7 Things I’ve Learned So Far: G.M. Malliet

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by G.M. Malliett, mystery author of multiple novels) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

GIVEAWAY: G.M. is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Julia Munroe Martin won.)




G.M. Malliet is the author of WICKED AUTUMN, an NBC “Today” show
Summer Reads Pick (Charlaine Harris). Her first book won the Agatha
Award for Best First Mystery, and her two most recent books were chosen
by Library Journal for their best mysteries lists of 2011 (WICKED AUTUMN)
& 2012 (A FATAL WINTER). Visit her website at http://GMMalliet.com



 1. Write what you love to read. Authors just starting out often misinterpret the standard advice to “write what you know.” Perhaps you know a lot about root canals or tax law, but the trick is to write the type of book you most love to read—thriller, love story, or historical novel. That way you know what’s been done before, and what you can build upon. Your insider knowledge of tax law may come into play, perhaps in a legal thriller, but a little of that will go a long way. By the same token…

2. Don’t write a Scandinavian mystery, unless you happen to be Scandanavian. Even if you read the Steig Larsson books a dozen times, trying to write a book with a setting and culture you know little about will guarantee an unhappy ending.

(Writing a thriller? Check out our list of thriller literary agents.)

3. Don’t invent a series character you wouldn’t marry. You may have to live with this character for a very long time. Agatha Christie famously wanted to throttle Hercule Poirot and his mustaches with her bare hands before she was done with him or he with her. By the same token, avoid Agatha’s mistake in inventing an elderly protagonist unless you yourself are elderly. This leads us to…

4. Plan Ahea… As the old joke goes, particularly if you are writing a book that is part of a planned series. I called my first Max Tudor novel Wicked Autumn. The second book in the series was A Fatal Winter. So far, so good. You may have spotted that I have a seasonal trend going here. I have a strong title in mind for the spring book, but a title for the summer book eludes me. I figure I’ll cross that fjord when I get there. For the fifth book I am in trouble unless they invent a new season. Or I could switch to using Swedish titles: Swedish for autumn, I am told, is “höst.”

5. Never get too attached to your book title. Getting too attached to anything you’ve written is asking for trouble, but titles can be particularly problematic. Writers tend to cling to their titles until they have to be pried from their cold dead hands. I’ve been lucky that out of five books I’ve had published (the first three were the St. Just series for Midnight Ink) only one title was rejected. Midnight Ink’s marketing department wanted to keep the third title consistent with the first two. They were probably right about this, but it led to the sort of lengthy exchange of emails that can take years off an author’s life. I still mourn that lost title, and I plan to resurrect it one day. But unless they want to call your book Boring Novel or Stupid Book or something else you just can’t live with, let it go.

(Secrets to querying literary agents: 10 questions answered.)

6. Listen to half the advice you get from those who critique your work. The question, of course, is “Which half?” But it’s your book, and you should be able to defend it before you even think of showing it to anyone: critique group partner, agent, editor—anyone. What you share should be your strongest effort, and you should have a very good reason for every decision you’ve made in writing it. Before you’ve reached the point of confidence (this is different from stubbornness, by the way), you’ll probably be quick to go on the defensive. You may cling mulishly to what is clearly not working in the book. Avoid the chance of ignoring good advice when it is given by thinking the whole thing through ahead of time.

7. The only way around Writer’s Block is to drive straight through it. Whether you’re cleaning out your garage or writing a book, the same principle applies: Never tackle a big project all at once. Approach it as a series of little projects strung together. Maybe you don’t feel like describing a character today, so work on your setting. If that plot twist isn’t working, work on something else you know you want to have in your book. Imagine the house where you protagonist lives, or where he goes for coffee every day, and describe it in one short but finely honed paragraph. That’s it. You’re done for the day. Tomorrow, tackle the next part of the story that happens to engage your attention. When you’ve stitched all these pieces together, what you’ll have is a finished novel.

GIVEAWAY: G.M. is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Julia Munroe Martin won.)



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49 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far: G.M. Malliet

  1. nfalkestav

    The Swedish word for autumn is indeed “höst. You also have “sommar” for, you guessed it, summer. Vinter for winter and “vår” for spring (and it doubbles for the word “our”.)

  2. whoopscareless

    “Don’t invent a series character you wouldn’t marry”

    Oof, no, I can’t agree with this. The more you lurve your character, the greater the danger of them turning into Mr or Ms OMG PERFECT which is a huge mistake. I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve read whose MC’s Only Flaw Is That They Care Too Much and it’s terribly boring.

