Showing posts with label plotting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label plotting. Show all posts

13 March 2018

The Plot Thickens

Welcome Sherry Harris

Sherry Harris, author of a cozy amateur-sleuth mystery series, is our guest today on SleuthSayers. In addition to writing the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries, Sherry is vice president of Sisters in Crime National and immediate past president of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Her first novel, Tagged For Death, was a finalist for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her fifth novel, I Know What You Bid Last Summer, came out from Kensington on February 27th, and she has more books under contract. I've been lucky enough to work with Sherry for a few years, and I'm happy to let her share her thoughts on plotting and plot holes– evil, evil plot holes– with you today.

— Barb Goffman

The Plot Thickens
by Sherry Harris

Plotting is not something that comes naturally to me. It reminds me too much of outlining papers for school. No fun. What’s an author to do?

Since the second book in my Sarah Winston Garage Sale series, Barb Goffman has been my independent editor. One of the many things she’s done to improve my writing is to encourage me to plot. When I gave her my sixth book to edit last spring I expected the usual notes on upping this or that. What she gave me included a list of TWENTY-SIX questions that I hadn’t answered in the manuscript. TWENTY-SIX!
book 1 in the series

That meant I had a lot of rewriting to do. We all know that saying, all writing is rewriting, but this time it was crazy. Not only that, but she said she’d figured out who did it near the beginning of the manuscript. Barb had never said that to me before. And she had one more bit of advice: Maybe you should sketch out your plot before your write the next book.

Ugh!

How does my editor at Kensington figure in to all this? Some editors want a five-to-ten page synopsis or outline before they sign off on a book. For the last four books, I’ve only turned in the briefest ideas – some only a couple of sentences, some a paragraph. I turned in a synopsis after I’ve written the book – it’s a lot easier that way.

When I started book seven I attempted to take Barb’s advice, so I wrote out a page of who did it and why they did it. I referred back to that page as the book progressed. I have to admit it was helpful because if I started off on a tangent, the page would keep me on track. This time the manuscript came back with fourteen questions. And most of them weren’t difficult to fix, so I didn’t have to spend a ton of time rewriting. Whew! Maybe there is something to this whole plotting thing.

Sherry's latest book
Now I’m starting the eighth book. When I wrote my Kensington editor it was more of a “Hey, I want to try this. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done in a cozy before.” He said, “Go for it.”

But now I’m facing the blank computer screen. I’ve started to try to plot. The nugget of information that leads me down the writing path has been a bit different in each book. Sometimes I start with the victim, sometimes the type of crime. This time I know who the killer is, but I don’t know who they killed or why.

I’ve been making a list of potential victims and writing why after each one. It’s a very different process for me and so far I keep drawing a blank. Instead I’ve been sketching out other aspects of the book – things like who are the suspects (which may sound crazy considering I still don’t know who dies), where Sarah is in her personal life, what time of year is it, what kind of garage sale will she deal with. While I do that I keep wondering if I can pull off what I want to and then circle back to the list. I stare at the list and then play a game of solitaire. A call to Barb to work through all of this is imminent.

Any advice? How do you manage your plot?

20 February 2018

Make Them Suffer--If You Can

by Barb Goffman

Authors in the mystery community are generally known for being nice folks. Helpful, welcoming, even pleasant. But when it comes to their work, successful writers are mean. They have to be.

An author who likes her characters too much might be inclined to make things easy for them. The sleuth quickly finds the killer. She's never in any real danger. In fact, there's no murder at all in the story or book. Just an attempted murder, but the sleuth's best friend pulls through just fine.

These scenarios may be all well and good in Happily Ever After Land. But in Crime Land, they result in a book without tension that's probably going to be way too short. That's why editors often tell mystery authors to make their characters suffer.

Yet that can be easier said than done. If you're basing a character on someone you don't like, then you might have a grand time writing every punch, broken bone, and funeral. But not every character can be based on an enemy. And sometimes characters seem to plead from the page, "Don't do that to me."

