Category Archives: Heidi Wilson

Losing Fallowfields

The trouble with plotting a novel in which your protagonist encounters challenge and change is that you have to experience her losses with her. Eliza Harris, protagonist of my long-labored mystery novel, is going to end up moving into a “senior community” of highly eccentric academics. When I thought this up, it seemed full of promise. That was before I invented Fallowfields, the house she is going to leave.

 

“The Ridge,” known as the “finest group of Federal-style houses in the United States”

Near my own real home (I am, unfortunately, a real person) is a short stretch of country road where, around 1800, six New Hampshire tycoons built their mansions, one right next to the other. Remember the old ads for Dewar’s Scotch that had a rich guy trotting across the yard to his neighbor’s palatial home from his own, to borrow a cup of Dewar’s? It’s like that. Without realizing I was doing it, I created Fallowfields from bits and pieces of the three houses I’ve visited.

Fallowfields? (Actually a house in Glencoe, Illinois)

Externally, Fallowfields is unlike the Ridge houses. It’s a Victorian brick monstrosity, rather like the house of the Addams family. Inside, though, it’s a dream. In fact, imagined houses are like dreams. Bits and pieces of places we’ve known are plugged in or detached as needed, logic not included. As in Terry Pratchett’s Empirical Crescent (built, you will recall, by Bloody Stupid Johnson), the door of Number 3 can open into the back bedroom of Number 14, entirely without consequence.

Once you import these mysteriously significant spaces into a story, though, the pieces need to fit. The staircase and the fireplace in Fallowfields’ living room have changed places three times. In the end, the fireplace settled on an outside wall – less likely than a central position in a house of its vintage, but I needed a staircase open to the living room, so one character can overhear a remark not meant for her ears.  Of course, she could simply have been walking in from another room on the same floor. But by that time, I had the stage set in my mind, and her descent from above pleased the director in me.

The layout of Fallowfields has reached the point of proprioception for me. I can feel the living room on my right as I stand in the dining room looking down the corridor to the front door. This south side of the house has been grafted onto the layout of the local mansions – it is an apartment that my mother lived in for only one year while I was mostly away at college. So although Fallowfields is a very large house, with big rooms, when my mind is absorbed in the action of the story, the walls shrink in around me. When space is needed for, say, a large party or for a character to be far enough away from another for a whisper not to be heard, the walls ease out again. These contortions warn me to be careful; they’ll be fertile breeding ground for howlers in the logistics of the story.

Eliza’s desk

The furnishings are much to my taste. Eliza’s desk is huge and heavy, made of the same mahogany as the pieces brought into our household by my English great-grandmother. It sits beside a tall window with six-over-six panes of glass. Outside is an ancient maple, huge and close enough for Eliza to watch lines of snow fall from individual twigs on a sunny February day. There is a liquor cabinet well-stocked with Scotch, bourbon and, at the back, an old bottle of rye that comes in handy for a rough-and-tumble visitor. The kitchen has a soapstone sink, hewn from the (perfectly real) soapstone quarry near my home on the side of Cottonstone Mountain.

Fallowfields has outbuildings linked together in the big-house-little-house-back-house-barn configuration of early New England farms. These, unmagicked, are cobbled together from the back house and barn of the original farmhouse on our property plus my grandmother’s chicken house in Peacham, Vermont.

Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn

My mystery plot requires that the back house have a loft, the barn’s tack room be turned into a laboratory and its hay loft into an apartment. They lost none of their reality in these renovations. The horse stalls in the far end of Eliza’s barn still bear the faded names of Shetland ponies who lived, long ago, in ours: Jennifer, Princess, Duchess.

So it will be very hard for me to force Eliza out of Fallowfields. I console myself with the thought that it will remain enshrined in the story, holding in place a lifetime of memories.

What about you, readers and fellow writers? As a story streams through your brain, what parts of your world does it clothe itself in?

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Plot Blindness 2

Two months ago, I started work on a short story. Being, as I thought, hopeless at making up plots, I decided to call in a specialist. I hauled down my old copy of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale, wound my way through his detailed analysis of 600 Russian fairy tales, and plucked out the elements of a plot. Then I set to work to fill in the outline with a story of my own, about a carnival beset with supernatural difficulties.

The process may be working.

