Color-Coding Your Manuscript

Although I had heard about color-coding a manuscript before rewriting it, I had never employed this technique until last year. In addition to writing books, I weave baskets, so it seems natural for me to draw an analogy between what one does when weaving a basket and what one does in a color-coded rewrite.

I first started weaving baskets in 2003. And the first ones I wove were simple weaving: 01/U1. That stands for Over 1, Under 1, and that’s what you do with the weaver: you weave it over one stake, and under the next stake. Then over one, then under one, until you’re back at the beginning and need to start the next row.

Simple weave is used for many baskets. Probably most of the baskets I’ve woven are simple weave. But the strongest baskets have a twill weave. In basketry, a twill weave is any combination of O/U except O1/U1. A simple twill can be O2/U1, or O2/U2. A complex twill might contain combinations of  07/U1, O5/U3, and so on. The picture is a Cherokee pattern basket I wove maybe ten years ago. You can see that the pattern is complex. 

One can weave a basket, and one can weave a story. You’ve probably heard some form of the expression, “He/she weaves a good story.” That’s because stories, particularly longer ones such as novels, contain patterns/themes/motifs that the writer weaves or threads through the story. In a story, as in a basket, the tighter the weave, the stronger the product. A loose weave is a sloppy weave. Not pleasant to look at. And it’s weak.

If writing were basketry, then most novels would be considered twills because they have several elements woven through them, sometimes in complex ways.

If you’re weaving a basket and you forget to pull a weaver through a particular spot, three things are going to happen: (1) there will be a definite weak spot in the basket where you missed the pattern; (2) the looks of the basket will be disrupted — something will look odd or out of place or missing; (3) this missing piece is going to disturb the user. 

The same thing is true of a manuscript. If you forget or “drop” one of your motifs, you will create a weak spot in your story — the flow of the story will be disrupted and the reader will be unsettled, either wanting to hear about the missing part, or forgetting about it and then being surprised or annoyed when you pick it up again.

Writing teachers are constantly devising methods to help writers create stronger stories when they rewrite their manuscripts. One such method, which I think was invented by Darcy Pattison (but I’m not sure), is the “Shrunken Manuscript” method. What she calls the shrunken manuscript I call color-coding.

Once you have a manuscript ready for rewrite, consider the important elements that you want to weave through it. If you’re rewriting nonfiction, I think 3 or 4 motifs are sufficient. If you’re rewriting fiction, I suspect you could have 3-6 motifs. Motifs are dominant ideas in a work of art. Two of the motifs in my novel are: the protagonist’s relationship to cross country running, and the protagonist’s relationship with his father. Fiction is more complex than nonfiction, hence the greater number of weavers you want to move through the story. After you’ve named your motifs, assign each a color. 

Last year I rewrote my first YA novel four times. On the fifth rewrite I used color-coding, and with the help of a friend I named six motifs to weave through the story: the two named above, plus four others. These elements were already present in the manuscript: they just needed to be woven through the story consistently. I work on an Apple computer, on which I use Pages as my word processing program, so it was very easy for me to use the Pages color selections. Choose six strong, bold colors and assign one to each motif.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before you start color-coding, make a copy of your manuscript — you do want an original, uncolored manuscript around, in case an editor wants to see it. Title the copy something like NOVEL A, Color-Coded. Then, for each color motif you chose, go through the manuscript once, selecting everything that pertains to that motif. Color it. I not only colored it, I underlined it as well, so that it would stand out even more when shrunken. (Later I learned that it would have been easier to color the space behind the type: that method will make the color sections stand out better.) I had six motifs I wanted to trace, so I went through my manuscript SIX. TIMES. This was tedious work, but it was very worthwhile. I got to see where I dealt with issues, whether I did it in page-long sections, in paragraph-long sections, in single sentences, or even in phrases. 

Don’t try to combine passages through the manuscript. That is, don’t try to do your reds and blues at the same time: it’s guaranteed that you won’t be paying as close attention as if you were looking for just one of these motifs. Chances are you will miss something.