It's happened to me. I started writing a certain story a few weeks ago. I had a great first page, and then I got stuck. No matter how I tried to write the next several sentences, they didn't work right. I walked away from the computer. Sometimes I find a break can help a writing logjam. But not this time. In the end, I found I simply couldn't write the story I'd planned because, you see, that plan had included the death of a cat. And I just couldn't do it.
Don't do it!

The publication I was aiming the story for would have been fine with a story that included a dead animal. But I wasn't fine with it. And I knew my regular readers wouldn't like it either. Sure animals die in real life, and sometimes they die in fiction too. But those deaths should be key to the story. The Yearling wouldn't work if the deer didn't die. And Old Yeller needed the dog to die too.

I'm going to refer back to these very points if and when another story I've written involving animal jeopardy gets published. Sometimes that jeopardy is necessary for the story. And that's the key question: is it necessary? In the story I was writing about the cat it wasn't, and I knew it in my gut, even if I didn't know it in my head at first. That's why I couldn't bring myself to write the story as planned. Instead, with the help of a friend, I found another way to make the story work, one without any harm to animals.

It's not the first time something like that has happened to me. About six years ago I wrote a story called "Suffer the Little Children" (published in my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even). This is the first story of mine involving a female sheriff name Ellen Wescott. She's smart and honest and way different than I'd planned. Originally she was supposed to be a corrupt man. But as I was thinking through the plot during my planning stage, I heard that male sheriff say in my head, "Don't make me do that. I don't want to do that." Spooky, right?

Sometimes characters
just have to be nice

While part of me immediately responded, "too bad,"--he had to suffer--another part of me knew that when characters talk back like that, it's because my subconscious knows what I'm planning isn't going to work. Either it won't work for the readers, as with the cat I couldn't kill. Or it won't work for the plot, as was the case with this sheriff story. So my corrupt male sheriff became an honorable female sheriff, and large parts of the plot changed. My female sheriff faced obstacles, but she was a good person. That was a compromise my gut could live with.

Readers, I'd love to hear about stories and books you've enjoyed that involved a plot event you didn't love, yet you accepted it because you knew it was important to the story. And writers, I'd love to hear about times you couldn't bring yourself to write something. What was it? And why?


28 November 2017

The Intersection of Plotting and Cursing
– Rated R for Language

by Barb Goffman

"Oh fuck. I miscounted."

That was the essence of a text message I sent a few minutes ago, upon being reminded that my next SleuthSayers post was supposed to be uploaded in the next hour and forty-five minutes. I had thought I was scheduled for next Tuesday, not for tomorrow.

My cursing amused my dear friend Leigh, who had sent the friendly reminder. And it made me think a few things, first being how one phrase could be used in so many situations and as the starting point of so many stories:

"Oh fuck. I miscounted," Jessica said, holding up the positive pregnancy stick. This is the conflict from which a thriller is born in which Jessica goes on the run, determined to raise her child free from the murderous gang her boyfriend is a part of.

"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the attorney who put a decimal in the wrong place, and now had to notify a client that he screwed up some documents, costing the client millions. This is the conflict that results in the attorney realizing that if he's going to be disbarred and have his life ruined, he might as well make the best of it, so he steals all his clients' money and goes on the run. That's another thriller.

"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the hit man when he ran out of bullets. This is the conflict that prompts a thriller in which a hit man is sent after a hit man for failure to get the original job done right. (Wait, a hit man sent after another hit man who screwed up--that's the basis for Grosse Point Blank. Great movie. But I digress. ...)


These are all interesting premises, but they're also all thrillers. Couldn't the phrase be used in other types of crime novels? Especially if it's part of the story, not the source of the originating conflict? Let's see ...

"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the thief to his partner, hoping the guy bought the story of why the bank job proceeds hadn't been split evenly.  Damn, that's another thriller.

"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the cop on the witness stand, revealing he screwed up his review of some evidence thus tanking the case, making the prosecutor wonder if the cop is on the take. This could be a legal thriller. Damn, there's the word thriller again. But it's a legal thriller, so it's a bit different.