My original two pages of single-spaced blather was what you would get if shooting a writer in the head caused her ideas rather than her brain to splatter over the computer screen. (You can tell I come to this from the mystery genre.) As I said in a blog post at the time, the minute I set pen to paper, marvelous images and ideas proliferated out of all proportion to their usefulness. Booths selling deep-fried Twinkies jostled elderly elephants and juggling dwarfs for the spotlight. My characters wrangled over money, power, the uses of magic and dietary insufficiency.

By the grace of some Muse, I had the idea of searching the jumble for objects and events that would make striking scenes, regardless of logic. The jumble began to separate. In brief summaries, every scene made sense within itself. Some of them actually had an arc to them.

Once I had seven or eight scenes, stretching from start to resolution, I was sorely tempted to start writing. I held off, though. I tinkered. The carnival got realer and realer, but the plot got more tangled. As the scenes grew elaborate, contradictions between them multiplied.

Somehow, having each contradictory element trapped in its own scene made the process manageable. One by one, scrolling up and down, I made the changes needed to untangle them. By the time I had a complete set of scenes, I also had a workable plot.

Better still, as I worked, characters changed their motivations, their functions, their importance. The villain and a minor character swapped places. They all started talking to each other, and I eavesdropped on some quite good dialogue.

At last I started writing, and learned that writing as a plotter feels different from writing as a pantser. Same feeling of flow – complete absorption in the task – but it feels like working with a smaller brush. With a clear picture of what needs to be written right here and now, I find I’m working simultaneously on narrative, images and wording. I can reword a sentence three times in the course of writing one paragraph, without losing focus on the story. It feels tighter, but just as satisfying.

There are still glitches. Seeing each scene in great detail lets details creep in for their own sake. I need to give more thought to the order in which the reader learns things vs. the chronological order of events. Revisions will be needed, but as a plotter, I’m less afraid that they will simply blow the whole thing up.

Onward!

Rx for Plot-Blindness

Having recently attempted to mend a badly boggled plot, and as a result scattered a whole book to the winds, I decided it was time to work stupid. Plagiaristically, even. I pulled off my bookshelf a favorite old textbook. Not from a creative writing class – I never took one of those (and that was a bad mistake.) My chosen instructor was Vladimir Propp, Russian scholar of folk tales and author of Morphology of the Folk Tale. 

Morphology analyzes the structure of the stories in a huge corpus of Russian folk tales assembled by Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev, who was the Russian brothers Grimm rolled into one.

Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev

Afanasyev’s collection, published between 1855 and 1867, filled eight volumes and included some 600 tales. Propp found that he could condense everything that happened in every single one of the tales into a list of no more than 31 narrative events. He called these “functions.”

Better yet, for those of us with plot blindness, Propp claimed that whatever subset of the functions was included in a tale, they always appeared in the same order. That is, a tale might include only functions 2, 3, 8, 14, 16, 18, 30 and 31, but in the chronology of the tale, those functions will always appear in that order. Marvelous! Pick your functions, fill in a few details and there’s your story! Right?

The subset of functions above is not random: they’re the ones I picked out for my ready-made plot. Here are their definitions:

INTERDICTION: A forbidding edict or command is given.

VIOLATION OF INTERDICTION: The prior rule is violated.

VILLAIN CAUSES HARM, not necessarily to the hero.

HERO ACQUIRES A MAGICAL AGENT.

COMBAT OF HERO AND VILLAIN

VILLAIN IS DEFEATED.

VILLAIN IS PUNISHED.

HERO IS MARRIED AND ASCENDS THE THRONE.

Now, about those details….

Brainstorming is where I always get into trouble. It’s not that I can’t do it. I just find myself unreasonably delighted with the characters, settings and odd little objects that pop into my head. Once I’ve thought them up, I can’t sacrifice them just to make some stupid plot work.

Eat Me!

The hot dogs are a case in point. I’m currently re-re-re-reading The Circus of Dr. Lao, Charles G. Finney’s 1935 masterpiece about a very strange little carnival. So my brainstorm around the Propp plot naturally begins by setting my story in a carnival. A magical carnival, of course. That decided, I need a combat at a carnival. Bingo! A hot dog eating contest now infests my story, and I can’t get rid of it. And wait! Carnivals always have lots of stalls selling food. Like state fairs… Have you heard about the deep-fried Oreos at the New Jersey State Fair? The deep-fried butter in Wisconsin? How about those Twix-stuffed Twinkies wrapped in bacon at the North Carolina State Fair? I’ve got to get stuff like that in.

