10 Things You Need to Write a Killer (or not) Mystery

If you’re thinking of breaking into the mystery market, here’s 10 things (in somewhat order of importance) you need to have.

1. A CRIME: aka The Mystery, aka Whatever Your Sleuth Has to Solve crime

The Crime wins first place in order of appearance because without it, there would be no story. Sure, some of you may balk at the idea of basing your novel on plot rather than character, but if you don’t have a handle on the who, what, where, when, why and how of your mystery, then you really have no story.

Mysteries are all about misdirection, reversals, knowing what to reveal when, and keeping your reader (and your sleuth) guessing.

And though it’s a perennial favorite, not all mysteries have to revolve around murder. (I mean, I don’t recall Nancy Drew or Scooby Doo ever stumbling over a dead body on one of their cases.) And there are plenty of other options out there, especially if you’re writing for children or are just the non-violent type (which apparently, I am not).

A few ideas to get you started include: finding a missing item, a missing person; a mysterious person; uncovering the reasons behind a mysterious disappearance, a mysterious event from the past, a tragic accident; solving a burglary, a kidnapping, a poisoning; revealing a blackmail scheme, a crime ring, a crime spree, a drug ring, a drug spree; investigating a seemingly supernatural event, a not-so seemingly supernatural event, a stolen identity, a missing identity, a mistaken identity.

The options are endless, and you could just as easily use a dead body to uncover the real mystery or vice versa.

2. A VILLAIN:

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It goes without saying that every crime needs a villain to commit it. A real live, tangible person who gets what’s coming to him. And while it’s tempting to create a crazed psycho serial killer, it’d be much more interesting for the reader to meet, say, two elderly spinster ladies  who poison lonely old men out of charity.

Get fun and creative with your villain before you start writing. He may be as affable as Casper Gutman or as perverted as Antony Bruno, but either way he (or she) will need to be completely developed before ever hitting the page. Unlike, say, your sleuth who will necessarily become more complex and (hopefully) change in some way as the story progresses.

It may also be tempting to redeem your villain by the end of the story so that he or she feels remorse for whatever crimes were committed and/or possibly commit suicide before spending an eternity in jail, but that is not the point of a mystery. We read mysteries because we want people to get what they deserve. We’re tired of seeing real-world crimes go unsolved, real-world villains get away with murder, real-world victims go unrecognized. We’re just tired. We want justice.

3. A VICTIM

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Just as with villains, every crime needs a victim. When we think of victims, we think of poor, innocent people whose lives are irrevocably changed (or terminated) because of the dastardly deeds of some unscrupulous bastard. And while it does help the case against your villain to nick off a defenseless old lady, not all victims are blameless or defenseless. Sometimes bad things happen to bad people. So if your sleuth is a stand-up gal, she will still feel compelled to solve the crime in the name of truth, justice, and the American way. Or because she just likes a good puzzle.

So remember, victims don’t all have to be puppy dogs and lollipop-licking kids, high school seniors, senior citizens, or battered housewives. In fact, think about the moral dilemmas your sleuth (and your readers) will have if the victim is more villain than not. Do we still want justice? You betcha. (And you can probably throw in a little poetic justice for the victim as well.)

4. A SLEUTH

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Were you wondering when I was going to get to the detective? Well, the possibilities for character, here too, are endless. Really, anyone with keener-than-the-average-person’s observation skills and the desire to solve a puzzle can become the sleuth in your mystery. (For that matter, you could also make a bumbling French detective work.)

There are of course professionals who have extensive resources such as police detectives, private investigators, insurance recovery specialists, lawyers, medical examiners, bounty hunters, FBI agents, MI-6 operatives, etc. These characters will have an easier time of it because 1) it’s their job and 2) they’ll have more practice, so that means you will also have to make the crime harder to solve, the villain harder to identify.

Of course you could always go the route of average Joe turns amateur sleuth, the basis of most cozies. Some tried and true options include: archaeology professors, art historians, clairvoyants, librarians, mystery writers, old ladies, old ladies who are mystery writers, shopkeepers, schoolteachers, postal workers, old men, village vicars, old men who are village vicars, teenage girls, teenage boys, talking dogs, talking cats. Heck, you can even relocate your NYC police detective to Cabot Cove, Maine; or your Cabot Cove, Maine sheriff to New York City.

