Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Everything I know about writing--I learned on TV

               by     Hank Phillippi Ryan

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 realityjournalism 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


  1. How did I not know about the 27 Emmys??? That is pretty flippin' Phillippi cool.

    Great post. I'm with you on the deadline thing. 21 published books to my credit, the only way I'd miss a deadline would be if a meteor fell on my head.

  2. Great advice, Hank! I think a lot of newbie writers don't think about the whole "why would anyone care" thing, and it's so, so important!

  3. Wonderful advice this morning, Hank! And so timely, as I'm taking the first baby steps with a new MS. Could I pretty please have your list?

    judy (dot) moticka (at) gmail( dot) com

  4. Judy, it's on the way!

    Thanks, Lauren,--that's the newest one, couldn't resist.

    Brenda..yeah. xoxo It's an interesting way to get your brain started. When you answer yourself: "well, because..." that "because" becomes what you should write about!

    Is there anything in your day job you use to help your writing time?

  5. Awesome post, Hank. I want the list too.

    kgillespie AT

  6. "Because what seems like an insurmountable problem now—won’t by tomorrow. I promise."

    A great line to remember about life as well as writing. Laughed about your TV comparison remembering my newspaper deadlines. Amazing what can happen when there's no other choice.

    Great post and kudos on the Emmys and the books! And, of course I'd love the list. christa(dot)allan(at)gmail(dot)com

  7. Great post Hank! It's true--other careers that have hard deadlines can teach the discipline of 'getting it done'. I think that may be one of the reasons so many former attorneys are authors. When a motion is due--a motion is due. You have to write the motion and get it to the Judge whether your Muse shows up or not.
    PS LOVE the Emmy.

  8. Exactly,'s a lawyer thing, too. And teachers, I bet. It's just a way of thinking--when you realize there's no choice--you just--go on.And if it's bad, you can always fix it, right?

    But really--can you tell what you wrote on the difficult days compared to what you wrote on your in-the-zone days?

  9. Well, when I write for the newspapers etc I always say "Deadlines R Us" and I meet them. But for the CHILDREN WITH CANCER update, I was years late. I was working up to full time, dealing with a daughter with kidney failure/dialysis/transplant, other family stuff, plus the supposed co-author took the paltry half of the advance and moved to Egypt (don't get me started) and still Oxford University Press stuck by me. I went through six editors on that book (well, people retired, etc.) Better send me the list, too!
    Jeanne Bracken

  10. Hank, we all want the list! Could you post next time your turn comes around? Love these bits of advice, though, I'm so bogged down right now!

    cannot wait for THE OTHER WOMAN!!

    love, Lucy

  11. Aww....thanks! Of course...

    Lucy, can't wait for An Appetite for Murder! What a fabulous cover...

  12. Hank, I would love that list. I have a feeling it would be good for dealing with . . . life!

  13. Great post, Hank. Put up the list, we're all dying to see it.

  14. Put up the list! Or if you would rather not, I'd love to see it via email: sarah at sarahpekkanen dot com Thanks Hank!

  15. I really like her style. She's a good journalism and I hadn't seen a reporter like her.

  16. well I am completely agree with your article and it is possible that you like everybody can learn on TV

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