Mystery writer Barbara Neely wrote her first novel Blanche on the Lam while working a 60-hour-a-week, full-time job. The book became the first mystery novel by an African American woman to be published by a major publishing house in the 20th century. Neely wrote several other Blanche White mystery novels, which were re-released by Brash Books earlier this year.
Neely’s award-winning mystery books discuss race, gender and class issues, but they’re also rife with suspects, clues and twists. How did Neely keep focused on her writing while holding down a full-time job? She used a number of self-invented tools to keep herself organized and on track. Here are some of the tools she shared in the June 1993 issue of The Writer.
Neely filled out a 5” by 8” index card for each character in her book, listing name, age, background, likes and dislikes, visual appearance and other necessary information. This helped her instantly jump into a scene when she had time to write.
Neely used an “afterline,” or a brief outline of what she’d written so far, to keep track of where she was in the novel. “Reading your afterline can both shorten the time it takes to get back into the book, and oil your imagination about what comes next,” she says.
What happens when you have inspiration to write a scene that comes much later in the novel? Create a scene bank that helps organize these out-of-sequence scenes, suggests Neely. She created a table of contents for her bank so when she was ready to include a future scene, she’d know exactly where to find it.
Neely developed a list of what “offstage characters” were doing at key points in her novel. This helped her create alibis and establish suspects.
“As I worked my way into the novel, I found that I generated as many questions as I answered,” Neely says. While writing her book, she kept a running list of her questions and read them before bed each night and again when she woke up in the morning. “I visualized them simmering in a big pot in the back of my brain,” she says.
Every few days, Neely would visualize her story as a published novel. She even wrote jacket copy for her unfinished book in an attempt to motivate herself. “Thinking of it as a finished project helped me believe that it would really be so someday,” she writes.
Neely also advised part-time novelists to accept the help of others: Her “readers circle” of friends and acquaintances answered questions and provided feedback about the manuscript. A writers’ group helped provide constructive criticism, but Neely found it also provided motivation: “During the years of trying to complete my novel, the writers’ group served as a firm hand at my back, affectionately pressing me forward…If, like me, you find that a bit of pressure helps keep you going, a writers’ group is a perfect prod.”
Don’t have a writers’ group in your area? “Start one yourself,” Neely says.
—Nicki Porter served as the editor of The Writer from 2016 to 2022; she previously served as its associate editor. Before helming The Writer, she worked as a food editor for Madavor Media and America’s Test Kitchen. She’s also written for a number of publications and spoken at writing conferences across the country. Learn more at nickiporter.com.Originally Published