Are Murder Mysteries Immoral?

There was a post today on DorothyL, the mystery digest,  that really bugged me.

My spouse and I recently had an argument about the morality of showing a
murder in every episode–the implication being that people, especially children, would take away the impression that the world is a violent and  menacing place. I countered with the argument that the show contains a  fundamental morality in the search to apprehend the evil-doers and bring them to justice. I think the same applies to writing murder mysteries.

The world is a violent and menacing place….and one murder-a-week on any TV series is a far cry from the number of murders that are actually committed in the United States each day. But beyond that, how could a murder mystery possibly be construed as immoral? It’s wrong to murder somebody… and that’s the basic assumption & message of every murder mystery ever written. 

That said, does that make Barry Eisler’s RAIN series, or Lawrence Block’s HITMAN series, or Thomas Perry’s BUTCHER BOY, or Donald Westlake’s PARKER books immoral to read and enjoy because the protagonists engage in immoral behavior?

This is the kind of neanderthal thinking that gets books banned… and leads to things like that English teacher who was castigated for asking high school students to write a murder mystery in her creative writing course.

Then again, a lot of folks on DorothyL also think MONK is offensive because it makes fun of someone with obsessive compulsive disorder.

How I Write

This article, which I wrote, appeared last month on the Mystery Morgue website. Here it is again, by popular demand. If  it seems familiar, that’s because some of it was culled from old posts on this blog.

I’ve just signed  a contract for four more Diagnosis Murder
books… and the next one is due in March. I have the broad strokes of the
story….but that’s it. The broad strokes. The equivalent of book jacket copy.
I’ve still got to come up with the actual story.
I’ve been able to  procrastinate by doing
research on the period… which has given me some plot ideas… but I’ve still
got to figure out the murders, the clues, the characters and, oh yes, the story.

This is the hardest part of
writing… the sitting around, staring into space, and thinking. This is
writing, even if you aren’t physically writing.
A lot of non-writers have a hard time understanding this. Yes, just sitting in
a chair doing nothing is writing. A crucial part, in fact.

It can be hell… especially
when you are on as short a deadline as I am. Everyone has their own method…
this is mine:

Once all the thinking is done,
I sit down and work out a rough outline… one or two lines on each
"scene," with the vital clues or story points in bold. It’s what I
call "a living outline," because it changes as I write the book,
staying a few chapters ahead of me (and, some times, requiring me to go back
and revise earlier chapters to jibe with the new changes I’ve made… like
characters who were supposed to die in the story but don’t). I keep revising
the outline right up to the end of the novel. I finish both the book and the
living outline almost simultaneously.

While I’m still thinking, and
while I’m outlining, and while I’m writing, I compile and maintain what I call
"my Murder Book," a thick binder that contains my outline, my working
manuscript, and notes, emails, articles, clips, photographs,
post-its…anything and everything relating to my story. By the time the book
is done, the binder is bulging with stuff… including my notes on what my next
book might be.

Now I’m in the thinking stage,
which is why I have time to write
this. What a great way to procrastinate!

In every  "Diagnosis Murder" book, Dr. Mark
Sloan is able to unravel a puzzling murder by using clever deductions and good
medicine to unmask the killer.

I wish I could say that he’s
able to do that because of my astonishing knowledge of medicine, but it’s not.

I’m just a writer.

I know as much about being a
doctor as I do about being a private eye, a lifeguard, a submarine Captain, or
a werewolf… and I’ve written and produced TV shows about all of them, too.

What I do is tell stories. And
what I don’t know, I usually make up…or call an expert to tell me.

Writing mysteries is, by far, the hardest writing I’ve had to do in television.
Writing a medical mystery is even harder. On most TV shows, you can just tell a
good story. With mysteries, a good story isn’t enough, you also need a
challenging puzzle. It’s twice as much work for the same money.

I always begin developing a book
the same way – I come up with an "arena," the world in which our
story will take place. A UFO convention. Murder in a police precinct. A rivalry
between mother and daughter for the love of a man. Once I have the arena, I think
about the characters. Who are the people the story will be about? What makes
them interesting? What goals do they have, and how do they conflict with the
other characters.