    Poirot’s not a great example, because I think anyone would hate their MC after 33 books, marriage material or no. I mean sure, plan ahead: if you’re going to write a hugely aggravating character, maybe don’t plan out an extended series for them. But if they keep pushing the story forwards… I guess I don’t see the problem. Keep going and let the tension flow onto the page; your readers will thank you. Probably.

  3. ElizabethMacGregor

    Thank you for the insightful writing advice. Wonderful news on your nomination for the Agatha~ Congratulations! A FATAL WINTER is at the top of my TBR list~ Cheers~

  4. vickielb

    G.M. I loved your suggestions, and your sense of humor. I do a lot of editing and writing, and I like to solve problems so my brain instantly went into overdrive thinking about a summer title, even as I tried to concentrate on everything that followed. That means I have to give these suggestions to you so that I can go back and reread (absorb) your great comments. Let’s see:
    Sizzling Summer, Summer Solstice, The Longest Day of Summer, Suspense of Summer OR Summer Suspense,
    Solitary Summer, Sands of Summer, Summer Sands, Searing Summer, (my fav) Sisssst Summer Hissed, Torrid Summer and on and on. I know some are corny, but at least they are out of my system. No, wait, one more – Squeezing Summer’s Cheeks, and another – Summer Fire. O.K. Take pity on me and share your Winter story. I’m all in.

  5. SpeedyG

    Powerful advice! Thank you very much for the insights into writing the greatest and best novel possible. I will be remembering and applying all this in the future.

  6. takikoazn

    Thank you for your advice Mrs. Malliet. They are advices that I have heard before and feel are crucial to the success of one’s work. I think it is also important to not feel limited to write books on a group of people you know well. I read an article about this in “News Letter.” It is good to explore and do your research even though it may take a year or two.

  7. ABLyttle

    Thanks for the great advice, especially about not creating a series character you can live with long term! I enjoyed Wicked Autumn and look forward to reading A Fatal Winter — it’s on my Goodreads list.

  8. oneluckylady

    Thanks for this column. I love reading practical advice from authors who have experienced/suffered the reality.

    I have already gone through five titles for my novel and I’m not finished writing my first draft. I do have favorite scenes that I would fight for, but I would also be willing to let them go for the sake of a better book. The arguments against will have to be mighty convincing, though.

  9. Doropatent

    Great suggestions and fun to read! Reminds me of a long battle I had over the title for my book about a service dog who became a guide dog for the blind. My editor and I each had a idea for an inadequate title and neither would budge. I sent out a plea to a list of librarians and got back the perfect title, “The Right Dog for the Job.” I loved it, but it took a lot of persuading to get my editor on board as she had become too vested in her own suggestion.

  10. mikkib

    so many writers offer the same advice – write what you know….I just hope some of the people I’ve met along the way don’t recognize themselves as characters from my book.

  11. jennktaylor

    Good advice. I particularly liked the one about critique groups. It’s hard to know which advice to take and which to ignore. I tend to listen if they are unanimous on a particular point even when I don’t want to do it (like get rid of my first chapter). The rest I have to carefully consider.

    I’m always on the lookout for a new author for my book club. So, I look forward to reading your book.

  12. randall031

    My favorite here? Definitely number 1. Partly because I keep having to search out new authors since they just can’t keep up with my (reading) addiction. If I write what I want to read, maybe it’ll last a little longer. Thanks.

  13. Doug Wolven

    Let’s see…number one is fine, I enjoy writing most when it grows out of some experience I’ve had. I couldn’t marry my characters—I’m writing for upper elementary, but I might want to adopt them. The Scandinavian warning caught my attention; Miss Thongld is a Norwegian elementary teacher in two of my books. But. When I was a kid we had a Norwegian maid, and I thought I was part Norwegian. Does that count?

  14. Teresa

    I have to say that I love all of my protagonists, especially the ones that are in a series.

    The one for me was #6, it is hard for me to listen to criticism from anyone but I find it especially hard coming from family. Sometimes I swear my sister simply doesnt want to like one of my books. Someday I’m going to write something that she both reads and likes. Hopefully that will happen before I scream.

  15. MysteriAnne

    My favorite was #3, but it sure makes it hard to put your protagonist through hell for the sake of the story when you’re in love in with him or her.

  16. livelovewrite

    I love this! Number one is my favorite! I struggle all the time with what to write. I know I want to write a book. Family tells me all the time “You need to write a book” When I ask them about what they say “Write what you read”. I read sometimes five different books at a time. I told my husband the old “Write what you know about” He quickly let me know in his words “Well dear your in trouble”. So I’M off on my own to figure this out once again and Yes prove him wrong!