Manuscript written and color-coded by Chris Tebbetts.

Next comes the shrinking part. Select your entire manuscript and reduce it to 6 point type. Get rid of chapter breaks if you need to, so that what you have is pretty much all text. The end result is your shrunken manuscript.

Now look at your color-coded shrunken pages. If you can line them up in a “light table” mode across your computer, all the better. If not, you will have to deal with them in a vertical fashion. In either case, you should be able to see where a color goes on vacation for a while — no purple for, like, 60 pages! This means you’ve dropped that motif for quite a while. There’s a gap there, and you need to work that purple motif into the gap.

The example above is a color-coded shrunken manuscript from friend and critique-group member Chris Tebbetts, co-author of James Patterson’s Middle School series.

When I used color-coding on my 320-page YA novel and then shrank it, it reduced to something like 73 pages. When I looked at my color-coding, I learned something that, to my knowledge, articles on the topic didn’t cover. What I learned was that some writers handle their motifs in chunks, others handle their motifs in mostly slivers. For the Chunk writers, who deal in pages and paragraphs, the colors on the shrunken ms show up in vivid blocks.

For the Sliver writers, who handle their motifs, or some of their motifs, in sentences or phrases . . . those tiny little slivers of color don’t show up very well in a shrunken manuscript. I, alas, saw that half of the time my motifs were dealt with in slivers. And I couldn’t see those thin lines of color.

So I made myself a chart in which I numbered each of my 73 pages on the left, listed each of my six motifs across the top, and filled in the colors if they were there, left the chart blank if the colors weren’t there. Creating the chart took me a while, but this was time well spent, because the chart made rewriting so much easier. I taped this chart to my bookcase and looked at it every day when I rewrote.

Color-coding my manuscript helped me see that, even though I thought I never dropped any of the weavers, I did indeed drop three of them from time to time. In the rewrite, I added them back in — making for what I hope is a tighter story with no places where the themes are dropped. 

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For a colorful setting, read Barbara Gregorich’s mystery novel, Sound Proof.

Description: Vivid and Brief

In both fiction and nonfiction, description paints a picture of characters, land, structures, objects, and the like. Just as dialogue and action need to advance the plot of a novel, so, too, should description — it should provide necessary information. The things being described should be described not only because they advance the plot, but because they somehow affect either the plot or the characters in the story. Or both. And, because description makes the setting and characters more vivid, it draws readers more deeply into the story.

Entertaining the reader is not description’s main purpose — even though some writers treat description in this manner. Some readers thoroughly enjoy long, long passages of description: of the countryside, perhaps, or clothing, or a house. Other readers react impatiently to such long descriptions and often skip ahead to get to the places where something is happening. Perhaps these readers, without consciously realizing it, are reacting to the fact that such long passages contain unnecessary information.

I’m a reader who likes description not for its own sake, but because it somehow helps me understand the characters or plot better, or helps me more sharply feel the setting. I become bored when reading long passages of description: I feel that in such cases the purpose of the description is either to increase the number of pages in the book, to avoid getting to the conflict in the novel, or to show off one’s ability to write compound-complex sentences perhaps, or choose little-known words.

Even writing books written nearly a century ago cautioned that descriptive writing needed to subordinate itself to some purpose. In A Handbook to Literature (1936), the authors state: “Descriptive writing is most successful when its details are carefully selected according to some purpose and to a definite point of view, when its images are concrete and clear, and when it makes discreet use of words of color, sound, and motion.”

In So You Want to Write Marge Piercy and Ira Wood have an entire chapter on description. They start the chapter by saying: “Descriptions are places where writers feeling their oats often let themselves go and readers nod off, put down the book or at their kindest, skip.  No description should be skippable, . . . every one should be functional. If you describe something, make it work.” 

In Chapter 21 of Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, I give examples of description from Sound Proof, and show the difference between description that serves almost no purpose and description that is functional. Here is a short description as it appears in Chapter 3:

The thermometer on the back stoop read 92°.

Directly under the thermometer, leaning up against the house siding, a nylon instrument case stood unprotected.

