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

20 July 2020

Plot versus Character


When I conduct a writing workshop, one of the questions people frequent ask is about the importance of plot versus character. I tell them that it depends.
If you're writing a novel, or maybe even a series, you need to know your main characters very well. These imaginary friends and co-workers need a biography that's complete enough to flesh them out and show what makes them who they are. You need to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and the lines they won't cross well enough to know what they want enough to risk dying for it. If you write mysteries, you need to understand how your protagonist's mind works so he or she can solve your mystery, too. You probably won't bring all this information on stage immediately, and some of it may never show up, but you need to know it. It's how you give your character depth.

If you're writing a series, this bio is even more important because some stuff may not matter until the third or fourth book, or even later. Publishers and agents love, love, love a series.

Lately, I've been moving from novels to short stories, and my thinking is changing, too. Maybe my attention span is waning, or maybe I'm just trying to go faster, but for short stories, it's all about the plot.

Remember, instead of 80K words or more, my short stories average about 4K, roughly 15 pages. Get in, get dirty, get out again. There's less room to present a complex and fleshed-out character. Unless you're trying to sell a story featuring a character from your series--which I've only done two or three times--you rely more on your premise, and that's more apt to guide your plot.

You need a character who will logically find herself in a particular situation. For a short story, once I have a premise, I start typing with generic names and see where those given circumstances lead me. I characterize the protagonist with action and his or her goal instead of with lots of description and back-story (both of which I tell my writing workshop students to leave out). If I go quickly and don't censor or force things, they will lead to the detail I need, and that often provides a plot twist, and maybe even a solution.

Let's say you're writing about a woman who qualifies as a "crazy cat lady." She has eight cats and has hidden her will somewhere in her enormous house. Cats suggest certain ideas: mice, purring, dogs, people who like or dislike them, people who are allergic to them. What if a supporting character loathes cats? What if she likes them but is allergic? Can you use that as a plot point, or even a clue? Maybe. It's a character detail, but it steers your plot. More and more, I discover details that flesh out the plot at the same time they delineate character, and when you get two for the price of one, it's even better.

As I re-wire my brain for short stories, I find that I'm writing them more quickly and maybe having even more fun. I'm fond of a few stories that have rich and complex characters, but several of them have never found a home except on my hard drive. The newer plot-premise stories seem to have more potential markets, so I can send them out with higher hopes.

That's a happy ending.


26 November 2018

Neither Fish Nor Foul Play


15 years ago, conventional wisdom stated that the way to pique an agent's interest was to publish short stories. I love short stories, but writing them makes calculus look easy. I never took calculus.
Nobody even mentioned novellas, novelettes or any of the other hybrid mutants. Nobody even agrees on word counts for any of them. Rex Stout used to publish three novellas and a short story together as a hardcover book, most of them starring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, but that's about the only consistent example I can name. Granted, the average mystery was much shorter than it is today, and Stout died in 1975. His novellas were probably between 15 and 20 thousand words, and you'll see where I came up with that estimate in a minute. Now, authors occasionally publish an eBook novella between longer works to keep readers aware of them.

 I wrote several unpublished short stories featuring my Detroit PI, rock & roll wannabe Woody Guthrie, although that wasn't even his name yet. One I liked a lot, called "Stranglehold," came in at nearly 7000 words, which was a problem. During 2005, I sent it out to the only five markets I could find that would accept a story of that length, and none of them did.

A writer friend told me he had trouble keeping the large cast of characters straight because they all showed up early in the story. I tried cutting some of them--and the story's overall length--and created an incoherent mess. I didn't see enough potential subplots to make the story into a novel, so it languished for four years.

Then someone told me about the Black Orchid Novella Award, sponsored by the Wolfe Pack (The Rex Stout Appreciation Society, named after his detective, Nero Wolfe) and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The contest wanted stories between 15K and 20K words (see above) and following the general form of Stout's mysteries. Well, I'd read most of Stout's work because he was one of my mystery-reading mother's favorites. Archie's tone was a big influence on my own writing, maybe because we're both from the Midwest.

Could I add words to "Stranglehold" and turn it into a novella? If I expanded the opening, that large cast would appear more gradually and be easier to absorb. Imagine my surprise when I added 9000 words--and only two minor transition scenes--to the story in four days. I had a novella on my hands without even knowing it. I sent it off to the contest, and it won. It appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in summer 2010.

OK, I thought. When you have more detail than you can pack into a short story, think novella. I've never done that again.

