Showing posts with label plots. Show all posts
Showing posts with label plots. Show all posts

24 February 2018

How long should we write?
Bad Girl confronts the hard question

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

Is there an age at which we should stop writing novels? Philip Roth thought so. In his late seventies, he stopped writing because he felt his best books were behind him, and any future writing would be inferior. (His word.)

A colleague, Barbara Fradkin, brought this to my attention the other day, and it started a heated discussion.

Many authors have written past their prime. I can name two (P.D. James and Mary Stewart) who were favourites of mine. But their last few books weren’t all that good, in my opinion. Perhaps too long, too ponderous; plots convoluted and not as well conceived…they lacked the magic I associated with those writers. I was disappointed. And somewhat embarrassed.

What an odd reaction. I was embarrassed for my literary heroes, that they had written past their best days. And I don’t want that to happen to me.

The thing is, how will we know?

One might argue that it’s easier to know in these days with the Internet. Amazon reviewers will tell us when our work isn’t up to par. Oh boy, will they tell us.

But I want to know before that last book is released. How will I tell?

The Idea-Well

I’ve had 100 comedy credits, 40 short stories and 14 books published. I’m working on number 15. That’s 55 fiction plots already used up. A lot more, if you count the comedy. How many original plot ideas can I hope to have in my lifetime? Some might argue that there are no original plot ideas, but I look at it differently. In the case of authors who are getting published in the traditional markets, every story we manage to sell is one the publisher hasn’t seen before, in that it takes a different spin. It may be we are reusing themes, but the route an author takes to send us on that journey – the roadmap – will be different.

One day, I expect my idea-well will dry up.

The Chess Game You Can’t Win

I’m paraphrasing my colleague here, but writing a mystery is particularly complex. It usually is a matter of extreme planning. Suspects, motives, red herrings, multiple clues…a good mystery novel is perhaps the most difficult type of book to write. I liken it to a chess game. You have so many pieces on the board, they all do different things, and you have to keep track of all of them.

It gets harder as you get older. I am not yet a senior citizen, but already I am finding the demands of my current book (a detective mystery) enormous. Usually I write capers, which are shorter but equally meticulously plotted. You just don’t sit down and write these things. You plan them for weeks, and re-examine them as you go. You need to be sharp. Your memory needs to be first-rate.

My memory needs a grade A mechanic and a complete overhaul.

The Pain, the Pain

Ouch. My back hurts. I’ve been here four hours with two breaks. Not sure how I’m going to get up. It will require two hands on the desk, and legs far apart. Then a brief stretch before I can loosen the back so as not to walk like an injured chimp.

My wrists are starting to act up. Decades at the computer have given me weird repetitive stress injuries. Not just the common ones. My eyes are blurry. And then there’s my neck.

Okay, I’ll stop now. If you look at my photo, you’ll see a smiling perky gal with still-thick auburn hair. That photo lies. I may *look* like that, but…

You get the picture <sic>.

Writing is work – hard work, mentally and physically. I’m getting ready to face the day when it becomes too much work. Maybe, as I find novels more difficult to write, I’ll switch back to shorter fiction, my original love. If these short stories continue to be published by the big magazines (how I love AHMM) then I assume the great abyss is still some steps away.

But it’s getting closer.

How about you? Do you plan to write until you reach that big computer room in the sky?



Just launched! The B-Team 

They do wrong for all the right reasons, and sometimes it even works!
Available at Chapters, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and all the usual online suspects.

26 March 2015

A Little Religious Conspiracy Theory

by Eve Fisher

As you hopefully know by now, I love a good conspiracy theory.  And some events generate lots of them.  A very early event that has not yet stopped generating conspiracy theories is, of course, the death of Jesus, and since Palm Sunday is the 29th and Easter comes next, I thought it would be a good time to review some of most interesting conspiracy theories.  If nothing else, just to prove that it's not just politics that brings out the crazy...