Then, instead of casting about for an interdiction, my mind leaps ahead to the magical agent. It’s my favorite function, and my favorite form of it has always been the magical animal. Propp lists multiple ways in which these may fulfill the function; I end up combining three of them. The third, a bag of dragon’s teeth, wandered in from my long-ago dissertation on the Argonautika.

So now I’m knee-deep in hot dogs, fried butter and dragon’s teeth. When I finally start the search for a good interdiction, food is still on my mind. I get a good long way with “no magic in the food for customers,” but then that gets tangled up with a princess (actually the carny owner’s daughter) who isn’t allowed to eat because it messes up her magic…. Did I mention that Propp also condensed the character list into only seven people?

I showed my brainstorm to date to my writing group. They said, “???”

I’m determined, though. I’ve already caught myself in three intolerable contradictions and wrestled my way out of them. I will get a story out of this exercise, or eat a Twix-stuffed Twinkie wrapped in bacon.

Win-win.

Breaking the Mystery Rules

I was whining away on a Facebook page the other day (Golden Age Detection) about how the current “rules” for mystery novels are turning them boring. So today, a positive note: a review of one of my favorite Golden Age mysteries that breaks many of those rules, Dead Water by Ngaio Marsh.

The book begins, as Marsh’s always do, with a list of the “dramatis personae.” Marsh worked in the theatre, and some of her best mysteries take place during theatre productions. (Her very best book, in my view, is Light Thickens, in which she violates the most sacred commandment of the Detection Club by…

SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t read Light Thickens yet, scroll past the single line in italics immediately below this one.

 

…ending the story with the entirely satisfactory discovery of a homicidal maniac.

 

I love to make my way through the dramatis personae list, imagining likely interactions, spotting promising eccentrics and provokers of conflict. In Dead Water, the obvious candidate is “Miss Emily Pride, Suzerain of [Portcarrow] Island.”

Dead Water comprises only nine chapters, and the first of them is that major no-no, a prologue. Its title is actually “Prelude.” It recounts the alleged appearance of a fairy in a modern-day (that’s 1963) UK fishing village, and village’s resulting transformation into a folklore-y spa. Conflict is confined to minimal levels of discomfort as the whole cast of characters is introduced. Far from leaving anyone hanging from a cliff, the final sentence of the Prelude informs the reader that the story is about to leap over the following two years. This prologue takes up its full 1/9 of the text.

(“Prelude” also sets up one rule-blessed plot thread of which Marsh was fond: a romantic young couple, who will – the reader always knows – live happily ever after once the inevitable murder is cleared up.)

The first quarter of Chapter Two is very heavy to backstory, another no-no. The vivid characterization makes it perfectly smooth and perfectly fascinating. One of Marsh’s best creations, Miss Emily Pride, born ca. 1880, was formerly French coach to rising members of His Majesty’s diplomatic service. The rest of the chapter sets the scene for future confrontations, but the participants in the main conflict of the story remain hundreds of miles apart.

In Chapter 3 the enemies meet and conflict escalates, but nothing worse than threats and minor assaults occur. Not until the end of the chapter does the detective/protagonist appear on this scene of not-quite-crimes. In this reader’s opinion, the threatened victim beats out our hero for character and interest. (I’ve never been hugely enamored of Marsh’s detective Roderick Alleyn. He and the mysteries he unravels serve, it seems to me, largely as an axis for the galaxy of her dramatis personae.)

We are now 1/3 of the way through the book. The first quarter of Chapter 4 is a comic and entirely believable account of a disastrous village festival, ending in nothing worse than a thunderstorm. Not until the end of the chapter, at the 40% mark, does the first and only corpse in the story appear, and it is not a cliffhanger but an elegant switcheroo.

From that point, detection takes over, with no diminution of character interest or involvement with the setting. Marsh’s brilliant plotting picks up from the early chapters clues and red herrings –– including the fairy and the thunderstorm – so subtle as to have been invisible even to experienced mystery readers as they passed by. When the usual climactic scene of derring-do is complete (another rule that Marsh generally followed), Chapter 9 continues with an extended explanation by the detective, a happy ending for the lovers and charitable provision made for innocent sufferers. This denouement covers two days.