"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the PI upon realizing he'd been videotaping the goings on in an apartment on the third floor of a building instead of the fourth all day, and as a result he'd missed the payoff he'd been hired to document. Okay, this is better. A PI novel isn't necessarily a thriller.

"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the burglar after he'd broken three fingers, two toes, and one tooth in his quest to steal an expensive ring, only to realize after he made it home that he'd grabbed the wrong ring and would have to do the job again. Now we're getting somewhere. This could be a caper.

"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the gray-haired grandma, explaining how she'd made eight salads for her house guests, seven with peanut dressing and one oil and vinegar, but had accidentally set the wrong salad down in front of the guest with the fatal allergy. Oops.  I'm tempted to say this could be a cozy, but the fuck throws the book into traditional mystery territory. Real-life grandmas might say fuck, but in cozy novels--nope. That's not gonna happen.


"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the man when confronted with evidence of his bigamy, right before both his angry wives start kicking him in the ... I don't know what kind of book this is, but I know I want to read it.

Okay. That's nine solid plot ideas stemming from "Oh fuck. I miscounted." I wish I could come up with a tenth, but I have just a few minutes before I have to get this post uploaded, and I still have to figure out photos to go with it. Aaaah. So, what about you, dear reader? Can you come up with a solid tenth for me?  Bonus points if you can figure out how to work the phrase into a cozy.

20 November 2017

Plotters and Pantsers

by Steve Liskow

Several years ago, I sat on a panel with three other writers and one of the patrons asked if we outlined or not. I said "yes," and it set off a debate that filled the rest of the evening and did little except confuse the poor woman who asked the question in the first place.

Saturday, I conducted a workshop on plotting and the same issue held the center stage for most of the afternoon. I think it's an important question, but there's not one right answer. Writing is a personal action tied to your own rhythms, thought process and voice. About half the writers I admire do outline and an equal number don't. Both approaches have advantages.

Dennis Lehane and Tess Gerritsen don't outline. Gerritsen writes (or used to write) her first drafts in fountain pen in a notebook over the course of about seven months and revised for the rest of the year. Lehane used to write longhand on legal pads and type his work into the computer at the end of the day. He said that if he hit writer's block (a topic for another day), it meant he'd made a wrong choice somewhere and he had to re-read everything to find it. He would make all the necessary changes from that point on and continue. I don't know if his process has changed now that he also works in television.

Robert Crais got his start in television, writing for Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, and others. He says he still pins index cards with ideas on a cork board in his office and sorts them until he knows where he's going. Maybe having to write quickly and know the good guys will survive at the end makes that necessary. Mark Twain didn't outline but Charles Dickens did.

When I started writing (without an outline), I produced nearly 300 pages of a first novel over the course of about a year and a half. Then I got lost. I went back and discovered I had over 125 characters, many appearing only once, and lots of dialogue that went nowhere. I scrapped about 90% of what I'd written because it was all tangents and false starts. What was left looked sort of like an outline, and I've used a refined version of that approach ever since.

My thought process is far from linear (my friends prefer to call it "delusional") so plotting is hard for me. I also tend to use several point of view characters to help with pacing and to keep information away from certain people. Outlines help me keep track of who knows what. It also helps me find recurring images or themes to use along the way. I usually have a general idea of the ending, but the outline helps me figure out how to get there. It's sort of like MapQuest with a few wrong turns.

My outline is closer to a story-board, a list of scenes that name the POV character, the setting and the important action or change that takes place in that scene, all in three to five typed lines. I like to have about fifty scenes in what seems to be the right order before I write the first real text, but I never have them right. I add scenes, delete others, and move many around to get the pacing right and strengthen the cause and effect connections. That list is both my outline and my first draft. By the time I finish the first full prose version of the story, I've revised that list at least a dozen times. I think my record is 27. By the time I have the list and the completed first typed text, most of my plotting is done. Everything after it is revision.

That revision often involves going back and adding false leads or red herrings to make the ending a surprise. Occasionally, I find a more surprising ending along the way. Chris Knopf (I don't think he outlines) once told me that he writes with several possible endings in mind. When he decides which one will pack the most punch, he goes back and changes the details that lead elsewhere. I suspect other writers do that, too. I assigned Huckleberry Finn in my American lit classes for decades, and I still maintain that Twain added the scene with the dead man in the floating house (chapter 9) when he realized that Pap was an unresolved problem at the end.

