Most of the time, I blog about the editing and publishing of mysteries/crime fiction, rather than the writing thereof. But over the last few months I've been having conversations with writers from my list, and the talk has sometimes steered toward writing process, revision, audience considerations, and so forth. So, based on those discussions, I thought I might list what I see as writers' (or at least MY writers') top challenges as they write.
1. How do I balance plot and character? I find that many writers worry about finding this balance. Given length constraints, how do they tell a story while also giving characters room to grow and evolve? And I do think the balance is a tricky one to pull off. I often get manuscripts that are too character-centric, with only the sketchiest of plots; and I also get fast-paced books with paper-thin characters. If you're writing a series, having a strong protagonist (as well as a strong supporting cast) is essential. At the same time, you want to draw readers into your story. How do you accomplish all of this in 70-80,000 words? It's not easy.
2. How do I make the language do what I want it to do? All of my authors write in English. It's a nuanced and versatile language, but I hear a lot of writers say they feel they must wrestle it to the ground to make it do what they want it to do. It's not just a matter of word choice; language is essential in planting clues/hints/doubts. A lot of writers have been telling me they struggle as much with what they do not say as they do with what they do say. I think that's an important point: In mystery fiction, what you don't say is as important as what you do.
3. How do I find enjoyment as a writer while meeting my readers' expectations? We can all give examples of writers who are on auto-pilot, who've written the same book a dozen times. There's a place for that; formula can be comforting and enjoyable for readers. But a lot of my authors try to expand their horizons, and they find themselves asking the question: How do I write a book that people will want to read, but one that will be a challenge for me to write? As a writer, how do I hone my craft while not straying too far from the commercial realm of a book that the mass market will want to buy and read?
4. How do I develop a readership among all the competition? Interestingly, some authors worry about this question more than others. I have some authors who are masters of promotion, never missing a publicity opportunity. And I have others who just don't have it in them. That's not how they think or who they are. They're happy to do anything our publicist asks them to do (usually), but they're more introverted, less "out there." From where I sit, I'm not sure how much incessant self-promotion really impacts the bottom line. We have books with introverted authors that take off with a life of their own, and books by extroverted authors that sit in the warehouse. I wish I had the magic formula; my retirement fund would be a lot bigger.
5. How do I motivate myself to write, to stay in the game? A majority of writers (I'd go so far as to say a large majority) can't pay the bills by writing fiction. So there's the constant question of how much time they can spend on their writing, when they often have a full-time job, and/or a family, and/or other demands on their time. This isn't an endeavor for the weak or faint of heart; it takes time, tenacity, a thick skin, and a lot of patience - often without significant financial reward. When my authors miss deadlines because they have to work overtime at their day job (the one that pays the rent or mortgage), how mad can I really get? I can't pay them large advances, can't really give them the financial incentive to take six months to do nothing but write, revise, polish, and submit.
Next week: The Mystery Editor's Top 5 Challenges.