Marsh’s editors seem to have had no problem with passages inserted for sheer fun. Here’s one of my favorites. A now-deceased character, whose sole function is to have made a plot-generating bequest to Miss Emily, is described:

My sister, Fanny Winterbottom,” Miss Emily announced, “was not free from this fault. I recall an informal entertainment at our Embassy in which she was invited to take part. It was a burlesque. Fanny was grotesquely attired and carried a vegetable bouquet. She was not without talent of a farouche sort and made something of a hit. Verb. Sap.: as you shall hear. Inflamed by success she improvised a short equivocal speech at the end which she flung her bouquet at H.E. It struck him in the diaphragm and might well have led to an incident.

So there’s an instance of brilliant, rule-breaking mystery writing. A small prize (a blog shout-out) is offered to all who can name a recently published equal.

Why Book Hoarding is Different

Tsundoku, the Japanese word for “the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piling it up together with other such unread books”

 

The To Be Read pile is an ambiguous object.

On the one hand, there’s a genuine guilt factor: “I really shouldn’t spend any more on books till I’ve read these. Or at least till the pile is smaller.”

On the other hand, there’s the built-in humblebrag: “You should see my TBR pile! The floor joists are starting to creak!” (“Why, what a very cultivated kind of youth this kind of youth must be!“)

Neither argument is relevant for a book hoarder deciding to buy a new book. Books aren’t substitutable. This is something that non-bibliophiles find hard to understand. Raise your hand if anyone has ever said to you, “Don’t you have enough books already?”

The fact that David Mitchell’s sixfold fantasy Cloud Atlas, acquired a month ago at the Five Colleges Book Sale, is waiting on my TBR pile does not mean that I can pass up The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy, a novel based on Ireland’s Celtic Tiger property boom.

But is it fair to call this book accumulation hoarding? The book hoarder – or let’s just say ‘owner’ – fully intends to read the books. True, all those people living between stacks of decades-old newspapers also defend their possessions fiercely, claiming that they will, or may, or might read them someday. The social worker brought in by the family claims to know better.

Let us try for objective truth here. The Literary Hub website provides a scientific calculation of the number of books you can read before you die. Plug in your age and your own estimate of your reading speed (“average,” “voracious” or “super”) and they will tell you how many books you’ve got to go.

Getting the number is like hearing the first Bong! of the church bell for your own funeral. My number is 875. Only three digits. On the bright side, my TBR pile is much smaller than that. Even if I count all the TBRs that have moved over the years from the Pile to my shelves, unread, because a higher pile threatened an industrial accident, I can probably buy a few hundred books and still die absolved. Only a few hundred.

Suppose your number is smaller than your TBR pile, honestly counted. Is it hoarding then? According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, the criteria for hoarding concern an inability to discard hoarded items. Nothing about how much you acquire. (Note that the APA is vaguely aware of a definitional difficulty here: they are currently debating whether to say “regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions” or “regardless of their actual value.”)

No problem there. I just donated seven cartons of books to the above-mentioned book sale. I now have exactly enough room for my TBR books on my shelves. The only remaining problem is where to put the next 875.

However, the DSM also stipulates that “the symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (including maintaining a safe environment for self and others).”

Again, we have a definitional problem. Distress or impairment to whom? I don’t mind the occasional spilled coffee when I miss the one remaining mug-shaped space on the table with my current reads because my eyes are fixed on the text. Is the pained expression on my husband’s face “clinically significant”? If so, he must need a psychiatrist.

Fiction Finds Its Fact

 

I had already invented a historic house for my murder. It dated to pre-Revolutionary times. I knew how it had begun –smallish, built by a hard-working tiller of the stony New Hampshire soil – and how it had grown as the family prospered. The foursquare, four-room shelter expanded, front, back and sides, as the nineteenth century progressed. The second story lost its sloping bedrooms and acquired an attic. Greek Revival doohickeys appeared. Even the sheds and barn grew neat.

This week, I got a chance to visit the kernel of my mysterious house. A kindly neighbor is selling his 1775 farmhouse, and he gave me a royal tour. I found myself regretting that I had allowed my fictional Stark House to be tinkered with by a bunch of equally fictional ancestors.

We stepped from the narrow front porch into a graceful swirl of centuries. A narrow wooden staircase on the left of the hall was painted in a deep, vivid blue, like the rich colors that once graced Mount Vernon. The paper on the walls reminded me of the papers Americans imported in the eighteen hundreds, when they established themselves among the nations — as consumers with the best of them.