First of all, there were at least three real conspiracies that surrounded Jesus:
  • The first one in (among other places) Matthew 26:14-16, where the chief priests paid Judas to betray Jesus so they could have him executed, quickly and relatively quietly, before the Passover.  
  • The second, of course, was the show trial before first Caiaphas and then Pilate, complete with manufactured witnesses and a lot of fake weeping, wailing and tearing of clothes in horror.
  • The third in Matthew 28:11-15, after the finding of the empty tomb:  "Now while they [the disciples] were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened.  After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”  So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day."  
    • BTW that "keep you out of trouble" part was VERY important, because Roman guards who lost prisoners were killed in their stead.  
But enough of reality, let's get on with the crazy:
"When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage & Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent 2 of his disciples & said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, & immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it & bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away & found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; & they allowed them to take it. Mark l1:1-6
Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.” They asked him, “Where do you want us to make preparations for it?” “Listen,” he said to them, “when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.” So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal. Luke 22:7-13
The above  two passages have been used repeatedly to prove that there was a plot, a conspiracy, and Jesus was in on it and/or was the mastermind. But what kind of plot?  What kind of conspiracy? Folks, there are a lot of them:

(1) That Jesus would be replaced by his twin, or doppelganger, who would die on the cross for him so that he could appear to be resurrected and, thus, start a whole new religion. Or get out of town later. Both ideas have been used. The most likely candidate?  Thomas, who was known as "the Twin" (Didymas), which certainly puts a whole new spin on Doubting Thomas, doesn't it?

(2) Another theory says that these 2 messages - the colt and the guy with the pitcher of water - were coded messages, letting the conspirators know that the time was at hand for a major magic act to take place.  This conspiracy theory breaks down a couple of ways:
  • One version says that the plan was for Jesus to be arrested, tried, convicted, crucified and drugged with that vinegar on a stick (John 19:28).  He was then taken down - comatose but still alive - nursed back to health, appeared to the disciples, who spread the story of his resurrection while he went off to Tibet to become a monk in the Himalayas. 
  • Another version was given in the 1960's book "The Passover Plot", where they said that everything was going according to the above plan BUT then came some stupid soldier with a spear.  For some reason, he hadn't been bribed, and he killed a living Jesus on the cross by mistake.  And then the disciples had to make up a story and stick to it.  Hence, John 19 & 20, Luke 23 & 24, etc.  
  • Dorothy Sayers in her "The Man Born to be King" says that it was a code, a conspiracy, but it was set up by the Zealots:  they offered Jesus a choice between a horse and a colt, and if he took the horse, they'd follow him in an uprising against Rome.  If he took the colt, he was on his own.  They'd find another leader.  He took the colt, and death was the result.  BUT Judas didn't know the details, and he thought that by taking the colt, Jesus had turned political, and so Judas turned him in for being less holy than Judas wanted/needed him to be.  Actually, I kind of like this one - at least it makes sense in the political climate of the time, and it gives Judas a reason to betray Jesus.
(3)  Jesus was a myth.  Variations:
  • D. M. Murdock, in her book "The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold," says that Christianity was invented by a variety of secret societies and mystery religions to unify the Roman Empire under one state religion.  Without, of course, bothering to figure out WHY the Roman Empire needed one state religion and ignoring the fact that it already had a form of it in Rome's ready worship of any new god that came along, not to mention the Emperor Cultus...  Let's just say that this is the kind of book that makes historians like me go bang their head against a wall over and over again...
  • Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the Holy Grail - ad infinitum, ad nauseum...
  • My personal favorite of all conspiracy theories is in an obscure book from the 1970's, "The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross" by John Marco Allegro.  According to Allegro, Jesus was actually a psychedelic mushroom.  Or hallucinations resulting from taking psychedelic mushrooms.  And, in case you're wondering, yes, I absolutely do believe that psychedelic mushrooms were indeed consumed in the conception and writing of that book...
Why do people come up with these things?  Or believe them?  Well, there's a lot of reasons.  But I think the main reason is simple:  conspiracy theorists feel like members of an elite club or cult, in which they are in on the "real" truth.  People love to be in on a secret - it makes us feel like we belong, like we're knowledgeable, like we're superior.  Nobody can fool us.  We're in control, because we're in the know, whether it's about 9/11 or Roswell or Bigfoot or a death in Judea 2000 years ago.

Coming soon - who killed Chaucer? 

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!


17 June 2014

Pictures and Words

by Stephen Ross

One of my fantasies is to be a painter. Oil on canvas. I have this vision of myself in a New York loft: A large room with a bare wooden floor, sofa, an open window with traffic sounds from the street below, open bottle of red wine, no glasses. No wall clock.

And what would I paint? People. I like a good landscape, I like a good abstract, but what moves me are paintings of people. A picture tells a thousand words, but in every face there are a million.

