Monday, September 16, 2013

Repeat Offender: Jennifer Shaw Wolf, on Writing Mystery #2!

While we generally let our Interrogation Room suspects off easy, this season we're hauling a few back in to talk about the perils -- and joys -- of writing a SECOND mystery. Many authors talk about the challenge of writing novel #2 - the psychological hurdles, the new pressures of deadlines and readers' expectations. But we have a theory that mystery/thriller writers may have additional challenges writing a second book. How do they keep clues and red herrings fresh? How do they keep surprising the readers with new plot twists and reveals, without revealing all the tricks they used in book 1?

To help us answer these questions, we're bringing in writers who are publishing or writing their second novels to talk about their process and how they got through. Kicking off our "Repeat Offenders" series today is Jennifer Shaw Wolf. Jennifer is the author of the YA mystery novel Breaking Beautiful (Walker Books for Young Readers, 2012), which received high praise from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, VOYA, and others. Her new mystery, Dead Girls Don't Lie, comes out tomorrow, also from Walker. Jennifer has a degree in Broadcast Communications and lives in Washington State with her husband and four kids. You can read (or reread!) her previous Interrogation Room interview with us here.

Before we haul her in . . . here's a bit about Jennifer's new novel!

Rachel died at two a.m . . . Three hours after Skyler kissed me for the first time. Forty-five minutes after she sent me her last text. 
Jaycee and Rachel were best friends. But that was before. . .before that terrible night at the old house. Before Rachel shut Jaycee out. Before Jaycee chose Skyler over Rachel. Then Rachel is found dead. The police blame a growing gang problem in their small town, but Jaycee is sure it has to do with that night at the old house. Rachel’s text is the first clue—starting Jaycee on a search that leads to a shocking secret. Rachel’s death was no random crime, and Jaycee must figure out who to trust before she can expose the truth.
In the follow-up to her powerful debut, Jennifer Shaw Wolf keeps readers on their toes in another dark, romantic story of murder and secrets.

 And now . . . here's the transcript of our first Repeat Offender interrogation!

Is your second mystery part of a series or is it a standalone?

What compelled you to write a second mystery novel, as opposed to working in another genre?
I kind of stumbled into writing mysteries, but I’ve found that I love it. I love creating twists and turns that keep the reader guessing and I love the “who” and “whydunnitt” that you build when you write a mystery.

What did you find most challenging about writing this novel? How did you overcome this challenge?

I sold this one on proposal so I knew from the get-go that this was going to be a mystery. My biggest problem was that I doubted my ability to write another good mystery. When you write a mystery you have to work in clues and red herrings and plot twists, and all of that takes advance planning and brainpower. When I wrote BREAKING BEAUTIFUL, I pantsed the whole thing and let the story just come out (although it was heavily revised.)With a deadline, I didn’t feel like I could do that. My solution was to outline, throw out the outline, revise, outline some more, revise, revise, revise, and a VERY patient and supportive editor. It was hard, but I really like how it came out.

What did you find easiest about writing this novel?
The setting was very familiar to me. I didn’t grow up in Eastern Washington, but Lake Ridge has a lot of similarities to the place where I grew up. I felt like the characters are people I could have known when I grew up. The situations are different, but the people and places felt familiar to me, a little like being at home.

Do you think second mystery novels present unique challenges to writers? Or are the challenges the same that any second-time novelist might face?
I think second time novels are just hard no matter what they are. You have your previous story to live up to, as well as the reviewers’ and critics voices constantly in your head as you write. I think that can block even the most seasoned author. As far as writing a second mystery, I think the challenge is to not use the same clues or situations—to make it unique and keep the ending a surprise.

What are you most proud of in this book? 
That it was a struggle, but I made it work. Often this was not a joy or a labor of love, it was just a labor. There were times when I was swept up in the story and the characters and I was loving the process, but it was harder than the first book and I’m proud that I stuck it out. I really think it’s a better book because I had to push to make it work.

Do you think your third book will also be a mystery? 
 Yes. I’m completely and totally in love with the genre, the process it takes to create a puzzle, and its ability to keep a reader (especially a reluctant reader) engaged while you talk about hard situations and hard things. The two books currently in my work in progress folder are both dark mysteries.

Okay, Jennifer . . . once again we're going to clear your name and send you back into the world to write more mysteries. Hope we don't see you -- er, I mean, we HOPE to see you here again next year  . . . when you'll be a three-book, triple threat writer!

PS . . . have you entered SLEUTHAPALOOZA, our biggest giveaway yet? Help us celebrate our two-year anniversary and enter to win, or help spread the word! 


  1. This is the perfect article for me! I'm in exactly the same position. I pantsed (and heavily revised) my first book, a thriller, and I plotted (and re-plotted)the sequel, a mystery/thriller. It's a challenge to make the clues and twists unique in Book 2. And so is writing while on deadline for both books at the same time. But it's worth it! Congrats on both of your books, Jennifer. Great post!

  2. Thanks, Clara - glad to hear you could relate to Jennifer's experience of pantsing #1 and plotting #2, and that it was worth the effort for you!


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