To either side of the hall were parlors, each with its fireplace, rooms deliberately kept small to conserve heat and prevent drafts. There were signs of new prosperity here, too: the wood-paneled walls may have been the work of a carpenter known to have come through town in the 1830s. He dressed up a number of the local houses – no one wanted to be left behind the fashion. My neighbor had stripped off the centuries of paint that disguised it; you can now stroke the original wood of this 19th-century upgrade.

Behind the smaller parlor was the “warming room.”  It shared a chimney with the large kitchen behind the company rooms. Here babies came into the world and the old left it, tended by the women of the family as they kept the kitchen fire going and the stew on the simmer. Our woods here in the Upper Valley still grow good lumber, but the trees that provided its wide floor boards and the original rafters above the kitchen are no more.

The old kitchen has become a living area, its original rafters once again visible, and the extension of the house to the back now houses a modern kitchen. One thing hasn’t changed: my host had a stew in progress that any Puritan goodwife would have envied (or at least asked for the recipe.)

When we made our way down to the basement, I knew that I had missed a great opportunity for my fictional Stark House. Its walls were made of fieldstone, like the walls that run through all our woods and pastures here, but with a big difference. These had been matched and placed with such care and skill that the corners were militarily precise. Just over our heads – we’re both about middle height – huge wooden beams lowered over us. Many had been replaced over the years, but some were still unsquared trunks from those ancestral forests. Think what crimes I could have committed – and concealed! — in such a basement. Just a little monkeying with the light fixtures….

Outside, under the lawn, there are signs of another foundation, probably the barn. I ached to know whether it had once been connected to the house by sheds and work buildings in the style known as Big-House-Little-House-Back-House-Barn. Those convoluted connections figure largely in my murders.

I can see that I’ll have to write a sequel, if only to add the counterpart of this lovely place to my fictional Oxbow, New Hampshire.

Remarkable Manuscripts

You know how the writing mavens warn you against letting yourself get carried away by your research? Against noodling around in depth upon depth of interesting stuff instead of turning out text? Today we consider how much fun you can have if you ignore them.

At present, I’m plotting a mystery that will involve a rare books library and its collection of illuminated manuscripts. My first and most valuable co-conspirator is that deeply respectable institution, the British Library. Their daily Medieval Manuscripts blog greets my every morning with some new twist on their very old theme. The BL is digitizing its collection, so you can burrow down to find what interests you or browse just for fun.

A phoenix immolating itself, from a medieval bestiary
British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 45r

This phoenix was on display at the BL’s recent exhibition “Harry Potter: A History of Magic,” which brought together texts and museum objects that Harry himself might have used to pursue a wizardly education. It comes from a bestiary that might have been the text for Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures class. (The exhibition sold out long in advance for every single day, a first for the Library.)

For facts and figures, and above all to avoid howlers, I’m studying Christopher de Hamel’s 2017 blockbuster, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts. (Okay, it may not have been on the bestseller lists. But it’s 632 pages long and weighs three pounds.) De Hamel is the former librarian of the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College at Cambridge, a treasure house of manuscripts.

De Hamel travelled the world to research this book, visiting twelve of the most important and most beautiful manuscripts in existence. The earliest dates to the late 500s, the latest to about 1515. Each essay combines his travels, accounts of each rare book library and its denizens, his musings on the manuscripts – including some new observations and deductions on the making and history of each – with multiple images of the illuminations, of their present homes and of the men and women who bought, sold and preserved them.

Chapter One concerns the Gospels of St. Augustine, owned by Corpus Christi itself. It is the oldest surviving Latin gospel book anywhere in the world. The saint in question is not the fourth-century Bishop of Hippo but the missionary who brought Roman Catholicism to England. The book’s readings of the text and its imagery served as exemplars for later and more elaborate gospel books down the centuries.

Its predecessors may be even more interesting: scholars suggest links between the style of its art and Ethiopia, a home of early Christian monasticism. That style of Ethiopian religious painting persists today.

Scenes from the Passion of Christ
Gospels of St. Augustine

 

Modern Ethiopian religious woodcut
fineartamerica.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

De Hamel’s anecdotes are even more enticing than his scholarship. Here we see him in his librarian persona, dressed in full academic regalia, presenting the Gospels of St. Augustine for Pope Benedict’s veneration when he visited England. That’s Rowan Williams, the late Archbishop of Canterbury, on the left.