And then I ask myself the big
questions – who gets murdered, how is he or she killed, and why? How Dr. Mark
Sloan solves that murder depends on whether I’m are writing an open or closed
mystery.

Whether the murder is
"open," meaning the reader knows whodunit from the start, or whether
it is "closed," meaning I find out who the killer is the same time
that the hero does, is dictated by the series concept. "Columbo"
mysteries are always open, "Murder She Wrote" was always closed, and
"Diagnosis Murder" mixes both. An open mystery works when both the
murderer, and the reader, think the perfect crime has been committed. The
pleasure is watching the detective unravel the crime, and find the flaws you
didn’t see. A closed mystery works when the murder seems impossible to solve,
and the clues that are found don’t seem to point to any one person, but the
hero sees the connection you don’t and unmasks the killer with it.

In plotting the book, the
actual murder is the last thing I explore, once I’ve settled on the arena and
devised some interesting characters. Once I figure out who to kill and how,
then I start asking myself what the killer did wrong. I need a number of clues,
some red-herrings that point to other suspects, and clues which point to our
murderer. The hardest clue is the finish clue, or as we call it, the
"ah-ha!," the little shred of evidence that allows the hero to solve
the crime – but still leaves the reader in the dark.

The finish clue is the hardest
part of writing a "Diagnosis Murder" book – because it has to be
something obscure enough that it won’t make it obvious who the killer is to
everybody, but definitive enough that the reader will be satisfied when Mark
Sloan nails the murderer with it.

A "Diagnosis Murder"
book is a manipulation of information, a game that’s played on the reader. Once
I have the rigid frame of the puzzle, I have to hide the puzzle so the reader
isn’t aware they are being manipulated. It’s less about concealment than it is
about distraction. If I do it right, the reader is so caught up in the conflict
and drama of the story, they aren’t aware that they are being constantly
misdirected.

The difficulty, the sheer,
agonizing torture, of writing "Diagnosis Murder" is telling a good
story while, at the same time, constructing a challenging puzzle. To me, the
story is more important than the puzzle — the book should be driven by
character conflict, not my need to reveal clues. The revelations should come
naturally out of character, because people read books to see interesting people
in interesting situations…not to solve puzzles. A mystery, without the
character and story, isn’t very entertaining.

In my experience, the best
"ah-ha!" clues come from character, not from mere forensics – for
instance, I discover Aunt Mildred is the murderer because she’s such a clean
freak, she couldn’t resist doing the dishes after killing her nephew.

But this is a book series
about a doctor who solves crimes. Medicine has to be as important as
character-based clues. So I try to mix them together. The medical clue comes
out of character.

So how do I come up with that
clever bit of medicine?

First, I decide what function
or purpose the medical clue has to serve, and how it is linked to our killer,
then I make a call to Dr. D.P. Lyle, author of “Forensics for Dummies,” to help
me find us the right malady, drug, or condition that fits our story needs. If he
doesn’t know the answer, I go to the source. If it’s a question about
infectious diseases, for instance, I might call the Centers for Disease
Control. If it’s a forensic question, I might call the medical examiner. If
it’s a drug question, I’ll call a pharmaceutical company. It all depends on the
story. And more often than not, whoever I find is glad to answer my questions.

The reader enjoys the game as
long as you play fair…as long as they feel they had the chance to solve the
mystery, too. Even if they do solve it ahead of your detective, if it was a
difficult and challenging mystery, they feel smart and don’t feel cheated. They
are satisfied, even if they aren’t surprised.

If Dr. Sloan catches the killer
because of some arcane medical fact you’d have to be an expert to catch, then I’ve
failed and you won’t watch the show again.

The medical clue has to be
clever, but it can’t be so obscure that you don’t have a chance to notice it
for yourself, even if you aren’t an M.D. And it has to come out of character,
so even if you do miss the clue, it’s consistent with, and arises from, a
character’s behavior you can identify.

