Kellye Garrett spends her days coming up with ways to commit murder. For anybody who’s read her books, that’s probably no surprise. Kellye is the queen of the twist, which makes sense considering her background in screenwriting.
A graduate of USC’s famed film school, Kellye spent eight years in Hollywood, including a stint working for the CBS drama Cold Case. Kellye’s the author of Hollywood Homicide, Hollywood Ending, and Like a Sister. She’s been awarded nearly every crime-writing award out there, and is known to give one hell of an acceptance speech!
Despite warning me she’d be my “most boring guest yet,” Kellye goes deep into her writing process while offering up practical advice on how to get the work done. I was thrilled to get to talk shop with such a decorated and delightful author.
Eli Cranor: What’s the first thing you do when you get an idea for a book?
Kellye Garrett: I figure my main character out. I write first person, so obviously that’s the person I need to understand best. I don’t need to know everything about her. I just need to know the basis of her personality. Once I have the character, and I have the murder, then I outline. I’m a super plotter. I have like twenty-five-page outlines. I use a three-act structure, and I throw the third act out every time when I finally get around to writing it.
EC: Take me through your outline process. Is it all on the computer?
KG: I have a journal I do free thought in. But I have horrible handwriting, so I will type it up into a document on the computer. What I try and do is have a question for each act. This comes from my screenwriting background. This is the investigative focus. By the end of each act, each question is answered, but the answer raises a new question. Make sense?
EC: Totally. That echoes my talk with Jordan Harper. He said that exact same thing about questions driving each act. So how does your screenwriting background impact your fiction?
KG: I have a TV writing background. So, at this point, you only have like forty-two minutes for an entire show. Every scene has to push the story forward. There just can’t be a scene where a character’s walking down the street admiring the trees. My books are very plot heavy in that way. Every scene—you’re going to get something. There’s also a thing called an “act out” in TV writing. You know that last scene before commercials that makes you hang around. So I do what I call my “chapter outs,” which is just like me trying to end each chapter on a really climatic moment so the reader will want to move on to the next chapter.
EC: Do you consider mystery genre conventions while outlining? Like, are you trying to make sure you have the second dead body appear at exactly the halfway point?
KG: At this point, I’m not so concerned about the second dead body, though I did have two dead bodies in my earlier novels. Now there are just certain things I try to pull from the genre. The biggest thing for me is, because I read a lot of mysteries, I can always guess who the killer is. It’s always the person you least expect, right? So I’ll always throw in a red herring suspect who’s really not even ever called a suspect. That’s for people like me. I also tend to do false endings, which comes from screenwriting. You think the mystery is solved, but it’s not, which is another great way to keep readers on their toes.
EC: Is there a particular mystery novel that really shaped you as a writer?
KG: Yes, Sue Grafton and her Alphabet Series. B is for Burglar has the best twist ending, ever. It’s a surprise, but when you think about it you realize it makes sense. Grafton does that so well in that book. When I was doing Pitch Wars, I made my mentees read that book. Every few years, I go back and read it.
EC: Okay, your outline’s done and it’s time for you to start drafting. What does your writing process look like?”
KG: First, there’s tears, because I hate the blank page.
EC: Oh, yeah. Your email sign off is that Dorothy Parker quote: “I hate writing. I love having written.”
KG: I’m a rewriter. I love rewriting, but the blank page scares the shit out of me. I have to force myself to write. I have the worst short-term memory loss. I look at the books I’ve written, and forget that it took me three or four drafts to get to that point. I have to literally remind myself, Eli, that I’ve been there before. That if I just put the words on the page, I can clean it up later. I call it the “Vomit Draft” because I’m just spewing stuff on the page.
EC: Do you try and “vomit” daily?
KG: I hate when people say you have to write every day to be a writer. It makes writers feel bad if they don’t. Liz Little and I talk about this all the time. I work on my book every day. Do I put words on a page every day? No. If the scene is not there and I put words on a page that are crappy words then I’m wasting my time. I’d rather take my journal and do some free thought about a scene or a character. That way when it’s time to write, it’s all there. I have to let it percolate, so when it does come out, it overflows. But listen, everybody has a process that works for them. Walter Mosley writes every day, and he loves it. That doesn’t work for me. Instead of trying to make myself feel bad about it, I have to say, “That’s okay.” If I haven’t written, and then I start feeling bad about not having written, then I won’t write the next day either.
EC: Is there a time a day when you write best?
KG: It’s tricky because I still have a full-time job. But I do try to write in the mornings a little. Then I’ll hit it after work. I have to “transition” first though. Get some dinner. You know, maybe watch a TV show. Lately I’ve been sprinting with friends. That accountability really helps.
EC: Can you explain “sprinting with friends?”
