Writing, Rewriting, and Craft by Elena Hartwell

 

Elena Hartwell author photo with horse

 

 

Writing, Rewriting, and Craft

By Elena Hartwell

 

As a novelist and playwright, I’m often asked where I get my ideas. Almost every writer I know gets this question, and I think we all feel the same. Ideas are never the problem. That’s the easy part. Ideas are a dime a dozen. The hard part, the magic part, is turning the idea into a polished, final manuscript.

The writing process varies wildly from author to author. Some write extensive, detailed outlines. Others sit down with an idea and write scenes on the fly. A number of writers fall somewhere in between, while they may not outline, neither do they sit down and write completely organically. They might write a synopsis or outline a chapter in advance.

The various combinations of these methods all work, depending on the writer and the project. There is no “wrong” way to write a novel. The “how” a writer works isn’t why their manuscript sells or doesn’t sell. The primary reason an author’s work has not yet sold is a lack of craft.

People who lack craft skills rarely sit down to write a novel. Or if they do, they can start, but never finish. Or if they do finish, they don’t rewrite. Or if they do rewrite, they quit after a single pass. Or, if they do continue to rewrite, they aren’t aware enough of craft to recognize the flaws in their own work. You get the picture. The problem is the writer stops too soon.

As a writing coach—I do one-on-one manuscript critiques as well as teaching workshops—there are some fundamental issues I see repeated in early drafts, over and over. These same issues show up in my own work, and probably on some level, in the early drafts of every writer out there. So the first thing aspiring writers can do to increase their chances of writing a successful manuscript, is learn how to identify these problems.

 

 

path to problem and solution

 

 

The first is a lack of clear objectives, obstacles, and stakes. It’s not enough to have a dead body to write a mystery. Someone has to investigate the murder. The person investigating the murder has to need to solve the crime. If they don’t need to solve the crime (objective) there’s no tension about the investigation. If the solution doesn’t matter to the investigator, it won’t matter to the reader.

The sleuth also can’t solve the crime easily, that’s not dramatic. Various impediments (obstacles) have to appear, one after the other, to prevent the protagonist from catching the killer. The more the investigator has to overcome, the more satisfying to the reader when they do.

Lastly, it has to matter (stakes). For example, the protagonist with an internal struggle, coinciding with their investigation, is far more interesting than someone who simply goes through the motions of solving a crime.

The more important solving the case is to the protagonist, the more dangerous or difficult the journey, and the greater the importance to find the guilty party, the more invested a reader will be. That’s what keeps a reader turning pages.

Complex protagonists will also have personal objectives, obstacles, and stakes to go along with their investigation. For example, a crumbling marriage, a child in danger, or overcoming an addiction are common tropes within the genre. When we know an investigator has to choose between catching a killer and saving their marriage, the stakes are high and we breathlessly turn each page waiting to see what the character chooses.

 

 

3D word structure against scaffolding in grey room

 

 

Another common error I find is a lack of structure. All stories have an underpinning structure. While there are variations to that structure, for the most part, especially in crime fiction, we start with the world as we know it, which is disrupted by a specific event, followed by rising action, where events pile one on top the other, each more important than the one that went before. This ends with a climactic scene, with the maximum danger to our hero or heroine, followed by a glimpse into the new world order for our characters.

If any of these parts are missing, the story can feel unfinished. For example, if we don’t have some sense of what the character’s life was before the intrusion, we don’t know what they are putting at risk. The “world before” can often be well hidden, it might not appear in the first chapter, but later in reflections the character makes as the story progresses, but usually a reader can identify it if they look for it.

The middle of a manuscript might falter if a lot of exciting things happen at the beginning, then nothing exciting follows. Rising action is important, because it builds dramatic tension, making it impossible to put the book down.

Lastly, an ending can feel unsatisfying if we have no sense of the outcome. Readers don’t need everything tied up in a bow, but they do want the primary threads to be resolved enough to know what the character’s lives will be like after they read “the end.”

