Friday, December 28, 2012

Writing a Series Mystery--Tips from Just-Published Author Steve George

Steve showed up at one of my workshops a few years ago.  I was impressed with his writing; he was working on a mystery that featured an "average guy" main character with great handyman skills.  I got an email from Steve several months ago, letting me know he'd completed the manuscript and needed an editor to look it over. 

I had the pleasure of reading his manuscript on a plane trip to the West Coast, and it kept me enthralled the entire way.  I remember laughing out loud at some of the scenes, and my seatmates looking at me curiously.

"Good book?" one of them asked.

"Yes," I said.  "Very good.  I hope it will be published soon."

I made suggestions for Steve to consider at this final revision stage, and got a return email from him not long after, announcing the release of his new book.  He's going the route of so many authors today--e-publishing.  Since his book is so well written and enjoyable, and since he seemed to have a good experience in writing, editing, and publishing it, I interviewed him for this week's post. 

As we begin a new year, maybe some of Steve's tips and experiences will help you finally finish--and launch--your own book in 2013.

Coming Up with a Good Concept for a Series
How did you come up with the concept of Handyman mysteries?  Take us back to that moment when you began considering it and playing with the idea.

I’ve been a freelance business writer for more than 30 years. During that time, I started two novels. Both fizzled out, one after writing 150 pages.  

In both cases, I was writing about things I knew very little about and it caught up to me. I kept climbing farther and farther out on a limb until no limb was left. I still wanted to write fiction so I decided to stick to what I know. People always tell you to write what you know but there didn’t seem to be much in my life that would make an interesting book. That stymied me in the past.  

This time, I thought about using what I know to create characters that I could stick into dangerous or funny or frightening situations to see how they responded.  

That’s how Handy Mann was born. I’ve lived in the same house for more than 30 years and I’ve done a lot of work on it, in part because I enjoy it and in part because I’m cheap. So Handy Mann is a do-it-yourselfer.  

I know enough about DIY projects to create a believable character. I also work from home. My office window faces the street and I find myself watching the neighborhood. Maybe that’s from growing up in a small town where everybody knows everybody else’s business.  

So Handy’s something of a busybody. That was enough for me to create an interesting character.

I was in Home Depot one day browsing the tools and I came across a dead blow hammer. I didn’t know such a thing existed until then. I thought that would make a great title for my first Handy Mann novel.

All of those things set off my imagination and the story took off from there.   

How long did it take you to complete your first draft?

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure.  

It seems to me it was about nine months but that’s misleading because I worked on other things and set it aside at different times. I’d say probably six months writing maybe four hours a day. That was in 2011.  

I wrote the second Handy Mann novel, Mimsy, this year and it took longer because I kept throwing Handy into situations that had no easy escape. A few of those were dead ends so I had to backtrack and that cost me some time.

On my first two incomplete novels, I did a lot of research and wrote outlines before I started. With the Handy Mann books, I just started. For me, the research and outlines sapped energy from actually writing the book.  

I was excited about starting Dead Blow Hammer. I knew how I wanted to begin and I kind of knew where I was going--although that changed several times while I was writing--so I took off without a flight plan. While there were times I wished my destination was clear, my enthusiasm for the book never waned throughout the process.

What did you do to get that draft refined--classes, editing help, etc.?  How long did it take?

I refined the book as I went and then I did full-book edits a half-dozen times when it was done.  

Some people advise authors to write the first draft and leave the editing for later but I can’t do that. I’ve always edited while I write with my business stuff and I couldn’t turn that off for fiction.  

I would love to just sit down and write and not go back the next day to read--and fix--what I wrote, but I can’t help myself.

The first time I had anybody outside of my family read the book was when I sent my final, final draft to you for editing. I tend to write pretty clean manuscripts but I was concerned about how the plot held together and where readers might get lost.  

You pointed out a few such places to me and the book is better as a result. And you found a few typos and grammatical mistakes, too.
Where do you get your best ideas?  Where do they come from, for you as a writer?

My best ideas are really a response to asking: What if?  

For example, I’m working on the idea for the third Handy Mann novel now and the whole story revolves around “what if?” questions. In the first two books, Handy is working on a DIY project while the action swirls around him. In Dead Blow Hammer, he was shingling his roof. In Mimsy, he was remodeling his master bedroom.  

Neither is critical to the story but both help develop the character.  

In this book, I decided it was time for him to upgrade his basement. I sat in my basement and imagined tearing down the ceiling and walls and floor and thought: What if Handy found something unexpected during his demolition? What if it was something a previous owner didn’t want him to discover?  

And now I’ve got a story to tell.

What’s your writing practice like--do you write every day, when, where?  

Once I start on a novel, I try to write every day except the weekends. That didn’t work as well as I would have liked with the first novel but I had fewer distractions with the second one.  

I’ve found I’m more productive if I get out of my office and write in the library or a local park. I’m too distracted at home.  

If I can’t get out, I’ll still write in my office but it’s a slog.

I had several days while I was writing Mimsy that I didn’t write because I was trying to figure out what I wanted to happen next. I would take an afternoon and jot down where each character was and what they wanted next and how I could give or withhold it.  

It helped me see the bigger picture and what needed to happen to keep the story on track.

What were you aiming for, as a writer, with this book?  Do you think you succeeded?

I wanted the Handy Mann novels to be books I would want to read. I enjoy page turners. I lean toward action/adventure, suspense, thriller, mystery, and crime books, and I love authors who grab me and hold me down until the last page.

That means I had to be economical with descriptions and flashbacks and anything else that might slow the story down. Dead Blow Hammer moves fast, so I think I succeeded.

This book is high quality--it could be something that would interest a mainstream publisher.  Why did you decide to self-publish?

Thanks! I didn’t know it was high quality while I was writing or when I was done. I was proud of the story but I had no perspective. Your positive feedback was an affirmation I badly needed.

I planned to publish Dead Blow Hammer as an e-book from the start. I’ve had four nonfiction books published by John Wiley & Sons so I know what’s involved in getting a publisher, and I know it’s even harder if you’re a novelist. It’s so easy--well, maybe not easy but not horrible--to self-publish.  

More and more authors are taking that route. I thought it was worth a shot.
Anything else you want to share?

Right now, Dead Blow Hammer is available on Amazon. I thought hard about that and decided that the Kindle Select program was my best option. Kindle is the 800-pound gorilla in the e-book business and I wanted to be able to take advantage of some of the Select benefits during the first 90 days the book’s on the market.  

Like most things in e-book publishing, opinions differ about whether this is a good idea.

You can read excerpts of Dead Blow Hammer and Mimsy, the first two Handy Mann novels, at You can buy the first book from Amazon and you don’t need a Kindle to read it. Amazon’s Kindle Apps allow you to read their books on almost any computer, tablet, or phone.  

I’d love to hear what you think.

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