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Friday, July 30, 2010


Our Book Club Friday author today is mystery writer Elizabeth Spann Craig. Elizabeth writes the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink, and as Riley Adams, she writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin. Her latest book is Delicious and Suspicious, which releases July 6, 2010: When a food scout from a cable cooking channel is murdered, it's only natural for restaurant owner Lulu Taylor to take it personally. After all, her barbeque restaurant served the scout's last meal. But danger lurks as Lulu investigates the crime. Will she clear the restaurant's name, or is she next to be skewered?

Elizabeth can be found blogging daily at
http://mysterywritingismurder.blogspot.com, named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010. You can read more about her at her website and follow her on Twitter: @elizabethscraig. -- AP


One reason I enjoy the online writing community is discovering all the different ways that writers create a first draft and how they approach the revision process.  Each person has their own individual method.

What works for me (the first draft):

I do an initial brainstorming on paper for ideas.

I set up a Word folder with the working title of the manuscript.  In that folder, I have a character file, a file for random ideas, a title idea file, a file with the ideas I brainstormed, and the manuscript itself.

I have a One Note notebook for the manuscript.  (Microsoft’s One Note that came with my Office 2007.)  It’s good for listing things I need to research, character descriptions, setting descriptions, my clues and red herrings, etc.  It’s basically my reference for information I need to access quickly (without searching through my manuscript.)

I have a storytelling voice, so I treat the draft as if I were transcribing a story that I’m telling someone. It’s conversational. The story unfolds in an easier way that way. I ask myself “what if” as I go along.

Sometimes, as I write, I’m not happy with the direction I’m taking the story in. I start taking the story in a new direction at that point and flag the point where the storyline changes so that I can come back and fix the text before that point during the second draft.

I mentioned that I have a “random” file in my manuscript folder in Word.  Occasionally I’ll get ideas for the story, or bits of dialogue that would be for a different part of the story.  I put these ideas in the random file.

I don’t like big outlines, but I do like small ones. I’ll sketch out what I want to accomplish for the next page. It’s got to take the plot somewhere.

When I finish my writing for the day, I make a note of where I need to pick up the next day. I never read the text I wrote the day before. It completely messes me up—it not only makes me feel insecure about the project, but it slows me down.

What keeps me going during a first draft?

I’ve learned to write anywhere and with any noise level. This helps tremendously since some days I’m doing my writing on the go. The ability to adapt to any environment I’m in makes the writing go faster.

Also—I think it’s really, really important to set an attainable goal for yourself.  If that’s a page a day, then that’s what you need to make.  I think meeting our goals really motivates us to keep moving forward.

I write every day—even on weekends.  Otherwise, it’s too hard for me to jump back into the project.


I read the whole manuscript from start to finish.  I used to do this on paper, but now I do it on the computer—which saves me a lot of time.  I use Word’s Track Changes feature (click on “review” at the top of a page and then turn on Track Changes) to make comments to myself. 

I look for big errors first, then I do a search for smaller mistakes.  If I happen to see typos, etc, I’ll change them as I go.  Otherwise, I’ll just worry about them later.  So for the first sweep, I’m usually looking for scenes that are out of order, continuity errors, boring scenes or rambling dialogue, weak characters, pacing problems, lack of description, etc.  When I find these issues, I make a comment in the margin with Track Changes.   Usually I’ll either open a new Word document and write a separate correction for the problem scene (without referring again to the original document…which seems to make my rewrite too similar to the original), or I’ll rewrite the scene on paper and type it back in later.

I’m more nitpicky on my next pass through the document.  I look for phrase repetition, word repetition, poor choice of words, unvarying sentence structure or dialogue structure—and I fix it.  I know the favorite words I like to use, and I do a “find” for them in the manuscript and replace the words with other words, or reorder the sentence.

Then I read the manuscript again (usually out loud.)  And then…I read it again (a few more times.)  With each pass, I make changes.

Finally, I put in the chapter breaks and put a header with my name, a suggested title (or not…sometimes I just say something like “Memphis Barbeque 2”), and the page number. 

