The author of many popular nonfiction books, Sharyn Kolberg is a relative newcomer to fiction writing. She makes her EQMM debut in the issue that goes on sale next week (May/June 2022), with the story “The Thesaurus of Love and Death”; her previous stories appeared in Mystery Weekly Magazine, Literal Latte, Mensa Bulletin Fiction Issue, and Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder. She tells EQMM that she’s just completed her first novel, One Bam, Two Crak, and is at work on a second entitled Shoots and Ladders. She’s off to a great start, but as you’ll read in this post, like many fiction writers, newcomers or veterans, she often has to deal with the daunting fear of the blank page. —Janet Hutchings
I am not a particularly anxious person. There are, of course, some first-world situations that I find super scary. Killing spiders. Driving on major highways. Writing mysteries.
These are things I can almost always avoid. If I see a spider, I can run away. I’m usually able to find a backroads route to travel instead of a high-speed four-lane roadway. And nobody puts a gun to my head to write mysteries. I do it of my own free will, even though just the thought of it sends shivers up and down my spine.
That’s just me. I’m sure there are people who don’t feel that way at all, who revel in the creative process, who view the whole activity in a positive light. Don’t get me wrong—I love the challenge, the freedom, the self-expression of writing. It just scares me to death. Every part of it. Especially . . .
I have an idea. It’s just a little one, nibbling at a corner of my mind. Maybe it’s a name or a setting or even a half-baked plot. The idea turns into a thought: This could be story. This could be torture is more like it. Because no matter how many stories I’ve previously written, my second thought is always: I don’t know where to start. I’m not sure if everyone has this thought, but I am pretty confident I’m not the only one who experiences, at least to some degree, this kind of insecurity when starting a story.
It’s nerve-racking, staring at a blank page, trying everything I can think of as a way to begin. That’s how procrastination is born and grows into the frightening monster that lives inside me. It’s funny that when I am about to start a new story, I suddenly have a plethora of urgent errands I have to run. Or I forget to put my earrings in and I can’t possibly write with naked ears. I’m hungry; I’ll start after lunch. But wait, I write better in the a.m., so maybe I’ll just begin tomorrow morning. Or maybe I won’t start at all.
I’ve learned that I work best under pressure. There’s nothing like a deadline to get your creative juices flowing, whether it’s to comply with a submissions window or to meet a self-imposed goal. It’s one of the reasons I belong to a writer’s group—at some point I have to put on my big girl panties and submit whatever I’ve got. Which means I have to work backwards, calendar-wise, and figure out exactly when I’ll have to start in order to complete the aforementioned “assignment.”
So exactly how do I begin? Decisions have to be made. I could start with an action (Suzie Q picked up the gun. It went off.)? I could start with an image that helps the reader slip into the appropriate mood, time, or space (Suzie Q’s room made me think that a train loaded with yesterday’s pizza had exploded in it.)? Or I could start with a question that pulls the reader in immediately because they have to know the answer (How could Susie Q’s murderer gain entrance when the door was locked?).
The best part of beginning is that it’s never written in stone. Most writers I know frequently change the beginning—especially the opening sequence—of a story several times before they deem it publisher-worthy. And that’s a good thing, because those changes often lead me in a different—and usually better—direction than I initially imagined. You can research all you want, you can outline to your heart’s content, but eventually it all comes back to a variation of the old quote from Lao Tzu: A journey of a dozen pages begins with a single word. Even though the scariest part is actually . . .
You’ve gotten the basics out of the way. You’ve set the stage (Gritty city streets? Old country estate? Suburban sprawl?). You’ve introduced your main character (Aging Private Eye? Middle-aged amateur sleuth? Millennial innocent bystander suddenly drawn into dangerous situation?). Your first dead body has been discovered (Hidden amongst the mayor’s forsythias? Thrown into the highrise’s garbage chute? Face down in the back alley behind the protagonist’s small-town pickle shop?).
It is time for the plot to be thickened.
Ah, the plot. In order for you to build one of those, you have to know what’s going to happen in your narrative. Right? Maybe, maybe not. Most of the time, I have no idea where my story is going. I belong to the tribe of no-outliners. I know there are people who lay out the plot step by step and then follow along as they write. I wish I could do that. If I had a roadmap of my story all laid out before I got bogged down in the “what’s next” swamp of ideas, it would probably reduce the fear factor by a lot. And outlining does work for many writers. Just not for me.
I follow my instincts from one word to another, from one plot point to the next. This sometimes propels me to go north when I thought I was heading south, east when I swore I needed to go west. Often, this “seat of pants” kind of writing leads me to a totally unexpected situation; a character I’ve never met before jumps onto my page; or someone I thought was a charming hero turns into a crafty villain.
While I have learned that for me, writing means being as flexible as an Olympic gymnast, I’ve also learned to keep this old saw in mind: everything happens for a reason. In a mystery—especially a short one—reckless zigging and zagging is for first drafts, and must be followed by careful editing to make sure there are clear signposts readers can follow to a satisfying conclusion.
Most importantly, I have learned that I have to have faith in myself and my gut to keep going even when I’m lost in the weeds. I have to trust that eventually I’ll get to . . .
To me, the ending is really the scariest part of writing a mystery. There’s so much anxiety involved. How can I satisfy myself as well as each and every reader? I probably can’t; all I can do is write. And edit. And rewrite. And finally realize that I have indeed finished this book or this story and it’s time to give it wings and send it out into the cosmos.
There’s nothing worse than enjoying a short story or novel and coming to a weak and disappointing ending. All those crooked pathways have to merge; red herrings, false clues, and distractions must be revealed. Lingering questions can linger no more. Even a surprise twist at the end has to come from somewhere, lest you leave your readers feeling frustrated or cheated (unless, of course, you want to leave some things to be resolved in the next installment).
Getting to the end can also be the most fun. You’ve been traveling through a universe only you could have created, and although there have been detours, a couple of traffic jams, and maybe even a train wreck or two along the way, the journey has been well worth it. There are many avenues to solving a mystery, even if some of them have sent you hiding in the closet.
I was channel surfing the other day and came upon a Hallmark movie where somebody’s grandmother was dying. Okay, so I was actually watching the movie. On her deathbed, Grandma turned to the used-to-be child star of the film, who was facing the usual anxious-to-fall-in-love-but-scared-of-heartbreak dilemma and said, and I paraphrase, “All you have to do is face up to the scary and the rest is easy.” Sometimes the truth comes from the strangest places. Hallmark or not, I think Grandma had the right idea.