People who don't outline have a sense of pacing and probably know their characters well enough (maybe in a series?) to understand where they will go and what they will do next. And, again, there's always revision. At that plotting workshop last week, I cited Jack Bickham's book Scene & Structure
with his explanation of scene and sequel. The sequel is a reflection on what has happened and what to do next. It helps with pacing and it gives pantsers a place to figure out where they will go next. They can even delete the passage later if they want to.

If you outline and it locks you up, toss it away and try writing your first scene. That will show you what your second scene should be. That will give you your third scene, and so on.

If you write from the seat of your pants and keep getting stuck, try an outline. My scene list is usually about six pages long and takes me anywhere from two to six weeks to write. Not only does it give me the action, it shows me what research I might have to do. Maybe that's another topic for a rainy day.

Remember, the only wrong way to write is not writing.

07 September 2016

Enter the Villain

by Robert Lopresti

I'm not going to tell you the author or title of the book I am discussing today, but I will say that it was not written by any past or present SleuthSayer.

The book is a first novel, much anticipated, and written in a particular style.  It is a style I like and I was much looking forward to it.  And everything was going well for the first third of the book.  Then a new character walked in wearing a top covered with neon letters spelling out I'M THE KILLER.

Okay, I am exaggerating.  No hat.  No neon letters.  But as soon as this guy walked in I said: that's the killer.

I am not a reader who feels a need to guess the murderer or feels disappointed if it's too easy or it's too hard.  Most crime novels I read are not even whodunits. But this rankled.

It got worse.  A hundred pages later the heroes received the benefit of what I call an unearned clue.  They visited a place for reasons unconnected to crime, and chatted with a stranger.  When the stranger found out they were cops it was "Oh, by the way..." and out came a big hint that pointed straight to top-hat-man.  They didn't recognize it.

By J.J. at the English language Wikipedia
At this point I kept reading for only one reason: Either this is the best red herring in the history of crime fiction or it is a disaster.


Well, it was a disaster.

The editor - a well-known one in the mystery field - should be embaressed. He or she (I'm not telling) should have spotted the first-time author's mistakes and  insisted that they be fixed, which would not have been that hard.  Instead we have what looks like contempt for the reader, which is never good for future sales.

I checked the blurbs on the cover of the paperback edition.  Only one was from a review.  The rest, and they were plentiful, were from well-known mystery writers.  Perhaps they liked the book, but I suspect they liked the author more.

Enough whining.  Perhaps I can provide a useful writing tip.  Why did I suspect the killer was the killer as soon as he walked in?

Because he had no other plot-related reason for being there at all.  He strolled into his boss' office while the cops were interviewing him, got a detailed description from the author, and was introduced.  No immediate explanation for why he belonged in the story.  And so, my alarm went off.

My penance for that author?  Read five Agatha Christie's.  She had her limits, but nobody could hide a killer or a clue in plain sight with her skill.

So what disappoints you in a mystery?

22 August 2015

My Novel is a Mess (How to survive the chaos point in your novel)

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

Yes, I’m at that point.  Writing to a specific word count, three-quarters written, and my eleventh novel is an unqualified mess. 

If you are a veteran writer like me, you say it’s not going to happen this time.  But it does.
EVERY FREAKING TIME.

Here’s why:  
The Linear Approach:

This time, you are going to write linear, by gawd.  One chapter after another, in mathematical order, until you reach the end.  Each chapter will have an outline.

But here’s the problem with that.  You signed a contract that specifies a pretty exact word count.  Is your story going to magically end at the precise word count you need?

Damn straight, it’s not.  It’s going to meander along, minding its own business, taking little side trips, refusing to stay on course.