Five years later, I struggled with another Woody Guthrie novel. By now I knew his name because he'd appeared in two novels, and so had several of his supporting cast. This time, I had the opposite problem from "Stranglehold." I had a solid main plot and an anemic subplot I couldn't expand without excessive and obvious padding.

My wife suggested that maybe it would work as another novella, and she was right. "Look What They've Done to my Song, Mom" won the award in 2015 and appeared in Alfred the following summer.

Now, I think I know how to write a novella. Step one is don't plan to do it. If you find yourself trapped with no other way out, focus on one main plot and one subplot. You might have a second subplot if it resolves easily. We're talking 60 to 80 pages, so we don't have a lot of introspection, static lyrical description, or technical wherewithall. If two sets of somewhat similar characters work through parallel or related plots, they're easy to bring together at the end. In both novellas I've written so far, each plot involved members of a band and their music.

Both stories have about ten characters, too. The band was a quintet in the first one, and four of the members were suspects in the killing of the fifth (Music fans would call this the "diminished fifth"). In the second story, the remaining members all have something at stake and two of them are suspects again. If you're a musician, you might think long and hard before joining this band.

I'm kicking around ideas for another novella. It doesn't involve Woody or the band or music, but I have about ten characters again. And one subplot.

If it works out, maybe I'll show it to you.

If it doesn't, maybe I really have a bloated short story on my hands...or another anorexic novel.

TIME FOR THE BSP: My sixth Zach Barnes novel, Back Door Man, a light-hearted romp into a cold case involving mass murder, is now available, just in time for your Christmas shopping.


If I'd known it would be ready for the holidays, maybe I would have called it "Violent Night."

15 October 2018

The Invisible Engine


Saturday, I led a workshop on developing plot. It was the second half of my program on preparing for National Novel Writing Month, and I'll do a slightly expanded version (I have an extra fifteen minutes) at the same venue next week.
I know several people who do decent workshops on plot, and I can name more good books about building your plot than any other facet of writing fiction, but there's one idea almost everyone has trouble grasping. In fact, only two of the eight or nine books I often cite even mention it.

Concept and Premise.

Almost everyone understands that a plot is the stuff that happens to or around your protagonist, and most of them understand the idea of cause and effect. Most of them grasp structure and increasing tension, too. But making someone see that his or her premise needs more focus or oomph is hard. Maybe that's because everyone knows it when he sees it, but it's hard to define except by example.

Every story has a concept and premise, but unless it captures the reader's attention, the story won't sell. In fact, it won't even be read.

A concept is simply an idea. It can be a setting, a character, a story line, an imaginary world or practically anything else. But it has to develop into a premise, and that's tricky. The premise usually involves the "what if..." idea, the thing that "goes wrong." Michael Crichton's concept for Jurassic Park is that you can use the DNA from fossils to clone prehistoric dinosaurs. His premise builds on that: What if those dinosaurs get out of control and start eating people?

From that simple but specific foundation, you can build your plot because you have a conflict, setting and characters. You also have the beginning of your elevator pitch to an agent or editor. It even gives you a head start on your cover copy, which I always find hard to write.

I tell my classes that if you can put your premise into language a fairly bright ten-year-old can understand, you've got it.

Two of my books use Roller Derby as a loose concept. The premise of one of them is that a disgraced police officer finds redemption by protecting a group of women who help victims of domestic abuse, and, by extension, help themselves. That's more specific. More importantly, it helps me determine what will happen in the story. There will be roller derby and there will be at least one character who is being abused. The cop will help her. Sure, other things will happen, too, but that's the foundation.

Here is the back cover copy of The Whammer Jammers, which grew out of that concept and premise:

Chicks on wheels, dirty deals, and everything you never dared ask about roller derby. Suspended after a "questionable" shooting, Hartford cop Tracy "Trash" Hendrix hires on to protect the local skaters from vandals while they prepare for a match to fund a women's shelter. He suspects a skater's ex-boyfriend, but the guy has an alibi when that shelter gets torched--and an even better one when he turns up dead. Then a skater is killed in a drive-by, and Hendrix knows someone plays rougher than the roller girls. Unless he can figure out who it is before the match begins, the wheels really will come off.

The fire and the drive-by aren't in the original idea, but they grew out of it and raise the stakes.

Your premise has to generate conflict, and this one does. In my case, that matters because my thought process is far from linear. I can come up with dialogue or character traits on demand, but plot is hard. That's why I need a concrete--but flexible--concept I can turn into a premise. And it needs to promise the reader something she or he hasn't seen before.