 

 

Hello Speech Bubble Isolated On Yellow Background

 

 

Dialogue can also be difficult to master. One of the most common problems I see is when authors have their characters say exactly what they feel and exactly what they mean. That doesn’t ring true. People lie all the time. We lie because it’s expedient, it benefits us in some way, it keeps us from hurting others, or we don’t want to get in trouble. We rarely say what we mean, we obfuscate, we dither, we agree out loud when disagreeing feels like a mistake. Dialogue works best when each character speaks distinctly from the others, through word choice, sentence length, grammatical accuracy, and the use of slang.

If a writer can identify just these specific problem areas in their own writing, their next draft will be a much tighter, more polished manuscript. It can feel overwhelming to try to identify and fix all the issues I’ve outlined at one time. My recommendation for writers is to choose one aspect and rewrite just for that. Heighten the stakes in one rewrite. Focus solely on dialogue for the next. Breaking down the process into smaller chunks can make each rewrite a more successful venture. This will help the writer get through a series of rewrites rather than attempting one and feeling like the mountain is too high to climb. My final piece of advice. Don’t give up. That’s the only difference between a published author and an unpublished one.

 

 

Giveaway Colorful Stripes

 

 

One dead two to go imageTwo heads are deader than one imageThree strikes your dead

 

 

 I’d be happy to do a giveaway! Copies of my Eddie Shoes Mystery Series will be available to the first 3 people that sign up for my newsletter win! Send me a PM with your email! More info on the series here:  www.elenahartwell.com

 

 

 

Elena Hartwell author photo with horse

 

 

Elena Hartwell started out her storytelling career in the theater. She worked for several years as a playwright, director, designer, technician, and educator before becoming a novelist.

Elena has more than twenty years of teaching experience and now works one-on-one with writers as a manuscript consultant and writing coach.

She lives in North Bend, Washington, with her husband, two cats, and the greatest dog in the world. When she’s not writing, teaching writing, or talking about writing, she can be found at a nearby stables, playing with her horses.

For more information about Elena, please visit www.elenahartwell.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interview with Alice K. Boatwright Author of the Ellie Kent Mysteries

 

 

Alice K Boatwright image

 

 

 

Alice K. Boatwright

Alice K. Boatwright is the author of the award-winning Ellie Kent mysteries. In the first book, UNDER AN ENGLISH HEAVEN, life brings the skeptical American Ellie Kent to an English village as the vicar’s new wife; but death keeps her guessing how long she’ll be there. Winner of the 2016 Mystery & Mayhem Grand Prize for best mystery, UNDER AN ENGLISH HEAVEN has attracted an enthusiastic following.

The series continues with WHAT CHILD IS THIS? It’s now Christmas in Little Beecham . . . a season to celebrate with caroling, mistletoe, and mince pies. Ellie Kent is looking forward to her first English village Christmas, but a missing Oxford student and an abandoned baby soon draw her away from the fireside into danger.

 

 

Under an English Heaven image

 

 

What child is this image

 

 

 

Interview

 

Who is Ellie Kent and where did she come from?

Ellie Kent is a divorced American professor of English literature in her mid-30s who falls in love with Graham Kent, a widowed English vicar in his mid-40s, marries him, and moves from San Francisco to his home in a Cotswold village. That is her biography, but, as to where the idea for her came from, I would have to say that, like all of my characters, she began as a mixture of me and not-me characteristics and slowly revealed herself as an independent being through the stories about her.

 

 

What is your method of character creation?

I don’t have any one method. Characters come to me in a variety of ways – for example, I wrote a story about a girl I saw on BART (the Bay Area subway) who had her hair dyed like a rainbow. Another was inspired by the idea of writing about someone who thought Marilyn Monroe should star in the movie of her life. Often I give my characters qualities that are the opposite of mine, which I think is a way of telling myself “This is not me.” For example, my women characters are almost always taller than I am and have dark hair. Wish fulfillment! They can also do all sorts of things that I would never attempt to do. . . such as solve a murder mystery. When I first conceived of Ellie, I was visiting England, but I lived in San Francisco, taught part-time, and longed to be able to move to England.

 

 

 

Create Ideas Aspiration Solution Inspiration Concept

 

 

 

How do you go from character creation to telling her story?