Because, of course, outlines are just that.  They’re a guide.  You don’t know whether the story is really going to pull together with sufficient motivation and all the goodies until you actually write the thing.  And here’s what happens along the way:

You need a new character to make the plot work.  You just thought of a fab new subplot.  Orlando doesn’t work as a side-setting.  You need to move it to Phoenix, and that means a whole lot of changes…

And before you know it, you’re scribbling on the outline, adding this, subtracting that, and it hits you in the face. Your book is a mess.

Scene plus Scene

I write comedy, and comedy is finicky.  Those good lines come when they come, and you have to get them down fast.  Sometimes they’ll present themselves to me when I’m in a restaurant.  Sometimes, when I’m already in bed.  (Yes, I keep a pen and paper on my bedside table. Ditto, by the loo.)

I always have an outline.  But when writing a highly comedic book, you have to write those funny scenes when you are inspired.  This means hopping around the timeline, writing the scene that works for you today, thinking of another great line, hopping back to an old scene to insert it, when you should be moving forward.  

Which brings you to this point: the important scenes are written, and they present themselves like completed sections of a jigsaw puzzle.  Little isolated islands without any bridges to each other.  You need to find the pieces that are missing and write the bits to connect them.

Because Sister, your novel is a mess.

That’s the point I’m at now.  The comedy is there.  The conflicts are in place.  The climax is written.  Now I need to take that kaleidoscope and move those pieces into the pattern that works best.

How to cope?  I think the best thing you can do is accept that this is going to happen.  Unless you are a robotic automaton lacking inspiration, you are going to veer from the plan more than once. 

At some point, every novel you write is going to be a mess. 

My advice: just accept it.  And understand that part of your role as writer is that of clean-up artist. 

That’s where I stand today, staring at a story that looks like a tornado just ran through it.

Time for the cleanup crew. And a healthy wee dram.

Melodie Campbell writes funny novels, including the multi-award winning book, The Goddaughter's Revenge.  You can buy them in Chapters, Barnes &Noble,  and all the usual suspects online.

11 August 2015

No Plot. Mo' Problem.

by Melissa Yi

Do you like to plot your story, point by point?

Fantasy writer Tim Powers advocated this method at my Writers of the Future winners’ workshop. He outlines his novel meticulously, sells it on proposal, and then never gets writers’ block because he just follows the outline he already wrote.

Sounds perfect, right? Except I like to just run to the computer and type madly, before my kids wake up and/or I have to run to work. Sometimes, I have almost no idea what came out of my fingers, except it was up to 1000 words and I’m done for the day.
My kids need supervision.

It means I’m a pantser (as in “flying by the seat of”). I let my characters shoot off their mouths, and possibly other body parts. They run into and out of danger. It’s a lot of fun. My characters really do surprise me, and my subconscious brain comes up with a lot of bizarre plot twists.

So the good news is that I’m 66,000 words into my latest Hope Sze novel, Human Remains.

The bad news is that I haven’t decided on a plot.

For me, if I don’t have a good plot, I don’t have the backbone of my mystery. Even though Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith teach that character and setting are the keys of mystery, especially important in a series character, I just can’t get a handle on a book when I’m constantly spinning new plot points and antagonists. It’s CRAZY.

Usually, I end up punching a bunch of words out, throwing half of them in the garbage, then stitching the survivors into a slamming good story, but it takes me so much time and energy that I spend a year or longer writing each mystery and I’m wrung out by the end of it.

So I probably should plot more.

What about you? Do you like to write into the darkness, or craft each scene in advance?A lil’ bit o’ both? Or just check out some illustrious suggestions from Jan Grape, which I discovered after I’d already written this column….

20 June 2015

Killing People is what I Do


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)
 

“Why would you ever want to write about murder?” said the horrified relative.  “Why not write a nice little romance?”

Why indeed?

As I quickly added another relative to kill in my next book (you would be shocked how often that happens….) it occurred to me that there were many reasons to write about murder.

1.. It’s the challenge of creating the clever puzzle.  Plotting a mystery is like playing a chess game.  You always have to think several moves ahead.  Your reader is begging you to challenge them, and is working to beat you – meaning to guess the killer before your detective does - to the end.