I couldn’t tell by looking what instrument it housed because the case was long, wedge-shaped and blue — like a Cheesehead after a Green Bay winter. 

These details are short: selected for a purpose. If the details hadn’t been selected for a purpose, the passage might have read something like this:

The back stoop of the farmhouse was small by comparison to the front porch, a mere five feet by three, but covered for protection from the sun and rain. 

The two concrete steps were well-worn and pitted and the roof newly shingled with what looked like cheap tiles: in keeping with Mary’s penny-pinching.

The large outdoor thermometer, once green but now faded to white, attached to a post with two rusty screws, read 92° — and the day had hardly begun. 

Directly under the thermometer, leaning up against the faded-gray house siding, a nylon instrument case stood unprotected.

I couldn’t tell by looking what instrument it housed because the case was long, wedge-shaped and blue — like a Cheesehead after a Green Bay winter. A long zipper ran lengthwise around the case. A thick nylon strap was attached to each long end of the case by a black plastic D-hook.

The passage above contains way too many details. So many that they don’t appear selected. In fact, they weren’t selected: I just blathered on while writing them, describing everything Frank might see. The original passage, however, focuses on those details that are important to the story: the temperature and the blue nylon case. It bears repeating: in writing description, select the details that are important to the story.

Regarding description, Piercy and Wood also state: “Learn to describe briefly or in snatches, so as not to stop the story in an obvious way.” Remember that readers do not want the story to stop. So learn to describe briefly or in pieces, interspersing the descriptions with action or dialogue or other narrative.

Descriptions should not only be brief, they should be vivid. And it’s specificity that helps make descriptions vivid — the specificity of significant details. Specific details that help paint a vivid picture. And it is up to the writer to think about what those specific details might be, and then to employ them in the written description.

Description is not optional. A writer cannot decide, “I hate description, so I won’t write any.” Description presents to the reader the qualities of a person, a place, an object, even of an action — unless these are presented to the reader, the reader won’t be able to see/imagine what is happening. 

The best book I know of on description is by Rebecca McClanahan. Its title is Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. In it, she lists five qualities of good description:

  • It is carefully worded, using correct terms for things and using precise images.
  • It is sensory, making the reader, see, feel, hear, or smell things.
  • It presents things “as in a state of activity.” That is, good description creates the illusion of movement or motion forward, not an impression of static existence. 
  • It often employs figurative language.
  • Finally, and most importantly, description must be effective. It must do its job of aiding plot, characters, or action.

One of the best pieces of advice McClanahan gives is to avoid adjectives that label or explain — words such as lovely, noteworthy, remarkable. Instead, use adjectives that actually describe (rather than label or explain), such as curly, frayed, or moss-covered. Wherever possible, use concrete nouns such as barn, guitar, or shirt — rather than general nouns such as structure, instrument, or clothing.

Writing ineffective description that’s too general to be interesting, that does not affect a novel’s plot, characters, or action — is way too easy. Writing effective description takes more effort — but learning how to write effective description is not overly difficult. And learning how to do so allows a writer to see things in a new way — an interactive way in which description serves a purpose.

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For more examples of and information on description, read Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Emily Dickinson

The very first Emily Dickinson poem I encountered was in a book of poetry for children. My mother gave it to me when I was in second or third grade. In among poems by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, there was this one:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — Too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise — you know!

How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!

Several years later, probably while in junior-high, I encountered Dickinson’s “A bird came down the walk” poem. Here is its first stanza:

A Bird came down the Walk —
He did not know I saw —
He bit an angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.

In both the “nobody” poem and the bird one, Dickinson shows a quirky sense of humor. Her observations are so astute that her poems are like visual memories. We might not remember the exact wording of a line, but we remember the visual image.

As I mentioned above, when I first read Dickinson’s poems I was seven or eight years old. My memory of the words on the page is that the lines of the poem did not contain excessive dashes. It’s possible that children’s book editors removed the dashes — which just about everybody agrees are excessive. And certainly the short lines look better without the dashes, which seem to interrupt the flow of a poem. Critics argue that Dickinson used the dash to emphasize certain words or thoughts; to indicate uncertainty; to indicate a shift in thought; to connect and separate at the same time; to be informal.

