Mystery Writer Recommends Hit List to Improve Writing

A good story is not written; it is rewritten. And often, many times.

Mystery writer Donna Andrews said, “I write okay books and I revise them into good books.”

She works her hit list to improve her writing, including:
  • Looking for forms of “to be” and making the verb active
  • Looking for prepositional phrases that could be replaced with a strong adjective
  • Eliminating “just” and “many”
  • Eliminating “goes” and instead using stronger verbs such as “running” or “strolling”
  • Eliminating “very”

She notes that most of us overwrite so sometimes she will eliminate 10 percent of her copy. “It does wonders for the tautness of the piece,” she says.

Finally, to catch mistakes, she will write using Comic Sans font on the computer. She then prints her piece using a different font. She says, “You see different things that need to be fixed.”

What items are on your writing hit list?

Donna Andrews Revises Books into Hits

Between Thanksgiving and the New Year I read a mystery series by Donna Andrews. The books, starring Meg Lanslow, were a fun, quick read. Imagine my delight when I discovered Donna would be speaking to the Sisters in Crime Richmond chapter.

Donna Andrews

Donna Andrews, photo by Joe Hensen Photography

She is always asked how she goes about writing but before she shared her process she stressed that it differs from author to author. Donna uses an outline as a starting point. “Then I challenge myself to write something even better,” she said.

She begins with a seed. “It could be a unique way of killing or someone who needs to be killed.” From there she looks for humorous situations that also have tension.

An outline enables Donna to not write sequentially. That way if she is ready to write a particular section or has the dialogue ready to go, she can work on that.

She moves from the outline stage to draft mode when one of two things happens:

1)      The outline is great

2)      She is nervous about the pending deadline.

Sometimes she gets stuck and on those days she will read something on craft, such as Robert McKee’s “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting,” which is often referred to as the screenwriters’ bible.

Donna also creates a spreadsheet determining how many words she needs and how many days she has to write it. Then she’ll figure out how many words she needs to write each day. She’ll discover that she has to write 1,000 words each day for the next three months, for example. “That’s doable,” she said.

She does this because at the end of every day, she said, “You can spend so much doing things that feel like writing but aren’t.” This includes research or finding the right word.

Her goal is to finish her book two months in advance of when it is due to the publisher so she can share it with her critique group. “I write okay books and I revise them into good books.”