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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

'This Isn't Personal'--Interview with Carolyn Haines

Note: Carolyn Haines will be one of the presenters at the Love is Murder Conference, Feb. 4-6 in Chicago.

By Joanna Campbell Slan

Sarah Booth and Jitty came to me in tandem, arguing just as they do in the books. When such fully developed characters visit a writer, it’s truly a gift.
--Carolyn Haines

JCS: Talk about hearing fully developed characters, please. Why and how do you think this happens? Can an author improve the chances of such visitations? Should an author ever ignore those voices and replace them? What if the fully realized characters don’t work with plot.

CH: Last question first. Most good plots come from character, so if you’ve got a mismatch, the book isn’t going to work. I do think most writers hit streaks when the characters are fully alive and in the moment with them. When I write, I almost have to get to that place—I have some subconscious control, but it seems as if I’m merely watching, not engaged in the action.

How to bring about this? I think it’s a matter of focus. Knowing your story, knowing your characters, and a real regard for language. Writing isn’t about slapping words together. It’s about thinking. And language is very delicate. We forget that sometimes. Word choice is vital to character development.

JCS: Your Swedish grandmother, and both your parents, were storytellers. What portion of writing is storytelling? How does someone go about becoming a better storyteller? Can that be done?

CH: Attention to structure can improve anyone’s storytelling skills. Oral telling is helpful, because you can watch the audience, see if they’re engaged, if they’re enjoying. If not, a teller can shift gears and up the pace, cut the descriptions or whatever is necessary to reconnect with the listener. Stories have to be told—or written—in an order that makes sense to the reader. This is structure. Cut away the dead wood. Every sentence must count. The process of editing is the way to become a better storyteller.

JCS: Carolyn, you create truly vivid, one-of-a-kind characters. What are some of the techniques you use? I notice that Jitty’s clothes are always a highlight, as are Sweetie Pie’s sunglasses and scarf. You seem to be able to vary the cadence of your characters’ speech. Dish!

CH: Well, thank you very much. I think clothing and accessories are one of the easiest ways to characterize. They can show a character’s humor or quirkiness or hint at the character’s motive (and sometimes this is a deliberate misdirection). I think what makes a unique character is what’s in his heart, his spirit. Is he greedy, selfish, mean, generous, afraid, desperate? What does he desire? Motive is what makes us do the things we do, and motive stems from our unique psychology. Why do some people feel they must have designer labels and others are confident in thrift shop finds? Why are some people happy in the country and others in cities? These are the questions at the heart of a character. It is often helpful for new writers to do intensive character studies. Write it down. Read it often and remember the moments in the past that have brought your character to this particular place and time where the story begins.

Since I clearly hear how my characters speak, I can write their dialogue most of the time without too much trouble. Long ago I was shy, and I listened a lot. It’s a good thing to do. In fact, I make it a habit of eavesdropping almost everywhere I go. Fascinating.

JCS: You are also the Queen of Cliffhangers within the story. A scene always closes with a hook. Is that conscious? Are you a planner or a seat-of-the-pants-er? Do you think through how to sprinkle your hooks throughout your book?

CH: Again, thank you. I do deliberately structure the scenes to try to push the reader to the next scene, but I don’t outline in any rigid way. I write a proposal for each book, and I know the direction and the culprit. I have an idea of key scenes to write toward, the turning points, and then I just cut loose and write. If the characters take the story in another direction, I go with them. I may have to toss away some pages, but the first draft is the joyful part for me. I give myself freedom to explore, knowing I may toss pages. The hard work is the editing.

Mystery writing demands a certain level of planning. It is my job to plant the red herrings and to sweep the reader along to a certain conclusion—and then twist it. I take that seriously and I work hard at plotting. I am not a natural plotter, so it is a lot of hard work.

JCS: Will you share how you develop structure? Do you use the 3-act play or the Hero’s Journey? Post-it notes or wipe board? Scene-by-scene or outline? Once you get your structure down, do you allow yourself to make changes? How do you decide if the pacing is off? Do you have any test you use on your manuscript?

CH: I mentioned the turning points above. This is a basic outline—an inciting event, first turning point, mid-turning point, third turning point, crisis or black moment and resolution. These are not rigid. And remember there are a multitude of plot points. A turning point is very distinct and actually turns the direction of the story—this is a change that sends the protagonist in a new direction. These are not hard and fast. And while this is a “natural” feeling structure, that isn’t to say it is the only way to tell a story. Think of “Babel” or “Crash” both movies that exemplify storytelling in a completely different way, where spokes of the story move out from the central idea like the spokes on a wagon wheel. The old saying about writing is true—you can do anything you want as long as you make it work.
Structure is determined by the intent of the author. In structures such as “Babel” and “Crash,” the intent is to explore and idea. This is very different from traditional storytelling. But the wonderful thing about writing and books is that there’s room for all approaches to story. And the smart writer lets the story tell him which way to tell it.

