s also possible to use similar techniques to develop the major themes and settings of the novel, but those are topics for another day. Maass gives intensive weekend and weeklong workshops, and you can learn about them by visiting his agency’s website, www.maassagency.com. More economically, you could buy his book Writing the Breakout Novel by going to the same site. You can even download his book The Career Novelist free of charge.

Reviewing my notes from the conference, I’m amazed how many intriguing twists and turns I came up with for Paula’s character in just a few minutes. Will I try Maass’ methods with the sequel to Eldercide? Absolutely! I’d love to write a breakout novel that actually breaks out.

Have any of you used Maass’ techniques or similar methods? How did they work for you?

Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Symposiuim – a networking bonanza

“How was your trip? I know you had to catch an early train.” That’s how Margery Flax of Mystery Writers of America greeted me at the registration table for the Edgar Symposium. That could mean only one thing – she’d read my blog the day before. Yes, the post in which I’d expressed ambivalence about whether I should be going at all.

Margery’s the Administrative Manager for the MWA, and she uses a Google search to bring up new references to the MWA. I felt instantly validated, and the feeling continued throughout the day as people I’d never met in person scrutinized my name tag and said “I know you from somewhere.” We then played the traditional game with an internet twist – “Oh, I know you from CrimeSpace.” Or the Yahoo groups for Sisters in Crime or Murder Must Advertise or maybe the Poisoned Pen Web Con.

I’ve been busy building my brand online for the past year, and it was good to know my name actually has some recognition value, even though I haven’t yet hit the big time with my books. Actually I’ve been paying my dues – and my conference registration fees – for several years now. I was thrilled when I handed Laura Lippman my brand-new bookmark, she read the title Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders and said “I remember your talking about this book at Malice Domestic a couple of years ago.”

I told her I’d gone the self-publishing route and explained I wouldn’t be going to Malice this year because they no longer recognize nontraditionally published writers as “authors.”  We chatted about the pros and cons of this issue and she urged me to publish my work on Kindle ASAP.

At the Baltimore Bouchercon in 2008, Laura raffled off a bottle of red wine from South Africa called “Herding Cats” with a label featuring two gorgeous leopards. I won it, and on Wednesday I told her I love the bottle so much that it was still sitting unopened on my kitchen counter. She told me it actually isn’t a very good wine, so it’s no great loss if I never get around to drinking it.

This was only one of many friendly encounters on a day that kicked off with Donald Maass’s condensed workshop on “Writing the Breakout Mystery” and ended with the traditional Agents and Editors party. We authors had name tags bordered in red. Agents had green, editors and publishers blue. Fortified by a glass of Pinot Grigio, I bravely made the rounds and introduced myself to as many green- and blue-tagged folks as possible. I hadn’t rehearsed a pitch, but I had my bookmarks conveniently stashed in my handbag so that I could instantly whip them out.

The bookmarks proved excellent ice breakers, and I told people that although I’d self-published two books, I was still hoping to land a good agent or publisher when the time felt right. And they definitely perked up when I discussed my success as a blogger. I came away with a pocketful of business cards from agents and editors open to future contact. When I arrived home and showed them to my husband, he said, “Great – now what are you going to do with them?’ In other words, I shouldn’t just stash them away in a bottom drawer and forget about them. He knows me all too well.

I chatted with other authors on the prowl, and some who were more stationary. One man had parked himself at one of the high circular tables, saying, “If I station myself right here, I figure all the agents will have to pass by eventually.” And so they did – pass him by, that is.

So what did I do right, and what would I advise for others?

  • Work the room – with a little alcoholic lubrication if necessary.
  • Get and use bookmarks – they’re a great icebreaker and time saver.
  • Talk about your books but maybe more important, about what you can bring to the table in terms of promotion, for example blogging and social networking skills.
  • Ask for business cards and an agreement that it’s okay to contact the people you meet – then do it!

All in all, it was a rewarding day. In upcoming posts, I’ll report on the Q&A with Lee Child and Laura Lippman, and on Donald Maass’ workshop and why my novel Eldercide could be a breakout mystery.

Am I a patient here? My mysterious ophthalmological morning

Alex Katz

Tomorrow’s the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Week Symposium in New York City. I sent in my check back in February, especially because the cocktail party that follows the day of talks and panels is limited in size, and I wanted to be sure to snag myself a reservation in plenty of time.

I’m ambivalent about going, though. If my check hadn’t already cleared, I might stay home. Instead, I’m psyching myself up to catch the Amtrak train at 5:10 am so as to make it there in time for Donald Maass’s opening talk on “Writing the Breakout Novel.” I’ve got brand-new bookmarks to pass out, but I’m ambivalent about those as well. Iconix did an excellent job and carried out my instructions exactly, but they turned out a tad busier and more lurid than I’d hoped. Oh well, live and learn.

With two self-published novels, I haven’t exactly “broken out,” but maybe Mr. Maass will inspire me to take it to the next level. Then there’s that cocktail party with the bountiful hors d’oeuvres, the open bar, and the agents and editors wearing specially colored name tags so the authors can more knowledgeably accost them. By then I hope I’ll be feeling more jazzed and sociable than I am right now.

This morning threw me badly off my stride. When I showed up for my 9:30 appointment for an ophthalmology checkup at the office I swore I’d been to before, the receptionist said they had no record of my appointment. The office looked strangely different as well.

(Note: the following saga is tangential to the topics I usually blog about, but I feel the need to vent. In case you prefer to skip the rest of the post, this is a reasonable place to stop.) Continue reading

Was Jane Austen a professional author? Not according to the Mystery Writers of America!