KG: So, I just did one with a friend right before this. We’ll just be on Zoom together, and we can chat or whatever. It’s kind of like being at work. You have the person in the cubicle next to you and you can chitchat. Then you can both go and do some work. I’ll put a twenty-five-minute timer on my Alexa, and we’re just supposed to focus on whatever we’re doing for the book. Research. Figuring a scene out. Writing. Whatever. Then we take a break. We can talk about what we did. We can talk about the story. Help each other brainstorm. It’s fun. Maybe it works so well for me because of my TV background. I don’t know.
EC: Like a writing room?
KG: Yes! I was thinking just the other day, if I ever win the lotto, I could buy some office space and just make it like a writers’ retreat place. Everybody could come in and we could talk and write and discuss our stories. I would love that.
EC: You could do that now. Run it like a beauty salon. Just rent out booth space.
KG: That’s not a bad idea. I’m going to put it in my journal!
EC: Okay, back to your writing process. Do you aim for a specific word count?
KG: I try to aim more for scenes.
EC: You’ve got it mapped out in your outline, and you just try to tackle a specific scene?
KG: The scene I was working on today had my main character find out that a very important person was dead. That’s a big reveal for the plot, but it’s also an emotional moment for her. This is a person she’s close to. I always ask myself what’s the commonsense response?
EC: Ah, that’s great. So what would a person really do in that situation, not just something that would move the plot forward.
KG: It can move the plot forward. But I want the character to inform the plot, and not the plot to inform the character. So, I’ll just sit there and write notes. Ultimately, I have to get to where I’m going, but it’s hard to get there just doing an outline. I have to be closer to it.
EC: And that’s what you’re doing in your journal with your free thought exercises?
KG: Yeah, my notebook! I usually fill up about three or four of these per book.
EC: Okay, so the first draft is done. What do you do next?
KG: I just kind of jump in. I don’t purposely take any days off or anything. I’ll read it out loud sometimes, especially dialogue. I print the whole thing off too. I have binders of every book. I go through with a pen and just mark the whole thing up, like at a line level. If you give me the same sentence five times, I will revise it five times. One thing that really helps is keeping track of the days. I put post-It notes on the pages in the printed-out manuscripts so I can remember what day I’m on.
EC: Do you have beta readers? If so, when do you involve them in the revision process?
KG: I do have beta readers though I don’t call them that. I like to send it to them when I’ve done everything I possibly can on the book. Like, there’s nothing else I can do to make this story better. Then I’ll ask friends to read it. Friends I trust. If I have five I want to read it, I don’t ask all five at the same time. I might ask two to read one draft. Then save the other three for a later draft. If I ask you to read something, I specifically tell you what to read for. I’m a big believer in that.
EC: And then it’s done? It’s off to your agent?
KG: Yup, that’s it, until my editor, Helen O’Hare, gets her eyes on it. She’s so great when it comes to character development, which is something I’m not amazing with. And then, yeah, that’s it. Once it gets past Helen, the book is done.
EC: Are there any craft books you’d like to recommend?
KG: Yes! When I started my first book, I read Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron. I tell everybody about that book. Hallie has the most amazing breakdown when it comes to the number of scenes in each act. Which is really helpful for me because I’m used to TV writing where I had to list every major beat in an episode. That’s how I break down the plot points in my outline. That book’s amazing. Everybody I tell about it loves it.
EC: Okay, final question. Why do you do this crazy thing we do? Why do you write?
KG: I’m not good at anything else. So, there’s that. But on a more serious note, there’s a diversity problem in crime fiction. Publishing period, but especially in crime fiction. It’s gotten better, but there’s still work to do. When I won my Agatha Award and my Anthony, I called it out in both speeches. I write because I want Black women to see themselves on the page, and I want people who aren’t Black women to see Black women on the page. Representation matters for people who are of my ethnicity, and for people who aren’t. For some people, the only chance they get to see Black people is through entertainment. Television. Books. I want to combat the stereotypes about Black women because there are so many about us, right? I don’t want it to be a trend, I want it to be the status quo. When I won my Anthony Award, it’d been twenty-plus years since a Black woman had won. It should not take that long for a person of color to win an award. Now it’s not such a big deal anymore to see people of color win these things, but that was not the case even five years ago.
EC: Damn. That’s good, Kellye.
KG: Listen, this is the story I tell everybody. My first book, Hollywood Homicide, won the Agatha, the Anthony, the Lefty and the “IPPY” Award for best first novel. It got two starred reviews, including being a Library Journal Book of the Month. But it took a year to sell and was rejected by everybody. I didn’t have a ton of edits after it sold so the same book that won all those awards was rejected by every editor. Don’t give me the “you’re simply not good enough” speech. Because I can tell you that’s completely not the case. I share all that not to be conceited, but just to prove there’s racism in publishing. But at the same time, I don’t want people to forget I am a good writer. I have this advocacy thing that I do, but at the same time I’m a damn good writer, and I’m going to own that.