Left Coast Crime, or How I Survived Donner Pass

This year, Left Coast Crime conference for mystery readers and writers is being held in Reno. Reno’s close, I thought. I can drive there. Easy peasy, I thought.

I sort of forgot about the enormous mountain range between Oakland and Reno. Forgot about it, that is, until yesterday morning when I had to cross said mountain range in a raging blizzard (okay, it was snow-raining, but still). Not only that, I had to cross the mountain range at a point called Donner Pass (YES, THAT DONNER, AND IT WAS SNOWING).

On the one hand, I had chains in my trunk in case I needed them. On the other hand, I had no clue how to attach them to my tires. I could only hope some kind-hearted gentleman (or lady, but probably a dude) would be willing to take money from me to stand out in the snow-rain and put them on.

I drove higher. The going got more treacherous. A sign alerted me that chains were required ahead. Then Google Maps swooped in for the rescue.

Faster route, popped up on the screen. Take next exit for Rainbow Road. My remaining drive time dropped by about twelve minutes. Well, hello there. Leave this treacherous freeway for the glorious Rainbow Road and shave twelve minutes off this torture? Yes, please. Rainbow Road, here I come.

I took the exit as directed. The phone next told me to turn left onto…DONNER PASS ROAD. WHAT. IS. HAPPENING. I don’t watch horror movies but I’m guessing the technology gone rogue has already been done? Having committed to this course of action, I went ahead and turned onto DONNER PASS ROAD.

This ill-fated road was, in fact, less traveled than I-80. Also, no one was stopped putting on chains. Possibly because no else was on the road. The thought occurred to me that perhaps Google Maps doesn’t take weather into account when deciding on a route. I may actually have been better off on the slow freeway. Finally, I’ve found something the little elves inside the phone aren’t good at.

At any rate, the road had been plowed, so that was a plus. There were no half-eaten corpses or knocked over covered wagons, so another plus. The lakes of melting snow that puddled on one side of the road (my side) were not pleasant. Fortunately, there was no one coming in the other direction, so I took advantage of the higher side of the road. Unfortunately, there was no one coming in the other direction, so if I got stuck I might have been on my own.

Google directed me back to the I-80 eventually, and I did make it to Reno. No chains. No accidents. No death and destruction. Thank goodness, because now I have a murder mystery conference to attend where I’ll get plenty of that, thank you very much.


Berry Bombs of Wisdom from Mysti Berry

Recently, I was fortunate enough to have a coffee date with Mysti Berry. Mysti is a screenwriter–novelist–short story writer and all around awesome human being. We talked writing for an hour and she gave me permission to share some details of our conversation.

I told Mysti about my quest to be Jessica Fletcher, ie, a successful mystery writer who also does other things (such as work, raise three small children, etc, etc). I know that Mysti has a full-time job that is not writing fiction, so I asked her about her personal writing routine and her writing goals.

Mysti’s routine includes early morning writing and writing with friends which she says helps her stick with the program. She also takes writing retreats where she disappears into a dark lair (or just a hotel room) for a weekend to power through some writing or editing goals. The idea of writing for a weekend kid-free sounds like heaven to me. I hope my husband is reading this post.

I asked Mysti what she does when she gets stuck. She said she first yells at herself, which she does not recommend as a strategy. Some strategies she does recommend are:

  • Look for where the plot went wrong earlier in the story. Sometimes you can eliminate a later problem that way.
  • Ask certain questions about the problem: Is it structural? Is it character? Am I taking the story in the wrong direction?
  • Talk about the problem with others
  • Make a list of ten things to try to fix the problem

I then asked Mysti about her writing goals. She has both aspirational goals, like getting her novel published, and more concrete goals, such as:

  • Finish dialogue edits by x date
  • Send to agent by x date
  • Word count goals (if working on a first draft)
  • Hourly goals (spend x amount of time writing)

She also has a writing strategy. Mysti has had her short stories published, so she intends to keep writing and submitting those. She is working on an anthology of short stories as a way to dip her toes into the self-publishing world. And she continues to work on her novel and submit it to agents.

My talk with Mysti inspired me to come up with my own list of strategies to try when I feel stuck in my writing and to work on a long-term strategic plan for my writing goals. In the meantime, I hope I get to drink more coffee with Mysti soon.

Preparing for Nanowrimo

It’s almost Nanowrimo time!

Nanowrimo is National Novel Writing Month, AKA November. It’s an opportunity to jump on the nerd bandwagon and produce at least 50,000 words in thirty days, knowing that all over the world, other wacky Wrimos are doing—or attempting to do—the same.

October is a plotting month. While most of you are plotting your Halloween costumes, and some of you are plotting to overthrow the government, the rest of us are plotting and scheming hundreds of terrible things that we plan to inflict on our characters. There are many ways to plan a novel—including not planning at all—but here is my process.

I started with a genre: Mystery. Easy. I love reading mysteries.

I came up with the seed of an idea: A character, in a situation, where stuff happens. After patting myself on the back for coming up with such a brilliant premise, I did the following exercises to flesh out the story and give myself something to work with.

