The Writer’s Craft

fountain penEarlier this week, Susan Conant (seven-time winner of the Dog Writers Association of America’s prestigious Maxwell Award) came by to discuss her Dog Lover’s Mystery Series. Today, she’s back to talk about the writing process and changes in the publishing industry–something that impacts writers and readers alike. I hope you’ll leave a comment for Susan so we can enter you into the drawing for a gift copy of her new book,  Sire and DamnWe’ll announce the winner here Saturday, so check back!

Writing a long-running series takes talent, vision, and persistence. Susan introduced us to dog writer and dog trainer Holly Winter and her Alaskan Malamutes back in 1990. To my way of thinking, staying true to the heart of the series while allowing your characters to grow and change and learn takes a special kind of writer. Susan is that kind of writer, as evidenced by the enthusiastic reception each book in the series earns. Here’s what one fan has to say about Sire and Damnthe 20th in the series:

Susan CSire and Damnonant’s Dog Lover’s Mysteries are always a doggy good read, and this one is no exception. While the plot is strong enough for general readers, Sire and Damn (like all in this series) is a particular treat for Dog People (you know who you are!). There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and it’s always such a relief to know someone truly *gets* what it’s like to be all dogs, all the time, even while solving murder mysteries.

Now here’s Susan, talking about the craft of writing:

What’s most important for you in telling a story?

My connection with my readers is everything. I want to lure in my readers so that they are lost in my story. In other words, what I’m after is hypnosis. Or seduction. I want to cast spells.

 There seems to be a trend to “push” the murder to the very front of the story. What’s your opinion of this expectation that we produce a body by chapter 3?  

Incredibly, there are still editors who will demand a rewrite unless the murder happens at the beginning of a book. Some editors, I suspect, assume that the writer is unfamiliar with a hackneyed formula that the writer is, in fact, eager to avoid. The formula: The murder occurs. As the saying goes, nobody cares about the corpse; the investigation is everything. The detective, amateur or professional, interviews suspects, collects evidence, and discovers that the murder was committed in some bizarre fashion, often by the least likely suspect. It’s a formula to be avoided unless your aim is to cure the reader’s insomnia.

The publishing industry has changed significantly since your first book. How have those changes impacted you and your series?

Hurrah! I am free! No more deadlines ever again! No more trying to be polite about cover art I hate! No more grinding my teeth about prices I think are too high!

I have just self-published my twentieth Dog Lover’s Mystery, Sire and Damn. I chose my own editor, Jim Thomsen, and my own proofreader, Christina Tinling. Jovana Shirley did the formatting. The gifted Terry Albert did the Kindle cover and the cover for the trade paperback. I love working with the people I chose, people who have become my friends.

Will the entire series be available in Kindle/ebook editions? 

Yes. But not immediately.

Some visitors to this site are aspiring mystery writers. Suggestions for them?

Many years ago when my daughter and I were on a panel together at a mystery convention, I blurted out advice to aspiring mystery writers. In saying exactly what I really thought, I managed to annoy and offend some established writers, one of whom took me to task in public. My daughter calls this little event the Foot in Mouth Episode. The experience has left me wary of offering advice to aspiring mystery writers. Advice is usually wasted, anyway; the people who need it seldom take it.

That being said:

Write the kind of book you like to read. Never mind whether anyone else will like it! What’s certain is that if you don’t like it, no one else will, either.

Edit your work. Delete anything that bores you; if you don’t want to read a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole chapter, no one else will, either. Ditch it.

Look up everything. Use Merriam-Webster. Subscribe to the online Chicago Manual of StyleCultivate pride of craft.

If you intend to self-publish, hire an experienced professional editor. Hire a professional proofreader. Have the book professionally formatted. Hire a professional to prepare the cover. A great many self-published books are amateur junk. They drag all of us down. Please help to lift us up!

Finally—Foot in Mouth, Part 2?—if you have struggled and struggled to write a mystery novel but can’t sense the living presence of the characters, can’t hear them speak, have no idea what happens next, and feel no driving compulsion to tell a story, stop! Consider the possibility that you weren’t born to write mysteries. Go back to reading mysteries. Write nonfiction. Run marathons. Study Mandarin. Grant yourself peace.

Thanks, Susan! 

Okay, readers and fans: it’s your turn! Leave a comment here, or drop by Susan’s Facebook page, or you can leave a comment on my own Facebook page. If you’ve read the series, let us know if you have a favorite. You’re welcome to ask questions, too! We’ll enter your name in a drawing for a Kindle edition of Sire and Damn to be sent to you (or the gift recipient of your choice). The winner’s name will be posted on Saturday, so be sure to check back.

18 thoughts on “The Writer’s Craft

  1. Excellent advice all around. I get really tired of the kinds of formula writing you mention. If the reader cares about the characters, the mystery can take time to develop. Can’t wait to read the new book!

    1. Susan Conant

      Susan, thank you. If all goes as it should, the paperback edition SIRE AND DAMN should be available from Amazon in a day or two.

  2. Hi Susan! I am 100% a cat lady but have your entire Dog Lover’s mystery series in my book collection. I just love them. I would love to ask why you only wrote one Cat Lover’s mystery and if you ever might write another? I loved Scratch the Surface so, so, SO much!

  3. Huzzah for Foot in Mouth #2! It doesn’t just apply to mysteries either. I’m curious about the ways in which “mystery” the genre has strayed from the formula. What makes a mystery a mystery? Other kinds of fiction often (usually?) include at least one mystery to be solved, secret to be revealed, and/or character to be exposed, but they aren’t marketed as mysteries. I used to read mysteries mainly because I liked matching wits with the author, but these days I mainly read mysteries when I’m drawn to the subject (malamutes!), the sense of place, or the author’s writing — the mystery doesn’t have much to do with it, though I do notice when the mystery seems grafted on to the rest of the book.

  4. Ray Charles said there were only two kinds of music: the good and the bad. I think that the same is true of novels. Genre just doesn’t exist in its old form.

  5. Good interview with lively questions and answers. I loved the foot in mouth story. I am writing my Dog Leader Mysteries for readers 9-12 years old. I have heard from writers active in Sisters in Crime that they no longer call the genre :mystery”, instead they call their books “crime fiction.”
    Because my books are not about murder, but arson and fraud, and environmental crimes I want to stick with the genre called mystery.

    What do you think of that?

    1. I think that you’re right! Was Nancy Drew crime fiction? Of course not. Nancy Drew books were mysteries. Never mind what other people think! Write for your readers. Tell your stories. Make them mysterious. Have fun.

  6. Barbara Tobey

    Great comments on advice. The rest of the interview was also interesting. I enjoy reading about dogs, but don’t have one. Cats are easier to care for.

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