To play fair, all the clues
and discoveries have to be shared with the reader at the same time that the
hero finds them. There’s nothing worse than with-holding clues from the reader
– and the sad thing is, most mysteries do it all the time. The writers do it
because playing fair is much, much harder than cheating. If you have the hero
get the vital information “off screen,” between chapters, the story is a lot
easier to plot. But when "Diagnosis Murder" book works, when the
mystery is tight, and the reader is fairly and honestly fooled, it makes all
the hours of painful plotting worthwhile.

That, and the royalty check.

When you sit down to write a
mystery novel, there are no limitations on where your characters can go and
what they can do. Your detective hero can appear on every single page. He can
spend all the time he wants outdoors, even at night, and can talk with as many
people as he likes. Those may not seem like amazing creative liberties to you,
but to someone who makes most of his living writing for television, they are
amazing freedoms.

Before a TV writer even begins
to think about his story, he has to consider a number of factors that have
nothing to do with telling a good mystery or creating memorable characters.

For one thing, there’s the budget and the shooting schedule. Whatever story you
come up with has be shot in X many days for X amount of dollars. In the case of
“Diagnosis Murder,” a show I wrote and produced for several years, it was seven
days and $1.2 million dollars. In TV terms, it was a cheap show shot very fast.

To make that schedule, you are
limited to the number of days your characters can be “on location” as opposed
to being on the “standing sets,” the regular interiors used in each book. On
“Diagnosis Murder,” it was four days “in” and three days “out.” Within that
equation, there are still more limitations – how many new sets can be built,
how many locations you can visit and how many scenes can be shot at night.

Depending on the show’s
budget, you are also limited to X number of guest stars and X number of smaller
“speaking parts” per book. So before you even begin plotting, you know that you
can only have, for example, four major characters and three smaller roles (like
waiters, secretaries, etc.). Ever wonder why a traditional whodunit on TV is
usually a murder and three-to-four suspects? Now you know.

Then there’s the work schedule
of your regular cast to consider. On “Diagnosis Murder,” Dick Van Dyke only
worked three consecutive days a week and he wouldn’t visit any location more
than thirty miles from his home. Co-star Victoria Rowell split her time with the
soap opera “Young and the Restless,” and often wasn’t available to shoot until
after lunch.

On top of all that, your story
has to be told in four acts, with a major twist or revelation before each
commercial break, and unfold over 44 minutes of airtime.

It’s astonishing, given all
those restrictions, that there are so many complex, entertaining, and fun
mysteries on television.

Those limitations become so
ingrained to a TV writer/producer, that it become second-nature. You
instinctively know the moment you’re pitched a particular story if it can be
told within the budgetary and scheduling framework of your show. It becomes so
ingrained, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to let go, even when you have
the chance.

I am no longer bound by the
creative restrictions of the show. I don’t have to worry about sticking to our
“standing sets,” Dick Van Dyke’s work schedule, or the number of places the
characters visit.. Yet I’m finding it almost impossible to let go. After
writing and/or producing 100 episodes of the show, it’s the way I think of a
“Diagnosis Murder” story.

And if you watched the show,
it’s the way you think of a “Diagnosis Murder” story, too –whether you realize
it or not. You may not know the reasons why a story is told the way its told,
but the complex formula behind the story-telling becomes the natural rhythm and
feel of the show. When that rhythm changes, it’s jarring.

If you watch your favorite TV
series carefully now, and pay close attention to the number of guest stars,
scenes that take place on the “regular sets,” and how often scenes take place
outdoors at night, and you might be able to get a pretty good idea of the
production limitations confronting that show’s writers every week.

And if you read my “Diagnosis
Murder” novels, feel free to put the book down every fifteen minutes or so for
a commercial break.

Speaking of which, if there’s
actually going to be another “Diagnosis Murder” novel, I better get back to
work… sitting in my chair, doing nothing.

How I Write

My next DIAGNOSIS MURDER is due in March. I have the broad strokes of the story…. but that’s it. The broad strokes. The equivalent of  book jacket copy. I’ve still got to come up with the actual story.  I’ve
been able to procrastinate by doing research on the period, which has given me some plot ideas, but I’ve still got to figure out the  murders, the clues, the characters and, oh yes, the story.

