It all started with a deadline. A missed deadline.
Not mine, of course, I would never miss a deadline. And that’s exactly the point.
When I was the newbiest of the newbies, a writer pal of mine was bemoaning her looming book-delivery date. “Oh," she said, "I’ll never be finished in time. I’ll have to ask my editor for a month-long extension.”
I burst out laughing. Extend a deadline? I’m a television reporter, have been for more than 30 years, and the thought of “extending” a deadline…well, it’s impossible. Can you imagine if I said to my news director—"oh, woe is me, can I go on the air at five AFTER six instead of six? Because...I’m just not…feeling the muse.”
I’d be tossed out of the newsroom faster than you can say “stack of resume tapes.”
But that got me thinking—thinking about how very useful other things I’ve learned—and am still learning—as a reporter. And how they translate to my additional career as a mystery author.
Deadlines, of course. But lots more. And the more I discuss it, the more powerful the reality—journalism techniques can be incredibly valuable in writing a killer novel—and especially when you’re stuck or worried you don’t know where to go next.
For instance. When we’re deciding what stories to put on the news, the big question is: “Why do I care?” There’s a finite amount of time for the news, right? And we want to make sure people watch. So the only stores that make air are the ones we know people will care about.
Same for your story. The only thing that should go on your pages is something people care about. Otherwise, they’ll put the book down. If you’re stuck, ask yourself: why is this here? Is it the most important, most compelling, most interesting thing that can possibly be here? Why will readers care about his part?
If the answer is—“they won’t”--then you’re on the way to solving your problem. Figure out why YOU care. (Why is this scene here? Why is this paragraph here? What does it DO?) Figure out how to make the readers care. And your story will suddenly take life.
Another question. Ask yourself: “What’s the problem?” Great news stories are often about conflict. He said/she said. Someone who wants something and someone else who wants to stop them. Are you at a point in your novel where there’s no problem? Think about how you can get to the clash of wills, or the obstacles, or the dilemma. It doesn’t have to be huge—it just has to be conflict. When I was writing FACE TIME, I was at a point, very early on, where there was nothing wrong. Since it was early in the manuscript, it couldn’t be actual danger—it just needed some tension.
So I made Charlotte hungry. That’s all. Hungry. But there was no food to be had, and her blood sugar was plummeting, as a result, she was cranky, and making bad decisions, and all she could think about was food. A boring scene—became injected with humor and tension and purpose. And as it turned out—completely serendipitously, the need for food became pivotal to the entire plot.
I have ten questions I always ask myself when I’m stuck—and I’ll send you the list if you like! But here’s number 11: “What, me worry?” Because what seems like an insurmountable problem now—won’t by tomorrow. I promise. So just see what happens. And then you’ll be powering ahead toward THE END.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is the investigative reporter for Boston's NBC affiliate, and has won 27 Emmys for her work. Author of four mystery novels, Ryan has won the Agatha, Anthony and Macavity awards for her crime fiction. She’s on the national board of directors of Mystery Writers of America and New England Sisters in Crime. Her newest suspense thriller, THE OTHER WOMAN, is the first in a new series beginning in 2012 from Forge Books. Her website is http://www.HankPhillippiRyan.com