  17. FSwiver

    Hi, G.M.,
    I’m a fellow member of MWA-Mid Atlantic chapter, and I saw your link in the e-mail. I didn’t realize what I was getting into to read your article and comment. Enjoyed it, but I’ve now received three e-mails from Writer’s Digest!

  18. vrundell

    Love the comment about titles! I’ve probably changed the title of my WIP six times. Each time I revise I feel it’s migrated away from the previous title…

  19. hunter972

    Good advice about writer’s block. My mother always said start cleaning a big mess by picking a corner. I always find if I just get a line on the page, I can go from there. I just have to remember that I’m not engraving stone, and no one ever has to see it…unlike the big messy corner over there.

  20. kateeileenshannon

    First, LOVE your books. And this is such good advice. I’ve read a couple of books lately that were set in an area the writer did not live and possibly only visited once as a tourist, and it showed. #3 is so good. Of course the nice thing about mysteries, even if a reoccurring character, as long as not the main protagonist, you can always kill them off 😉

  21. mlmrowe

    A major chuck of time was lost from my commitment to writing, and the past month I have spent struggling very hard to “get back into it”…yet there’s always something that requires or demands my attention, or as I am writing this right now…the phone is ringing and thus, someone is requesting my attention on the other end of the line. I believe the struggle will be incessant, and being a mother of three very active and involved young ones, my attention and time is spread fairly thin. Therefore, #7 is truly the most beneficial piece of wisdom that I needed to hear right now. Large blocks of time I do not possess with a full household to tend to and chase after, but knowing that tackling it all (i.e. my writing) at once when that moment does finally present itself is not necessary or wise, is most reassuring.

  22. SSHoklotubbe

    Excellent advice. I especially like #2 and #6. I believe it is impossible to write about a culture you have not been immersed in without coming off sounding shallow and fake. I also believe everyone has a different take on others’ work, and it is important to believe in your writing well enough to defend it to those who would disagree. Very well said.

  23. Bluecharlie

    I never thought of writing a book like cleaning out the garage. Tackling smaller parts and putting them together in the end seems more plausible then just sitting down a pounding out 75,000 words and hoping for the best! Thank-you G.M. Malliet for some great tips!

  24. Tshames

    I heartily agree with #6. You have to have the courage of your conviction in your writing. If the advice doesn’t resonate, move on–unless everyone who critiques it agrees, and then maybe it’s time to reconsider.

  25. Julia Munroe Martin

    This is such a helpful post — great information and entertaining, too. As someone who just finished writing a mystery novel, I especially liked #3 (don’t invent a series character you wouldn’t marry)! That hook pulled me into the post. Would love to win the book, here’s hoping!

  26. Susie1971

    I loved that Christie hated Poirot and his little mustache! I had no idea. I wonder if Thomas Harris hates Hannibal Lecter? 😉 I found #1 most helpful. I’ve been writing MG, but I love mystery/detective novels so I’m rethinking this. Laini Taylor wrote an advice article where she said “Write the novel you’d love to read, the one you’d grab off the shelf at a bookstore.” Similar, and also good advice! Thanks for this blog. I’ve learned a lot.

  27. MaggiesFirst

    Number 1 and number 7: between them you will AT LEAST finish a book that YOU like.
    I’d probably add “Make sure you have a competent (really competent and well-read, too) proof reader.”
    NONE of the following applies to Ms Mallie’s books:

    If a well-read reader stumbles over something stupid like “refractory window” instead of “refectory window” the reader wonders. If the reader finds a dozen or more citable offenses to whatever subject is part of the book’s theme, the reader will never look for that writer’s work again

    Ask the publisher if they use a reading machine or a reading human to do it: I’ve found some pretty egregious mistakes and infelicities in some otherwise well written books. And getting through to an editor, as a reader, is impossible.

  28. Danielle

    I like #1 the best. I couldn’t figure out why ‘Write you know’ was such a key piece of advice. I work a desk job and do data entry all day. No one wants to read that. I figured out pretty quick I should write what I myself would prefer to read so I mainly focus on historical fiction but I’m also open to different genres as long as the characters sound interesting.

    1. livelovewrite

      I love this! Number one is my favorite! I struggle all the time on what I want to write. I just know that I want to write a book. Family is always saying “You should write a book.” I ask family all the time “What do I write”? They say “Write what you read’ I read everything.! I told my husband the old line “Write what you know about” He quickly let me know that “Well dear your in trouble”. So I’m off to figure it out and Yes of course prove him wrong.


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