Christopher de Hamel, the Gospels of St. Augustine, and others

The Gospels of St. Augustine are also used during the enthronements of Archbishops of Canterbury, and at the last two such ceremonies, de Hamel again presented the book. He reports that in 2003, at the enthronement of Rowan Williams, at the first vibrating notes of the opening hymn, the parchment pages of the book rose and fluttered. He adds that the same did not occur for the current incumbent.

In the succeeding chapters, we meet, among others, the Book of Kells, the Copenhagen Psalter and the Visconti Semideus. Here are a few tidbits that may find their way, suitably transmuted, into my mystery:

Decorative emblems of St. Mark and St. Luke
The Book of Kells

De Hamel says he is often asked if the Book of Kells is like a Book of Hours. And if so, his questioners want to know, what is a kell? Such innocent ignorance pales beside the vandalism of one George Mullen, who “restored” the Book of Kells in the 1820s and saw fit to touch up the decorations with white paint, to “improve the definition.”

The Copenhagen Psalter, we learn, was probably created as a first reading book for a young prince. This purpose is demonstrated by a large, carefully drawn alphabet and a table of punctuation and abbreviations. Its illuminations are certainly royal. If manuscripts, de Hamel says, were accompanied by music, the Copenhagen Psalter would require trumpets and a church organ.

Cat playing a rebec
British Library Harley 6563 f 40

More endearing, though, are the marginalia, calculated to appeal to a child. One of them shows a cat playing a rebec, a sort of early fiddle. This image occurs in many illuminated manuscripts and harks back, de Hamel believes, to whatever tale or folk belief gave us “Hey diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle.” He adds that when a dinner guest of his own, a master of medieval music, arrived with a rebec, an experiment became possible. The musician played, and de Hamel’s cat “rushed in as if drawn by a magnet, rolling on the floor in ecstasy, as punch drunk as a dervish.”

 

The Semideus is a manual on warfare, presented to Filippo Maria Visconti, duke of Milan, in 1438. The violent subject matter was appropriate to the recipient, a warlord whose emblem was a blue viper devouring a child. Yet the pictures of tactical devastation are charming, washed with soft pastel colors and full of tiny, perfect detail. This battle scene is viewed from the opposing page by the Madonna and Child, beaming down on the carnage from the center of a sunburst (another Visconti emblem.)

Battle scene of Crusaders attacking a Muslim city
Visconti Semideus

The St. Petersburg National Library is the current home of the Semideus. When de Hamel arrived, he went through a near-Soviet experience of rigid and inexplicable bureaucracy interspersed with casual Russian friendliness. At last he settled down to inspect the precious manuscript. He was so immersed in his work that it was well past lunch time when he looked up. The Russian invigilator keeping watch over the reading room realized he had missed the meal – so she brought him a handful of whiskey-flavored chocolates to eat while he continued to handle the manuscript.

Could I put together my mystery plot with less information than this? Logic says yes. I say no. These winding little back alleys of fact are putting flesh on the bones of my story and slowly filling the memories (and the unconscious) of several of my characters. At any rate, the mavens can’t prove that I don’t need to do this. Until they can, I plan to enjoy myself.

On Not Winning the Freddie

Not winning the Freddie Award is quite a bargain.

The Freddie Mascot
(The Flamingo of Doom)

The Freddie Award for Writing Excellence is awarded annually to the best unpublished, uncontracted and unagented mystery submitted to the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. The winner gets free admission to Sleuthfest, the Florida MWA chapter’s annual conference, a nice plaque and possibly a chance to pitch the agent or editor who did the final judging.

I didn’t win, but for my $30 entry fee, I got to submit the first twenty pages of my novel to be scored and commented on by three anonymous judges. That’s a lot of expertise for thirty bucks. Making use of it may prove a little challenging, though.

When the email popped up in my inbox, my heart turned over. I could tell from the first words, which showed up in the subject line, that I hadn’t won, but I was steeled for that. The terror came from facing the comments of three professionals, none of whom were friends, members of my writing group, or being paid to be helpful. However, I had thirty bucks on the table. I made myself hit “open.”

The Freddie has each judge fill in a rating sheet with separate scores on characterization, plot & conflict, dialogue, opening & setting, style & pacing, and mechanics. Most of the ratings were accompanied by a brief commentary on the reasons for the rating, often with examples and suggestions (not actual suggested wording, but “something like this….”)