For ease of reading, I prefer the poems without all the dashed dashes! Although . . . when I see one of her poems and it contains no dashes at all, I think something is wrong.

Just as the “a bird came down the walk” poem shows Dickinson’s sense of fun, the well-known “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” poem shows she can make us shudder at the feeling of a snake unexpectedly gliding by our feet.

In my late teens and early twenties I began to encounter people of all types, I was struck by how unanchored some of them seemed. It appeared to me that they hopped from one idea to another to another to another, all without examining how or why or what the differences were. And then one day, while reading The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson (I was taking a class in Dickinson) I ran across this four-line poem:

I bet with every Wind that blew
Till Nature in chagrin
Employed a Fact to visit me
And scuttle my Balloon —

For years I had that poem hanging on my office wall.

A large percentage of the words Dickinson wrote with are one- or two-syllable words of Anglo-Saxon origin. They are, therefore, words very familiar to us, and their brevity and familiarity help give them power.

But Dickinson had a very large vocabulary that naturally included words of Greek and Latin origin. When she used such words in a poem, juxtaposing them against the Anglo-Saxon words, the Greek or Latinate words seemed more powerful. As an example, consider one of her most highly regarded poems, “Because I could not stop for Death.” The words in the first two lines are short Anglo-Saxon words. The fourth line ends with the word “Immortality,” which came into English from Latin. The contrast between the Anglo Saxon words and the Latinate ones helps the reader feel stronger emotions and, at the same time, think about concepts and beliefs.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were the two most important poets of 19th century USA. Whitman was published and self-published in his lifetime: Dickinson had only ten of her poems published. The two are very far apart in style and subject matter, but both have influenced generations of poets. Whitmanesque lines and themes can be seen in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, particularly in “Howl.” Dickinson has influenced poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Susan Howe. And I can’t help but think that her short-lines influence is visible in the “skinny” poems of our era.

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None of the birds in Barbara Gregorich’s poems bite angleworms in half. See Crossing the Skyway: Poems.

KDP: Kindle Direct Publishing, 3

So where were we? Ah, yes, the third call from the KDP customer service operator. The call in which he told me: “The cover you have chosen does not work with books under 130 pages.”

“Okay,” I replied. “Please choose a cover that does work. Any cover will do.” He asked me to hold the line while he chose a cover that worked. After several minutes he returned to say that none of the three covers he chose worked. That was when I informed him that I had tested all ten covers and all seventy layout choices, and not a one of them worked. He replied that he would talk to the technical team and get back to me in 48 hours.  “When you call back,” I said,  “please have a cover that works. I need to get this book published quickly.” He told me he would have a cover that worked.

Meanwhile, I returned to my KDP page constantly, checking this and that, clicking here and there, wondering if I could find a loophole anywhere — something that would make my cover work.

That was when I noticed that KDP had an icon of a cover next to my manuscript. This wasn’t the cover I had tried to choose.  The cover contained the front title, subtitle, and author name. It contained only my name on the spine copy. My name in very little letters.And, somehow or other, it contained my author photo on the back. No back cover copy, no about-the-author copy. But also, and critically important — no triangles telling me that the copy didn’t fit.

Where did this cover come from? I hadn’t chosen it. And then I thought: This is the cover of my ebook. And I thought: They’ve added a back to the ebook cover, but no copy. And I thought: I wonder if the KDP program automatically flows the ebook cover into the softcover section. When the author isn’t looking. And without telling the user that this would happen.

October 27, 2018Well, in order to give my presentation, How to Self-Publish with Kindle Direct Publishing, I needed a softcover book. In my hand. To show to the students.

Hmmm. 

I clicked on the Order Proof Copy button and within minutes I received an email telling me that I would find the book in my Amazon cart  and that I had a 24-hour window in which to purchase a proof of my book. Cost, $2.19, plus shipping. I clicked. The book was sent.