Most people stare at me when I tell them there are currently seven women's roller derby teams in Connecticut, but it works. I self-published The Whammer Jammers in 2011. Two weeks ago, I sold out every copy I brought with me to an event because people still want to hear about it.

That's your ultimate test.

02 April 2018

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Truth About Villains


Superman isn't a hero because he can fly or see through walls or bend steel with his bare hands. He's a hero because of kryptonite, the element that will render him helpless. That's how it is in mystery writing, too.

If you're writing a crime or mystery story, the villain drives your plot. Without a strong opponent, your hero looks weak because he or she doesn't really face a challenge. That's bad.

So how do you make your villain strong?

Remember, your Bad Guy explores alternatives, stepping over the line into the darkness to get something he or she wants, by whatever means necessary. If those means include lying, stealing, or killing, so much the better. The villain's goal is usually money, love, or power, and those are the issues that give your story high stakes. Without stakes, who cares?

The more your villain influences the story, the better. The hero/sleuth has to meet the increasingly difficult challenges.

That's comparatively easy in suspense novels that use the Bad Guy's point of view for some scenes. Suspense stories seem to be getting bigger and bigger now, and Armageddon needs a full-scale Ming the Merciless (Yeah, I'm dating myself)
to carry the ball. Sometimes those stories present the Bad Guy as a monster. Don't TELL us your character is a monster, though, a Joker, Snidely Whiplash, or Hannibal Lector, SHOW us. He has to be willing to kill dozens of people, dance with glee over starving kittens and scheme to bring back Disco.
He doesn't have to wring his hands and cackle "Bwah-hah-hah, my pretty" whenever we see him, and he doesn't need a pet cobra or a bullwhip. But we like to see someone enjoy his work and take pride in it. My favorite line in the entire Batman series is Heath Ledger as the Joker proclaiming, "When you're very good at something, never do it for free."

The best Bad Guys have redeeming qualities, too. They have a good reason (to them) for what they do. Revenge for a dead sibling or child, pursuit of a cause they believe is noble, a cure for tone-deafness. And except for some bloodthirsty little peccadillo, they may be great people. Hannibal Lector has superb taste and a sense of humor. In the early James Bond films, Blofeld often cradled a white Persian cat. If he likes animals, how bad can e really be? Well, come to think of it...

That's suspense. In mysteries, we can't be that obvious. We want the reader to wonder who the Bad Guy is. My villains seem like ordinary people until we discover why they do those nasty things. But my Bad Guys (or gals, I have several of them--I love subtle femme fatales) keep the squirrel running on the treadmill.

In Who Wrote the Book of Death? Zach Barnes is trying to find the person who threatens Beth Shepard.
Beth is the visible half of a writing team, and Barnes isn't sure if she's the target or if the Bad Guy really wants to kill Jim Leslie, who writes under a female pen name. He spends lots of time looking at both peoples' backstory to see who might want to kill them. In the meantime, Leslie nearly gets electrocuted in his own home. The killer tampers with the wiring, but nobody sees him. Beth is almost run down, but nobody gets a good look at the car. Later, someone shoots at her while she's presenting an author event at a bookstore, and nobody sees the shooter.

The villain is hiding, but his work drives the story. Even though we haven't seen him, Barnes must scramble to protect both people and figure out who the heck is doing all this stuff.

In The Whammer Jammers, several characters have nasty agendas. Someone stalks a roller derby skater, someone plans a bank robbery, and someone sets fires to a geriatric hospital, but we don't know who is pulling all the strings until Trash and Byrne solve those cases and find the common denominator...in the very last scene.

Blood On the Tracks revolves around a cold case that comes to light when Woody Guthrie agrees to recover a missing audio tape of a 1991 recording session. Someone killed a man to steal that tape, and Guthrie has to figure out why a recording of a long-forgotten band matters that much. The tape is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a "MacGuffin," the gizmo that drives the plot, but the killer and his reasons are real. Guthrie has to understand how a twenty-years-old death links to three violent deaths in the present. That's a lot of influence by an invisible Bad Guy.

I put all these villains in plain sight and have them behave like decent people because I want to play fair with the reader. I give him or her information to unravel the mystery along with my detective, but I don't make my villain a weirdo or a demon or a cartoon. He or she is simply a person like you or me (But not as handsome or beautiful)
who made a really bad choice. Maybe that's what fascinates me the most about villains. Not all of them are monsters. There's a place for those, too, but it's not in my particular stories.