This is what works for me.  But I’m very curious about other writers’ methods and always consider adapting my method to make it more efficient or more organized.  If there are any writers reading this blog, what works for you?

Thank you, Elizabeth. I’m sure many of our readers found it fascinating to get into the head of an author and see how you work. -- AP


Mason Canyon said...

To be half this organized would be wonderful. There is so much to keep trace of when writing a cozy murder mystery, not to mention all the time and effort. As a reader I'm thrilled that authors like you go to this much trouble for us. Thanks.

Thoughts in Progress

Cold As Heaven said...

Lots of good hints. Think I will use some of them, except that I do everything i Google Docs, because (1) Microsoft Word always makes me furious after 5 minutes and gives me a heart attack after half an hour and (2) with everything on Google, I can access my stuff from any computer anywhere in the world.

Do you carry a small note book, to write down ideas that pop up when you're on the bus, in a plane, in the supermarket ... and so on? For some reasons I always get the best ideas when I'm painting the house, but writing notes on the top of a 30 feet ladder can be scary >:)))

Cold As Heaven

Jessie Mac said...

This is very helpful as I'm coming to the editing stage very soon. I've not done an edit before though I'm looking forward to it. I will definitely bookmark this for reference. Thanks Elizabeth for the post and Lois for hosting.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I’m still trying to figure out what works for me. I think it’s interesting that you never read the text you wrote the previous day. I need to try that, because I sometimes get so hung up on what I’ve already written that I don’t make any ‘new’ progress.

Terry Odell said...

I absolutely HAVE to read what I wrote the day before. It gets me back into the heads of the characters and gives me a running start. In fact, I usually print out the day's page output and read it before going to sleep. A lot of obvious clunkers pop out at me, or I can see where things are falling apart, or need elaboration. It makes the final first draft a much cleaner read.

I also panic that if I don't change something as soon as I find it, it'll snowball into a massive avalanche and I'll miss fixes on the rewrite.

I think it all comes down to "what you lose on the swings, you make up on the roundabout" in the overall process.

Margot Kinberg said...

Elizabeth - Thank you so much for sharing the way you go about drafting and revising. I think you're right that one of the interesting things about the writing community is that we all really do have different ways of going about the process. You really are very organized about it and I admire that. I also admire the way you put ideas first. Without ideas, the revising isn't going to make for an interesting, sparkling book. In fact, research shows that kids who learn to write by just putting ideas down first are more likely to enjoy writing. Too much focus on the mechanics and so forth at the beginning can stifle the idea creation process..

Journaling Woman said...

Elizabeth, you have mentioned before that you don't read what you have done previously but jot down where to begin the next time. I am still struggling with this, but am getting better. Reading what I did previously only trips me up since I want to edit edit edit which shuts down my creativity. Great information.

Anastasia, thanks for hosting.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I create a basic outline and then start writing. I work on completing the story, even stumbling through scenes that will need to be cut or ones that need more, and don't start revising until I am finished.

Janel said...

These are some great tips, Elizabeth! I haven't tried it yet, but I am going to try a mind mapping program to keep track of character relationships in a short story collection I've been thinking about. I just love the visual aspect of the maps.

Jan Morrison said...

I am SO interested in how other people do this and the variations seem endless. I really like the idea of not reading what you've written - just carrying on. Don't know if it would work for me but I am going to give it a try. I'm in the revision process right now - which I really like - and your way seems so clear. Mine is much more muddled and complicated but I think that is because I don't outline at all so must do it in the revision process. I have found the idea of making beat sheets very helpful - thanks to Roz Morris over at Nail Your Novel. It has really kept me going...and now I must get back to it! Thanks for all your good ideas, Elizabeth and thanks for hosting Anastasia! Nice blog...
Jan Morrison

Mary Aalgaard said...

I like how you plow through that ms. No chapter breaks, just write. Don't look back, just write. Don't worry about noise and "perfect" conditions, just write. I'm following this advice!

Laura Marcella said...

That sounds like a really great method. Very organized! I imagine you must be super organized when writing mysteries because of all the clues and red herrings.

