Tag Archives: Kristen Kittscher

Signed Books Motivate Me to Keep Writing

I buy oodles of books. They pile up on shelves, and on a wide windowsill beside my writing desk. They collect dust in stacks on a braided blue rug, and from time to time I clean them off. Every year we donate one or two boxes worth to a library sale, clearing space for new reads. But I can’t bear to part with any of the books that authors have signed to me. To me.

 

These pictures show only some of the many signed YA and middle grade titles in my collection. I also have a slew written for adults—nonfiction, poetry, memoir, mystery, thrillers, and literary fiction. I’d like to say I’ve read them all, but the truth is that some sit in my to-be-read stack (which got three books taller after last week’s RVA Lit Crawl. Richmond, VA, is a great town in which to be a writer. Have I said that before? Yeah.)

 

It takes a long time to draft a novel, and even longer to revise it, and in my case we’re talking years. I’m currently in a stage of deep and messy revision on two novels, and sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever get them out into the world. Sometimes I feel discouraged.

 

 

Then I pick up a signed book, feel its weight, turn a few pages, and run a finger across the inscription. I picture the author who signed it. I try to recall the conversation we had on the day I got the signature. I remember getting tongue-tied when I met Lois Lowry because The Giver is one of my all time favorites and I couldn’t believe I was actually meeting the author. We were in Richmond in the bookstore formerly known as Narnia (now bbgb books), and for Lois it had been a long day. I think she’d done some school visits, and by late afternoon was probably ready for a nap, but there I was, eager and tongue-tied, and as I recall, I mumbled that I was writing a book for young readers. “Good luck,” I think she said. Or maybe, “It’s a rewarding job.” Or maybe I’ve forgotten her exact words, but I haven’t forgotten her encouragement, her warmth, her smile.

 

Sometimes when I look at my name handwritten in a book, I imagine the author writing a new novel, hunched over a desk or leaning back in an overstuffed chair with a laptop, sipping coffee, typing away. I always picture these authors smiling, but who knows? Maybe they cry while they write. (Nah. Don’t tell me that. And actually, come to think of it, one of these authors has passed away, so I have to picture her smiling from heaven.) In any case, the image of most of these authors hard at work on another book motives me to get back to my manuscript.

Every morning when I slip into my backless chair, the shelves above my desk like telephone wires full of birds chatting and singing, ready to take flight, I feel the authors smiling. I imagine they’re smiling at me. At me! And I pick up my gel pen and begin to write…

 

Writing Mysteries

This month I read two awesome mysteries, Mary Miley’s The Impersonator, and Kristen Kittscher’s The Wig in the Window, and found myself in awe of both authors’ mastery of plot. I imagine mysteries to be a tough genre to write, but what do I know? So I asked Mary and Kristen how they went about plotting their stories.

The Impersonator is set during Prohibition (the Roaring Twenties) and geared toward adult readers, and The Wig in the Window is contemporary and written for young readers. As each plot unfolded, I noticed similarities in the structure of these novels, so I just had to know…

A.B. Westrick: Did you outline the book before you began writing? How necessary is an outline when writing a mystery?

Mary Miley: I don’t outline in the high school sense (with Roman numerals and numbers and capital letters), but I am highly organized and I list my chapters or events in order, then decide when and how to work in the subplots before I start writing. As I go along, I make changes, of course, but I’m guided toward an end.

For mysteries, plot rules. Of course, characters are critical too, but the plot is what mystery readers are buying, and it needs to be intricate or surprising or challenging and complicated to succeed. A mystery writer, I think, needs to know the ending or the critical unexpected element before he/she even knows the beginning. For example, in the fourth of my Roaring Twenties series, which I am writing now, I knew the “trick” before I knew anything else—I knew the unusual way the murderer was going to kill his victim and how Jessie would know—and the police wouldn’t—who did it. I had nothing else for plot, just that. I am now in the process of constructing a plot around that critical element.

Kristen Kittscher: I didn’t outline The Wig in the Window up front but instead charged ahead blindly. I made a mess of things, took ages, then wrote an outline after the fact that helped me shape the story. I’ve taken the opposite approach with the sequel because I do think that outlining saves a great deal of headache (and heartache?), even if the story ends up deviating from the original outline. The ripple effect when you try to revise a mystery is extreme; with so many set-ups and pay-offs, it’s easy to get yourself in a tangle! Without some careful advance planning, you can end up with some elements that are almost impossible to change without rewriting the whole book.

ABW: Okay, so plot rules and outlines help. You’ve confirmed my assumptions! A similarity that I noticed in your plot structures was that in both, the protagonist reaches a low point (fairly close to the end) where she’s sure that her efforts have been for naught. To what extent do you consider this down-in-the-dumps moment to be integral to the plot of a mystery? Do you know of any mysteries that do not structure the plot this way? Continue reading