2.  Plot is paramount.  Murder mysteries start with action – usually a murder.  Yes, characterization is important, and particularly motivation.  But murder is by nature an action, and thus something happens in the book you are writing.  And quite often, it happens again and again.

3.  It’s important.  This is murder, after all.  We’re not talking about a simple threat or theft.  A lot is at stake.  Murder is the final act.  The worst that can happen.  The end of it all.
 
4.  It’s a place to put all your darkest fantasies.  There are a few people I’ve wanted to kill in my life.  They did me wrong.  And while I do have a bit of a reputation for recklessness, I value my freedom more.  So what I can’t do in reality, I relish doing in fiction.

5.  Finally – it’s fun. This is the part I don’t say in mixed company (meaning non-writers and relatives.)  I can’t explain exactly why it’s fun – you’ll have to trust me on this part.  But plotting to do away with characters in highly original ways is a real power trip.  I’m smiling just thinking about it.

Of course, I can understand where some of the relative angst comes from.  In A PURSE TO DIE FOR, a gathering of relatives for a funeral results in the death of one or two. 

In THE GODDAUGHTER’S REVENGE, a cousin of Gina’s does her wrong.  So she does him back, in a particularly crafty and oh-so-satisfying way.

It was entirely accidental, that use of relatives.  Honest.  I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular.

 Not much I wasn’t.

(You can follow Melodie at www.melodiecampbell.com.  Better still, buy her Goddaughter books.  It's an offer you can't refuse. Especially since her maiden name was 'Offer' - not kidding.)



Available at all the usual retail locations, including Amazon

12 February 2015

Write What You Know

by Eve Fisher

"Write what you know!"  That old cliche gets trotted out regularly.  Now usually it's meant as an encouragement, but it's also used to set up (and even justify) limitations. I've had people seriously ask how I could teach World History without having visited every country in the world.  I've talked to writers who seriously said that they couldn't write about a ski bum or a serial killer or a heartbroken mother of a dying child because they'd never experienced that.

My response to the first is, "Does a medieval historian have to go to the Middle Ages?"  [Perennial note to self:  get a Tardis.  NOW.]

And my response to the second is, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, and Flannery O'Connor.

Or Terence:

"I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me."
                        --Terence, The Self-Tormenter (163 BCE)

Or Walt Whitman:

"I am large; I contain multitudes."
                       --Walt Whitman, Song of Myself (1892 CE)

We are (almost) all born with the same emotional equipment.  Love, jealousy, envy, happiness, sadness, depression, joy, verve, hatred, need, greed, etc.  You want to know how someone else feels?  Pay attention.  To them and yourself.  Look inside and amplify (or de-amplify) as necessary. Everything that happens starts inside the human heart and mind.  If we're lucky, not all of it gets out, except in fiction.
NOTE:  "Just because it leaps into your head doesn't mean you have to DO it," is an observation I keep trying to share with my friends at the pen.  One of the main differences between (most) writers and (most) criminals is that writers have the ability to delay gratification.  (Per word, per piece, perhaps....) 
But seriously, think about writers:  Besides absolute loners like the Brontes and Emily Dickinson, there are many others who wrote amazingly atypical stuff.  In real life, Conan Doyle had far more in common with Dr. Watson than Mr. Holmes.  By all accounts Margaret Mitchell was neither a bitch nor lived during the Civil War.  Elizabeth George is neither a viscount nor a working class frump, and she's never lived in England.  Patricia Highsmith never actually killed anybody, although I understand that some people wanted to kill her.  Ray Bradbury never drove a car.  Rex Stout was happily married (at least the 2nd time), and fairly thin.  Our own Janice Law has never been a male gay artist of extremely unconventional genius with a liking for rough trade.  (That or she has the most fantastic disguise in history.)  It's called imagination.  And observation.  And mulling things over.  And wondering...  That's why we write.

