Showing posts with label writing techniques. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing techniques. Show all posts

16 December 2015

From the shiny new desk of Robert Lopresti

Old writer at old desk
by Robert Lopresti

I am working mostly at home for the next few months, and my wife said: "We've  had this desk for thirty years.  Let's get you a better one."  I  thought that was a great idea and added a detail: let's make it a standup/sit down desk.

And that's what we wound up with.  You can see it in the pictures.  There are four pre-set buttons.  If I want to work standing up I press 3 and it floats to the proper height.  Press 4 and it sinks down again.  Terri touches 2 to get to her perfect standing position.

All of which is nice, but how exactly does it relate to the business of this blog: reading and writing mystery fiction?  Well, we'll get to that.

Back in October I mentioned that something happened at Bouchercon which I wasn't going to describe because I intended to turn into a short story.  A couple of weeks went by and that basic idea had refused to turn into a story plot.  Then I remembered a book I had picked up at Sasquan, the World Science Fiction Convention, I attended in August.
From Idea to Story in 90 Seconds is a little paperback by Ken Rand.  The title attracted me because I have a notebook containing a few hundred ideas that have never resolved into stories.  I wasn't expecting Mr. Rand to supply any miracles, and of course he doesn't.  Mostly he offers some interesting metaphors (although he describes himself as "metaphor challenged") and some exercises.

He spends a lot of time working on ways to get the Left Brain (the Editor) out of the way of the Right Brain (the Author).   "Why is your left brain such a jerk?" he asks.

Personally, I don't like the hemisphere stuff; it strikes me as biological reductionism (in normal people the two halves of the brain do communicate, after all).  I prefer to use the terms Miner and Jeweler.  But I do understand the importance of giving the Miner as much room as possible, and Rand has some useful thoughts about that.

For example: "The best drug ever prescribed, in my opinion, is placebo.  (Until recently.  I've switched to New, Improved Instant Placebo (R), in mint-flavored gel caps.)"  

In other words, when it comes to stoking creativity, whatever you think works, really does work.  And in that sense my new desk (remember my new desk?) can be seen as a placebo.  I know that I can't give the creative part of my brain orders but I can flatter or if you prefer bribe it by spending money.  Go to a conference.  Buy Ken Rand's book.  Get a new desk.

Old and cramped
Why does that work? I think in most people the creative part of the brain, the Miner, is lazy because it has been trained to be lazy.  You say that if you got a great idea you'd run like a cheetah straight to the keyboard, but when a light bulb does present itself you turn on  a Simpsons rerun instead.  Spending money and/or time convinces the Miner that you will take its work seriously.  (And of course, if you spend big bucks you will feel obligated to do something to justify it... see how it all comes around?)

 Of course, there's more to my desk than that.  It's a better work station and that helps with organization and writing.  Plus the stand-up aspect is great for my increasingly middle-aged back.

But lets get back to Rand.  How did his 90-seconds approach connect to my Bouchercon-inspired story idea?   Well, what follows combines his method with my own.

* I sat down with a pen and paper, far from my magical stand-up desk.  (Rand recommends separating the Author tasks from those of the Editor in as many physical ways as is practical.  Generally I Write analog and Edit digital.)
Old desk's moment of fame
* I wrote down my original idea.
* I wrote down in one sentence each the three unsatisfactory story plots I had hatched so far.  (Rand says: throw out the first few plots you get from an idea; those are the easy cliches.  In songwriting we say, when you start with a set of lyrics, throw out the first few tunes that come to mind.)
* With an eye on the clock I started writing down a new story structure, using pieces of those first three plots.

So, did I really come up with a satisfactory story plot in ninety seconds?

It only took seventy.  And, of course, I don't know whether I will really shape up into something publishable.  In a few years, we will find out I guess.

And now if you will excuse me, I have to go back to my desk...

16 March 2013


by John M. Floyd

As you probably know, most of us at this blog like to read mysteries, write mysteries, and talk about mysteries. Why else would we call ourselves sleuthsayers, right?

Some of us occasionally enjoy reading and writing in other genres as well--fantasy, Western, sci-fi, romance, horror, etc. And sometimes even in that hard-to-describe-but-I-know-it-when-I-see-it category that's not a genre at all: literary.