By the time I began writing UNDER AN ENGLISH HEAVEN, my husband (who is neither English nor a vicar) and I had left the US and were living in an English village. I knew from the start that I wanted to write about my love for England, its culture and traditions – as well as all of the changes Ellie would be faced with as an ex-pat and newlywed in a strange country. These issues became the backdrop for the mystery and an integral part of the book. I also knew that I wanted to write about the period from Halloween to Remembrance Day and plot elements, such as that Ellie would be accused of murder and would try to solve the mystery to clear her name. I knew the identity of the dead man from the first . . . but all of the details of his story took several drafts to become clear. I never outline. I prefer to let a story to evolve like a photograph that develops gradually and comes into focus over time.

 

What are the elements of good storytelling?

The bottom line is that the story offers believable characters striving against the odds to achieve what they need or think they want – and succeeding or not.

 

 

 

Storytelling Puzzle Audience Emotion Engagement 3d Illustration

 

 

 

How did Ellie and Graham meet?

They met by accident at the home of Ellie’s parents in Berkeley, California. Her father is a retired professor who taught for a year at Oxford during Graham’s time as a student there. Years later, when Graham is on a sabbatical in the Bay Area, he visits his former professor – and meets Ellie. Over several months, they become friends and lovers, and then decide to marry when it is time for him to return to England.  The first book takes place less than two months after their marriage.

 

What is the Cotswold village of Little Beecham like?

Little Beecham is a fictional, but typical, Cotswold village of honey-colored limestone cottages and shops, originally built to support a now-ruined manor house. The high street boasts a village store/post office, butcher shop, pub, antique shop, used bookstore, and library. It is book-ended by the 800-year-old St. Martin and All Angels Church at one end and the village school at the other, with a village hall just on the outskirts. Surrounded by woods and fields, it is picturesque without being a tourist attraction. It is located in Oxfordshire about 25 miles from Oxford.

 

Describe your editing process and the importance of rewriting.

For me, writing is rewriting.  I do my first draft very fast – like a sketch covering the whole canvas. Then I carefully build up the picture over about seven main drafts. Along the way I make notes, write character studies, draw maps, create timelines, consult experts, do research. As I get closer to the end, I print out the whole manuscript and read it aloud. Very close to the end, I share the manuscript with readers whose perspective I value and an editor. I also do my own final copyedit.

 

 

 

Diagram of Writing Process.

 

 

 

What do you like about having an amateur sleuth?

I love the traditional English mysteries with amateur sleuths, especially Miss Marple, Miss Silver, Harriet Vane, Agatha Raisin, Mary Stewart’s heroines, and others. Amateurs have to be brave, imaginative, and willing to improvise. They have no structure to rely on, no job description, no license.  Although I enjoy reading many types of mysteries, I have never been interested in writing any other kind.

 

What do you enjoy most about writing mysteries?

I like the fact that the traditional plot structure provides a scaffold on which to build the story, but you can vary the other elements as you wish. Creating the puzzle at the core of the story is a very interesting challenge because, as author, you know too much to experience it as the reader will. Finally, it is satisfying to write books where justice is served and good triumphs (at least to some extent). I think we all need that message these days.

 

 

 

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What are the most challenging aspects of writing?

The most challenging aspect of writing is sticking with your project through all the phases of uncertainty until it is the best book you can write. . . then following it through the further uncertainties of publication and public response. In writing, persistence is at least as important as talent.

 

What’s next for you?

I am working on the third Ellie Kent mystery, another book that has a mystery element but is not a murder mystery, and several short stories.

 

 

 

Alice K Boatwright image

 

 

Alice is also the author of the award-winning COLLATERAL DAMAGE, three linked stories about the Vietnam War told from the perspective of those who fought, those who resisted, and the family and friends caught in the crossfire.

She has taught writing at UC Berkeley Extension, the University of New Hampshire, and the American School of Paris. After 10 years of living in England and France, she now makes her home in the Pacific Northwest.

 

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Becoming a Writer with Kerena Swan

 

 

Kerena Swan image

 

 

Interview

 

What do you do full time?