More often than not, the amateur detectives will have to rely on their ingenuity, analytical skills, women’s intuition, or penchant for gossip rather than forensics and crime databases.

Really, anyone and anything can be a detective. What sets yours apart is what sets millions of characters apart in millions of books: it’s all in how you write them.

5. A DISTINCT NARRATIVE VOICE 

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Speaking of how you write your characters, at some point you’ll have to consider the narrative voice of your story. Many writers confuse voice with point of view. In fact, I read an entire article in Writer’s Digest called, “Amplify Your Narrative Voice,” which was basically three pages describing the difference between first person, third person limited, and third person omniscient perspective. And it had little to do with how what was being said was being said.

Think of it this way, point of view (and the verb tense you use to tell your story) is like a vehicle. It’s a mode of transportation that you control (and can smoke in, if you so desire). Narrative voice is the choice of vehicle you make. It shows off your personality, your preferences, your style. It’s an extension of yourself and your character. It’s the difference between, “Wazzupp?” and “May I inquire how you are doing this evening?” It’s the difference between a shiny, red Maserati and stuffy old man Buick.

6. A KNOWLEDGE OF SUB-GENRE CONVENTIONS

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It goes without saying that your story may fall either completely or mostly in one sub-category of mystery fiction or another, and knowing in which category you’re writing will effectively help you make choices. One of those being narrative voice. So the sooner you realize what type of mystery you want to write, the easier it will be to get your story out.

For instance, if you are writing a noir mystery a la The Maltese Falcon, the tone of your story will be dark, gritty; the world of your story will be steeped in shadows; your characters will be hiding more than they’re revealing, even your sleuth. Especially your sleuth. The narrative voice will be harder, meaner. Descriptions stark and sparse.

Sub-genre conventions will also help you decide what kind of sleuth is appropriate (police procedurals will have, well, police detectives) and lend themselves to specific types of crimes (capers/heists mainly focus on stealing heavily guarded items). Conventions will also inform how technical or descriptive information is given (in cozies, the murder usually happens off-screen and is particularly bloodless in description; in legal thrillers, expect to rely heavily on laws and judicial procedures.)

Of course this goes without saying, there are exceptions to every rule, and if you can pull off a hard-boiled mystery set in the bucolic Scottish countryside, then more power to you. Perhaps this would be a good time to introduce a talking sheep amateur private eye who falls in love with a double-crossing wolf while searching for the Balkan Diamond.

7. AN APPROPRIATE SETTING

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This would also be a good time to talk about setting. As seen in the example above, setting will play a huge role in the nature of the crime, villain, victim, and detective. I’m sure you won’t find many private dicks peeping about people’s windows in a sleepy English hamlet, although if you’ve seen Midsomer Murders, there probably should be.

You’d also be hard-pressed to find Interpol looking into the death of a Russian spy (do they even still have these?) during the Cold War at the Sonic Burger on Route 66.

Or: suppose your story takes place on a Texas cattle ranch where the nearest neighbor is miles away. There’s likely not going to be a lot of witnesses; therefore, your detective will have to rely more on forensic evidence than on interviewing suspects. You also probably won’t find the local sheriff investigating the theft of the T virus on the ranch, although I suppose if it was being injected into cows, you might.

In general, setting will be intrinsically linked to sub-genre conventions and narrative voice.

8. MOTIVE

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Which brings me around to motive. You better have a damn good reason why your villain does what he does and one not so easily figured out if you want to keep your readers guessing. And please don’t use the “crazy psychopath serial killer kills indiscriminately just because he can” or because “the victims all remind him of his abusive mother” motives. I’m sure they can be used in an original story, but it’s not one I want to read.

Oh, there are the old standbys: revenge, greed, lust, even a crime to cover up another crime, but giving your villain, as well as all your other suspects, multiple motives for committing a crime will make your detective’s job that much harder.

For example, an art thief named Falco murders a museum security guard while pulling off a heist, not out of greed or malice, not because the guard could identify him. Instead, he kills the guard because he is the last man standing between Falco and the art smuggler who hired him, who is also holding Falco’s daughter captive until his debts are paid off.

Who is the real villain in this story and what is the real crime? Whom do we want to see brought to justice?

If your motive merely stopped at “the guard was killed because he could identify Falco,” the real crime, the real villain would never be discovered. And you’d probably have a much shorter story.