Jane Austen

This past Wednesday, December 2nd, both literally and figuratively, I suffered through my crappiest visit ever to New York City. I’d been looking forward to a day in Manhattan, culminating in the gala holiday party held by the Mystery Writers of America at the National Arts Club. I caught Amtrak’s 8:05 Empire Express from the Rensselaer station, but as I exited Penn Station, I experienced an acute attack of what might politely be called gastrointestinal distress.

I barely made it to the women’s restroom on Macy’s second floor – having lived in Manhattan for 18 years, I still knew my way around, even managed to find the secret old-fashioned escalator with the wide wooden treads – and found blessed relief in the nick of time. Next, I found a Duane-Reade drugstore, popped some Immodium, and headed for the Morgan Library to see the exhibit of William Blake watercolors and engravings. Happily, I also stumbled upon an exhibition titled “A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy.”

I’m shamefully ill-acquainted with Austen’s work, but the exhibit was fascinating. I was especially intrigued by the display featuring the first edition of Sense and Sensibility, written between 1795 and 1797. The description read in part:

It was published on commission by Thomas Egerton in 1811, an arrangement in which Austen paid all the publication expenses but retained the copyright and increased her potential profit.

Wow! That sounds exactly like my arrangement with my publisher, Virtualbookworm. So Jane Austen started out as a self-published author. Would she have been eligible for active membership in Mystery Writers of America? Absolutely not.

Today I received an e-mail from MWA, which begins as follows:

Dear MWA Member:

The Board of Mystery Writers of America voted unanimously on Wednesday to remove Harlequin and all of its imprints from our list of Approved Publishers, effective immediately. We did not take this action lightly. We did it because Harlequin remains in violation of our rules regarding the relationship between a traditional publisher and its various for-pay services.

What does this mean for current and future MWA members?

Any author who signs with Harlequin or any of its imprints from this date onward may not use their Harlequin books as the basis for active status membership nor will such books be eligible for Edgar® Award consideration. However books published by Harlequin under contracts signed before December 2, 2009 may still be the basis for Active Status membership and will still be eligible for Edgar® Award consideration.

When they address me as “Dear MWA Member,” they don’t mean I’m a full-fledged Active Status member. Rather, I’m an Affiliate Member, meaning I’m not a legitimate author, and I don’t get any of the major perks, but they’re willing to take my money. In fact, reading the criteria on their website, I may not even qualify for this level of membership. They mention agents, attorneys, editors and other professionals, but nowhere do they mention authors who are self-published, pre-published, or published with a press that doesn’t meet their lofty criteria. In their eyes, apparently we don’t exist.

National Arts Club

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I was too sick to attend that fancy MWA party. I’m a firm believer in gut reactions and synchronicity. Normally, though I go through a fair number of Tums, my own gut is pretty sturdy, so I didn’t know what was happening to me. The Morgan Library is equipped with a beautiful new ladies’ room with lovely tiling and a large handicapped stall with which I became intimately acquainted over the course of several hours. During my fourth stay in that stall, fearing I might be coming down with the flu, I realized I was never going to make it to the Kandinsky show at the Guggenheim, much less the MWA party, so I trudged back to Penn Station and caught the 4:40 train back home.

The party would have been great; I had a wonderful time last year. But in addition to the lavish hors d’oeuvres, there was an open bar, and I might have said things I’d regret in the cold light of morning. Instead I spent the evening in bed – no food, no booze. I was fine in the morning, so fortunately, it wasn’t the flu  – just something I couldn’t stomach.

TGIF Blog Party – you’re cordially invited!

CocktailParty Anon painting Wash PostFriday’s officially my day for guest bloggers, but I haven’t had time to choose someone and pull together a coherent post, so I’m throwing a party instead. As Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett would sing, “Pour me something tall and strong – it’s five o’clock somewhere!” Stop in, bring your favorite dish, and introduce yourself – the party will run all weekend. I’m bringing pasta with my raunchy homemade pesto featuring basil from my garden and a big box of Franzia chardonnay (when it comes to wine, I’m cheap and easy.)

I borrowed this idea from Alexis Grant, who got it from literary agent Rachelle Gardner, but in keeping with my former career as an art therapist, I’m adding my own twist with a little creative visualization. Writers, envision yourself at a great cocktail party at your favorite conference. Personally, I’m picturing the party the Mystery Writers of America throw after their Alex Katz the-cocktail-partyEdgars Symposium in New York City. Now imagine you’re introduced to someone you’ve always wanted to meet – a top agent, maybe, or your favorite author. You’ve got only a minute or two to captivate them so much that they’ll be dying to read your book.

 

Okay, now write down that speech and post it here as a comment! Be sure to include a link to your website or blog if you have one. But you don’t have to be a writer to join the party – readers of all persuasions are welcome too! Come on in out of lurking mode and let us hear from you. I hope we can all discover some folks we’d like to know better.

If there’s something exciting going on in your life that you’d love to share, feel free to do that too. I’ll start: I’ve been spending much of the week in Woodstock helping my daughter Stacey paint the rooms in her new house. Her daughters, Kaya, age 10 and Jasper, age 3, spent the past week with the other grandparents in Connecticut, so the moving and painting blitz could happen without distraction. But they’re driving the kids back today, and we’ll all converge on the house this afternoon. It’ll be the girls’ first night sleeping in their new home. I’m hoping Kaya will like the celadon green we picked for her room, and we’re pretty sure Jasper will love her pale pink walls. On the way there, my husband and I will pick up a fancy cake and get an appropriate message inscribed.

The day will be especially meaningful because Stacey’s husband, Adam, died unexpectedly on August 25th last year. As you can imagine, they’ve been through a difficult journey since then, and it’s marvelous that they have the chance to celebrate this new beginning. Sometimes the joys of family surpass the pleasures of the writing life.