Unfortunately, opening the morning newspaper reminds me that we have enough monsters out there in real life.

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.

24 June 2017

How I Became an Overnight Success in 26 years


Three years ago, I wrote a crazy little book that won two crime writing awards. (Okay, not three years ago. It won the Derringer and Arthur Ellis three years ago, which means I wrote it two years before that. Trad publishing takes time… but I digress.)
That year, I also won a national short story contest, with prize money of $3000. The year after, I was shortlisted along with Margaret Atwood, for another fiction award. (That was the year pigs learned to fly in Canada.)

The Toronto Sun called to interview me. They titled the article, “Queen of Comedy.”

“You’re famous!” said an interviewer. “How does it feel to become an overnight success?”

“That was one long night,” I said. “It lasted 26 years.”

This blog post was inspired by Anne R. Allen

Not long ago, Anne had a post on her Top 100 blog: 10 Reason Why You Shouldn’t Publish that 1st Novel

(It’s terrific. Check it out.)

But that got me thinking about my own “overnight success.”

Here’s the thing. I started writing fiction for money in 1987. (Nineteen Eighty-Seven!! Big shoulders and big hair. Wasn’t that two years before the Berlin Wall came down?)

I won my first award (Canadian Living Magazine) in 1989. By the time my first novel hit bookshelves, I already had 24 short stories published, and had won six awards.

Plus The Goddaughter’s Revenge – the book that won the Derringer and Arthur – wasn’t my first novel published. It was my fifth.

My Point:

I’ll drill down even more. It wasn’t even my fifth novel written. It was my seventh. The first two will never see the light of day. One has gone on to floppy disk heaven. Although if God reads it up there, he may send it to hell.

I would never want ANYONE to read my first two novels. Writing them taught me how to write. I got rid of bad habits with those books. I learned about the necessity of motivation. The annoyance of head-hopping. And the importance of having a protagonist that people can like and care about.

Yes, my first novel had a TSTL heroine who was naive, demanding, and constantly had to be rescued. (For those who don’t know, TSTL stands for Too Stupid To Live. Which may occur when the author is too stupid to write.) Even I got sick of my protagonist. Why would anyone else want to make her acquaintance?

In my first two novels, I learned about plot bunnies. Plot bunnies are those extraneous side trips your book takes away from the main plot. Each book should have an overall plot goal, and ALL subplots should meander back to support that one plot goal in the end. My first book had everything but aliens in it. All sorts of bunnies that needed to be corralled and removed.

Speaking of bunnies, I’m wandering. So back to the point:

IN 2015, some people saw me as an overnight success. I was getting international recognition and bestseller status. One of my books hit the Amazon Top 100 (all books) at number 47, between Tom Clancy and Nora Roberts.

But that overnight success took 26 years. I had one long apprenticeship.

I tell my students to keep in mind that being an author is a journey. No one is born knowing how to write a great novel. You get better as you write more. You get better as you read more. You get better as you learn from others.

Being an author is a commitment. You aren’t just writing ‘one book.’ You are going to be a writer for the rest of your life. Commit to it. Find the genre you love. Write lots.

And you too can be an overnight success in 26 years.

(The Goddaughter. She’s a much more likeable protagonist, even if she is a bit naughty.)


On Amazon

13 February 2016

Downton Abbey--Story, Plot, Mystery


I love Downton Abbey. I've watched every episode, and I'll keep watching till the end. I own the DVD sets for two seasons. I also own The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook, and I use it often. I've made one dish so many times, in fact, that I decided to include a version of it in my next story, which will appear in the April Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. (The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook calls the dish Noisette Potatoes. My story calls it Spudballs.)

So I think I qualify as a loyal fan. When I criticize the show, I do so in a spirit of love, as a regretful witness to the elegant decline of something that was once more than elegant. I don't think Downton Abbey is very good this season, and I don't think it was very good last season, either. Judging from comments I see on Facebook, a lot of other loyal fans feel the same way. As I was watching the show last Sunday, some comments E.M. Forster makes in Aspects of the Novel came to mind. They helped me focus more sharply on some crucial elements Downton Abbey now lacks--elements that are crucial to mysteries, too.

Forster's distinction between story and plot is justly famous. A story, Forster says, is "a narrative of events in their time sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. `The king died and then the queen died" is a story. `The king died, and then the queen died of grief' is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it." A story appeals to our curiosity, Forster says. Like cave-dwellers sitting around the fire or the sultan listening to Scheherazade's tales, we want to know what happens next. But curiosity, according to Forster, "is one of the lowest of the human faculties." And ultimately, a story that appeals only to our curiosity doesn't satisfy us.