At the time of this writing, I'm lucky enough to have short stories in the current issues of two publications: Woman's World (March 18, 2013) and The Saturday Evening Post (March/April 2013). They are vastly different markets, in content and format and just about everything else. WW is easy to find, has been around for a long time, and publishes 104 stories a year--one mystery and one romance every week. The Post is hard to find (I located a copy only yesterday of the issue that contains my story), has been around for a very long time, and publishes (I think) six pieces of fiction a year. And my two stories are as different as the two magazines. My 700-word WW mystery is a lighthearted whodunit with series characters, while my 2600-word SEP story deals with relationships, loss, and hope, and features a protagonist who "changes" as a result of what he sees and learns in the course of the story. By definition, I suppose the first one is genre and the second one is literary.

The thing I'd like to focus on, though, is that my SEP story follows a structure that I've always liked, and that I've occasionally found handy to use: it's a frame narrative.

Thinking inside the box

I think of frame stories as those that are told by one character to another, and that create a story within a story. The first (I'll call it the "wraparound") story is begun in the present, then takes the reader into the past, where the second (main) story is told--often in its entirety. I sometimes picture the second story as a really long flashback. When it finishes, the reader is brought back to the present, and the first story then ends as well.

In Stephen King's The Green Mile, the wraparound story involves the protagonist as an old man in a nursing home who tells his friend a long tale about a life-changing incident that happened to him as a young prison guard. The "main" story takes place sixty years in the past, and when it's completed the wraparound story picks up again, at the nursing home. By that time the reader, who has been "listening" to the narrative along with the friend, has now come to care deeply about the lead character as both a young man and an old man, and wants to hear "the rest of the story." In my opinion, framing the book in this way made it a more effective, satisfying, and memorable novel. It also allowed the writer to tell two stories in one, and to reveal a couple of big surprises at the end that were set up in the middle.

Other examples of novel-length frame stories are Wuthering HeightsFrankensteinEthan Frome, and The Princess Bride. Short stories that come to mind are Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" and Stephen King's "The Last Rung on the Ladder."

Fringe benefits

Another reason I think frame narratives can be successful is that they demonstrate the time-proven technique sometimes called a circular ending or a full-circle story. This happens when the story or novel or movie begins at a certain place or with a certain scene or event, and then ends either in that same physical location or with the characters performing that same activity. Why does this always seem to work well? Who knows. Maybe it goes back to the traditional "hero's journey" structure, where the protagonist leaves his familiar routine, embarks on his quest for adventure, confronts his enemies, and eventually returns--a now older and wiser person--to his routine. Or maybe it's because we as readers and viewers silently yearn for a sense of order and logic to our daily lives and endeavors, and (by extension) to the fictional stories that are supposed to be a metaphor for those lives. The circular ending just feels right.

Examples of these full-circle storylines: The Wizard of Oz (opens and closes with Dorothy at the farm), The Searchers (starts and ends with the view of Monument Valley through the open cabin door), To Kill a Mockingbird (Atticus Finch's house), Lonesome Dove (the town of Lonesome Dove, Texas), The Lord of the Rings (the Shire), Pulp Fiction (the same L.A. restaurant), Shane (the little boy watching the gunfighter approach/disappear in the distance), While You Were Sleeping (the train station), Escape From New York (Liberty Island), The Natural (starts with the little boy playing catch with his father, ends with the grown-up boy playing catch with his son), Forrest Gump (the white feather blowing in the wind), High Noon (Will Kane and his bride, standing together with the whole town watching), and many others. Not all stories that have circular endings are frame narratives, of course, but all framed narratives have--at least to some degree--circular endings.

When should a frame story be used?

Again, who can say? I suppose it should be used anytime it might add to the impact or clarity of the story. (Introducing a character as a narrator is effective even when "framing" isn't used.) Another way to look at this is to ask a related question: When should you use bookends? The answer might be "Use them whenever what they support can't stand up on its own." If a before-and-after story can "prop up" another story set in the past, the frame-narrative technique is probably a good option. Also, the project of course has to be long enough to be able to sustain a second storyline.

Over the nineteen years that I've been writing for publication, I've probably used frame stories a dozen or so times. In each case, I felt that it added depth to the story in a way that I couldn't accomplish otherwise--although a more talented writer might have been able to do it with a single storyline.

Have any of you used this approach with your own novels or short stories? Have you noticed or approved of its use in the fiction that you've read? Would you be willing to use it in future projects if you feel it might help?

I consider it just another item in my writer's toolbox, ready and waiting in case I need it. You can never have too many of those.

