Maggie Shayne Shares Advice On Writing

Maggie Shayne is not only a best-selling romantic suspense author, she is also a nominee for Best Paranormal Author in RT’s 2010 Career Achievement Awards. Now the author shares some of the writing advice that has helped make her a star.

When RT BOOK REVIEWS asked me to write a blog with tips for aspiring romantic suspense writers, I thought, great! How is it going to sound when I tell them how I work? I mean, the way I do it is to puke everything that pops into my head out onto the page, and then look at it from different angles to see what shapes it made. You know, like when you read entrails to predict the future. I then re-arrange it all and flesh it out, changing my mind several times about countless key aspects of the story, including whodunnit most of the time, along the way, and then trust myself to make it all make sense in the final draft. 

My final drafts take one week. 

And for some reason, it works. I don’t know why, but I think it’s because the stories are working themselves out way ahead of time in my subconscious. The basement of my soul. The place where the stories are made. In his book On Writing, Stephen King refers to “the boys in the basement” so I often go with that visual, only mine are girls. Go figure. They’re doing all the work and just sending it up to me when I need it.

Only sometimes I get in my own way and can’t hear what they’re saying. And sometimes I forget to ask them, and waste precious hours slaving away upstairs, as if I’m doing it all myself, instead of just opening to receive what they’ve already done down below.

So that’s the way I work. Not that it’s a bit of help to you.

I was still left with the task of trying to explain how I do something that I don’t really do. I just key in what the girls send up. They don’t get anything wrong. If there’s an error, it’s because my inner static messed up the basement crew’s transmissions. But sometimes that happens, and my editor never fails to catch it when it does.

Ahh, my editor. There, I thought, was the answer. I would ask my editor what she would tell you about how to write romantic suspense. She’s a genius about these things. She replied so fast, and so succinctly that I was amazed. Though I shouldn’t have been. And here’s what she said:

“Give the reader a reason to care how things turn out for your character(s). Always ask ‘Why?’ Why would this character do (or not do) X? And make sure there's a logical answer. If things don't add up, your book won't work. It's really as simple - and as difficult - as that.” ~~Leslie Wainger, Goddess of the Universe 

That simple. And that difficult. She really said it there. But let me look at her suggestions and see if I can expand on them.

Leslie’s first tip: “Give the reader a reason to care how things turn out for your character(s).” 

The first thing that hit me upon reading this tip, was that it’s one that applies to every form of storytelling. You can come up with the most unique, brilliant plot or setting or twist in the world, but no one’s going to read far enough to be amazed by your genius if you don’t give them characters they can care about. Aha! I guess I do have something to say on this topic after all.

So how do you make readers care? 

  • Give them a character they can like, with a goal they can get behind. A noble cause, or at least an understandable one. A whiny bitch isn’t going to get readers behind her. Make her a woman they’d want to hang with in real life.
  • Stack the odds against her-people love to root for the underdog. Especially if she’s deemed worthy. Look at everything from Cinderella to Slumdog Millionaire to see how powerful this method can be.
  • Give the characters vulnerabilities, even the heroes and the villains. You can’t beat old wounds and weaknesses for making people care.
  • Make the stakes high. The higher, the better. If she’s fighting to save her business, your reader will yawn. Fighting to save her child, they’ll be on the edges of their seats turning pages fast enough to generate wind-power.

Okay, on to Leslie’s second point: “Always ask why? Why would the character do, or not do, X?”

This is, again, a point I wouldn’t have applied just to suspense, but to any book. If the character could solve the problem with a phone call or one honest conversation with the hero or villain, then why doesn’t she? Or why, if she’s always been afraid of the dark, does she venture into the basement to check on the blown fuse? I’m afraid of the dark, and I wouldn’t do it! (Yes, it’s true, The Queen of the Undead is afraid of the dark. Irony is so ironic, isn’t it?) 

I see why it’s easy to let this rule fall by the wayside. It’s because in suspense novels, you need your character to do certain things in order for the plot to work. You need the villain to do things too, and those are often things that might not seem very logical. I mean, face it, crime is almost never logical, nor is stalking someone or murdering someone or kidnapping someone. None of those things make sense, so your villain needs super motivation. He needs very good, very solid, very logical (at least to him) reasons for every single act he commits. Villains who act illogically are a big tripping point in a lot of suspense novels.

I see too many villains “trying to scare” the heroine. To what end? So she’ll do something very specific, usually something that it makes no sense to think she would do more readily if frightened first. To quote South Park, “If Chubakka is a Wookie from Endor, it just doesn’t make sense.”

I once had to go back through an entire book to fix a mistake like this. A small one, but it illustrates my point. My heroine needed to be really banged up in a car accident, so I had her not wearing her seatbelt. And then I thought, you know, that can’t just come out of the blue. You are either a seatbelt wearer or you’re not. It’s habit or not habit. So in the final draft, I had her constantly forgetting her seatbelt, with her daughter and others nagging her about it. So it didn’t just appear out of left field. It’s extra work to make sure everything makes sense, and to be just that picky about it. But it makes your story seamless. It makes you look brilliant, like you knew exactly where you were going the entire time, from page 1. Even if you didn’t. (The girls downstairs knew all along, I guarantee it.)

Leslie’s third tip: “Make sure there’s a logical answer.” This is a biggie. You can’t keep leading us to dead end after dead end, all the clues pointing to Bob, until we find that Bob couldn’t possibly have done it. And then all the clues begin leading to Bill, until we find that Bill couldn’t possibly have done it. And then in the end, we find they both did it, working together. Two guys turned into crazed serial killers with the same M.O. at the same time. It doesn’t make sense and feels like a dirty trick played on the reader, like the author is laughing and pointing and saying “Gotcha!” That’s not how we want readers to feel.

We want them to, when they find out who did it, have a moment of “Of course! It all makes sense now!” And I hope they get to that point without you keeping a vital clue from them. But rather, with a vital clue that’s been there in front of them the entire time and went unnoticed. This is a real challenge. The answer has to be logical, and to make perfect sense, and all the clues must lead straight to it, and yet your readers should not guess until you want them to. 

It’s a real test of a writer’s skill to pull this off. You’ll have to work for it. But it’s well worth the pay off if you--or your basement crew--manage to do so. I think I’m prouder of my suspense novels than most anything I’ve written, for the sole reason that they are harder to write and write well than anything else. At least for me. They force me to work harder, and expand my skills and flex my writerly muscles, and turn the basement into a virtual sweatshop until the story is born. So pass on the memo to the girls in the basement, and then let them get back to work.

If you’re doing suspense, then they’ve got some overtime to put in.

Good luck!
- Maggie Shayne

You can check out Maggie Shayne's latest romantic suspense, September's Kiss Me, Kill Me, to see how she put this advice into action!