MWA University – a day with mystery writers

I love mysteries. I’ve read them forever and it’s my writing genre of choice. There’s just something intriguing about trying to figure out the answer to the puzzle before “the end.”

So, I was quite excited to spend this past Saturday in Boston attending MWA-U. Fellow NHWN blogmates, Diane and Julie were there, too.

MWA-U is a full-day writing ‘university’ put on by the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) organization. The day teaches skills for writing a novel from the spark of an idea through to publication. This particular day was open to MWA members and non-members, was quite affordable ($50), and was conveniently located. All instructors are published novelists, several teach at the college level.

This post highlights a few of the speakers and some take-aways I had.

Jess LoureyFirst up on the agenda was Jess Lourey who spoke about what to do once you have a story idea. She put us right to work, too!

Jess uses a pyramid approach to writing her novels. Step 1 is to write a one-sentence summary of your book. This was the first time I’ve heard to start there. I always considered it the last thing to do.

Jess believes that if you put in the time to get a solid 1-sentence novel summary at the start, you’ll be more focused as you get to writing.

After listening to her, and actually trying to develop my own 1-sentence summary, I agree. She says it’s worth spending a few days on this step. We only had a few minutes to try it.

The second step is to expand the sentence into a paragraph, and the fifth step is to expand the paragraph into a page. (Yes, I’m skipping around.)

The third step is to develop a character bible. It’s as simple as using a single subject spiral notebook. Glue photos or pictures from magazines in this bible and write out general descriptions for your characters and you’ll always have the details at hand, and visuals for those moments when you need inspiration.

We also got to spend time describing our antagonists.

Why don’t you take a couple of minutes to do what we did: Do you know your antagonist’s full name? What he/she physically looks like? What is in his wallet/her purse, refrigerator, or trash can right now?

The day featured 2 fellow New England mystery writers: Hallie Ephron and Hank Phillippi Ryan.

Hallie EphronHallie spoke about revisions, and, wow, she gave me a couple of tricks I knew of but didn’t apply to my own work.

The biggest is that once the first draft of the novel is done, put it away for at least 2 weeks (I knew that), then when you do go back to it, read it through from start to finish.

That italicized part gave me an “ah ha” moment. I have a few novels ‘in the drawer.’ One is a favorite that I long to get back to, but when I got stuck, instead of plowing through (which is what a writer should do), I started rewriting from the start. I never truly finished a solid first draft.

Print the manuscript and read it through from start to finish. Make marks on the pages, make notes wherever, but read the manuscript through from start to finish. Look at the work as a whole before going back with the editing hat. The best revision can only be done with the full story laid out in front of you first.

I won’t accept a client’s manuscript that isn’t finished and until now, I hadn’t applied that rule to my own novels!

Hank Phillippi RyanHank spoke about the writing life. Hank has a career as an investigative journalist. She’s been writing fiction for the past 7 years.  She spoke to us about things she wished someone had told her as she entered the fiction world.

Points such as:

  • Your first draft will be terrible – so accept it. The majority of writers, successful and not, think ‘this has got to be the worst drivel ever written.’ Let yourself be okay with crappy first drafts. You can’t polish a story into perfection without first getting some words on the page to play with.
  • Rejection is not always about the book. Have you ever read something that just didn’t strike you, and then read it later and wondered how you could have put it down at all? It’s all about getting your manuscript in front of the right person who is in the right mood at the the right time.

If you’re interested, here’s a link to a pdf list of Recommended Reading we received. Not all books focus on the mystery genre, but most do.

I came away from the full day tired, but energized; overwhelmed, but inspired; over-full with ideas, but ready to get to work.

Spending any time with writers has those effects on me. There’s just something  about being able to talk writing with writers that can’t be matched.

MWA-U is offered several times a year across the country. Maybe it’ll be hosted at a location near you soon.

Do you enjoy attending writing workshops? There are so many out there – how do you find ones that you want to attend?

Lisa Jackson writer

Lisa Jackson is an independent editor, writer, New England region journalist, and a year-round chocolate and iced coffee lover. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s ChatroomShe is a member of Sisters in Crime (mystery writers), and is a board member of the New England Chapter of Sisters in Crime. She’s also getting back to writing her favorite novel.

5 thoughts on “MWA University – a day with mystery writers

  1. It was great to see you and Diane on Saturday. What a great way to spend the day. And the three talks you highlighted were my “a ha” classes as well. Hallie’s revision tips (which I will talk about in a blog post at some point) lead to a dream about restructuring my “finished” novel. And Hank was a great way to end the day.
    Highly recommend MWA U, even if you don’t write mysteries. The tips are great for fiction of all sorts.

  2. Geat post. I am not a mystery writer, but I absolutely LOVE the idea of a character bible. Working on my first novel, I am having some difficulty keeping things organized when it comes to each character. Perfect solution. Can’t wait to try that trick! Thank you.

  3. Lisa, thank you so much for this detailed report of your workshop. The idea of pasting magazine pictures of the characters in a notebook is one I need to try this week for my allegorical adult fairy tale series. That way, I can sketch around the pics to add the “critterly” features unique to my characters. Already, I can tell how helpful this will be! You are so very much appreciated here in Blogville!

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