This  is the hardest part of writing… the sitting around, staring into space, and thinking. This is writing, even if you aren’t physically writing.  A lot of non-writers have a hard time understanding this. Yes, just
sitting in a chair doing nothing is writing. A crucial part, in fact.
It can be hell,  especially when you are on as short a deadline as I am.  Everyone has their own method… this is mine:

Want to find out more? Check out my article at The Mystery Morgue.

The Perfect Set-Up for Mystery Novel

The New Yorker reports that the world’s leading Sherlock Holmes scholar, Richard Lancelyn Green, was found dead under "mysterious circumstances."

He had been investigating the whereabouts of an archive of Conan
Doyle’s papers, which he believed had been stolen. At the same time, he
hinted that there had been threats to his life and that he was being
followed; soon afterward, he was found garroted in his room, surrounded
by Sherlock Holmes books and posters, with a cord around his neck.

Now the "subculture" of Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle scholars are trying to deduce how Green was killed.

It’s an odd situation, detective-story enthusiasts
trying to solve a real-life mystery.

Not in TV-Land.  This week, Hallmark starts a new series of TV movies about a mystery bookstore owner who solves murders.

The Surprise Character

Author Sandra Scoppettone had an experience writing the other day that I can certainly sympathize with:

I had my protagonist searching a
hotel room for clues to the missing man. She opened a wardrobe and the
body of a naked woman fell out.

I didn’t plan this at all.  It
happened.  I have no idea who she is or what she has to do with the
missing man case.  The woman falling out of the wardrobe was the way I
ended chapter two.

I’m 4 pages into chapter 4 and I still don’t
know anything about her.  The police have arrived now.  Don’t have any
idea where this is going to go.

Yes, it’s a bit scary not to
know, but it’s also what makes writing without an outline fun.  Maybe
tomorrow I’ll find out who she is.

I write with an outline, but this kind of thing still happens to me all the time. Well, it does when I’m writing books, not in television, where the outline is, to use a cliche, set in stone after it has been approved by the studio and network and distributed to key department heads for production purposes. But I digress..

I refer to my novel outlines as "living outlines," I keep revising them as I write to take into account these little surprises along the way or new ideas that occur to me.  I finish my outline around the same time I finish my books. 

The most troublesome, unexpected change I had to deal with was in my book MY GUN HAS BULLETS. I had a character, Eddie Planet, who was supposed to die very early on. But I fell in love with Eddie, and enjoyed writing him so much, that I kept putting off his death, until I finally accepted the fact that I couldn’t kill him. I was stuck with him for the whole book. Well, that threw my entire plot into disarray. It screwed up every plot turn. I spent the whole book trying to solve plot problems on-the-go.  But I think it was a much better book because I kept Eddie alive… and, in fact, I liked him so much, he became the central character in the sequel, BEYOND THE BEYOND.

I think it’s those surprise characters and unforeseen twists that make writing so exciting.  No matter how well you plot a story, the book always seems (to use another cliche) take on a life of its own.  Or, to use Sandra’s example:

The Surprise Character. I know who she is now. She was
identified by the detective’s client. This happened yesterday. I was
shocked to learn who she was. I ended chapter 5 with this revelation.

This
morning I woke early and before I went back to sleep I kept writing
opening lines of chapter 6 in my head. But I didn’t use any of them
when I went to work this morning.

Since chapter 5 ended with a
name I had to open chapter 6 with more information about who this
victim was. In learning this I’ve set myself a lot of new problems. I
still don’t know why she was found where she was or why she was
murdered. Needless to say, I don’t know who killed her…

…So what? That’s part of writing a novel. Any novel. Not only a mystery.
I think all good novels are mysteries to the author until they’re
completed.

Speaking of which, mine won’t be if I don’t spend less time this blog and more on my manuscript! I’m outta here. Enough procrastinating…

   

   

Getting Started

I’m in that exciting, anxious, slightly-nerve-rattling, stage of writing a book…the research. I have a pretty good idea where my story is going, and who the characters are, and now I have to fill in the details… of character, of place, of clues, etc. So I hit the Internet in a big way, researching hundreds of different things, from forensics to the different ways of folding a pair of socks, from Blue Chip Stamp Collecting to different kinds of urinals.