9. PLOT POINTS, PIVOT POINTS, AND REVERSALS

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If point of view is like the vehicle driving you toward the end of your story, plot points, pivot points, and reversals are like the road signs along the way. They help you figure out where you’re going, how to get there, and if you’re taking too long.

Plot points give your journey structure and move you along. They are like mile markers on a highway telling you that by mile 39 you need to do something so you (and your passenger) don’t fall asleep.

Generally, when your main character makes a decision or takes some form of action, a plot point is born. For instance, your sleuth’s decision to solve the mystery is a plot point because it moves the story forward (and if he doesn’t, the story effectively ends right there). Before this point, your sleuth may have been only mildly interested in the case or even refused to take it, but something forced his hand and now he’s in with both barrels. Likewise, when a new lead or suspect is presented, a new line of interrogation opens up, the story propels forward.

Pivot points, however, are more like exit signs because if you follow one, your journey takes off in a new direction. Think scenic byway instead of straight-shot highway. A bend in the road, a switchback trail. These are the twists and turns that make mysteries exciting. We follow your detective right off the road even if it turns out to be a dead-end because driving on a highway for an extended period of time gets monotonous–the speed, the scenery, the same old CDs. Not to mention sometimes you just need to pee.

Pivot points might include the introduction of a new character or following the thread of a subplot. They provide suspense and excitement. They don’t change the destination just the course of the journey. Buffy finding out Angel is a vampire is a plot twist. Did it change her Vampire Slayer destiny? No, it just took it in a new direction because now they’re fighting evil side-by-side. And kind of killing off his own race.

Reversals are just what they seem: they turn the journey around completely. It’s like the reader thought they were going to a cabin in the woods with you but found out you were heading to the beach instead, and they kind of like the beach better. These are moments of heightened danger and unexpected threats. It’s when the reader says, “Ooh!” because she didn’t see that coming. It’s the moment Buffy finds out Angel turned into Angelus after having sex with him and now he’s the enemy. But don’t worry, you can always turn it around again. And again. And again.

The trick with plot points, pivot points, and reversals is to not make them obvious to the reader. Be sneaky.

10. FALSE LEADS AND RED HERRINGS

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Last but not least, some of the above twists, turns, and reversals can be created by supplying your sleuth with some false leads and red herrings, clues that are too good to be true. Suspects that are too good to be real. The more suspects you have with either motive or opportunity for committing said crime, the more side trips you get to take your reader on. It’s fun to mislead and distract. Nobody wants to figure out the mystery by page 50 of 250. And quite frankly, the art of mystery writing centers on knowing what and when to reveal to keep your reader guessing.

By keeping these 10 things in mind, you’ll be crafting killer mysteries with the best of them.

What would you add to the list? What would you take away?

Stay tuned for posts on many of these necessities with further explanations and examples.

 

 

 

 

 

How to Cultivate a Writing Practice in 2017

So you’ve decided to get serious this year, man up, put on your big girl panties and write. Every single day.

Both a worthy and lofty goal, especially if you were less than successful with the same resolution last year.

But how are you going to do it? How are you going to do it differently? Whose advice are you going to follow? Who are you going to believe?

All important questions, grasshopper-san. Let’s see if we can answer them.

  • For starters, get over the notion that it only takes 21 days to form a new habit. Not going to happen. Not scientifically, not theoretically, not even in our wildest dreams. So stop investing in all those 21 (or 30) day fix programs. You’ll most likely miss a day, quit prematurely, or just feel miserable when that 22nd day comes and nothing has changed.

This notion of 21 days’ habit formation comes from a 1960 quote made by plastic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz. He observed that it took a minimum of 21 days for patients to recognize their own faces after, say, getting a nose job or for phantom limb symptoms to disappear after getting an arm or leg amputated.

That pivotal quote, published in Psycho-Cybernetics, was, “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to gel.”

Two things wrong with using that quote to base your 21 day habit formation off of:

  1. He said “minimum.” The number is not absolute. And there is nothing wrong with you if it takes longer.
  2. He was talking about an “old mental image to dissolve.” That is not the same thing as actively trying to change your behavior.

So how long does it take? According to a study published by Phillippa Lally in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days, depending on the person, habit, and circumstances. But more importantly, it takes more than two months.

Ask any parent who has to train her kid to brush his teeth 3x a day, wash his hands before eating, and use the toilet instead of his diaper. If it only took 21 days, we’d have a lot less stressed mommies and daddies in the world.

