Wednesday, September 14, 2011

School’s Never Out by Lucy Burdette

LUCY BURDETTE: When I read my girlfriends’ posts about getting their masters in creative writing, I feel a sharp yearning in my gut. What a pleasure and a luxury it sounds like to spend two years focusing on the craft of writing!

By the time I figured out I wanted to try writing fiction, I’d already spent a lifetime in school and earned two masters degrees and a PhD. The chances of going back were not high. Even so, I took every class I could get my hands on, online and off, attended conferences, and hired independent editors. Writing was hard and I wanted to be good at it, so I took—and still take—all the help I could get!

Over the past ten years, I’ve also started to teach a little. One of my favorite events happened last weekend at the Seascape Escape to Write weekend workshop for writers of commercial fiction (mostly mystery and paranormal.) A small group of students submits their work ahead of time and we critique each one in depth from three perspectives—character, opening scenes, and scene structure. And then we run other classes, and one-on-one sessions with the 3 instructors (Hallie Ephron, Susan Hubbard, and Roberta Isleib--that's the other me), and tons of discussions to process what we’ve learned. We spent the last hour this past Sunday talking about what kinds of “aha!” moments the students had over the weekend. I’d thought I’d share a sample of the list with you—this helps me realize that as much as I might have wanted to pursue an MFA, there are many great ways to learn about writing. We were so proud of these guys!

Wisdom from the students and teachers at Seascape 2011:

- The key to a good opening: make me want to read more
- Sometimes really good writing can mask plot issues
- Bring conflict into the very first chapter
- As a writer, I need to know what happened earlier to my characters--stuff I'm
not going to put into the book
- The criticism you least want to hear is the one you knew yourself
- Lavish as much attention on making the sleuth interesting as the victim
- Put the characters in the driver's seat
- Try not be constrained by stuff that really happened and that inspired your
- Conflict can be emotional, not just action. Conflict keeps the pages turning.
- Synopsis isn't dramatic
- It's all about character
- It's possible to fall in love with the wrong characters, ones that aren't
relevant to your plot
- Ask yourself: What would I do in this situation; make it believable
- Polishing isn't revising, and structural changes aren't as daunting as they

- Sometimes you just have to hold your nose and write

Lucy Burdette is the author of the Key West food critic mysteries, debuting in January with AN APPETITE FOR MURDER. You find her on her website, or facebook, or follow her on twitter. As Roberta Isleib, she wrote 8 mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime.


  1. Thanks for sharing. And I have to confess, I felt a ripple of guilt reading about falling in love with the wrong characters! In the last two books I wrote, I found myself wanting to dig in to characters that rose from the most unexpected places. I'm not letting them go, though. I might throw them all in the same place and see what happens!

  2. I can fix anything is my motto in my writing life!!! I am all about the revision. Spitting out that first draft is the hardest part. Revising is a walk in the park in comparison. :-)

    Great advice, Lucy!


  3. Great Post, Lucy, filled with lots of terrific advice! I can relate to all of them and especially: The criticism you least want to hear is the one you knew yourself AND it is possible to fall in love with the wrong characters... Those are me. (;