I did not tell the KDP customer service operator what I had done. I figured if I told him, he would consider the problem solved. But I didn’t consider the problem solved. If when one publishes a Kindle ebook first and then proceeds to the softcover — if the ebook cover automatically flows into the softcover program and overrides everything one might want to do with Cover Creator, then I wanted to know that this is a fact. I wanted to see KDP state so in their instructions.

Just two days after I placed the order, my proof copy arrived.

And it had my name on the spine.

And my name overflowed the spine and came out on the back cover. Illustrating exactly why KDP does not permit spine copy on books of fewer than 130 pages: because the Print On Demand machines cannot line up the spine copy so precisely that it will be centered on a small spine.

At this point I was fed up with KDP’s Cover Creator problems, and with their taking so long to solve the problem they had created. I had been talking to them about this problem for eleven days and they had said or done nothing that helped. So on the evening of the eleventh day, I did something I seldom do: I wrote an irate letter to KDP Customer Service, succinctly stating the problem with their Cover Creator, expressing anger over the eleven-day delay, and requesting the courtesy of a reply the next day.

Which, to KDP’s credit, I received, approximately twelve hours after I had emailed them. Their reply, which was very polite, informed me that unfortunately Cover Creator does not work with books of fewer than 130 pages, and that anybody who wants to self-publish such a softcover book with KDP must use the downloadable template to design their own cover.

Which means, effectively, that everyone in this situation must either be able to design covers or be able to hire somebody who will design the cover for them. Or know somebody who will do it as a favor. Which, you may recall from my previous blog, Robin Koontz had already volunteered to do.

Minutes after I received the KDP reply I emailed Robin and sent her my cover photo and my author photo, and within a day she had designed a cover I loved. Robin sent me the PDF, I submitted the PDF to Kindle, and within minutes my cover (created by Robin) was approved and my book was ready to print.

CoverScrape,Rattle,Roll-Screened copy

Cover design by Robin Koontz

Although I was twelve days behind schedule due to the fact that it took KDP that number of days to inform me that their Cover Creator didn’t work for my book, I had been taking screen shots of the entire ebook and paperback publishing process. I was also able to put those screen shots into a new Keynote program and meet my commitment to the Naperville Public Library, where I presented How to Self-Publish with KDP, on October 27, 2018.

And, even though I encountered these apparently-never-tested problems in my experience with KDP, I can honestly say that, this particular problem aside, self-publishing with KDP is very easy. They have trimmed the number of steps necessary, they have streamlined the instruction and made everything not only faster, but easier. This certainly makes it easier for people to publish both ebooks and softcover books, and it makes it easier for people like me to teach others how to do so.

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Scrape, Rattle, and Roll: Reflections on This and That was published by Barbara Gregorich in 2018.

KDP: Kindle Direct Publishing, 2

After the KDP announcement that CreateSpace would cease to exist in October, 2018, I had two choices with the programs I had scheduled: (1) Cancel them; (2) Self-publish a book through KDP and rewrite my entire Keynote presentation, from Frame 1 through Frame 115.

I went for Option Two. Somehow, between August 28 and October 15, I would self-publish both an ebook and a softcover through KDP, take screenshots of the process, put them into my Keynote program, and create order out of chaos. 

Luckily, I had more blogs available to self-publish. I chose twenty of them and titled the book after one of the blogs: Scrape, Rattle, and Roll.

KDP offers users the ability to publish an ebook only, or a paperback book only. Or both, if one is so inclined. Which I definitely was. A user could create and publish the ebook first, or the softcover first. It makes no difference. This, of course, is different from CreateSpace, which published softcovers only.

ebook firstFor eight years I had been teaching how to self-publish a softcover first, then turn it into an ebook. Why not reverse the process? KDP puts the selection box for the ebook above the selection box for the softcover — so, I reasoned, they were hinting that people should publish the ebook first.