For this book, I am researching things like currency collecting, cigars and how financial managers embezzle money from their clients.  I am also checking out how some people have sold stolen goods on ebay… and how they got caught. And I’m looking into dozens of other things. I print up everything I find and stick it in an ever-expanding binder I call my "Murder Book" (which also includes my ever-changing outline and, once I start writing, pages of my work-in-progress).

And as I do this research, in the back of my mind I am still plotting… during my last book, while researching cars that were popular in 1962, I stumbled on a fact that significantly changed the entire story…and for the better.

The Internet is a wonderful research tool. Within minutes, I can find an expert, a website, and a discussion group for any subject I’m interested in. I’ve already found a half-dozen experts in currency collecting and cigars who have inundated me with useful information.

Another great tool is other authors… I have found the DorothyL mailing list… a collection of mystery authors and fans…a wonderful resource for information and useful contacts.

So now, with one good hand and one not-so-good-one, I am browsing and surfing and procrastinating… putting off writing while I gather facts. But I can also feel the time slipping away…the book is due March 30th, and the holidays are coming up, so I don’t have much time before I have to do the really important work.

Making stuff up.

How Do I Write a Treatment?

I received this email today:

I am trying to pitch a movie. My question: Is there a specific format for an outline or treatment? Is there someplace I could get a sample of either or both?

Unless you are an established screenwriter, or are teamed up with a well-connected movie producer, there is no point in writing up an outline or a treatment. No one will ever read it or meet with you. You are better off writing the script…or the book… and trying to sell that to the movies.

On the other hand, if you are an established screenwriter or aligned with a hot producer, you still don’t need an outline… a simple, punchy, two-page  "leave-behind" after your verbal pitch will do.

If they want an outline or a treatment, they can pay you for one.

That’s my advice, any way. Then again, most of my experience is in television, not feature film. You might visit screenwriter John August’s blog and pose the same question to him.

UPDATE: For details on how to write a series treatment, click here.

How I Write Mysteries

Today, I’m not. My arm is killing me, my back is sore… and I’m taking care of my daughter today. But the work is certainly still on my mind (How can it not be with a MISSING script to finish and DIAGNOSIS MURDER book due in 12 weeks?).

I’m often asked “how do you write a mystery?” Here’s an article I wrote to answer that question. It originally appeared in, I think, an issue of Mystery Readers Journal and several other publications in one form or another, before ending up in our book Successful Television Writing.

Writing Diagnosis Murder

Every week on “Diagnosis Murder,” Dr. Mark Sloan is able to unravel a puzzling murder by using clever deductions and good medicine to unmask the killer.

I wish I could say that he’s able to do that because of my astonishing knowledge of medicine, but it’s not.
I’m just a writer.

I know as much about being a doctor as I do about being a private eye, a lifeguard, a submarine Captain, or a werewolf… and I’ve written and produced TV shows about all of them, too.

What I do is tell stories. And what I don’t know, I usually make up…or call an expert to tell me.
Writing mysteries is, by far, the hardest writing I’ve had to do in television. Writing a medical mystery is even harder. On most TV shows, you can just tell a good story. With mysteries, a good story isn’t enough, you also need a challenging puzzle. It’s twice as much work for the same money.

We always begin developing an episode the same way – we come up with an “arena,” the world in which our story will take place. A UFO convention. Murder in a police precinct. A rivalry between mother and daughter for the love of a man. Once we have the arena, we talk about the characters. Who are the people the story will be about? What makes them interesting? What goals do they have, and how do they conflict with the other characters.

And then we ask ourselves the big questions – who gets murdered, how is he or she killed, and why? How we solve that murder depends on whether we are writing an open or closed mystery.

