Demystifying Intricately Plotted Mysteries: 5 Questions for Sherry Thomas

A sound understanding of story structure is what will allow you to do all the rest and still maintain propulsive narrative power.” –Sherry Thomas

Sherry Thomas is the author of nineteen novels across multiple genres, including the acclaimed Lady Sherlock mystery series, a YA fantasy trilogy that began with The Burning Sky, and more than a dozen romance novels, which have twice won her the Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA(R) Award. Born in China, she learned English as a second language.

On Saturday, May 4th, Sherry Thomas is teaching an online class for the WLT called “Demystifying Intricately Plotted Mysteries.” In this class, you’ll learn how to build a well-paced, well-structured mystery organically by drawing on what you already know about storytelling and characters-in-conflict.

Here’s what Sherry shared with us about her process and her upcoming class:

Scribe: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you write? How did you come to writing?

Sherry Thomas: I write all the genre things, I guess, except horror and westerns. I’ve written romance, fantasy, mystery, wuxia (Chinese martial arts epics), and sci-fi, mostly for the adult fiction market, but four of my titles have been published for YA readership.

I came to writing from the merest coincidence. When I was a young stay-at-home mom, one day, during my toddler’s naptime, I read a romance that infuriated me. By the time my husband came home that evening, I’d made up my mind that I was going to write romance. It was one of the most consequential decisions of my life. It could also have been a passing whim, except that to everyone’s surprise—mine, in particular—I followed up that decision with action.

That was back in the Jurassic Age when traditional publishing was the only viable path. It took me eight years of apprenticeship to get my first New York contract for historical romance. From there I branched out to everything else and these days I spend most of my time writing the Lady Sherlock historical mysteries.

Scribe: In your own work, how do you approach overcoming the challenges that come with writing, be it writer’s block or craft or business-related challenges?

ST: Thankfully, while I’ve had plenty of writer’s fatigue—I tell newer writers that if they’ve never fallen asleep writing their own books, then they’ve never been a professional writer!—I’ve never suffered from writer’s block. My main challenge as a writer is that I have zero ability to outline. If I attempt to figure out how a book will move and develop beforehand, it would be exactly the same as if I tried to practice x-ray vision on a brick wall. So I start from whatever nuggets of ideas and work in iterations. It’s not a fast process, but it is a functional process and it allows me to excuse my game playing as time necessary for ideas to percolate through my subconscious.

In terms of business-related challenges, I realized early on that I’m no businesswoman. I can read a spreadsheet and whatnot, but I have very little interest in doing my own A/B tests, polling my readers, or learning the ins and outs of Facebook/Amazon advertising. I forget about social media for months on end. Not to mention I can’t write fast enough to catch any trends. So as much as I admire, with my jaw on the floor, nimbler writers who know how to analyze and strategize—and pivot to the market—I’ve pretty much just written books and prayed that they’ll find readership.

Scribe: Has there been a moment of epiphany in terms of your work, when you thought, “This is it! Now I know what I’m doing?” How long did that feeling last?

ST: Yes! During my 8-year apprenticeship, I wrote 5 various manuscripts. And then one day, I sat down with my first manuscript and thought wow, this sucks, but I still like the basic idea. So I kept only the premise and did a complete rewrite. That re-written manuscript—a historical romance–got me my current agent and my first contract. So I seriously thought, this is it, I’ve learned everything there is to learn about writing romances.

I don’t blame myself for thinking that way. It was a really good revision and it was eight long years and a lot of words written during those years. And then I had to write my next romance—my first ever under contract. When I received a 16-page single-space editorial letter from my editor, I threw out the entire draft. And the idea that I’d learned all there was to learn about writing romances.

I went on to have just as huge problems in the process of writing my next two books. They all turned out well in the end, but my editor must have gained a lot of white hairs in the meanwhile. Looking back, however, this—even more than my 8-year apprentice on my own–was the most important period in my training as a writer. Because without ever realizing it, it was thanks to all the drastic rewrites of this era that I learned the basics of story structure.

Scribe: What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?

ST:  I used to give 2 pieces of advice to writers:

1. read the best stories you can find and aim to be just as good but in your way;

2. read unfavorable reviews of your favorite books, so you know what to expect when your turn comes.

But now, looking back at my own struggles, I would add 3) learn story structure ASAP! 😀

Scribe: What is one thing that people will take away from this class?

ST: Story structure! A sound understanding of story structure is what will allow you to do all the rest and still maintain propulsive narrative power.

Thanks, Sherry!

Click here to learn more about Sherry Thomas’s upcoming class.

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