Lisa Betz isn’t afraid to write something a little different–that’s how she ended up writing first-century mysteries! Like most authors, she’s honed her own unique approach to writing, and she shares some of her tips and secrets with us today.
Thank you so much for being here! What do you write? How/why did you pick your genre?
I have always been drawn to books that were a little different than what everyone else was reading (or writing). That’s how I ended up writing mysteries set in first-century Rome. My novels combine the intriguing setting of a far-off time and place with the action and suspense of a mystery, and then I throw in a dash of quirky humor and some eccentric characters.
My interest in the Roman Empire stems from many years teaching Bible studies. I have tried to absorb as much as possible about the culture and history of first-century Rome so I can bring the ancient world to life and make the Bible more relevant to modern Christians. I love learning history the “painless” way through good fiction.
Which was harder: the first book or the following books?
Both were hard in different ways. Death and a Crocodile was my first attempt at a mystery, so getting the plot and structure right was a challenge. I spent a lot of time revising scenes to get the clues in the right place and the logic clear enough to follow. When I started the manuscript for the second book in the series, Fountains and Secrets, it was harder than I expected to match the voice that had seemed so effortless in the first book. I discovered I was overthinking and creating too much drama. When I relaxed, the voice flowed.
What’s your favorite book on writing?
Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. It’s a mixture of neuroscience and good writing advice. I’ve found it fascinating as well as invaluable in helping me avoid the kind of mistakes that annoy readers. She explains why some common writing misconceptions don’t work, and what to do instead.
What’s your favorite writers conference?
I’ve been attending the Lancaster Christian Writers annual one-day conference each spring for many years. It’s local and it was just the right size for me as a beginning writer. It has been an invaluable resource over the years as I have grown in my craft, offering workshops and opportunities to have one-on-one talks with writers and editors. Now I’ve graduated to being a workshop presenter at the next conference.
How do you combat writer’s block?
My biggest struggle is overcoming Resistance. Often my feelings tell me I don’t have the energy to write, or my brain tells me it’s too weary or stressed to think right now. I’ve found that when I sit down and start working anyway, I discover I had more energy and focus than I thought.
I also suffer from what I call mini writer’s block. I get stuck on the wording of a particular sentence or on how the character should react in the middle of a particular scene. I’m learning to simply make a note of the issue that needs to be resolved and allow myself to deal with it later. [I type comments to myself in square brackets so they’re easy to find later.]
Another trick I use when I’m stuck is to jot down every possible action the characters could take (even the stupid or obvious ones). After listing five or so I usually think of one that feels like a good choice.
What advice do you have for new authors?
Read a variety of books in the genre you want to write, so you have a firm understanding of what readers expect and what makes a great book in that genre. (Every genre has its unwritten expectations about what the book should deliver.)
Find critique partners who can give you valuable feedback. We all have blind spots, so we need peers who can help us. For example, I have a critique partner who is always asking, “What is she feeling in this scene?” I tend to skip over emotions, so my critique partner reminds me to include those important descriptions.
If you’ve ever worked with a freelance editor, how did you find that editor? How would you describe the experience?
I’ve hired an editor to do a content edit of all my manuscripts and it has been invaluable! I learn so much, and my books are SO much better. The editor I use is someone who I’ve gotten to know over the years through my local writers’ group. That prior connection was important.
You must find someone who “gets” you and your work. I’ve received sample edits from editors who didn’t understand my style or my story, and their feedback wasn’t as helpful.
What does your revision process look like?
I compose on the computer, but I revise better with a printout and a pencil. Most scenes take many rounds of editing. I used to try to fix all the problems in a scene with one round of editing, but I’ve learned that’s not productive. First of all, it’s impossible, secondly, it’s too stressful, and thirdly, I waste time perfecting sentences that I’ll end up cutting later.
Now I give myself permission to only fix so much in any one round of editing. I try to focus on the big, structural stuff in the first rounds before wasting time worrying about the details. (It’s really hard to ignore awkward sentences but I remind myself I can trust my process. Those sentences will be fixed eventually.)
Once I have the scenes and overall plot structure settled, I focus more on the character responses and relationships, getting the right clues in the right order, and layering setting details. The more rounds of editing I put into a scene, the more my voice starts to shine through.
I also remind myself that all that paper and printer ink isn’t being wasted. It’s an investment in creating the best product I can.
Lisa E. Betz worked as an engineer, substitute teacher, and play director before becoming an award-winning mystery writer. She brings her analytical mind, quirky humor, and positive outlook to all she writes. She draws inspiration from thirty-five years of leading Bible studies to create entertaining mysteries set in the world of the early church, and then she fills that world with eccentric characters, independent females, and an occasional sausage-snatching cat. Her debut mystery, Death and a Crocodile, was named the Golden Scroll Novel of the Year.