Look, there's nothing new under the sun.  Humans are humans (including Neanderthals).  Everyone on Jerry Springer could be any of us, given the wrong circumstances and a complete lack of self-control in public.  There are really no new plots, which is a godsend to those of us who scramble to figure out not whodunnit but how the heck they did it.  My story "Sophistication" used a 4,000 year old plot device and I'm damned proud of it.  And if the news is quiet, and you just can't think of a reason why someone would commit a violent act, consider Steven Pinker's breakdown of the Five Inner Demons from his book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature":
  • Practical violence (means to an end)
  • Dominance violence (the quest for authority, prestige, power, glory, etc.)
  • Revenge 
  • Sadism 
  • Ideology 
There's a list to haunt your dreams.

James Joyce,
painted by Patrick Tuohy
in Paris, 1924
So we have all the emotions, we can crib the plots, what do we really need?  Education.  Facts.  And here's where we are the luckiest generation in history.  You can research almost ANYTHING on the internet.  I don't have to be James Joyce, sitting in Paris, writing frantic letters back home to Dublin, trying to nail down details of Dublin, June 16, 1904.  (Although there's worse things to be, that's for sure.  I wouldn't want his failing eyesight, but otherwise...)  I can find out almost anything I want to know about guns, poisons, crime, statistics, spyware, malware, anything-ware online.  I can read old diaries, old letters, old cuneiform, and go to an infinity of historical websites dedicated to Life In ___ (fill in the blank).  It's out there. And I have done it:  I am proud to say that my most recent sale to AHMM (thank you, Linda Landrigan!) is "Miss West's First Case", set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in post-WW2 Vienna, and I did ALL the research either on-line or amongst my books.  

Write what you know?  Honey, we can know anything we want.  We just have to put it together. Excuse me, I have to get writing!


03 September 2014

Two Plots, No Waiting

by Robert Lopresti

I recently came across a novel and a short story which used the same plot structure, one that I have seen once before.  I am wondering if anyone can point out more examples of this scheme.

The current samples are the novel Parlor Games, by Maryka Biaggio, and the story "Jaguar" by Joesph Wallace, which appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  I recommend them both.  The novel is the life story of a female con artist as she travels the world at the turn of the century.  "Jaguar" tells of a forest guide in Belize who joins up with an American tourist to escape a violent home life.  But a traveling female main character is not the similarity that interests me.

You may have heard Lawrence Block's comment that every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end -- but not necessarily in that order.  The structure of these two tales is such that they begin and end in the middle.  How does that work?

Well, let's say that a story had six parts.  The traditional way to present them is in chronological order : 1 2 3 4 5 6.  (I have put the second half in bold to make what follows clearer.) 

Now maybe you want to follow Larry Block's suggestion of not beginning at the beginning.  You might rearrange the story: 2 1 3 4 5 6.   That is, you start with the action under way and then go back to "catch up" with what you missed.  After that chronological order takes over. 

But the tales I am discussing use a more radical approach: 4 1 5 2 6 3.  In other words, you start halfway through the story, go back to the beginning, and then alternate.  In effect you have two plots taking turns, one that will end where the other one  begins. 

Am I making any sense?  Let's try another example.  The first time I came across this structure was in The Dispossessed, a great science fiction novel by Ursula K. LeGuin.  LeGuin wanted (I assume) to show us two contrasting societies.  One  is an anarchist organization that was given their planet's inhabitable moon as a way of preventing their revolution from taking over  the  home planet.

The book begins with Shevek, a scientist from the anarchist moon, getting ready to return to the home planet, the first person ever to do so.  The next chapter begins with his childhood.  And so the pieces alternate, showing Shevek's visit in contrast with his upbringing on the moon.  The latter ends with his decision to visit the other world, bringing us back to the beginning of the book.

Parlor Games starts with the con woman on trial.  Then we see her childhood in the Upper Peninsula.  Back to the trial.  On to her early adventures in Chicago... And so on.

"Jaguar" alternates between Ana's first day in America, and her meeting with the tourist who winds up taking her there.  This structure allows the author to cleverly conceal some plot points until he wants you to see them.

I planned to ask you if you knew any more examples of this plot structure when I realized that I had a contributed a modest sample.  My story "Why," (AHMM, May 2011) has the structure  3 1 4 2.  Here is part of  what I said about the story when it was published:

I wrote a story with two endings. In one finale, a character had an ah-ha moment, an epiphany if you will. In the second ending we see him reacting to that realization. Originally I went with chronological order, but I decided to end with the bigger bang, even though it meant losing an exit line I really liked.