I think that's the problem with Downton Abbey. During the last two seasons, it's become a story. It no longer has a plot. Things keep happening--there are plenty of incidents, some of them dramatic. A child goes missing. A beloved character has a frightening medical crisis at the dinner table. Romantic attractions flare up, little conflicts erupt, secrets nudge toward the surface. Meanwhile, there are many amusing verbal sparring matches and many tender exchanges, and of course there are always beautiful things to look at--rooms, dresses, pastoral landscapes. And since Downton Abbey has wonderfully rich characters we've come to know well and care about deeply, we want to know what will happen to them next, how things will turn out. So we keep watching.

But it's not enough to keep us satisfied, because there's no real plot. We seldom get a sense that one incident has caused another, or that it's likely to have significant consequences. Daisy says imprudent things, Tom comes back from America, Baxter won't have to testify after all--the incidents may be more or less interesting, but they often don't even seem related to each other. And they don't give us much of a basis for trying to figure out what's likely to happen next.
A plot does give us such a basis. A plot, Forster says, appeals not only to curiosity but also to "intelligence and memory"--and it does this by introducing the element of "mystery." He offers a further extension of his basic example: "The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king." This is "a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development." It engages our minds far more fully than a mere story could, because now we're using our memories to keep track of what's happening--we know that's important, because we have to remember incidents in order to understand how one might cause another. We're also using our intelligence to grasp each incident's significance and try to figure out what might happen next. "To appreciate a mystery," Forster maintains, "part of the mind must be left behind, brooding, while the other part goes marching on."

I find that last sentence an important key to understanding what's wrong with the current season of Downton Abbey, and an illuminating description of what a satisfying mystery does.If a mystery has a suspenseful, fast-paced plot, our curiosity keeps us turning pages. At the same time, memory and intelligence linger behind, "brooding" about evidence and making predictions. No wonder we love good mysteries so much. They force us to read actively, and we enjoy the workout. Really good mysteries also reward us for our hard work by giving us endings that bring everything together seamlessly. We can see how all the incidents related to each other, how each built on what had happened before, how one incident caused another until the mystery reached a conclusion that feels inevitable. Even if we fail to predict what that conclusion is, we feel satisfied--we blame our own memory and intelligence for our failure, not the author.

So one way of describing the problems with the final seasons of Downton Abbey might be to say they needed more mystery. Not mystery in any narrow, generic sense--heaven knows, nobody wanted to see Bates or Anna accused of murder again. But these last seasons might have been far more satisfying if they had included fewer entertaining little incidents and instead developed two or three plotlines more fully. I wish those plot lines had engaged our memories and intelligence. I wish they'd challenged us to think about what caused an incident and what its effects might be, to debate ethical dilemmas the characters faced, to analyze relationships and feel we have a rational basis for thinking they will or won't succeed.

But none of that happened--at least, not in my opinion. So I'll watch the final episodes, but I don't expect them to give me the sort of satisfaction the ending of a really good mystery does. I imagine the final episodes will give us at least one incident featuring each of our favorite characters. I imagine some characters' stories will end happily, and some will end less happily. And I'd guess decisions about which characters get happy endings and which don't will be based primarily on the producers' guesses about what viewers want, not by any internal necessities created during these last two seasons. ("Will viewers think it's a bit much if both Mary and Edith find true love at last? If neither does, it might seem too bleak. Shall we have things work out for only one of them? Which one? Who has a sixpence we can toss?") We'll get some final witty exchanges between Violet and Isobel, some stunning final interior and exterior shots, and then Downton Abbey will join the assembly of once-great shows that kept going a season or two too long.

Oh, well. I'll still have those two earlier seasons on DVD. And at least getting frustrated with Downton reminded me of what a fascinating little book Aspects of the Novel is. The passages I quoted are from the fifth chapter, "The Plot." Forster has other interesting things to say about mysteries, too. If you're not already familiar with the book, you might want to check it out.

I can't resist the temptation to end with a personal note. When the Agatha nominations were announced not long ago, I was thrilled to see that both a story and a book of mine had made the list. "A Joy Forever" was nominated for Best Short Story, and Fighting Chance was nominated for Best Children's/Young Adult. Since it's unlikely that anything like this will ever happen again for the rest of my life, I decided to go ahead and brag about it. If you'd like to read "A Joy Forever," you can find it at the Malice Domestic website– http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Stevens_Joy.pdf. You can read the first chapter of Fighting Chance on my web site here. I'm stunned, delighted, and very grateful.