I liked this approach for one big reason: it is easier to format a manuscript for an ebook than it is to format a manuscript for a softcover book. (Except, I suppose, for an ebook heavily loaded with charts, tables, and illustrations.) Since the step that gave students the most grief in the past was formatting a manuscript (it terrified some, frustrated others, and downright stymied most of them — they stopped and proceeded no further), I hoped that doing the easier manuscript first and publishing it as an ebook would give them confidence to go on and format the manuscript again, as a softcover book.

Scrape ebook Title, for Blog

The ebook cover

So that is how I proceeded with my collection of blog articles: I published them as a Kindle ebook first. This process was incredibly easy, and as I took screenshots and loaded them into my Keynote program, I felt that things were going well. I published the ebook on September 1, 2018, just three days after receiving the news about all of CreateSpace being merged into KDP.

Then came the softcover book, with which I anticipated no problems — for the simple reason that I had already self-published eleven softcover books through CreateSpace and had had no problems.

KDP divides its self-publishing procedure into three categories:  Details, Content, and Pricing. I filled out the Details section quickly. In fact, most of the section filled itself in — the KDP program flowed it in from my ebook. That’s good: less work for the author-publisher.

Then came the Content section. There, too, I proceeded quickly. On my computer, I duplicated the manuscript of Scrape, Rattle, and Roll. (So that, if anything went wrong, I would have the original copy intact.) I then downloaded a 5”x8” KDP template and, after watching their 3-minute video, pasted my manuscript into their template, section by section. Easy peasy.

I saved that as a PDF and uploaded it to KDP. Their Spellcheck caught four issues, but those were examples of literary license (I invented a few words in poems), and I told Spellcheck to ignore them. I then opened Previewer and looked at my book online, page by page. It looked great! And this entire process was so much quicker than the CreateSpace process used to be. KDP has reduced the number of choices and the number of decisions, so the process works more quickly.

spelling errors

All that done (and done quite easily), I proceeded to KDP’s Cover Creator. Unlike the CreateSpace Cover Creator, which offered thirty choices, this one offers ten. If you don’t like any of these ten (each of which comes with five to seven different layout choices), you can download a cover template, design your own cover, and upload.

I, however, wanted to use KDP’s Cover Creator, because I figure that’s what most of my students would be using. So I chose a cover, looked at the colors and opted for black and hot pink. Then I looked at the layouts and chose a diagonal one that I liked.

I uploaded a photo for the front of the cover, uploaded my author photo, and pasted in the back cover copy and the “about the author” copy. And that is when everything came to an impasse.

KDP’s Cover Creator template would not approve my design. Two triangles (with exclamation marks inside) showed up, one next to the back cover copy, one next to the bar code area. The triangles told me my copy was too large to fit inside the area and urged me to click on Change Size. I did. But no matter what size of type I chose (eight point, for god’s sake!) and no matter which font I chose, the triangle told me that the copy did not fit and that I could not proceed.

So I deleted the back cover copy and I deleted the author copy. I could not delete the bar code. Two triangles still told me the [nonexistent] back cover copy did not fit.

triangle

After trying for a long time to solve this problem, I finally emailed KDP. In return, they sent me an email stating they would call me within 48 hours. This was on a Friday. They reminded me that they did not work on Saturdays and Sundays. 

When they called, they told me that the problem was not really the back cover copy, but the spine copy. Their Print-on-Demand printing machines could not print spines on books of fewer than 130 pages: the tolerance factor was such that the printer might push the spine copy onto the front cover, or the back cover. So no spine copy was allowed on books of under 130 pages.

Fine, I said. I never put the spine copy there in the first place, I informed them — the KDP template program flowed the title of my book, plus my name, onto the spine. “So let’s remove the spine copy,” I told the customer service representative. 

He then instructed me to place my cursor in the spine area, click on it, and start backspacing. I did that. The spine copy disappeared.

But so did the front cover copy — my book had no title, no subtitle, and no author. I pointed this out to him. He kept me on hold as he went back and forth to the technical department, asking them questions. After 59 minutes, he resolved that this had to be solved by others, and he would call me within 72 hours. This was Wednesday, so that meant he would call on Monday.

