Guest Post: Learning Curves

[Today’s post is a guest post, courtesy of Alice Loweecey, because I’m on the road this weekend.]

Learning Curves: They’re Not for the Timid

I’m a mystery writer. Well, not initially. From a wee age I wrote horror. Love the stuff. Started watching Hammer films with my dad when I was five. (Christopher Lee as Dracula can’t be beat.) Love dystopian post-nuke books too. So when I decided to pursue the dream, my first completed book was a post-apocalyptic horror.

That was a learning curve. I rewrote it four times.

Then I wrote a mystery. Which is nothing like writing horror. Learning curve #2. I discovered the joy that is outlining. I knew that I had to plant clues and remember where and when I planted them.

The good thing about the frequent and steep learning curves is that they taught me how to write tight, clean prose with 3-D characters. Those skills helped me get an agent and a three-book deal with the ex-nun Private Eye mystery. You can see their covers here: Force of Habit, Back in the Habit (both in stores now), and Veiled Threat (hits stores 2/8/13).

More characters moved into my head. YA characters.

I’m a mystery writer, I told them. They wouldn’t shut up. I’m a horror writer, I told them. Adult horror. Adult mystery. They ignored me and kept on yammering. I had to shut them up.

Learning curve #3: YA.

And I thought horror-to-mystery was steep and rocky. Hahahahaha!

I broke it down into manageable steps. First: Head to the library and read two dozen current YA books. Because these characters told me they lived in a post-cataclysmic dystopian Buffalo and Niagara Falls, I chose dystopian, paranormal, and UF books.

For one month, I read YA, taking notes on the differences between YA and adult. This placated the characters in my head.

The biggest differences were voice and speed. I’d forgotten that everything is life or death during the teenage years. How important what other people think about you is. How much you obsess over that and clothes and boys and parents and… everything.

The pace of YA is often much faster than adult fic. I saw less introspection and more action. Fewer gab sessions and more Run! Attack! Regroup! Sneak a kiss! moments. Not to say that the latter aren’t to be found in adult fic—not at all. But overall more things happen, and happen faster, in YA.

After I immersed myself in current YA, I returned to my never-fail creation tool: Character Charts. I use the ones from Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. I have the full version, which was part of my very first large writer’s conference. (Did I say learning curve? That was an eye-opening weekend.)

I start a new book with the MC, his/her love interest/partner, the antagonist, and a short pitch line. When I open the character chart and start with the basics—name, age, height, weight, description—the characters really begin talking to me. They look at the 30-plus items in the chart and tell me what they read and listen to, what they wear and where they work. What their dreams and fear are. This is how I learn about them and the plot—because what they tell me often shows me important plot points.

This was the familiar part of writing YA, because I do the exact same thing for an adult book. So was the next part—writing the outline.

Outlines aren’t for everyone. I pantsed my first book. But once I outlined a mystery, I was hooked. Some writers say that outlining the book from start to finish takes all the excitement out of it. For me, it’s like a basic knitting pattern. I know the measurements, but what I do with yarn and pattern stitches is new every time.

I kept the outline (an Excel spreadsheet) open in one window and the character charts open in another. New characters jumped into the outline as I wrote it, so I created a character chart for them. Items to research got their own column in the spreadsheet. Whenever I got stuck in the plot process, I switched to research.

Learning curve #4: What’s okay in adult fic isn’t necessarily okay in YA.

Yep, that means explicitness. When the book was ready to send to beta readers, they all advised me to tone it down. That meant the language and a few bits of nookie and innuendo that wouldn’t be a problem in an adult book. My agent had me tone it down even further—twice.

While I was still mulling this book over in my head, I talked to some writer friends who wrote extensively in YA. Their unanimous piece of advice was: Get deep into the MC’s head. Which led to…

Learning curve #5: First person.

All my other books (4 at the time of writing this YA) were in close third. I like close third. It’s my preferred reading and writing choice This YA started out in close third, and it was… wrong. The MC wasn’t alive. The story was flat. The dialogue was stilted. Everything stopped with a whump. I realized why a lot of YA was written in first. It lets the reader dive into the MC’s head and experience everything just as he or she is. I realized it worked especially well with YA’s faster pace.

So I looked first person in the eye and said: I will conquer you. I went back to the library and found half a dozen current YAs in first person. I put the WIP away and read all the books. Then I started over.

My MC opened her mouth and her story came alive. Her world, her family, her fears, her dreams. Four months later, I had a finished book. A month after that, I had beta comments and a revised draft to send to my agent.

That book is on sub to editors now—the final step to achieving the Holy Grail: A book deal

The learning curve—curves, plural—were worth it, no question. I’m a more skillful writer because of it. When (never ‘if’!) the YA sells, I have ideas for at least two sequels. Right now I’m writing a paranormal romance with a touch of steampunk. It’s not YA. But my next book could be. It all depends on who invades my head. And I’ll be able to write it because I didn’t back down from the learning curves.

Alice Loweecey is a former nun who went from the convent to playing prostitutes on stage to accepting her husband’s marriage proposal on the second date. Her teenage sons clamor for dramatic cameos in future books, but she’s thinking they’ll make good Redshirts. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. Visit her website at www.aliceloweecey.com and check out her books on her author pages at Amazon.com and at Barnes and Noble.

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: Learning Curves

  1. I’ve been reading a lot of YA novels lately and quickly figured out they weren’t all that easy to write. I still might try it one of these days.

    Love the idea of your ex-nun P.I. mysteries, Alice. I’ll check them out.

  2. I sat down an hour ago to think about outlining (after charging through several drafts) and checked in here first via the MWA boards. Thanks for the timely post!

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