(For more on this awesome news, read How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science) by the  inspiring behavioral psychology, habit formation, and performance improvement blogger, James Clear.)

  • Now that you’ve decided you’re in for the long haul, set time aside every day to write. Yes, every day. Yes, on Christmas and your birthdays. And on days when you have no time. (Hey, if it works for Stephen King…)

Do you have to spend the same amount of time writing every day? No. If all you can spare is 15 minutes, then that’s all you do. It’s not the amount of time that matters, it’s the act of doing it.

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Creativity coach, author, and speaker, Rosanne Bane, writes often and emphatically about the magic of writing 15 minutes a day. Doing it is the key to habit formation.

So how can we do it more easily? Especially when we don’t “feel like it” or have time.

  • Create a reward system, not only for those days when you don’t feel like it, but for every day you accomplish your goal. Rewards can be big or small, and they can increase in value or size depending on how hard it was for you to sit your ass in that chair or how long you spent in it: a piece of chocolate, a new book, a massage, an hour to binge watch your favorite new show on Netflix, a dollar in your savings account, 15 minutes in the sunshine, 15 minutes on Pinterest. The choices are endless, the preference individual. Spend some time creating your own reward system.

When you start cultivating this new habit, you’re going to feel resistance. You’re going to not feel like doing it. It’s inevitable, and it’s a good thing. I swear.

Todd Herman from thepeakathlete.com says, “Your resistance is a sign that your system is reconfiguring itself toward success.”

If you’ve read The Desire Map by Danielle LaPorte, and I suggest you do, then you have come across this quote and its explanation.

But if not, she explains the phenomenon of resistance as, “when you enact a significantly positive lifestyle change (new fitness practice, breaking off a toxic relationship, taking on a new job), your brain temporarily floods your body with feel-good neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. It’s your brain’s way of giving you a high-five. The happy-drugs start flowing, fueling your good intentions with seemingly boundless energy. Your commitments seem effortless. This is going to be easier than you thought. You’ve so got this covered. And then, in a cruel-but-necessary act of nature, the party train grinds to a halt. Your neurotransmitters collapse back to their normal output levels (and thank goodness, because otherwise you’d go crazy, in a literal, clinical sense). And like a rushing river that dries up to a trickle, the rah-rah ferocity dissipates.”

This is when you most need to meet that resistance head on, acknowledge it, talk to it in the mirror, embrace it and say, “This resistance and not-feeling-like-it is actually good for me because it means my brain is changing, my habits are starting to stick, and I’m gonna kick its ass. Because that’s what I do.”

  • Literally schedule the time you’re going to write in your planner or calendar.
  • Track your progress to stay accountable then figure out what trips you up and what makes you rock.

This can be done in a number of ways and is again individual. You can use tables, flowcharts, or journal writing. Some things to track might include what time of day you wrote (did you have to squeeze writing in at 11:45 pm because you put it off until the last minute or did you wake up before everyone else so you would have time alone?), what other things were going on in the day (was it your anniversary? were you on a business trip or vacation? was it a day you had nothing else planned?), what you worked on, what you accomplished, what you didn’t accomplish that you wanted to or were supposed to, and how you felt about your writing session.

  • Tap into how you want to feel when you write.

We all visualize ourselves walking into a bookstore and seeing our books on the shelf, or signing copies of our NY Times Bestseller, getting that publishing contract, meeting our agent to negotiate a six-figure deal, etc., etc., etc. But have you ever visualized yourself actually sitting there doing the work, actually writing? Try it. Right down to how you want to feel when you do write: happy, excited, creative. Is it easy, fulfilling, fun? Smile to yourself because you absolutely adore your main character. Cry when your characters cry; laugh when they laugh; get mad when your antagonist takes everything away.

  • Meditate on that feeling often. Revisit the scene of you writing — the feelings you feel — every night before bed, every morning when you wake up, every time you sit down to write.
  • Write about that feeling in your journal. Make it real with as much description as possible. Describe it as if you are a character sitting at her desk writing. How does she feel? What physiological changes are happening in her body? Where does she feel it? In her heart, her stomach, the tips of her toes?
  • Create a writing ritual. Jen Sincero calls this mooching off another habit. It’s when you take a pre-existing habit and attach a new habit to it. The old habit, that you’re already doing, becomes a trigger, so every time you do it, you will use it to create a new habit. For instance, every time you sit down with your first cup of coffee in the morning (or tea), you decide to write for however long it takes you to drink it (or reheat it a million times until you finish it). At some point (maybe not in 21 days), your brain will automatically associate drinking coffee (or tea) with writing. Now, no matter what time of day it is, whenever you reach for your coffee, you’ll start to feel like you want to write. And eventually you just will write. This becomes the ritual.

