Writing advice from Hallie Ephron: Enjoy the mess

Today we want to give a Wicked Welcome to Hallie Ephron. When I first joined Sisters in Crime New England, Hallie was the President. Over the years she has been a cheerleader, a mentor, and a friend. She is also a very gifted teacher, and has just released an update for her book WRITING & SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL. My well worn copy of the original will soon share space with this updated version. We’re thrilled that she agreed to visit the blog today. Welcome Hallie!

oldnewwritingsellingWhen I started writing what would be the first edition of WRITING & SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL back in 2003, I had four mystery novels under my belt and spoken on panels with enough of my fellow writers to know that there are almost as many ways to plan a mystery novel as there are writers.

Just for example, listen to what these uber-successful writers have to say about planning:

“An outline is crucial. It saves so much time. When you write suspense, you have to know where you’re going because you have to drop little hints along the way. With the outline, I always know where the story is going.” —John Grisham

“I do a very minimal synopsis before I start, and I know where I end up, I know sort of stations along the way, but I give myself freedom to kind of just discover things as I go along.” —Louis Bayard

“I just dive in and hope the book comes out at the other end. And as I get to the character, slowly the plot develops like a Polaroid.” —Tana French

Hmmm. It’s not very helpful to someone writing their first crime novel to be told there is no one way. But, having worked with many published and unpublished writers, what comes through over and over is that each of us has our own talents and deficits, and it’s wise to start by accepting that as a given – it’s both your greatest weakness and your greatest strength.

Do you outline? It’s a question you hear over and over at author panels. I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every time I heard a writer answer quoting E. L. Doctorow, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” The truth is, you may like writing as if you’re driving at night in fog, but it doesn’t work for everyone.

Some of us are naturally planners (okay, we’re anal) and need to write a detailed outline or synopsis before committing ourselves to an opening scene. Others are pantsers (delusional free spirits?) who’d rather fly by the seat of their pants. If I’m not surprised, they like to say, then how can I expect the reader to be surprised? Most of us do a little of both, and in different proportions according to the demands of of the project underway.

I, for one, can pants along, groping and hoping for a while. But at some point, within the first 100 pages, I need to pick my head up out of the weeds and take the long view. That might involve attempting an outline or synopsis, or maybe just a pack of 3×5 cards with the main plot points. If I don’t, inevitably I write myself into one cul de sac after another and end up with an “out” file that’s longer than my manuscript. So I write a little, plan a little, write a some more, plan some more…

My plan becomes my rock as I work my way toward THE END. Usually it works, as long as I’m not afraid to blow up the rock if need be.

My sage advice is: Do whatever works for you. To that end, the “Planning” section of the REVISED AND EXPANDED edition of WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL is packed with planning exercises to try on, like so many hats. They’ve worked for other writers and might work for you. There are exercises for planning the premise, the crime, the protagonist, the villain, the web of characters, the setting, the dramatic (it had better be!) opening, and of course, the three acts that comprise the plot. The planning section culminates with a MYSTERY NOVEL BLUEPRINT summarizing every aspect in a handy dandy chart that you can complete, and goes on to take an equally hands-on approach to writing, revising, and selling your novel.

Fortunately, in this new edition, the blueprint (and all of the other exercises in the book) can be printed out and completed. Got to love technology.

For more about WRITING & SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL: REVISED EXPANDED: http://www.writersdigestshop.com/writing-and-selling-your-mystery-novel-revised-and-expanded

An excerpt on developing a premise for your mystery novel. http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/develop-premise-mystery-novel

What’s your planning process? Brainstorm? Outline? Synopsis? Grope and hope? And does it change from one project to the next?


hallieephron1photobylynnwayne062014HALLIE EPHRON is the New York Times bestselling author of ten crime novels, including YOU’LL NEVER KNOW, DEAR (Wm Morrow 6/17)). She is a four-time finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. A revised and expanded edition of her Edgar-nominated WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL(Writers Digest Books) is just out from Writers Digest Books. For twelve years she was the crime fiction book reviewer for the Boston Globe and won the Ellen Nehr Award for Excellence in Mystery Reviewing.