Which he did. “The cover you have chosen does not work with books under 130 pages,” he told me. Now, I had used my weekend hours, while the KDP team was off having fun, to check Each. and Every. One. of the Cover. Creator. Templates.

And each and every one had the exact same problem: the program flows the spine copy onto the template, and the copy cannot be removed, and the cover cannot be approved. Round and round in circles. You can read the rest of the story in Part 3, which will be published in two weeks . . . without spine copy.

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Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, is one of Barbara Gregorich’s most frequently requested books. It has no spine problems.

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Part II

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel was somewhat easy to write, probably because I had been thinking about it for three years. Some chapters took me a day to write, some two or three days. I went at it steadily, so that I would never lose touch with the purpose of the book and the tone of the book.

After I finished, I let a couple of weeks go by, and then I sat down with the manuscript and read it critically, marking it up heavily. From these marked-up pages I wrote the second draft. I showed that draft to my first two readers, listened to what they had to say, and wrote the third draft. I showed that to two more readers, and wrote the fourth (final) draft.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, my actual working title for this book was Writing the Mystery Novel, even though there were a few books with that title already out there. I knew that at some point I would change the title. When that time came, I read up on what constitutes a good nonfiction title. And subtitle. 

Many articles suggested making the title humorous and the subtitle serious. But I felt I wanted the main title to carry the message of what the book is, so that anybody searching for it could find it easily. And I wanted the subtitle to reflect what was in the book. Once I decided to title the book Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel, it took me maybe a minute to come up with the subtitle, Lots of Examples. I liked the down-to-earth feeling of the word “Lots,” which is of course colloquial. 

It’s amazing how our subconscious works parallel to and in step with our consciousness on occasions. No sooner had I deliberately, consciously chosen the colloquial Lots of Examples than, out of nowhere, my subconscious prodded, Plus Dead Bodies.

So I spent maybe three hours reading up on and thinking about nonfiction titles, about five minutes deciding on my main title, and about two minutes coming up with the subtitle. But the five minutes and two minutes would never have given me the solution had I not spent those three hours researching and thinking.

Every time I decide to self-publish a book, I ask Robin Koontz to design the cover. I’m always thrilled with her cover designs, and this one is no exception. It was Robin who came up with the idea of crime scene markers for the subtitle of the book and also for the inside chapter titles. I love it! In fact, even though I know about crime scene tape, I was unaware of crime scene markers — but I am so glad that Robin was aware of them! 

Robin also came up with the dead body (don’t ask how!), the layout, the colors, and the typefaces. An immensely appealing cover, I think. (Thank you, Robin!)

Designers put great thought into not only the front cover of books, but also the back cover. Personally, I find back covers difficult to decide on. The back cover of She’s on First contains review quotes: such testimonial blurbs are the most common back cover item. The back covers of Dirty Proof and Sound Proof contain book descriptions: sort of what the inside flap copy would be like in a hardback book.

The back cover of Research Notes Volume 1 contains extensive about-the-author information. The back cover of Volume 2 contains two long review quotes about Volume 1. The back cover of Jack and Larry contains five testimonials from sources with clout. The back cover of my poetry collection, Crossing the Skyway, contains nothing but the continuation of color from the front of the cover.

For Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel, I was seriously thinking of describing the contents of the book (as with Dirty Proof and Sound Proof), but Robin Koontz came up with a better idea. She took the topics discussed in the twenty-five chapters and created an attractive, intriguing, eye-catching collage of these topics for the back cover. This is my favorite of all the back covers of all my books.

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel was the eighth book I self-published, but it was the first of those books to contain an index. If I were using such a book as Guide and had finished reading it, then at a later date wanted to refresh my memory about what the author said about, say, subplots, I would want an index — because I couldn’t assume that every comment about subplots would be within the chapter on subplots.

So I asked Sharon Johnson, a friend who’s a professional indexer, and who indexed Women at Play back in 1993, if she would create the index. She said she would (Thank you, Sharon!), and the book has an index. I hope that many people find this index useful.