08 December 2012

Old Dogs and New Tricks

by John M. Floyd

As usual, I've been reading almost as much as I've been writing, lately.  What's unusual is that in a few of the crime novels I've read, there are some new techniques--or at least seldom-used techniques--that caught my attention.

A reborn identity

The first "different" approach I'll mention was used by the late Salvatore Lombino--much better known by the pen names Evan Hunter and Ed McBain--in his novel Candyland.  Those who have read him know that the Evan Hunter name appears on his "literary" novels while Ed McBain writes police procedurals, notably those set in the fictional 87th Precinct of the fictional city of Isola.  In fact Lombino legally changed his name to Evan Hunter many years ago, although I would imagine the pseudonym Ed McBain is more familiar to the reading public.  (Genre writers are almost always better known than literary writers.)

Anyhow, the reason Candyland is unusual is that it's two different books in one.  Billed as a collaboration between the two authors, the first half is written by the more sophisticated Hunter and the second half is written by the crime writer McBain.  (It's as if there really were two different authors rather than the same person; both names are even listed on the book cover.)  Also interesting is that the situation introduced by Hunter is then turned into a tale of murder investigation by McBain.  The viewpoint in the first half is that of the killer, and the viewpoint in the second half is that of one of the homicide detectives.  An intriguing approach, and an entertaining novel.

Don't I know you from someplace?

Another (fairly) rare technique is bringing characters from different series together in the same book.  I know it's been done a number of times, but I've encountered it most recently in two novels by two of my favorite writers.

The Panther, a new book by Nelson DeMille, pairs the characters John Corey and Paul Brenner, both of whom were already known to DeMille fans as protagonists in some of his previous novels.  John Corey was the head fred in DeMille's Plum IslandThe Lion's GameNight FallWild FireThe Lion, etc., and Paul Brenner was the hero of the novel Up Country.  Corey and his wife Kate Mayfield are the main players in The Panther, but Brenner is onscreen for most of the book as well.  As with all series characters, it was fun to meet them again, and also to see how they (when thrown together in the same cage) reacted to each other.

Robert B. Parker did the same kind of thing, occasionally teaming up folks from his three series starring Spenser, Jesse Stone, and Sunny Randall.  In the novel Blue Screen, two of the three series protags even become romantically involved (no, it's not Spenser and Stone), and Parker regularly interchanged minor characters like Rita Fiore, Martin Quirk, and Vinnie Morris.  Again, whenever that happens, and readers discover unexpected but familiar faces, it's fun.  It's like running into old friends while on a faraway vacation.

A Grisham switchum

I'd also like to mention a recent novel by John Grisham, an author I would describe as extremely talented but not extremely innovative. Grisham seems to know what works for him and sticks to it. Except for the occasional lighthearted project (Skipping Christmas) or sports theme (BleachersPlaying for PizzaCalico Joe), the only time I've seen him stray very far afield was with A Painted House, which is a literary, Southern, coming-of-age novel told from the viewpoint of a seven-year-old boy.

But in his latest, The Racketeer, he does some things I haven't seen him do before, stylewise, like mixing present and past tense, and writing some chapters in first person and others in third person.  He even writes the first-person sections in the POV of an imprisoned African-American lawyer.  I can't say it'll be a great story--I only just started it--but it looks pretty good so far.

Hey, Mom, watch this . . .

The kinds of things I've described above are merely different literary approaches, not so-called experimental writing.  Experimental, to me, means something like stream-of-conscienceness, or putting all dialogue in italics, or using second-person plural POV, or omitting all quotation marks, or writing the whole story or novel without using the letter "n."  That kind of writing I don't usually enjoy; I think that's just being different for the sake of being different.  (On the other hand, Cormac McCarthy has been known to employ some pretty wild techniques, and he's an author I like a lot.)

How do you feel about "pushing the envelope" in terms of writing style or other literary devices? Have you done that, in past novels or stories?  Would you consider it, for future projects?  Do you enjoy reading fiction that uses new and different writing techniques and approaches?

Since I don't consider myself particularly innovative or adventurous, I was surprised to find myself enjoying most of these recently-read books I've mentioned.  Who knows, maybe I've learned from them.  Maybe one day I'll try something different myself.

And maybe not.

BREAKING NEWS: The winner of last week's drawing is C.S. Poulsen, who will choose either Death Will Get You Sober (hardcover), the first in Elizabeth Zelvin's mystery series, or her brand new e-novella, Death Will Save Your Life.  Congrats to C.S.!