Like all new writers, I’ve been searching for the secret. The key that unlocks the door to writing success. The key that the big time, successful writers have that beginning writers must try and learn. In other words, I’m searching for the Holy Grail of writing.

Well, I got lucky and was able to discover this key at Sleuthfest 2014, in Orlando over the past weekend.

If you’re not familiar with Sleuthfest, it’s the annual conference of the Florida chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. This year’s conference was the 20th.

The conference is primarily for writers, but there were a number of mystery fans there as well, taking advantage of the opportunity to learn from, and hang out with, some of the top writers in the crime fiction genre. This year there were three Guests of Honor. Laura Lippman, Ace Atkins, and Hank Phillippi Ryan. All of the three gave keynote speeches and sat in on a variety of panels.

The panels, primarily educational, ran the gamut from craft related subjects, like plotting, revising and the use of setting in books, to the more detailed and technical issues involved in this new era of publishing. Things like audio book creation, the use of social media to build author platforms, and techniques for partnering with other authors to cross promote one another’s work.

There were also opportunities to meet with agents and editors, as well as roundtable discussions with each of these well-dressed types.

I went to as many panels as possible, looking for the secret. Successful, published authors, most of whom had many books under their belts, populated each panel. Surely they had the secret.

I listened closely, took notes where I could, and then reviewed them at night, looking for this key, or secret. I had many questions on how things SHOULD be done if one hopes to become a successful writer.

One of those questions involved plotting. What do successful writers do about plotting? Do they outline, write a detailed synopsis and then use it as a blueprint for their bestselling novels? Well, I quickly got the answer to that question when a moderator asked the audience how many plotted their novels ahead of time. About half raised their hands. She then asked how many wrote by the seat of their pants. The other half raised their hands. Interesting. Obviously half were doing it correctly and half were not.

Then the moderator asked the same question of the panel. Successful, published authors all. Here was my chance to learn the secret. One by one she asked them. The first said she outlined, but her story often varied from the outline. The second said she never outlined. She just started writing. The third, said he based his story on either a cover idea, an opening sentence he liked, or some other general notion, but he didn’t outline. The fourth said he wrote a detailed outline. Always. Hmmm, fifty-fifty. Exactly the same as the audience.

Okay, maybe there wasn’t a secret to writing, at least when it came to whether or not to plot. But surely there was to editing and revisions. I had circled a panel on revisions because that’s an area where I knew there had to be a secret that I didn’t understand. Do great writers edit as they go, coming out with brilliant first drafts? Or, do they write quickly, and then shape the story during the revision stage?

With this question, there was a bit more uniformity, though statistically, there was no clear answer. One author quickly writes first drafts, and then shapes while revising. Two others took more time with first drafts, and then did second or third drafts that were close to what would be sent to their editors. The fourth, wrote only one draft, but edited, very closely, as he wrote.

Darn it! Once again, no secret. Each of those writers seemed to have their own process for writing a book. Maybe I was looking in the wrong place. Maybe the keynote speakers, the biggest, most successful authors among our group, would share the secret.

Ace Atkins and Stephen Campbell at Sleuthfest 2014

I arrived on Friday morning, and the Friday keynote speaker was Ace Atkins, the man hired to take on the Spenser series from the estate of Robert B. Parker. Ace is a fabulous and accomplished writer, but taking on the responsibility for one of the great P.I. series of my lifetime, turned him into a mythic, guru type, writer. I listened intently, to a funny, and inspiring forty-minute talk, but he didn’t share the secret. One thing that was clear from Ace’s speech, was that he worked extremely hard at his writing.

Laura Lippman and Stephen Campbell at Sleuthfest 2014

Saturday’s Keynote address was from Laura Lippman, the winner of virtually every award for excellence in the crime fiction genre. She’s the author of the iconic Tess Monaghan series, as well as the eight stand-alone mysteries. This is clearly a woman who knew the secret. I listened closely as she spoke from the heart about the current state of the publishing business, about her love of the mystery genre, her career as a newspaper reporter, and her desire to keep writing for as long as she possibly can. It was obvious that she loved writing, and worked extremely hard at what she did.

Hmmm – One interesting thing that was clear from both keynote speakers was that they worked hard, really hard, at what they were doing. Well, that must be a part of the secret, but what about the rest? What about plotting or not plotting? What about perfect first drafts, or fast first drafts?  What about all the other questions I came to the conference to have answered?

Because I arrived on Friday, I didn’t have the opportunity to listen to Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Thursday Keynote address, so I purchased a CD copy of it, as well as a number of CDs for sessions that I wanted to attend, but couldn’t, due to scheduling conflicts.

Stephen Campbell with Hank Phillippi Ryan

I was listening to Hank’s talk on my way into my office on Monday morning when something she said brought much of what I’d learned at the conference together.

“There is no right way,” she said, at about the seventeen minute mark of her speech.

What? No right way?

Suddenly the plotting question, where half of the authors in attendance plotted or used outlines, and half didn’t, flashed through my mind. The editing and revisions process, where everyone seemed to have a different way of doing things,  began to make sense.

Thankfully, I was able to keep the car on the road, and listen as Hank continued.

“Don’t spend a lot of time looking for the Holy Grail. The secret that somebody knows, that if only you knew, you could be as good and successful as they are.”

Uh oh, she knows I’m trying to find the secret, and she’s talking directly to me.

“There is only your way. There is the way that works for you. So if you want to make scrapbooks, or snowflakes, or yellow stickies or little scenes, or character bibles, or whatever it is you want to do, or whatever works for you, that’s great. If that works, that is the way. If it doesn’t work, that is not the way.”

I could hear the sound of the laughter coming from the audience as my mind absorbed what she’d said, and what I’d learned from the other conference attendees and keynote speakers. Suddenly, I had the secret, or the key. I’d found the mysterious Holy Grail that Hank had advised we avoid looking for.

Plot or don’t plot. Write fast first drafts, or edit as you go. Create character back-stories before you write, or just start writing. Do what works for you. Oh, and don’t forget the subtext of all three keynote speeches, work hard at your craft.

Do what works for you and work hard at your craft. That’s my Holy Grail of writing as revealed at Sleuthfest 2014.

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