Finding My Way: Thoughts on Plotting

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In Antiques to Die For, the third Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery, I wrote without an outline. Boy, was that a mistake. Twenty-twenty hindsight and all that. Writing without an outline worked out pretty well in the first two books in the series, but man, it sure didn't with this one.

Not that I knew it at the time, but what I think happened is that I succumbed to the allure of the moment. I fell in love with minor subplots, unnecessary characters, and intriguing, but irrelevant descriptions. I lost my rhythm.

Luckily, my brilliant St. Martin's Minotaur editor, executive editor, Hope Dellon, helped me understand where and how I'd gone astray. Her specific observations enabled me to get back on track. But there's a cautionary tale in all this: revising it was a nightmare. I'd gone off on so many tangents and got myself so completely confused that I, essentially, had to start all over. I'd wasted time creating engaging, but distracting and irrelevant, characters; it was a mess.

Don't get me wrong—I'm completely thrilled with the final product—and I'm delighted to report that Antiques to Die For is getting great reviews. Publishers Weekly, for instance, wrote that Antiques to Die For was "a cleverly crafted cozy." Isn't that nice? Very gratifying. Kirkus Reviews, which many authors report frequently publishes negative reviews, has consistently been good to me. They said that Antiques to Die For features "a fine array of suspects."

Here's the macro lesson: by listening to my editor, I was able to find my way back to the story. It's always about the story. I wanted to write about a 12-year old girl who was all alone. I wanted Josie to be able to help her. Instead, I was writing about a porcelain expert in Asia. Let me explain. My problems fell into three broad categories: Tangents, sub-plots, and irrelevant characters.

Tangents. I got caught up in my own writing. I don't mean to sound immodest, but it's true. There I am, writing along, when all of a sudden, I realize I've gone into a long, fascinating (to me) description detailing the background of a porcelain expert. For example, this expert had a love affair with an international student when he was at college, which led him to follow her back to her country after graduation. Okay, I'll stop there. But in my manuscript, I didn't stop at all. I went on and on for pages. All for what should have been a one paragraph cameo appearance.

Sub-plots. My problem with sub-plots is related to my problem with tangents. For instance, I thought the porcelain expert's experience in Asia could become a nifty sub-plot about fake pottery. While I always include sub-plots about antiques and collectibles, this one, while interesting, took me in the wrong direction. My sub-plots must meet these standards: they're antiques-oriented, not character-oriented; they're local to New Hampshire either because they occur in New Hampshire or they feature a New Hampshire person or object; and they showcase Josie as an expert. Whew, was I on a misguided mission by heading off to Asia. That might be a great story—but it's not appropriate in this story.

Irrelevant characters. It's so, so hard for me to resist painting mini-portraits of every character I mention in the book, from the mailman to the Asian girlfriend that the porcelain expert followed to her home. I love people and I love discovering their quirks and peccadilloes. But it's an indulgence, and it's not good writing. Having to focus on minor characters distracts readers from the main event.

By following Hope's guidance, I succeeded in finding my way back. And by finding my way back, I was able to tell the story I wanted to tell. I hope you enjoy Antiques to Die For.

Here's what the book is about:

After setting up shop as an antiques appraiser, Josie Prescott's life has not gone according to plan: business is booming and she has good friends and a promising romance—but dead bodies keep crossing her path. And now, in Antiques to Die For , a friend is killed just hours after confiding a secret to Josie, leaving a bereaved sister who reminds Josie of herself when her mother died.

It turns out that the victim had other secrets, too: a mysterious treasure she told her sister she was leaving behind—and a secret admirer who now seems to be turning his creepy attention to Josie.

Can you imagine what it would be like to be a 12-year old orphan whose sister is murdered? Can you imagine what it would be like if your sister told you that you owned a treasure—a priceless antique—but you don't know what it is or where it is?

Set on the beautiful and rugged New Hampshire coastline, Antiques to Die For is filled with antiques lore and complex plot twists. In the end, using her knowledge of antiques, Josie finds the valuable treasure—and solves the crime. And in doing so, she gives a young girl hope.

I hope you'll give it a whirl. A text and downloadable podcast of Antiques to Die For, and a book trailer, are available on my website.

For Josie #4 (due out April 2009, tentatively titled Killer Keepsakes), I wrote a detailed synopsis. It ran almost 40 pages. Forty pages! Can you imagine?

It was the first time I'd ever attempted to create an outline of this complexity. Now, as I write this blog entry, I'm within spitting distance of the end, and I can report with confidence that I'm very glad I wrote that synopsis.

From now on, I'm an outline girl!

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