11 August 2015

No Plot. Mo' Problem.


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….

12 July 2015

Techno-dull


Mr Robot
Edgy. It’s what a new USA Network television, Mr Robot, is trying for, so edgy that producers are getting ulcers trying to make it happen. And cyberpunk. It’s oh, so cyberpunk, rebel without a clause, pass the opiates please. It’s new, it’s now, it’s different, and it's supposed to be ultra-tech-savvy. It has exciting technology working for it… or does it?
One of Dorothy Sayers' novels, The Nine Tailors, is noted for its portrayal of campanology– professional bell-ringing. Sayers was largely complimented for her accuracy of detail. In a small way, she created kind of a techno-novel. Since then, many authors have created stories detailing technology of one kind or another– military, espionage, aerospace, medical, or computing.

Bluffing computer experts is tricky, especially the ‘leet’, the priesthood as it were, the 1% of 1%, the dei ex machina, code-slingers, bit busters, programmers of the programs that run programs. Rendering a story about computers takes more than networking verbiage and Unix gibberish. Bear with me as I wade into technical detail.

Going Viral

John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider introduced the concept of viruses, but most novels and virtually all movies get the technology wrong. That doesn’t mean a reader can’t enjoy some stories. Thomas Joseph Ryan’s The Adolescence of P-1 was a good read. 2001 A Space Odyssey was smart, the letters HAL being one displaced from IBM. And for hopeless romantics, Electric Dreams gave movie-goers a Cyrano de Bergerac love triangle featuring a computer named Edgar.

But a story shouldn’t pretend to be something it isn’t. An Amazon review about a computer novel by a top-rated mystery writer said the commenter got laughs reading aloud excerpts to employees in the company lunchroom. That’s not the kind of critique anyone wants.

Dennis Nedry
Dennis Nedry from Jurassic Park
Casting Stones

Casting is another problem with computer shows. Techno-geeks’ IQs typically run high, but that’s seldom how computer experts appear on the screen. One example of awful rôle selection occurred in Jurassic Park, that of an unlikely computer sysadmin, the oafish and creepy Dennis Nedry. We’re going to talk about lack of subtlety: Nedry / nerdy, get it?.

If Hollywood doesn’t stereotype a sallow, shallow wimp with taped glasses, they opt for the opposite, a busty beauty in a skin-tight action figure costume. Movie makers think an eye on the décolletage prevents audiences noticing thin characterization.

When I think of actual top geeks (someone without my movie star looks– stop laughing), I think of colleagues like my friend Thrush, programmer Bill Gorham, software architect Steve O’Donnell, or a handful of others. These ordinary guys possess the extraordinary ability to make machines dance to their own tune.

Robin Hoodie

The show’s idea of characterization appears twofold. First, dress the part: Make the protagonist, Elliot Alderson, sullen, slurring, antisocial, slouch through life in his hoodie. Have ruthless, junior exec Tyrell Wellick wear designer ties and suits. Decorate drug dealers with lots of tats. Mission accomplished.

The other part of the simplistic characterization is the creation of a polarized ‘them versus us’ atmosphere: hoodies v suits, punks v preppies, young v old, crackers v hackers, morphine users v tweakers v coke-heads, Anonymous v the establishment, bad guys v the other bad guys, capitalists v socialists v nihilists v anarchists… which might be interesting if someone had bothered to delineate a bit.

Elliot, the main character, is a morphine-addicted presumed programmer– he once mentions source code. The guy is a pathological liar who lies even to himself, then follows up by telling people in slurred speech, “I’m just being honest.” He drinks ‘appletinis’ and tells his shrink he’s not a junkie, even as he snorts his drug of choice. Supposedly this doesn’t impair his ability to dig into the bowels of computer networks.

A major problem here is that mainly druggies find drug users entertaining. One shouldn’t have to be stoned to appreciate a television show, but drug use and overuse underlies a major theme of Mr Robot. Elliot’s Asperger’s syndrome one can deal with, but his continuous mumbling is hard to stomach.

Of all the cast, only the female characters appear likable and worthwhile, Elliot’s shrink, Gloria, and his childhood friend and co-worker, Angela. Elliot and Angela telegraph to the audience their unrealized attraction as in a third-rate romance novel.