  1. Character studies: I wrote a page or two in the voice of each of the main characters. I plan on writing the novel in one character’s voice, but I needed to get to know each character, and writing from their point of view was helpful.
  2. Backstory: I wrote out some scenes that happen before the story starts. These may get incorporated through exposition, memory or even the dreaded flashback, but even if they don’t end up in the story, the experiences can inform my characters.
  3. Visual plotting: I started plotting the story on notecards (thank you Tish Davidson for the idea). I wrote a few sentences per scene on each card. Then I laid them out on the floor and started to create an order. The great thing about this is that you can change or insert scenes as you create them. The difficult thing is that unless you have an extra plotting room in your house, you probably have to redo the card layout every time you work on your novel. I hear you can do this sort of thing on Scrivener or Excel, but I haven’t tried that yet.
  4. Chronology planning: My notecards include scenes that will not end up in the novel. For example, while the narrator is dallying with her boyfriend’s first cousin in the rose garden, the murderer is off buying rat poison with which to off said cousin. So those cards go together, even though the narrator will never know that’s what the murderer was doing at that moment. But it’s helpful to me as the writer to keep straight when everything is happening.
  5. Brainstorming: This is probably the most important thing you can do to prepare to write a novel. Take a situation you want to write about and make a list of 100 different ways to handle it. The first 5-10 will probably be the most clichéd and predictable. The last 25 or so will be the most ridiculous. But somewhere in there you might find an idea that is original and fun and takes your novel out of the depths of predictability and into the heights of creativity.

Which is really what Nanowrimo is all about.


Who is joining me in Nano this year? What’s your process/helpful hints? Let me know!


Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop with Sisters in Crime, Northern California. It was called “Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down,” and members were invited to submit the first page of their manuscript to the panel of three distinguished authors. The page was read aloud and the panel gave their critique and opinion as to whether they would keep reading, and whether they thought an agent would keep reading as well.

The three panelists were Sophie Littlefield, Gillian Roberts and Keith Raffel. When the meeting started, I’ll be honest, I was a tad nervous. Okay, I was really nervous, and had been the entire drive up from Oakland to Marin. Yes, the critique would be anonymous, but it would also be very public.


I spent too much time tamping down my Inner Critic as it tried to predict all the ways the panel could tear my writing apart, and ignored said Critic when it suggested I grab my page out of the purple box and run for Mt. Tamalpais with it. Instead, I sat in the second row and waited for the impending doom. At least if mine was one of the first to be critiqued, the ordeal would be over and I could relax.

Of course, mine wasn’t first. No, mine was second to last. The penultimate submission. Which gave the Inner Critic a good two hours to mess with my head.

criticize_bloggers    But that’s not actually what happened. (For one thing, my Inner Critic does not sound like Simon Cowell.)

In reality, I enjoyed the session. I loved hearing other people’s pages. This is a talented group of writers, and I heard many story beginnings I would’ve loved to read more of. The panelists were encouraging and constructive with their feedback. I told myself I wasn’t crazy to think I could do this writing thing. And I was right. The panel liked my first page.


They suggested moving a line around and had some questions (when you’re writing about huldras, questions are inevitable), but the major feedback was that this fit right into the urban fantasy genre and that it worked. Hearing that felt great.

In my next post, I’ll share some of the most helpful advice I learned from the panelists about the market and what works in the opening page.

The J.K. Rowling Effect, or How to Sell a Zillion Books

Recently, the world snorted its coffee out of its nose upon hearing the news that J.K. Rowling had published another book, an adult mystery called The Cuckoo’s Calling. (An adult mystery meaning a mystery for adult readers. Get your mind out of the gutter.)

The twist is, she published under a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith. The book got great reviews, but wasn’t a big seller. That is, until news broke that Rowling was really the author. Amazon basically exploded after that. They’re still picking up the pieces, which may be why your Stegosaurus dog costume hasn’t arrived yet.


It seems that many unpublished authors are having one of two reactions:

1)   Crying into their bowls of ramen, because if a proven author can’t sell a well-written mystery, what hope is there for the rest of us poor, starving, not-a-pseudonym-for-J.K.-Rowlings out there?

2)   Directing excessive and nasty glee at all those agents who turned down the Robert Galbraith book. (Suckers. You rejected J.K. Rowling. And me. And J.K. Rowling. Ha.)

I think we all need a little perspective. Ms. Rowling is an amazing, talented author. Even if Harry Potter is not your thing, you can still appreciate the creativity of her world and characters. Plus, she wrote the whole series on paper napkins while hiking uphill in the snow as a single mom. Hype or not, she sold a bajillion books because people loved reading them.


I’m sure The Cuckoo Calling is great too (not that I’ve read it, because, um, I never heard of it until now.) All we’ve really learned from this whole situation, is that a book with J.K. Rowling’s name on it sells a gazillion more copies than a book with a guy’s name on it that we’ve never heard of.

Oh, wait, we already knew that.

Writing Magic

The first blog post is supposed to introduce me to the world. Since most of you reading this probably know me personally, that seems unnecessary. If you don’t know me and have stumbled on my blog, welcome! You can read about me on my website, mariahklein.com. So I guess I will use the space to talk about writing.

I’ve been writing fiction now for four and a half years. I’ve written a lot in that time. Have I logged the 10,000 hours they say are a prerequisite for really getting good at something? Not sure. I haven’t exactly been keeping a time sheet.

Given that I have a husband, two children, a job, friends and extended family, and that I like to do things like yoga, running, walking, reading, cooking and having a social life, maybe not. Do I think getting to 10,000 hours is important? Absolutely.

You get better at something by practicing. Period. No other way. Sorry to all of you who are relying on hoping and magic.Writing is more than putting words on paper, or a computer screen, or God forbid, a typewriter. It’s opening yourself to the creativity within you and the inspiration outside of you. When those things come together, stories, characters and worlds are created. It’s not magic. But it’s like magic. Magic that depends on lots and lots of practice.