40 Thoughts

  1. Hallie, so thrilled you are here! I know lots of beginning writers will snap up this book – and many of us more seasoned ones, too. After a start as a confirmed pantser, I’ve also come to the “write a little, plan a little method. Why? Because, as you say, it works for me, and that’s all that counts.

  2. I also have a well-worn copy of the original and can’t wait to pick up the new one. Thanks to Hallie’s book and the Crimebake Conference I have a contract to publish my first full-length mystery in July.

  3. The more people that write, the more books I have for my t-b-r mountain range. 🙂

  4. Lovely to see you here, Hallie, and of course you nailed it: do whatever works for you. If you’re a square peg, stop trying to squeeze into a round hole and just write (you can fix it later!). BTW, love the Tana French quote and her Polaroid image.

    1. LOVE my 3×5 cards, too – I like the packs that have different colors. One color for notes on character, another for notes on plot, another for notes on setting… Or one color for beginning, another for middle… Or….

  5. Morning Hallie. I bought your first edition after spending time with you at Seascape. Now for sure I need the updated version. In this post, I’ve discovered I write like you do. Thanks for the tips. Marilyn Johnston (aka cj petterson)

  6. Some day, I can buy myself some books – you know, when I don’t have to buy groceries to feed a teenage boy.


    I’m the sort of writer who has to spew out that ugly Draft Zero first. THEN I can go back and apply plot/structure. The first revision is all about seeing what doesn’t fit, what I’m missing, what has to move around, etc. I’ve tried outlining, I’ve tried “write a little, revise, plan, write.” That way leads to chaos.

    And Hallie, “hold your nose and write” is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard.

    1. I’ve had books like that… where I just plow ahead. Then revising is ugly. More often I endlessly circle back and second guess myself. Either way, it’s a mess.

  7. I’ve had the first edition since it first came out and look forward to the new one! Thanks for joining us. The other thing I love about your book and this post is your “do what works for you attitude”. And for any of our readers if you ever get a chance to take one of Hallie’s classes do it!

  8. Welcome, Hallie! I’m a big fan of the original edition of Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel and look forward to the revised edition. One of the things I love about writing fiction is that it’s different every time and you’re always learning.

  9. I know how much work goes into plotting a mystery with clues and red herrings. My hat is off to everyone who does it well, but I am in awe of the panters. I would never be able to make that work long term. Of course, coming up with an outline goes against my non-planning personality. Hence the delema.

  10. Hallie, thanks so much for visiting the Wickeds today! Your book helped me along my way when it first came out. I am so pleased to know there is a new version! I didn’t plan more than about a third of a book at a time for my first couple of books. Since my third I have become a plotter. I feel like the pondering and plotting works for me in much the same way as a discovery draft but in a much more compressed time frame. As a matter of fact I am plotting a new book right now!

  11. Hallie,

    I am in the middle of reading your book right now and have found lots of things in it that are helpful, and lots of encouragement too. Thank you for writing it!

  12. Hallie, your book was a bible to me when I began writing mysteries. I just began the 4th book in my Cajun Country Mystery series, and after three years of feeling guilty because I don’t only plot and feeling guilty because I don’t only pants, I’ve come to see myself as a plotser. I do lay out what I call a “fluid outline.” It’s chapter by chapter and usually ends up being around 36 pages, but I give myself total permission to deviate from it and/or expand it. I have to say, the general structure I lay out generally sticks, although the chapters often break in different places and I discover new threads along the journey. I still feel a LITTLE guilty. Half Jewish, half Catholic – hard to lose it!

    1. I’ve used that approach, too, and then as I go I revise the outline to reflect what I actually wrote. So useful later to have taht outline when you’re revising.

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