I don't catch as many mistakes on the computer, so I have to print out a hard copy when I revise. But I always print on scrap paper! So at least I'm not hurting the environment too much with all my printings! I always use colored pens when marking up the pages. Each color is dedicated to something, like purple for plot, green for grammar, orange for character, etc.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Mason--Thanks so much for coming by! And you're right--mysteries do have a lot of stuff to keep up with. :)

Cold As Heaven--Oh, I totally agree with you. Microsoft Word has given me heart attacks for the last 8 years! I need to check Google Docs out.

I *do* carry around a notebook, but I've also been known to write on the back of receipts, etc. :) Also, most phones have a voice record option if you *really* get stuck without a piece of paper!

Jessie Mac--Hope it helps. Good luck with your revisions!

Jane--It just makes me incredibly distracted and I can't seem to progress...

Terry--I have a feeling your first draft is almost like a finished product and mine is a total mess! Your revisions must be easy. :)

Margot--That's an interesting study! I can totally see that...brainstorming is more fun (to me, anyway) than the editing or thinking about construction.

Journaling Woman--I think revision just taps in to a totally different part of my brain...one I don't want to use when I'm writing.

Alex--I do a lot of stumbling, myself. My first draft is a disaster right now.

Janel--I've used that before, too, and found it helpful. Or you can do it half-way through a project when you're not sure which direction to go in next.

Jan--I liked Roz's advice, too. I'm thinking about doing a beat sheet for my next book. :)

Mary--Hope it helps! Yes, I've found that thinking about my chapter breaks takes me out of creative mode and into revision mode...not a good thing for me!

Laura--I like your idea of having different pens for different manuscript problems--very helpful when you're revising!

Clarissa Draper said...

OH, I found a wonderful new blog. Thanks, Elizabeth, for introducing us to that. I loved your step by step approach to writing and revising. I often incorporate the same techniques and I agree, you have to write everyday.


Robert Guthrie said...

"I treat the draft as if I were transcribing a story that I’m telling someone." Fantastic!

Linda Leszczuk said...

Thanks for sharing your writing/editing processes. I see some ideas to want to try. I use a running event timeline that I keep open for quick reference while I write. I get the basic story on the timeline before I start writing and then add to it, running slightly ahead of the text as I decide what I what to do next. I also use Word's highlight feature to color code characters or subplots on the timeline so I can keep track of when they were last tied in to the story, to make sure I'm maintaining a good balance, and I flag things on it I need to go back and change because of something I've just written.

My worst habit is giving in to the urge to rewrite before the first draft is finished. I really struggle with that one.

Dorte H said...

I am far too inexperienced to have a fixed procedure, but one - extremely important - thing I have learned from you and other writers who blog is not to worry, just write, whenever I can, and if I get stuck in one scene, just move on to something else I feel like writing. I have written more words in one month than ever before in my life - and in English, not Danish :D
(Well, perhaps it also helps that I am writing my first cozy/spoof - it is much more fun than I thought).

Christine Hammar said...

I am definitely trying out your "I make a note of where I need to pick up the next day."
Otherwise I'll be doing exactly what "Journalingwoman" said: "edit, edit, edit, which shuts down my creativity."
Likewise here "Journalingwoman" :).

Thanks for this tip, Elizabeth!


I want to thank Elizabeth for being our guest today and for offering some great tips.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Clarissa--It's a great blog, isn't it? I get rusty really quickly when I don't write, so writing everyday is a must for me.

Robert--Thanks! And thanks for coming by. :)

Linda--It's really, really hard not to edit when you're writing. I think a lot of writers are Type A (I know I am), and I want to try to make everything perfect. I give into that urge...but not until the 2nd draft.

Dorte--You're very inspirational to me--not only do you do a lot of writing, but you're writing in another language! And doing a great job. :)

Christine--It does really shut me down...worse, it makes me feel like what I've written isn't any good. Not good to have a crisis of confidence half-way through a manuscript! :)

Lois--Thanks for hosting me today!