This will only work if you choose a habit you already do every day and make a conscious effort to attach writing to it, so choose wisely.

  • Make a sacred space for your writing. This can be a desk, a kitchen table, your bed, the couch, or even a seat on the subway. It’s all about inspiration and how you feel when you are there. You don’t have to have a luxury office in the turret of your Victorian home to write. I have a desk, but I never use it except to pile junk on it. It’s in my bedroom where I throw everything I don’t want to see or haven’t had time to put away yet. My bedroom is not inspiring. I feel closed off when I’m in there, which is great for sleeping, but not for feeling connected to anything. Instead, I write usually at my dining table. It has a comfortable chair and it’s at the center of my apartment where I can look out the window or be in the same room with my cat who likes to sleep in the chair next to me. In the summer, I like to write on my balcony because it’s sunny, full of flowers, and my cat likes to hang out there too. Besides, I get to look at the Victorian house across the street and dream about having my own office in a turret someday.

Fill your sacred space with inspiring quotes, pretty stationery, exotic trinkets, or anything else you need to feel comfortable and creative. (Don’t underestimate the value of good chair. In fact, I think the whole design of your space should revolve around it.)

  • Read! Voraciously. Read for pleasure, read for inspiration, read for execution. Take notes and record your thoughts in your journal.
  • Take time for other activities that enhance creativity but have nothing to do with writing. Stephen King walks every day. Laurie Halse Anderson runs. You may want to dance or lift weights, kayak or fish. You may want to take up coloring, sewing, baking, painting, scrapbooking, model building, or anything else that focuses your mind on the task at hand. This gives your brain quiet breathing space in the background to work out issues in your writing without you having to think them to death. You may even find meditation or even just focusing on your breath helps.

Above are some tools that I think are pretty user-friendly and free. You don’t have to invest in a program, a scheme, or even a book. You just have to invest in yourself and do the work.

Was 2016 a blast or a bust? What are you going to do differently this year? 

What techniques have helped you create a writing habit? What advice would you give someone who wants to do the same thing?

 

 

NaNo Warm-Up Part 4

We’re heading into the home stretch. Just a mere 10 days before National Novel Writing Month officially kicks off.

Hopefully, you’ve taken advantage of some of the writing exercises I’ve shared in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, and it sparked a new juicy novel idea to work on next month.

For some, you might not have been as consistent with your writing as you would have liked and now you’re asking yourself how will you ever be able to write 1,667 words for 30 days in a row? That’s like going to take way longer than 10 or 15 minutes a day.

Your heart picked up a little just now, didn’t it? And your breathing got a little shallower. Your inner critic is probably laughing at you and telling you it’s not possible.

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Of course, it’s possible. Thousands of people do it every year. And you can too. Consistency is the key. Every day you have to sit down and try. Try is the operative word. Even if you only manage to write, say, 100 words a day, that’s still 100 more words than you had yesterday. And that is cause for celebration. (Hey, if James Joyce considered two perfectly written sentences a full day’s work, so can you.)

So instead of giving you another writing exercise this week, something that may only take a few minutes to complete, I thought I’d share some tips on how to write consistently and not feel like crap about it.

  • Be specific about when and where you are going to write. Choose the time and place that fits your schedule. It may vary depending on what day of the week it is or even what your kids’ schedule is like, but knowing ahead of time when and where you will be writing every day will alleviate the first hurdle.
  • Set boundaries on your time. If you don’t have the luxury of living alone, don’t let other people bother you when you’re trying to write. Lock yourself in the bathroom, get up earlier or go to bed later than everyone else in the house, slip out to the library for an hour. The best place to write is a cemetery. No one bothers you there.
  • Decide on what or how much you want to accomplish each day. Start off by setting the bar low, like really low to start, so that when you’ve met your goal, you feel like a badass. Start with 100 words a day, then 250, then 500, then the dreaded 1,667.
  • Or if the thought of a word count already raises your blood pressure, start off by completing one scene per day, or one page per day. You’ll be in the company of John Steinbeck who advised the same thing when he wrote, “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” 

