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Betty Webb – On How Writing Expands

I belong to a couple of different organizations for professional writers, one of which is the Mystery Writers of America, or MWA. But since I’m a lot more involved with Sisters in Crime, I really didn’t expect much when I asked the folks on the MWA email group if anyone wanted to do a guest post. I mean, like, who am I? I was so stoked when Betty Webb, author of the Gunn Zoo mysteries and a host of others, offered to do a post! And what a lovely little post, which she titled, “Writing isn’t all that hard (said no writer ever).

Betty Webb

My eighteenth novel, “The Panda of Death,” had the spectacular bad luck of being released exactly one week before the Coronavirus hit. A humorous murder set in a zoo (and also featuring a cast of dinosaur puppets), my publisher (Poisoned Pen/Sourcebooks) had such high hopes for it that they were even springing for a nice little tour, but as the bookstores started closing, one by one, their hopes –and mine — fizzled.

This left me tour-less (although not blog-less, as you can see here) and trying to figure out what to do with myself during that month I thought I’d be on the road. Well, the answer isn’t hard when you’re a writer, so I just decided to finish my nineteenth novel earlier than promised. After all, I only had three chapters to go for a June 1, 2020, delivery date.
But that’s when I learned a lesson: writing expands to fill the time allotted.

My usual method of writing – I’m a pantser, by the way – is to finish up a book in three drafts. The first draft starts off with a vague idea, after which I type and type, trying to figure out what the thing’s about, and who killed whom, and why. That’s always an exciting time because I never know who or what’s going to pop up, and often the book turns into something far, far different than my first vague idea. My second draft is what I call the “Holy-Crap-What-A Mess” draft, because, well, it is. I spend a lot of time crying as I work on the second draft. But the crying ends when I begin the third draft, during which I clean up loose ends, brighten the dialog, and trim what needs to be trimmed. Like adverbs. And adjectives.

But guess what? Since I had all that extra time, after writing THE END for the third time, I started a fourth draft, in which I started getting really, really fussy. Now, this sounds like it should be a done deal for someone like me — journalist for 20 years, novelist for another 20, and several years of teaching writing at the university level — but the book I’m working on now is so different than my other eighteen books, that I found myself in a sea of woe – even in this fourth draft. Part of the reason is that “Lost in Paris” is a historical, set in Paris, France, in the 1920s, and the characters include expatriate Americans, a few French folks (duh), an Armenian, a German pissed off about the Treaty of Versailles, several Russians (both White and Bolshevik; they hate each other), and an Italian locksmith. From the beginning, I knew that none of these people should sound alike, but therein lay a quandary. I couldn’t get cute and start mimicking accents or the political correctness people will be after me (as well they should) so for the fifth draft, yeah, FIFTH DRAFT, I’m fixing dialogue. And let me tell you, it’s like going to the dentist before they invented Novocain.

Right now I’m missing the easy laughs I enjoyed while writing of “The Panda of Death.” That book didn’t have one-one hundredth of “Lost in Paris’s” complications, and the only history happened during a drunken prom night that resulted in a big DNA surprise 18 years later. But I had fun with the dinosaur puppets (my favorite was the sweet-tempered T-Rex) and even the scriptwriter who was so nasty I couldn’t help but laugh at him. And I truly loved being “in” the Gunn Zoo, too, with zookeeper Teddy and all her animal friends – especially Poonya, the red panda, and Seabiscuit, the runaway sloth.

Despite all the fun I had, I got amazingly lucky with “The Panda of Death,” because the critics loved it (even if the Coronavirus gave it the finger). Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “A fine cast of characters (both animal and human), a fair-play plot, and just enough personal drama in Teddy’s life spice up this cozy. And Kirkus, who has been harsh with me in the past, even said, Jealousy, crafty zoo critters, and unintended consequences wrapped in an often humorous mystery full of quirky characters.”
But back to “Lost in Paris.” Literally.

For all my grumblings, there are worse places to be stuck during a nation-wide lockdown, and Paris sure isn’t one of them. In fact, Paris has always been my version of the Garden of Eden, without the snake. So adieu for now, mes amies, I’m off to La Rotonde where a handsome police inspector named Henri is waiting for me. In the meantime, you folks in États Unis take good care of yourselves.

And remember to wash your hands.

Betty’s other series include the Lena Jones books. Before writing mysteries, she was a full-time journalist. She also teaches writing, and is a literary critic. You can find more about her at her two websites: www.bettywebb-mystery.com and www.bettywebb-zoomystery.com.

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