Tyrell Wellick represents the only alpha male in that universe, a ruthless junior exec but one who keeps his eye on the prize. As the best drawn character, he’s a sadomasochistic and exploitative bisexual who goes all out for what he wants. The actor speaks fluent Swedish but god-awful French, more than once butchering the word ‘bonjour’. Wellick does win on other points: When his pregnant wife asks for a bondage session, he’s reluctant to proceed, trying to be gentle.

Anonymous

A major factor– or malefactor– in the series is Mr Robot, a sociopathic anarchist played by Christian Slater looking exceedingly bored throughout. ‘Mr Robot’ is the name of a tech support company, passed on to Slater.

He’s formed ‘fsociety’, a squad of hackers patterned after the group Anonymous. Instead of Guy Fawkes masks, fsociety uses the likeness of that Parker Brothers’ mustached tycoon, Rich Uncle Pennybags aka Mr Monopoly.

Uncle Pennybags © Parker Bros.
In reality, fsociety is disappointingly unlike Anonymous. The latter is focused on justice and exposing inequity and corruption, not anarchy for its own sake. Anonymous gives an impression it values human life, unlike the show's producers who suck hours out of your life never to be returned.

Unsubtle

Those of us in the US tend to confuse and conflate capitalism with a free market economy; Mr Robot drops any distinction at all. Fsociety is dedicated to gutting Evil Corp (which deserves it) within a larger goal of bringing down the economy.
  • E: Evil Corp– that’s its unimaginative nickname– is the company that Elliot, Angela, and Tyrell work for. Obviously, subtlety isn’t held in high regard among the writers. The company’s E logo simultaneously hints at an actual secretive government provider and evokes ‘E for everyone’ entertainment ratings.

  • F: Two guesses what the F in fsociety stands for, subtle like a sledgehammer.

I tried to imagine the original cocaine-fueled pitch for the series. I think it went something like this:
“Like okay, man… (sniffff) There’s this guy, hacker dude, we’ll dress him in a hoodie so everyone thinks Robin Hood, see. (sniffff) And there’s this evil corp, we’ll call it Evil Corp so the audience can’t miss it. (sniffff) Listen, I confuse free markets and capitalism, but let’s say we burn down the economy… What do you mean, how would I cash my paycheck? What does that have to do with anything? Oh, irony, I get it. That’s good, that’s good. We’ll include irony.”

Verisimilitude

The series makes a stab at hi-tech realism, not particularly savvy, better than some shows, not as good as others. Writers drop a few Unix buzzwords (Gnome, KDE, TOR) and gloss over how their network was penetrated.

Elliot identifies a supposedly infected file that fsociety wants him not to open: fsociety00.dat. Amusingly, the IP address associated with the bogus file is 218.108.149.373, an impossible address like movies using 555-1234 as a phone number. (Geekology trivia: An IP address resolves to four bytes in binary, so each number of the group must be less than 256.) Mr Robot offers no specifics how Elliot tracked down the file in error, but the date and a bogus IP address should have clued in even a noob, never mind our ersatz hero.

Elliot passes the file on to a colleague, saying he’s done the hard work and ‘all’ that’s left is the encryption, as if that’s nothing. *bzzz* Wrong answer.

The program promulgates the notion that if someone has a root kit or hacker tools, they’re somehow an ultra-savvy user instead of being like any other mechanic with the right toolbox. The real guys with the smarts are the black hats who write the hacker tools and the white hats who find ways to combat them.

The show also advances the prejudice that ‘old people’ (presumably over 25) can’t deal with technology. A little reflection would have shown that the very systems Elliot and his hacker friends are using were designed by the old guys who themselves built on the shoulders of greater giants. (Articles on Anonymous have shown that the inner core of the organization isn’t strictly young guys as popularly imagined, but largely socially conscious programmers from the late 1960s and early 1970s who range upwards in age into their 50s and 60s.)

Elliot sneers at the CEO of E-Corp for carrying a Blackberry, ignoring the fact that an executive can run a company or tinker with technology, but probably not both, not at the same time. The US State Department deliberately uses Blackberries because they’re less susceptible to hacking… but that sort of realism would cut the series short.

Later, Elliot denigrates a hospital IT manager, William Highsmith, but even as he’s disparaging the IT guy, Elliot uses his supposed superior hacking skills to type the word NEGATIVE into his drug screen. Nothing screams phony like spelling out a presumed binary value instead of clicking the bit setting like true experts and their grandmothers would have done.

In the third episode, Elliot gives a stoned soliloquy on debugging. He’s correct in that finding a bug is usually the hardest part of the problem, but then he awkwardly extends an analogy of bugs into the real world of people and society.