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  • Never stop writing when you can’t think of anything to say. You’ll be frustrated before you even start the next day and you’ll waste valuable, precious time pulling your hair out, slamming your fists on the desk, and swearing into your computer screen. Ernest Hemingway said it best when he offered this piece of fatherly advice, “You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next, and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.”
  • Create the habit of writing by attaching it to a habit you already have (preferably one that’s good for you, but I guess it doesn’t have to be). My favorite thing to do on weekend mornings is drink a pot of tea. When that tray comes out and the first cup is poured, I know it’s time to write.
  • Likewise, you can create a writing ritual. Perform the same meaningful (or meaningless) routine to get you in the mood. Charles Dickens would rearrange knickknacks on his desk, Steinbeck would sharpen 12 pencils, Mark Twain wrote lying down, and Victor Hugo stripped naked to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (For more weird writing rituals of famous authors, check out this book.)

If the thing that gets you down is not so much the time spent at writing but what you end up with on the page, remember you are not the only writer to ever think that what you’ve written is crap. Maya Angelou said, “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay, I’ll come.'”

Remember the operative word is “try.” No one is going to think that what they wrote at such a furious pace like the one set by NaNo is great. And if they do, then it really is crap. The point behind the challenge is to just get the words out, the story finished, not to labor over linguistics.

Joshua Wolf Shenk puts it like this, “Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and rewriting the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.”

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So this week, make writing a priority, or at least set plans to in motion, and have the courage to try.

Hey, if it helps, you can always tell yourself you were trying to write the worst novel ever written.

Good luck!

 

 

Take What You Need

A little widget told me it’s been a year since my last post.

During that time, I’d been on a quest to work my way through Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days. It was more like 30 weeks. I didn’t finish that quest or continue to blog about it mostly because I realized I didn’t want to plan the crap out of my story.

And a first draft is really much more difficult than just writing an expanded outline. But I don’t have to tell you.

Unfortunately, I’m the type of person who believes that if I don’t write the way _______ writes, then I’ll never be a good writer. (I also believed everything my teachers told me because they were supposed to be the experts.)

So after finishing Wiesner’s book and realizing that wasn’t the process for me, I read Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (and it’s not as much a book written by him as it is a transcription of the writing classes he taught).

This book=polar opposite. His premise is that, to write literary fiction, you can’t write from your literal mind. You can’t logically, intellectually, consciously plot and plan. You must go into your writer’s trance and “dream” up your characters, scenes, and structure. You cannot write summary, generalization, or what teachers like to call “telling.” You must create yearning in your character and describe everything sensually, i.e. through the five senses. It is not okay to write something like, “As she walked into the party, she looked around and saw her ex-husband standing at the bar.” That is telling. There is no yearning or sensuality in that sentence. (Actually, you’re not even supposed to write, “She looked around.” Or, “She walked into the party,” for that matter.)

So for about six more months, I felt like crap because I couldn’t do what Butler was telling me to do–write first thing in the morning before doing anything else so I was closer to the dreamworld than the realworld, describe every scene sensually, stay away from summary and generalizations (there are some interesting chapters in which Butler deconstructs his students’ stories sentence by sentence to illustrate his point), and use an object to highlight this yearning which creates a metaphor which becomes a motif.

(Oh, and if you’re looking for him to tell you how to get into that writer’s trance, A.K.A. the flow, he doesn’t.)

Don’t get me wrong, there are many things I like about this book. For instance, visualizing your story, your scenes, your characters from a dreamlike state (even those you will eventually throw out) and how to write using film techniques like shots, close-ups, cuts. (This chapter, using a brilliant example from Hemingway, explains why you should never write, “She looked around.”)

But the thing that gives me the biggest niggle is that Butler chooses to distinguish “literary” writing from “entertainment” writing in a not very nice way. He even goes so far as to call Stephen King a “non-artist.” He does this because he thinks “entertainment” writers have an agenda before they even start to write (as in, King wants to scare you). Butler says, “These writers know the effects ahead of time and so they construct an object to produce them.” Real artists, A.K.A. literary writers, don’t know ahead of time what they’re writing because the characters, their yearning, their metaphors and motifs happen organically.