One of the best places to go and see paintings of people is the National Portrait Gallery in London. The NPG has nearly 200,000 paintings in its collection, and it's a great place to lose yourself in hall after hall of faces (and history).

Alan Bennett (Tom Wood, 1993)
Tom Wood's painting of Alan Bennett hangs in the NPG (Bennett is one of my favorite playwrights), and at first glance this appears to be a conventional portrait of the man. Quickly, its element of casualness becomes apparent. It's a picture of a writer taking a break; a few minutes to collect his thoughts, a cup of tea and a brown bag.

And then you notice the power cable and plug. What has Bennett unplugged? An electric fan? A jukebox? Maybe it's symbolic. The cable extends from the viewer's point of view, so maybe Bennett's taking a break from us (i.e. he's unplugged the world). And then what exactly is concealed inside that tightly tied up brown paper bag? Lunch, or is it also perhaps symbolic of something? Secrets? Privacy?

It's a straightforward painting of a complex man and some props, but collectively they suggest the possibility of a story. If I painted, I'd definitely want to paint a story.

The Betrayal (Jack Vettriano, Circa. 2001)
You won't find anything by Jack Vettriano in the NPG (although you will find him in the National Scottish Portrait Gallery up in his native Scotland). South of the border (i.e. London), Vettriano gets bad press. Too commercial, too crass. Point in fact, I first encountered this painting on a greeting card. But so what?

Without even knowing the title, when you first see this painting you sense conflict. The man at the rear, highlighted in a background of glowing red, stares at the couple kissing in the foreground. The decor and fashions suggest a fancy club, circa. London 1950. Are the couple embracing on a dance floor? And that isn't a mere kiss, it's a full-throttle commitment. Has the man at the rear caught his lover cheating on him? He has a hand reaching inside his jacket. A gun?

When you have two or more people in a painting, you almost automatically invoke a plot. And once there's a plot in play, our mind suggests what might happen next. In this instance, a heated confrontation; it'll probably get messy. The Betrayal is like a two-dimensional piece of flash fiction.

It has to be said, of course, another viewer might glance at this painting and simply see a bored waiter staring at an amorous couple. And therein lies the fundamental difference between a written story and a painted one. A written story lays it out fairly clearly for the reader to follow. A painting only suggests and is largely open to "reader" interpretation.

The Scream (Edvard Munch, 1893)
I first encountered Edvard Munch's iconic painting The Scream in an art history book when I was in high school. The ghost-like person in the foreground is presented in a frozen moment of absolute terror. Why? Is it from fear of the two shadowy people behind? Are they after him/her for purposes of no good? Is it from fear of the blood sky (the original title for the work was "The Scream of Nature")? It could be any of these, and I could easily think up several more "plots" for this painting -- none of them cozy.

I was lucky enough to visit an exhibition of Munch lithographs a few years ago at the Waikato Museum (a modest building on the left bank of the Waikato River in Hamilton, New Zealand). Munch made several lithographs of The Scream, and even reproduced in black and white, the image chills you to the bone when you stand in front of it. And this is despite the fact the painting's impact today has been lessened, nay flattened, by its continual referencing in popular culture (children's lunchboxes, anyone?). The painting is as ubiquitous today as the Mona Lisa.

The Scream contains what I like to find in a painting (and in a story, too): character and emotion. So along with a plot, I'd definitely want to paint characters and strong emotions.

So, I guess, if I was a painter, I'd be a figurative expressionist. Throw Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Edward Hopper, Frida Kahlo, Munch, the Pre-Raphaelites, and a bucket of paint into a blender and then point me at a canvas.

And why am I not a painter? That's easy: I can't paint and I can't draw. I can't even render a decent stick, let alone a figure.

But wait. There's more...

The Riverboat (Eric Ross, 1997)
Declaiming my artistic abilities was originally going to be the end of this piece, but by happy coincidence, I learnt today that Crime City Central are podcasting The Riverboat this week (a story of mine that was first published last year by Spinetingler Magazine).

I mention this because the story was inspired by a picture of a riverboat painted by my father. He painted it several years ago and it's hung on my wall ever since. My story didn't create a "plot" for his painting, but used its image as the story's centerpiece.



Be seeing you!

17 September 2011

Plots and Plans

by John M. Floyd
32/365 The Idea Machine
Welcome to SleuthSayers!