It’s interesting how things work out. If I hadn’t written my first mystery, Dirty Proof, I wouldn’t have written a second mystery with the same detective hero. And if I hadn’t written that second mystery, Sound Proof, and used it when teaching, I would have never written Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. In fiction, one thing leads to another. Just as in life.

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Barbara Gregorich’s most recent book is Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers. 

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Part I

Perhaps a third of the way through writing the first draft of Sound Proof, my second mystery novel, I realized that I wanted to write a how-to book on writing the mystery novel. Two factors contributed to my wanting to write such a guide. 

The first was that I had been reading a lot of mystery novels which, in one way or another, annoyed me.  One might have had a far too obvious villain: somebody I recognized as the murderer by the third chapter. Another might have had a far, far too obscure minor-character villain who, when revealed to be the villain, created no emotion in me: I just didn’t care that this seldom-seen character was the guilty party. Still another mystery might have had way-too-clunky planting of clues. One may have had way-too-obvious foreshadowing, while the solution to yet another might have been totally unearned.

Annoyed at what I was encountering, I thought I could give some guidelines on techniques such as foreshadowing, or give examples of how to plant clues. I would certainly read such a how-to book, and I thought others would, too.

The second factor that contributed to my writing a guide on how to write a mystery novel stemmed from the fact that with Sound Proof I was being forced to think through writing decisions very different from those I made for Dirty Proof. For example: Sound Proof contains many more characters and is set over a five-day period at a folk music festival. As I began to write, I noticed that I needed to know where each of the seven suspects was at a particular time of day Monday through Friday. So I had to make a where-are-they chart listing the days, the time of day, and the location of the suspects. The chart would help me understand time and place, and my understanding of time and place in the novel would help the reader understand it, too.

SOUNDPROOF-Cover

Design by Robin Koontz

In Dirty Proof I had a major character villain, but in Sound Proof I had a minor character villain. I was worried: how could I keep readers from forgetting the character? So I made a chart tracking the minor character’s appearance in the novel, making sure to have the character present enough times so that the reader wouldn’t forget, but also absent enough times that the reader wouldn’t suspect.

Because I intended to write a guide book after completing Sound Proof, I kept track of all my major writing decisions. I saved all my doodles and scraps of paper. After I finished and published Sound Proof (2011), I put all my files aside for a while, so that I could think about the organization and tone of the guide book. While letting my ideas for the guide book simmer,  I wrote and published Jack and Larry in 2012 and Research Notes for Women at Play, Volume II, in 2013.

When 2014 came along, I started to organize the guide book. The first thing I did was create a working title: Writing the Mystery Novel. I’m the kind of person who needs a title before I can write a book . . . even though I may change the title after I’ve finished. In this case, after I completed the book, I changed the title to Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel.

After coming up with the working title, I thought about how to organize the book.

 

BookmarkPerhaps there was a time in the history of reading when every single reader read a book from beginning to end, in the order the pages were printed. If there was such a time, it clearly no longer exists. People read books, particularly nonfiction books, in any order that pleases them. Middle to End to Beginning. Beginning, End, Middle. Who knows.

I happen to read books from beginning to end, in the order the pages/chapters are printed. But I don’t want to impose my reading preference on others, and so as I began to create Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel, I made certain that the book would logically lead a reader from beginning to end, teaching skills along the way — and that any individual chapter could be read at any time and still make sense. In that respect, Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel is “interactive” in that the reader can interact with the book in any order she pleases.

People who teach know that nothing works like examples — theory and instructions are abstract: examples are concrete. In addition to explaining foreshadowing, for example, it helps to show an example of foreshadowing. This is why Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel contains (as the subtitle promises) lots of examples.

Most of the examples are from Sound Proof, for a variety of reasons, one of which is that I own the copyright to Sound Proof and therefore don’t need permission to publish quotes from it. Equally important is that because I wrote the novel, I knew what problems I faced when writing it, and I know what my thinking was in reaching a solution. I shared these problems and my thinking and my solutions with the reader in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel.

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Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, is one of Barbara Gregorich’s most frequently requested books.