14 years ago I left a well-paid and secure job as Head of Disability Services for Bedfordshire County Council to start my own company; a care agency supporting children and families with disabilities. It was a scary leap into the unknown and meant investing my own money and a lot of time. For a while I worked full-time as a management consultant during the day and ran the business evenings and weekends, often totalling 70+ hours a week. I expected to have a team of eight carers but now have around ninety staff, including the management team. As I’ve built the business from scratch and have created all the necessary policies and procedures, the service is unique and personal. I have a highly motivated and positive team and together we provide highly valued care to families in need. It’s rewarding and satisfying though can be demanding at times.

 

 

Work Smart Vs Hard Better Process System Procedure Efficiency 3d Illustration

 

 

What’s it like writing with a full time job under a deadline?

I try to take Wednesdays off now and dedicate the day to my writing but it’s disappointing how meetings always seem to crop up on that day. As my company office is set in a large annexe attached to the house I’m always on hand to answer queries or make decisions. It’s convenient being nearby but I never get a proper break so I tend to do most of my writing at the weekends.

 

 

Why do you write?

Writing is no longer a hobby, it’s become an addiction. I’ve spent my career as a social worker and director writing reports, policies, training materials and content for websites. It was only when I was seriously ill in 2016 that I decided I wanted to tick one more thing off my bucket list which was to write a book and get it published. I joined a writing course and from day one I was hooked. I can lose myself for hours when I’m creating a story and am at my happiest when it pulls together. I just wish I’d discovered writing fiction a lot sooner as the market has become saturated with books and is really tough now.

 

 

Work Hard Dream Big written on desert road

 

 

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit” – Richard Back – What does this quote mean to you? 

As I was born in May I’m a Taurus and one of the characteristics is stubbornness. Once I have decided to do something I won’t stop trying until I’ve achieved it. I still feel like an amateur when I read fantastic authors like Robert McCammon or Michael Robotham but I dedicate time to learning as much about the craft of writing as I can. I study books on character arcs, forensics, and story structures. I research everything thoroughly and have learned how bodies decompose, what patterns blood spatters make and ten ways to bury a body. My husband is alarmed by my searches on the iPad and said I must never write about making bombs or we’ll have the terrorist squad knocking our door down.

I’ve always enjoyed learning and it doesn’t matter how good I am at something I believe there is always room for improvement so will study everything I can on the subject. It feels weird to think of myself as a professional writer but I suppose I am as I’ve earned a little money at it. I’m a long way from earning enough to live on though, so won’t be giving up the day job!

 

 

Metal Wheel Concept

 

 

What are you currently working on?

I’ve just finished the final proof-read of my third novel, a psychological thriller Scared to Breathe, which is being released on the 3rd June. My second novel, a social crime story called Who’s There? was declined by my current publisher as it didn’t quite fit their lists but is being considered by agents. I’m currently writing my fourth novel, Not My Sister, which was inspired by a news article about a woman who took a DNA test and discovered she wasn’t related to her family. It’s another psychological thriller with twists and turns and I’m about a third of the way through the first draft. I have a contract with my publisher for it and hope to release it by the end of the year.

 

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Scared to Breath image

 

 

When Tasha witnesses a stabbing at the train station in Luton, she is compelled to give evidence in court that leads to Dean Rigby being convicted. But when Lewis, Dean’s brother, vows revenge, Tasha is afraid and no longer feels safe in her own home.

Tasha’s partner, Reuben, hopes to marry her and start a family soon. But Reuben is concerned about Tasha’s state of mind and urges her to see a doctor.

When Tasha is left a derelict country house by her birth father, she sees an opportunity to escape Luton and start a new life. After visiting Black Hollow Hall she sees it as the perfect opportunity to live a life without fear.

At first Tasha feels liberated from her troubles. The gardener, William, who is partially paralysed but employed to maintain the grounds of Black Hollow Hall, is welcoming.

But soon Tasha realises the Hall is not quite the idyll she imagined.

When she discovers that a woman jumped to her death there years ago following the murder of her husband, strange events begin to take place and Tasha fears for her safety.