Whether the murder is “open,” meaning the audience knows whodunit from the start, or whether it is “closed,” meaning we find out who the killer is the same time that the hero does, is dictated by the series concept. “Columbo” mysteries are always open, “Murder She Wrote” was always closed, and “Diagnosis Murder” mixes both. An open mystery works when both the murderer, and the audience, think the perfect crime has been committed. The pleasure is watched the detective unravel the crime, and find the flaws you didn’t see. A closed mystery works when the murder seems impossible to solve, and the clues that are found don’t seem to point to any one person, but the hero sees the connection you don’t and unmasks the killer with it.

In plotting the episode, the actual murder is the last thing we explore, once we’ve settled on the arena and devised some interesting characters. Once we figure out who to kill and how, then we start asking ourselves what the killer did wrong. We need a number of clues, some red-herrings that point to other suspects, and clues which point to our murderer. The hardest clue is the finish clue, or as well call it, the “ah-ha!,” the little shred of evidence that allows the hero to solve the crime – but still leaves the audience in the dark.

The finish clue is the hardest part of writing a “Diagnosis Murder” episode – because it has to be something obscure enough that it won’t make it obvious who the killer is to everybody, but definitive enough that the audience will be satisfied when we nail the murderer with it.

A “Diagnosis Murder” episode is a manipulation of information, a game that’s played on the audience. Once you have the rigid frame of the puzzle, you have to hide the puzzle so the audience isn’t aware they are being manipulated. It’s less about concealment than it is about distraction. If you do it right, the audience is so caught up in the conflict and drama of the story, they aren’t aware that they are being constantly misdirected.

The difficulty, the sheer, agonizing torture, of writing “Diagnosis Murder” is telling a good story while, at the same time, constructing a challenging puzzle. To me, the story is more important than the puzzle — the show should be driven by character conflict, not our need to reveal clues. The revelations should come naturally out of character, because people watch television to see interesting people in interesting situations…not to solve puzzles. A mystery, without the character and story, isn’t very entertaining.

In my experience, the best “ah-ha!” clues come from character, not from mere forensics – for instance, we discover Aunt Mildred is the murderer because she’s such a clean freak, should couldn’t resist doing the dishes after killing her nephew.

But this is a series about a doctor who solves crimes. Medicine has to be as important as character-based clues. So we try to mix them together. The medical clue comes out of character.

So how do we come up with that clever bit of medicine?

First, we decide what function or purpose the medical clue has to serve, and how it is linked to our killer, then we make a call to an expert to help us find us the right malady, drug, or condition that fits our story needs. If one of our paid, medical consultants doesn’t know the answer, we go to the source. If it’s an episode about infectious diseases, for instance, we might call the Centers for Disease Control. If it’s a forensic question, we might call the medical examiner. If it’s a drug question, we’ll call a pharmaceutical company. It all depends on the story. And more often than not, whoever we find is glad to answer our questions.

For instance, in one episode there’s a terrible bus accident and the passengers are trapped inside. Once they are freed, paramedics discover one of the passengers is dead. What Dr. Mark Sloan discovers is that the accident didn’t kill the passenger… the man was murdered. The killer had to be one of the passengers, since they were all trapped inside after the accident. So someone killed the person in the five minutes after the accident and before the paramedics arrived and hoped the death would be blamed on the crash.
We knew we needed a medical clue that Dr. Sloan could find that would reveal the man’s death was actually murder, not a result of the bus crash. So we called our medical consultant, Dr. Gus Silva, and gave him the details. He called some of his fellow doctors and got back to us an hour later with the forensic clues we needed.

One of the paramedics in the episode is cocky, self-confident, and studying for med school entrance exams. Dr. Sloan, to help her out, gives her a pop quiz, asking her four questions. She gets one of them wrong, but Dr. Sloan won’t tell her which one because he wants her to figure it out for herself.

We thought it would be clever if Dr. Sloan realizes she’s the killer because she made the same mistake committing the murder that she makes in his pop quiz… in other words, her mistake comes from the same cockiness and over-confidence she demonstrates in her zeal to become a doctor. We went ahead and plotted the story, but relied on Dr. Silva to get back to us with just the right, subtle medical mistake that would trip the paramedic up.

