Llamas, Cozys, and Outlines

Betty WebbBetty Webb

Betty is the author of the prize-winning Gunn Zoo mystery series, as well as the author of the acclaimed Lena Jones “Desert” mysteries. Before beginning to write full time, she was a journalist, interviewing everyone from U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, and Nobel Prize-winners. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, the National Federation of Press Women, and volunteers at the Phoenix Zoo.

Author of Desert Wind, starred review in Publishers Weekly, and The Llama of Death, due out Jan. 6, 2013.


Another year, another book.

Now, there’s a lousy first sentence if I ever saw one. When I worked at the newspaper, I was told, “If it bleeds, it leads,” so doesn’t it make sense to begin a blog about a mystery with a nice, bloody first sentence?

Maybe that would be appropriate if the new book was a gritty Lena Jones novel, with bodies falling all over the place, but it’s not so appropriate for The Llama of Death, one of my less violent Gunn Zoo mysteries. On second thought, maybe I should rethink that last sentence. The corpses pile up pretty high in Llama, too, not that I ever meant that to happen. After all, the whole idea of writing a cozy was to tone down the violence and enjoy a few laughs with the zoo animals while my intrepid zookeeper/sleuth hunts around for a killer. Seems I forgot that killers keep killing, if only to cover up their tracks. Oh, well.

I’ve often thought I would have better luck keeping the blood to a minimum if I wrote according to a pre-established outline, as some novelists do. As you may have heard, the mystery writing community has long been split between outline writers and seat-of-the-pants writers. Before the first group writes a word, they create elaborate outlines of each chapter; what action takes place, where the action takes place (can’t write too many “indoor” chapters in a row), who’s doing what to whom and with what sort of lethal weapon, and the number of pages the chapter should be. That way, when the outline-type writers begin their book, all they have to do is expand on their outline. It’s a nice, safe, tried-and-true way to write anything, especially a mystery novel.

The seat-of-the-pantsers are another story. With only a vague idea of who killed whom and why and where and with what instrument of death, they plunge into their manuscript as if there’s no tomorrow. Therefore, everything that happens comes as a surprise to them. Miss Scarlet poisoned Colonel Mustard in the library? Holy smoke! I never saw that coming.

Guess which kind of writer I am.

Wrong. I’m both.

Before I started writing The Llama of Death I’d taken a trip to the Arizona Renaissance Faire, where I saw a young woman dressed in Renaissance Wench costume, leading a llama around. The wench looked bored, but the llama appeared to be in seventh heaven, because on his back sat an adorable little girl of about three years old. It was obvious by the llama’s expressive face that he adored children, but it was just as obvious that the human female leading him would have preferred life in prison to wrangling a llama at some dirty old Renaissance Faire.

Thus was born the idea for The Llama of Death.

As soon as I arrived home from the Faire, I began writing a complete outline for the book, Chapter One, Chapter Two, all the way through to Chapter Twenty Five. It took me about a week, but when I’d finished my outline, everything was there: the killer, the motive, the weapon, the clues, the red herrings, the characters, and the reason poor ol’ zookeeper Theodora “Teddy” Iona Esmerelda Bentley became involved in the investigation in the first place.

Bravely armed with my detailed outline, I began writing. I made it midway through Chapter Three before I threw the stupid thing out.

Stephen King once said, “If a writer can’t surprise himself, how can he surprise his readers?” In my own case, that turned out to be true. There wasn’t anything actually wrong with my first three chapters, because they contained every element a mystery novel needs. Victim dead on the first few pages. A plethora of colorful, Renaissance-clad characters, each with a reason to kill the victim (who believe me, deserved killing). A zoo full of adorable exotic animals (koalas, anyone?). A dumb-as-a-rock substitute sheriff who couldn’t find a killer if the killer stood right in front of him, smoking gun one hand, the other hand waving a red silk pennant emblazoned with I DID IT! in Old English script.

The Llama of DeathBut oh, my lord, those pages were dull. They were so… so… so outline. No delicious magic was happening, because you simply can’t outline magic.

Did you get that? You can’t outline magic.

When I’m not writing, I’m either volunteering at the Phoenix Zoo or teaching creative writing classes somewhere. Hypocritically enough, the first thing I teach my students is how to write an outline of their proposed novels. Why? Because it makes them feel more secure, less like they’re jumping into a well at midnight, handcuffed, and with a blindfold over their eyes. The next thing I teach them is to put their outline in a drawer and never look at it again. Simply to just go ahead and jump down that well, but with eyes wide open; I want my students to know what they’re getting into, which is something unbelievably terrifying.

It’s called — creation.

On the way down the well, something wonderful happens. The magic rises up to meet them. As the students fall into that midnight nowhere, ideas and visions come to them unfettered by the type of conscious, deliberate mind-think that created their dull little outlines. Instead, new characters introduce themselves and new ideas wink at them as they plummet through the dark.

And suddenly, that deep dark well – the well of creation – isn’t scary any more.

So, yeah, another year, another book. Thank God.

While I was plummeting down that well titled The Llama of Death, I had no idea one of the major characters would turn out to be a Mojave rattlesnake named Sssbyl. I didn’t know that a Shakespeare-spouting drama teacher would flounce around the Faire in tights. I also didn’t know that a holier-than-thou churchwoman was living in sin with (gasp!) the incompetent substitute sheriff.

And I certainly didn’t know that my silly little book would wind up getting rave reviews from Publishers Weekly (“Animal lore and human foibles spiced with a hint of evil.”) and Library Journal (“Set at a relaxed pace with abundant zoo filler, the title never strays into too-cute territory, instead presenting the real deal.”)

So now I’m beginning another book.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve written the outline of Desert Regret, put it away, and now — with eyes wide open – I’ve jumped down that deep dark well again, because that’s where the magic happens.