Last week, my wife and I drove from our home in Illinois to New York City for the Edgar Awards. Driving allowed us to see friends we hadn’t seen in years, both coming and going. We drove to JFK where we left our car in the long-term parking, which was easier than driving into Manhattan, and then we took an airport transit bus that dropped us at our hotel at 42nd and Park.
Fairly bright and definitely early the next morning, I headed north to the Lighthouse building on 59th where the Mystery Writers of America was having a day-long writer’s symposium. I’d planned on taking a cab, but it was a lovely day and I’d been in a car for two days, so I stretched my legs by walking the 17 blocks. North-south blocks in mid-town Manhattan are normal size, so it was a nice stroll. East-west blocks; those are the killers.
After a continental breakfast, the hour-long symposium classes began with a discussion of social media, moderated by author Hilary Davidson. The panel talked about both the power and danger of Twitter and Facebook. With Twitter, some authors are constantly tweeting about their books, and it can turn off potential readers. Pinterest hadn’t been a good experience for the panelists; after posting the cover art for the book, what else could you do? There was an interesting comment made about the difference between advertising and publicity. Advertising is you talking about yourself or paying others to do it; publicity is where others are talking about you.
The next panel, moderated by lawyer, author, and MWA national board member Hank Phillippi Ryan, featured all five nominees for best first novel: Lori Roy (Bent Road); Edward Conlon (Red on Red); David Duffy (Last to Fold); Steve Ulfelder (Purgatory Chasm); and Leonard Rosen (All Cry Chaos). They all came to write their novels in different ways. Ms. Roy had the Kansas setting of her book and the bent road of the title as her inspiration. Edward Conlon, an NYPD officer, had written a nonfiction book, “Bluebloods,” but wanted to open up the story. David Duffy came up with a Russian detective who was given a patriotic name by his parents, a common occurrence under Stalin. The name translated to Electric Turbine Power, but the detective shortened it to Turbo. Steve Ulfelder had a setting in mind for his book that involved running down the side of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, but since the rest of the book took place in Massachusetts, he was faced with having the characters commute. Then his wife mentioned there was a similar location nearby where people would run down an incline. When she said its name was Purgatory Chasm – boom, he had his setting, and his title. Leonard Rosen was inspired to blend a French Interpol agent with Chaos Theory and Fractal Geometry, and somehow it worked well.
The final morning panel dealt with characterization and was moderated by Reed Farrel Coleman who is both a mystery writer and teaches at Hofstra University. One panelist was Diana Gabaldon, who was nominated for a best short story Edgar this year. (It’s slightly ironic, since Diana’s genre-bending books such as Outlander are usually a couple hundred thousand words in length at the very least.) She divides characters into three groups: Onions, long-term characters that you slowly peel back; Mushrooms, characters that pop-up out of nowhere and are often fascinating; and Hard Nuts, characters you’re stuck with, such as historical figures for the time you’re writing about.
Some statements struck me: Plot is fixable, character is not. You need to go all in for characterization. It begins by asking what a person wants; that’s the starting point for motivation. Plot moves things forward, but character is what animates a book. You’re not looking for a unique character; you want a three-dimensional human being. Even minor characters shouldn’t be “spear carriers” like you have in movies; they have life beyond the book.
Then it was time for lunch. Earlier in the day I’d connected with Jackie Sherbow, the assistant of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine editor Janet Hutchings, who was there for the day. She was nice enough to invite me and another author to go out with her, so I wasn’t eating alone.
The first panel after lunch featured Edgar nominees in the best children’s book and YA fiction categories. They made the point that today you have to write up to kids. Kids are smart, and they want the truth. The old form of putting a lesson in the book has gone the way of the dodo. They also noted that social media played a large part in their lives, since kids want to be able to connect with the authors. They had run into problems with people wanting to ban books. One truth they’d found was that people who want to ban books usually haven’t read them; they see something about it and assume they know what the book is about.
The next panel was titled Agatha’s Heirs: Smart Women, Smart Fiction. It was moderated by two-time Edgar winner S.J. Rozan and featured current MWA president Sandra Brown, thriller writer and Edgar winner Meg Gardiner, and Dandi Daley Mackall, who was nominated for her first Edgar this year in the YA category. Last year’s MWA President Lisa Scottoline was to participate, but she had to cancel because of a family illness, so her place was taken by Sara Henry, who was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark award (later that night, she won the award). Ms. Brown talked about getting fired from her job as the start of her career. She’d always talked about writing, and her husband told her that now she had the time to do it. She started in the romance genre in the early ‘80s before switching to mysteries. Now she’s written 61 NY Times bestsellers.
Their advice to beginning writers may sound simple, but it’s still true: Write a good book. Love and sex are compelling motivators in a story, but they need to accent the meat of the story, not just be candy on the side. You should write because you want to write. You may not get any further compensation beyond the joy of composing a story.
The final session of the day was an interview with this year’s Grand Master, Martha Grimes. She’s been writing the Richard Jury series for over 30 years at the rate of at least one book per year. The series is a blend of English village mysteries with hard-edge police procedurals, and the titles of all the books are taken from the names of pubs in England. (Some of the titles: The Man with a Load of Mischief, The Dirty Duck, The Old Fox Deceiv’d, The Five Bells and Bladebone.) One would expect her to be from England, but she’s actually an American and lives in the Washington, DC area. She said that one key to writing a long series of books is that she never gets bored with the characters.
After a break, most of those who attended the symposium (which was held in a theater in the basement) went upstairs to a meeting room where the MWA held the Agent and Editors party. Thankfully they color-coded the name tags: red for writers, black for editors, and green for agents.
I am an introvert, as are many in the arts, but I’ve learned that to pursue this career I must step out of my shell. I looked for agents and, as the English say, began chatting them up. Winning the Robert L. Fish Award did help. You could see eyes light up when I mentioned that. (I did get addresses for several people who may represent me and have sent them queries. Now begins the waiting.)
When the party was winding down, I left and walked back to the hotel. I didn’t sleep very well that night, as I was filled with anticipation for the next day. (To be continued…)