At the time I didn't make the connection to LeGuin's novel. 

Can anyone name more examples?


08 December 2011

Smart Writers and Stupid Writers


Janice Trecker


All Gaul may have been divided into three parts, as any beginning Latin student knows, but as far as I am concerned, all writers are divided into two groups - smart writers and stupid writers. Alas, I am firmly, and I might add unrepentantly, in the latter group at least when writing fiction. Even mystery fiction.

We all know the smart writers. They plan ahead. They have file cards of characters' personality features, elaborate back stories, and flow charts. Although it may be apocryphal, I rather like the story about Agatha Christie lying in her long British bathtub eating apples, until, the top of the tub lined with cores, she had worked out another of her fiendishly complex plots. That's my idea of a smart writer, one who leaves nothing to chance and has a clear map of where the story is going and who's going to do what to whom.

I find this sort of planning impossible, even though I happen to live with a smart writer. My sportswriter husband was capable, in the old days when dictation was necessary, of dictating a sports story, complete with all punctuation, from a few notes in his reporter's book. I found this astonishing, given my own troubles even with pen, paper, and typewriter. His was a hard act to follow, and perhaps you can understand why I didn't start writing until I was in my thirties.

And then, despite his good example, I turned out to be a thoroughly stupid writer. I get an idea, and because at least the beginnings of beginnings are easy, I plunge in. A character whispers in my ear, and I write down what he or she says. They tend to be obsessives with homicide in mind, although I get a few nice folk who are shocked at evil and want to set the world to rights.

The first few pages go swimmingly. There is really nothing better than starting a story (or a novel) with a flourish. How clever one feels, how creative. But then comes a difficulty, The Plot. While a smart writer would have looked into this little detail early on, the stupid writer trusts to the beneficence of the Muse, who, like all divas and goddesses, has her off days. Story comes to a halt. Writer goes for a walk in winter, a swim in summer, a sleep in the evening. And hopes.

But the Providence, as the Scots used to say, that looks after bairns and drunkards, has a soft spot for stupid writers. Gradually the story unfolds. And this is good, this is interesting. Every morning the stupid writer gets up with a little more material and she has to write if she is going to discover how the story comes out.

Forget all the writerly delays, the websites to check out, the email to answer - how modern technology has expanded the pencil sharpening and paper straightening of yesteryear. But if I want the end of the story, I have to get to work.
I find this salutary, though it may not be the case with every stupid writer. But I really aspired to be a reader, not a writer, and I must confess that if I knew the whole plot, the victim, the murderer, the exact placement of the crucial chase, the romantic moment, etc, etc, I would never sit down at the computer.

I find such smart certainty boring in the nth degree, while discovery is interesting and gets the juices going. I like to be surprised by everything from a character's sexual orientation to the identity of the killer, though I must admit that I left the latter very long in The Lost Diaries of Iris Weed. I reached 260 pages and was still dithering between two plausible candidates, but at least my work day wasn't boring.

Of course, there are disadvantages to being a stupid writer. Certain classic forms of the mystery are a closed book as far as I am concerned. Even thinking about a locked room puzzle gives me a headache and anything involving railroad or train schedules or precise timing is out of the question. Who can think that far ahead?

Plots can take a long time to resolve, too. I started a story called The Great Choreographer years ago and it only fell into shape earlier this spring. I have a suitcase full of money (strictly literary, of course) that offers all sorts of possibilities but has not yet found a good home. A story that I just finished considered two different victims and a couple of different murderous operandi before it reached its final form. This is not efficient.

Still, stupid writing has its advantages. Characters that develop as they go along are, I think, less liable to be easy stereotypes, and if plots take a while to develop, they sometimes provide nice surprises along the lines of 'I didn't think he'd ever do that!'

In any case, I suspect one writes as one must. And if one writes to know what one is thinking, then one always has a good strong motive to get back to the writing desk.