Commodore 64
Halt and Catch Fire

Based on a single episode, a competing series Halt and Catch Fire has a much better and more realistic grip on technology and story-telling. Their team planned how to fake an AT&T computer by kludging together parts from a Commodore 64. Unlike the vague buzzword-dropping, watch-the-other-hand unexplained ‘magic’ in Mr Robot, the HCF scheme could actually work.

From both a writing standpoint and a hi-tech background, Mr Robot disappoints. I expect more… more characterization, more plot, more realistic tech. And less morphine, please, much less. I’m a minority, but my tech-savvy friend and colleague Thrush, who still keeps his hand in the land of Unix, also expressed dismay, finding the show dark and dismal with a poor handle on technology.

Mr Robot is like a 1960’s drug culture anti-establishment film, entirely unentertaining. But that’s my take. What is yours?

20 June 2015

Killing People is what I Do


 
“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

02 May 2015

Pace Yourself


In his book Story, screenwriting teacher Robert McKee says:

"Because a story is a metaphor for life, we expect it to feel like life, to have the rhythm of life. This rhythm beats between two contradictory desires: On one hand, we desire serenity, harmony, peace, and relaxation, but too much of this day after day and we become bored to the point of ennui, and need therapy. As a result, we also desire challenges, tension, danger, even fear. But too much of this day after day and again we end up in the rubber room. So the rhythm of life swings between these poles."

We all know that in a short story or a novel, the proper pacing is vital to its success. And in the case of mystery/crime fiction, the pace has to be fast. Nobody likes being bored, and nothing is so boring to a reader as a story that drags along and doesn't do something.

Ideally, this building of suspense has to happen throughout the narrative. A good, exciting opening is always important, but the challenge is then to keep up that pace afterward as well. Personally, I'd almost rather read a story or novel that starts slowly than one that starts strong and then bogs down in the middle; if it has a poor beginning I can at least stop reading sooner. As I've said before, there are too many good books and stories and movies out there for me to waste my time reading one or watching one that doesn't hold my interest.

So yes, good pacing is essential. But--as the little boy said to the magician--how do you do it?

At the risk of oversimplifying, here are three ways that we writers can control the pacing of our fiction.

1. Style

- Dialogue speeds things up; description slows them down

- Short, simple sentences speed things up; long, complex sentences slow them down (think Hemingway vs. Faulkner)

- Action verbs speed things up (sprinting vs. running, slamming vs. closing, gulping vs. eating, stomping vs. walking)

- The overuse of certain kinds of punctuation (commas, ellipses, parentheses, etc.) slows things down

- Active voice speeds things up; passive voice slows them down

- Short scenes/chapters speed things up; long scenes/chapters slow them down (think Patterson vs. Michener)

2. Action

As mentioned earlier, the best way to keep the reader interested is to make things happen--preferably exciting things and preferably often. There should be plenty of confrontations, obstacles, and setbacks. Internal struggles of course create tension, but in genre fiction the conflicts should be external as well. According to Jessica Page Morrell in her book Thanks, but This Isn't for Us: "If too many scenes in your story feature a character alone, the story won't work. Especially if in most of the scenes the character is thinking, musing, recalling the past, or sighing. Especially sighing."

3. Reversals

I'm a big fan of plot twists--and by that I don't just mean O. Henry-type surprise endings. I love it when the story takes a sharp and unexpected turn at any point, even near the beginning. It keeps me guessing and therefore keeps me reading. (Or watching. Reference the shower scene in Psycho.) I can't remember who said it, and I'm paraphrasing here, but if you're the writer and you think things might be moving too slowly, that's a good time to have someone burst through the door holding a gun.

Those are just a few thoughts--please feel free to contradict them or to add to the list.

Finally, no discussion of pacing would be complete without at least mentioning the concept of "scene and sequel." Scenes are units of story action, and sequels (in terms of writing) are breaks in the action--rest periods when the hero/heroine takes a timeout to think about what just happened and to consider what might happen next. Properly alternating scenes and sequels is a pacing mechanism, to allow the reader to--along with the protagonist--catch his breath and calm down a bit before facing the next challenge.

If you want to read some really fast-paced mystery fiction, I suggest stories and novels by the following authors: Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Robert B. Parker, Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, Jack Ritchie, Joe R. Lansdale, and Elmore Leonard.

It won't take you long.

26 March 2015

A Little Religious Conspiracy Theory


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?