Are we to believe, then, that “literature” (as opposed to “commercial” writing) should not be entertaining? Is this why so many people hate English? But what’s the point of reading fiction if not to be entertained in some way? To escape where you are, who you are, what you think, what you feel at this moment. Writing “entertainment” fiction does not mean the author, or the reader, cannot also explore the human condition in some deep, meaningful way. It just means something actually happens in the story.

To sum up, I think it’s important to not follow just one author’s method or process of writing. Even if it’s Stephen King’s process. Read books and blogs, listen to podcasts, watch interviews and TED Talks by writers about writing to give you ideas, not force you into thinking there is only one right way to be a good writer.

And by all means, use your sixth sense. If your gut gives you a niggle that the advice isn’t right for you, trust it. Take what you need and leave the rest.

The End

The end, also known as the conclusion, resolution, falling action, or denouement, should be the shortest section of your story, so don’t worry if your outline looks a little skimpy. Indeed, you may only have a few scenes or only a few setting changes.

(We’ll discuss more on what exactly a scene consists of in a forthcoming post, but for now, think of a scene as taking place in one distinct setting like bedroom, boardroom, stock exchange floor, police interrogation room, hospital room.

Don’t confuse it with other distinct areas of a general setting. For instance, in a police station you might have several different settings such as Captain’s office, breakroom, interrogation room, holding cell, dispatch cubicle, detectives’ desk area, etc. Each time your protagonist [or POV character if writing in third person omniscient] moves into a new area of the police station, you can label it as a new scene.)

Basically, the end section of your story begins after your main conflict has been resolved. You’ll know when this happens because all the tension will have been released. You, along with the reader, are finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. In a mystery, this may be when the police finally arrest the criminal. Or when two lovers finally profess their feelings for each other in a romance novel. Or the ragtag crew of bandits overthrow the evil queen in a fantasy novel.

It’s a chance for you to tie up any loose ends in one or all of the subplots (though not all subplots have to be resolved) and a chance for your readers to view the aftereffects of the resolution. If your protagonist was fighting for the good of humanity, we will need to see how humanity reacts to the outcome of the conflict. Maybe the town is rebuilding after being devastated by the evil queen, or a community holds a candlelight vigil for lives lost during the battle. Maybe no one even notices that anything has changed (think government conspiracies that happen unbeknownst to the general public). But your characters know because they have changed during the process.

Use the end of the story to show us these aftereffects both physically and emotionally, but keep it brief. If you’ve outlined your story well, the ending will be both logical and satisfying without the need for lengthy explanations. If you find you do have too much to explain, you many need to rework your main plot or consider tying up various subplots earlier. All of your plots should not be resolved at the same time.

Many writers find it helpful to craft their ending scenes in such a way that their protagonist and important minor characters can congregate in one place to tie up loose ends. Settings that can bring everyone together could be at a wedding reception, birthday party or school dance, in a bar, a restaurant, the village commons–any place and/or event that seems logical not only for your story but for your characters as well.

So see? The end is not as complicated as you thought.

The following is my first pass at outlining the conclusion of my story. There are actually only two distinct settings: outside the school and inside the headmaster’s office, but I broke the scenes down into which characters were interacting with each other and which subplots were being resolved.

  1. Back on campus, Insp. Hunt drives True and Nils to the administration building. True’s mother is waiting for her and doesn’t look too proud that her daughter is getting hauled up in a police car.
  2. Inspector Hunt talks to the administrators alone. Bettina, Nils, Tucker on crutches, and Konstantine, hand in hand with Bettina, are all anxiously awaiting the plight of their friend.
  3. True and her mother meet with Headmaster Wickingham alone. The school feels that though True did break every rule, it was her tenacity that broke this case wide open. Though she would still be placed on disciplinary probation, they would like her to continue her studies at this school. If it’s ok with mom. Mom broke up with David because she didn’t want to lose her only daughter and her husband in the same year. She can stay.
  4. Outside everyone claps and cheers. True tells Hunt she knows he put a good word in for her. And she thanks him. Nils tells True she can write the kind of article about this experience using the first person if she still wants to. True says she’ll start on it right away just as soon as she and mother take a little time together. She asks Mr. Bartleby to pack their bags in the car and take them to the train station bound for London.
  5. Rumpleton brings up a basket with freshly baked goodies for True and her mother to eat on the train. She winks that there might be a nail file baked into the cinnamon apple braid bread.

You can’t do any worse than this, so take heart and plot on.

The End