For many years I worked with a critique group. I teach now, and my time is limited, but I have a wonderful friend, Suzann Ellingsworth, who is good enough to read for me. And I have a terrific editor, Kelley Ragland. Editing employs the logical part of the brain, and a fresh pair of eyes is critical. I try to send Kelley the cleaning manuscript I can. A professional should never expect another professional to clean up a grammar mess or sloppiness. So I go over and over a manuscript before I send it to Suzann, and then on to Kelley.

JCS: What do you find yourself telling your students over and over? What is the one thing that you feel almost every one of your students could improve on right off the bat? (Think of something that makes you want to get a tattoo…or give one!)

CH: Every scene has to move the plot forward AND develop character. Pretty writing isn’t enough. Yes, language is vital, but it does not void the need for plot and characterization.

JCS: What do you think has changed for writers, given the unease in the publishing world? For example, do you think books need to start faster? Have more dialogue? Less description? Or is it the same as always, just more competitive, so there’s an increased need for authors to really be at the top of their game?

CH: What’s changed is that a book has only a few weeks to grab an audience. It’s almost as if the books, and the authors, are viewed as somewhat disposable. There’s also a tendency now for publishers to jump on a bandwagon and produce what everyone else is publishing. So many of the titles look alike and sound alike. And it is harder for writers—not necessarily to get published but to stay published.

An original voice, a solid story, a book with something to say that’s well said will always get an agent or editor’s attention. The trick then is to translate that into sales figures. There are a lot of problems in the publishing business, but one of them isn’t a lack of talented writers.

JCS: Please explain “plot confusion” and how to fix it.

CH: What I see a lot in new writers is that they keep shifting the focus of the story from one character to another. Not that multiple characters can’t have a point of view or a big part in a story. But it must be ONE character’s story. This is a hard, hard lesson to learn. My first book, a horror novel, was rewritten a number of times because I simply couldn’t grasp this. The turning points follow the protagonist. If a writer can keep this in mind, he or she will likely clear up a lot of plot confusion.

JCS: You are very generous to authors at the beginning of their careers. I know of one person who you mentored to publication. What might you say to someone who is mid-list? How does someone break out of the pack and kick it into high gear?

CH: Unfortunately, a lot of promotion has fallen on the heads of authors. So I say embrace it and learn to use it to your advantage. Meet your deadlines like a professional. Be savvy about the business. Listen to other writers and ask questions. Most writers are shy people but very willing to talk about writing, especially in a one-on-one situation.

And try to give back. A handful of people changed the course of my writing career at one time or another. A couple of them were virtual strangers. I do try to return the favor by helping others. I have this corny belief that we really can make a better world if we get over our fears and selfishness and make that small gesture to help others.

JCS: You write with gusto and humor. Do you think that humor is a necessary ingredient for books? Why or why not?

Humor isn’t necessary in a book, but it is essential in life. I write humorous, and I also write very dark. I read both. Some days I want to be chilled and creeped out, other days I want to laugh. Books fit all kinds of people and all kinds of moods.

CH: How do you personally handle rejection? Any advice?

Give yourself three days to get over the soreness. Go ahead and fantasize about beds of fire ants and other things. Then get over it. This is a business and it’s tough, but that’s true of every business right now.

Once the anger is gone, look at the letter. I’ve learned a lot from rejection letters. Editors and agents don’t often write lengthy rejections, but if they take the time to say anything specific, take note of it. Really take note of what is being said. If it’s “we loved your character but the book lost momentum” that’s something to fix. And if an editor says something like that, believe me, they saw something in your book. Take that nugget and work with it.

Remember, this isn’t personal. It’s a business. If you let rejection defeat you, you won’t have a writing career.

Carolyn Haines
is the editor of DELTA BLUES (May 2010 Tyrus Books) and author of BONE APPETIT (July 2010 St. Martin's Minotaur). Visit her at


Dru said...

great interview.

Margaret said...

Enjoyed the interview. Read both of your series. Will you both be at Love is Murder next year? Looking forward to your 2011 books.

Margaret Franson

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Margaret, thanks so much!Book #4--Make, Take, Murder--will be published May 1, 2011.

I'm not sure about my 2011 appearance schedule yet. Stay tuned!