Have the Rigby family found her?
Is someone trying to scare her into selling the house?
Or is she suffering from paranoia as Reuben suggests?

As Tasha’s sanity is put under pressure she begins to wonder if Black Hollow Hall going to be her salvation or her undoing…

 

Extract of Scared to Breathe

 

The sooner I get the door or window fastened the sooner I can get back into the safety of my bed. Huh. Who am I kidding? Only children believe blankets offer security. I cross the hall and enter the small sitting room then through to the library. Nearly there. A draught of cold air wraps itself around my feet and I shiver, goosebumps rising on my arms and legs. It’s so dark, as though all the colours of the daytime have been layered one over the other like printing ink until the only colour left is black. The lantern barely lights a foot in front of me. Maybe Reuben was right. I should have gone back to Luton, at least until the overhead lighting is sorted.

The tall French window smashes into the wall again and this time glass shatters. Damn. I hasten across the room to secure the door to prevent any more panes breaking but before I get there I spring away to my right as something moves to the left of me. Still backing away, I bring the lantern round to see what it was. Or who…

The light from two tiny candles is pitiful. It barely penetrates the darkness but I’m too afraid to step forward again.

‘Who’s there?’ I can’t help asking.

No one answers. Of course they don’t. The storm continues to rage outside and gusts of air surge through the open door making the candles flicker. Making the shadows flicker too. Was that what I’d seen? Am I literally afraid of my own shadow now? I step to the door and with glass crunching underfoot I reach for the handle. It’s cold and wet in my sweaty palm. I’m exposed here and the rain soaks into my wrap while the strong wind flaps it around my legs. I scrape the soles of my slippers on the door sill to dislodge any fragments of glass then drag the door shut. I click the latch then test it to see if it holds. It seems fine but I puzzle over why I couldn’t open it earlier. The wind continues to throw rain through the broken pane but I’ll have to sort it out in the morning.

As I turn back to face the room a sudden flash lights up the wall of the library and I see a man-shaped shadow. My shock turns into a scream then I run, the poker bashing painfully on my shin and my wet slippers skidding on the wooden flooring as I bolt through the sitting room doorway. I catch my shoulder on the frame and pain erupts down my arm. A door creaks behind me but I don’t stop. I weave in and out of the furniture in the drawing room and rush into the dining room. The candle flames gutter and die as they drown in liquid wax. I slam the door behind me and throw the poker and lamp on the floor then grab a dining chair and tilt it, ramming it under the door handle.

It isn’t enough. One push from the other side of the door would send it flying across the room. The chest of drawers. They’ll be better. My breath’s coming in short gasps now and sweat trickles down my sides. My left arm feels numb. I run to the chest of drawers and lean all my weight into it, pushing it across the floor. The feet scratch the polished wood but I don’t care. It crashes into the dining chair sending it skittering away. With the furniture positioned across the doorway I turn and look wildly around. I need something else to go across the other doorway that leads to the kitchen but no. It won’t work. This one opens outwards.

Under the bed.

No. Too obvious.

The cupboard.

I grab my thin duvet and rush to the huge sideboard. I open one of the doors and crawl inside, grateful I’ve emptied it of old rubbish, and tuck the cover under and around my sodden robe. I find a screw head on the inside of the cupboard door and use it to pull the door shut. I wrap my arms around my knees and hunch into as tiny a ball as possible. I rock slowly back and forth, blood pounding through my veins. I’m trembling all over.

I listen.

Nothing.

I put my head on my knees, silent tears soaking into the thin duvet and then lift my head in horror.

I can hear the unmistakable sound of laughter. Deep and male. There’s no doubt about it now. I’m not going crazy or suffering from paranoia. There’s someone in the house.

 

 

 

Kerena Swan image

 

 

Kerena lives on the Bedfordshire/Buckingham border with her husband, son and two cats. She also has two daughters and two granddaughters.

‘Dying to See You’ is Kerena’s first novel, Her second book ‘Scared to Breathe is being released on 3rd June 2019. Drawing on her extensive knowledge and experience in the problematic world of social work, Kerena adds a unique angle to the domestic noir genre.

 

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