My name’s John Floyd, I live in Mississippi, my wife and I have three grown kids, and I write mystery stories. Writing is actually my second career—IBM was my first, and as Clint Eastwood said after the final gunfight in Unforgiven, I was lucky in the order. If I had discovered my love for writing when I was twenty years old, my family would probably have starved.

I’d like to begin by making something clear: I’m not writing this first column at our new blog because I’m the best choice for that. I’m writing it because for almost four years I wrote the Saturday column at the Criminal Brief blog, and since we contributors to CB are finally turning in our badges and guns, and since several of us are migrating here from that site, and since today is Saturday… well, you get the picture. I’ll be alternating Saturdays with my friend Elizabeth Zelvin, who writes wonderful mysteries.

By the way, this is a blog for both readers and writers. Mostly readers and writers of mystery/crime/suspense. And when someone asks me what I enjoy most about the writing process, the answer is an easy one, because it’s also what I enjoy most about reading. It’s the plot.

Spin Me a Web

To me, coming up with the plot of a story is more fun than everything else put together. I don’t deny that characterization and description—and all those other things that you must do well to be a successful writer—are important. Of course they’re important. Without them your piece of fiction isn’t interesting and it isn’t marketable. But I think the pure enjoyment of weaving a good plot, one that’s suspenseful and believable and entertaining… well, that can’t be beat.

Since I write mostly short stories, much of that plotting is done ahead of time, in my head, before the first word of the story is put on paper. Is that outlining? Probably so—at least mental outlining. And what I’ve outlined sometimes changes once the writing starts. But to me, some measure of before-the-fact brainstorming is not only necessary, it’s fun.

My story process consists of three steps: planning, writing, and rewriting. For a typical short story, the research and planning (pre-plotting?) phase probably takes the longest, maybe a couple weeks; the writing of the first draft might take a day or so; and the rewriting and editing can take another few days, or as long as a week or two. These times are directly proportional to the length of the story. Then I let my wife read it, I incorporate (or not) her ideas, and I mail it off into the great beyond. And then I start on another one. I’ve gone through that cycle so many times it’s as natural as climbing out of bed in the morning.

Teachable Moments

I hope I’ve done it enough that by now I know what I’m doing. But anytime I start patting myself on the back, anytime I even begin to think I’ve mastered the art of plotting a mystery story, I think of the last time I read a novel by Nelson DeMille or Harlan Coben, or Block or King or Lippman or Deaver or Sandford—or the last time I read a short story by someone like Jack Ritchie, Bill Pronzini, Roald Dahl, Ed Hoch, or Fredrick Brown. These folks are, to use the current catchphrase, amazing. Their expertise in creating compelling plots can inspire amateurs and veterans alike. Read them and learn.

I also like the way great authors incorporate plot twists, not only at the end of a story but in the middle. Read a novel by Lee Child, for example. You might think you know what Jack Reacher will try next, and you might think the story will turn out a certain way, but at least two or three times during the book, the plot does a one-eighty and takes you in a completely different direction. Child’s talent for that kind of reversal, for keeping the reader off-balance, is one of the many reasons he’s so successful, and so enjoyable to read.

Fun and Games

I think most of us agree that a mystery (novel or short story) is essentially a puzzle. The writer is presenting the reader with a question to be answered, a puzzle to be solved, a situation in which a likeable character (cop, PI, ordinary Joe, whatever) faces a difficult problem. And the writer’s job is to somehow solve that problem for the character, and thus for the reader, in a way that is (1) satisfying and (2) unexpected. That’s not as easy at it sounds, and it’s always a challenge—and a thrill—to find a way to steadily build the tension and make things eventually “turn out right.

I love all kinds of puzzles, and I think almost anyone who likes puzzles also enjoys reading mysteries. And I think anyone who doesn’t like puzzles shouldn’t try to write one. He probably wouldn’t even want to.

Tell Me a Story

A quick word on the old argument about whether plot is more important than characterization, or vice versa. Both—obviously—are vital ingredients of good fiction. But I’m always amused when I hear fellow writers say, “Don’t worry about the plot. Just choose interesting characters and then give them something to do.” Well, here’s a news flash: What they do is the plot.

I like the following quote from Secret Windows, a collection of essays by Stephen King:
“All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story value holds dominance over every other facet of the writer’s craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else is forgiven.”
I wish I’d said that myself.