The viewer enjoys the game as long as you play fair…as long as they feel they had the chance to solve the mystery, too. Even if they do solve it ahead of your detective, if it was a difficult and challenging mystery, they feel smart and don’t feel cheated. They are satisfied, even if they aren’t surprised.

If Dr. Sloan catches the killer because of some arcane medical fact you’d have to be an expert to catch, then we’ve failed and you won’t watch the show again.

The medical clue has to be clever, but it can’t be so obscure that you don’t have a chance to notice it for yourself, even if you aren’t an M.D. And it has to come out of character, so even if you do miss the clue, it’s consistent with, and arises from, a character’s behavior you can identify.

To play fair, all the clues and discoveries have to be shared with the audience at the same time that the hero finds them. There’s nothing worse than with-holding clues from the audience – and the sad thing is, most mysteries on television do it all the time. The writers do it because playing fair is much, much harder than cheating. If you have the hero get the vital information off screen, during a commercial, the story is a lot easier to plot and the writing staff can eat out for lunch instead of having pizza delivered again…and being stuck in a story conference for six more hours.

But when “Diagnosis Murder” episode works, when the mystery is tight, and the audience is fairly and honestly fooled, it makes all the hours of painful plotting worthwhile.

That, and the residual check.

Writing a Book

I’ve just been offered a contract for four more DIAGNOSIS MURDER books… and the next one is due in November. I have the broad strokes of the story….but that’s it. The broad strokes. The equivalent of book jacket copy. I’ve still got to come up with the actual story. Since this one takes place in 1962, I’ve been able to procrastinate by doing research on the period… which has given me some plot ideas… but I’ve still goto figure out the murders, the clues, the characters and, oh yes, the story.

This is the hardest part of writing… the sitting around, staring into space, and thinking. This is writing, even if you aren’t physically writing. A lot of non-writers have a hard time understanding this. Yes, just sitting in a chair doing nothing is writing. A crucial part, in fact.

It can be hell… especially when you are on as short a deadline as I am. Everyone has their own method… this is mine:

Once all the thinking is done, I sit down and work out a rough outline… one or two lines on each "scene," with the vital clues or story points in bold. It’s what I call "a living outline," because it changes as I write the book, staying a few chapters ahead of me (and, some times, requiring me to go back and revise earlier chapters to jibe with the new changes I’ve made… like characters who were supposed to die in the story but don’t). I keep revising the outline right up to the end of the novel. I finish both the book and the living outline almost simultaneously.

While I’m still thinking, and while I’m outling, and while I’m writing, I compile and maintain what I call "my Murder Book," a thick binder that contains my outline, my working manuscript, and notes, emails, articles, clips, photographs, post-its…anything and everything relating to my story. By the time the book is done, the binder is bulging with stuff… including my notes on what my next book might be.

Now I’m in the thinking stage, which is why you might have noticed a sudden uptick in blog entries. I don’t have time to write… but I have plenty of time to procrastinate.

And think…

TV Writing 101: The All Important Drive Up

We’d just delivered our script on a long-running cop show. The star called us into his trailer for his notes.

“I read your script,” he said. “There wasn’t a single drive up.”

“What’s a drive up?” I asked.

He stared at me. “How can you call yourself a professional writer and not know what a drive up is? It’s the scene where I drive up, get out of my car, and walk to the door of wherever I’m going.”

“Oh,” I replied, relieved. “We didn’t put any of those in on purpose. We like to start a scene in the middle, after you’ve arrived, after all the introductions. The viewers all know who you are and how you got there.”

“How?”

“What do you mean?”

“How can they be certain how I got there?” he asked.

“I’m sure they’ll assume you drove,” I said.

“But which car did I drive? What color is it? Is it a cool car or a lame car?” he said. “The drive-ups are important. People love to see me drive up. It’s what’s made this show a hit.”

He then turned to the first scene of the show. “Great scene,” he said. “Powerful stuff.” He tore the page out of his script. “But I can do all of this with a look.”

He then went to the next scene and tore two pages from it. “I can do this with a look, too.”

It didn’t take us long to figure out why he really liked the drive-ups so much…and why the drama of most scenes was best conveyed with a look rather than a word. No dialogue to learn.