Within each score sheet, the numerical ratings matched up well with the degree of criticism in the rater’s comments. But that’s where the tough part comes in. Here are the possible scores:

10  Author has done an excellent job. Very few if any mistakes and none that impacts the story
8   Though some areas might need polish, the author has done well overall
6   Entry requires extensive editing or story development to engage the reader
4   Major rewrites or restructuring is necessary
2   Serious flaws. An in-depth study of craft is needed

By the grace of God, I opened the score sheet from Judge JM22 first. S/he had given me a 10 in every category. The downside: there were no further comments. (The score sheet tells the judges to “enter comments in each section – especially if you take off points.”) I knew it had to be downhill from there, but with one perfect 10, at least I hadn’t been cast into the outer darkness.

Then the pain began. Judge JM21 gave me three 8s and two 6s. JM20 made it two 8s and three 6s.

I parsed those comments up, down and sideways for a week. I re-read the manuscript. I whined, “But don’t you see…?” to invisible interlocutors. Then I sucked it up and started taking notes. I wrestled with the wide range of the ratings, until I saw that whatever rating box they checked, the judges agreed closely on the nature of the problems they spotted.

  • Too much backstory. Check. Assignment: Pick what’s needed for immediate comprehension. Find locations farther in for what will become necessary later. But that turned out to be the lesser benefit from these comments. Working with them, I’ve seen a way to alter a subplot that will be much clearer, easier to explain and actually work better with my main plot.
  • Too little emotional reaction from Eliza, my protagonist, over the dilemmas I have posed for her. Check. I am a prim, mimsy New England Puritan, and we don’t get upset in public. It’s rubbed off on Eliza. Assignment: make clear how much trouble she thinks she’s in, either in speech or privately in thought. Just be sure to convince the reader.
  • Too little sense of place, early on. Check. However, there was enough place-ness for one judge to conclude, correctly, that I want the location to be a major player in the story. To make my word count, I cut a lot of description. Back it comes, and I’ll worry about cutting later.
  • No murder or mystery evident. Sorry, judges, no check for this one. I’ll ramp up the expression of conflicts and emotions, but I like to watch my murders develop slowly, out of situations and characters that just cry out for them. All my favorite authors do, too.

Maybe the best part of the whole exercise was the tone of the comments. They were frank, but nobody was snarky. When they liked something, they said so. The judge who gave me the lowest scores even attached a copy of my manuscript with quite a few comments inserted, some not even related to his/her remarks on the score sheet and the majority positive. S/he even gave me two happy faces for nice tidbits!

That judge prefaced her manuscript comments with the following. I’m trying to hold it in mind as I consider (but don’t buckle under) all the suggestions:

I hope you find some of my specific comments helpful, but please remember, I am ONE reader, and others will see things differently. However, when you’re submitting to agents, they’re going to be looking for hiccups and issues with the craft and mechanics, so I am pointing some of them out as they jump out at me. Take what makes sense to you and ignore what doesn’t.

Good advice of all of us.

P.S. One judge downgraded my Mechanics because spell check showed “a few flagged words.” S/he and I must have different spell check programs. Mine was written by someone who learned English as a second language. On Mars.

 

 

Portrait of a Villain

Heidi here, reporting progress for once.

It’s almost embarrassing to admit that, in just a couple of hours, one highly structured writing exercise adorned my bare plot with complex characters, details of setting and multiple red herrings. Truly, it happened.

After pantsing my first novel, I swore I’d never go through that again. I was already using Scrivener, though not handily, so I bought Stephanie Draven’s Plot Your Book in a Month with Scrivener. Then came the miracle.

Draven starts you off on characters, and you have to do it her way. The exercise requires you to set up eight, count them, eight, separate folders under each character’s template. These are Vocation, Vulnerabilities, Strengths & talents, Flaws, Ideals, Beliefs that must change, Goals and Problems. For each, she demands of you five examples in your character’s make-up.

I started with my villain. He was due to commit a crime (art forgery) for money. Ho, hum! But pondering his vulnerabilities (by which Draven means innocent weak points, not the character’s fault), I discovered the motive behind the motive. His desire for money has its roots not in greed, but in resentment. The origins of this are familial, but over a lifetime it has added malice to his purely personal flaw of greed.

As this dynamic developed in my head, suddenly, from nowhere at all, a countervailing vulnerability popped up. My forger works in a precise and detailed genre – but he suffers from a longing to paint in the Impressionist style. He is not at all good at it. For reasons I won’t go into, this innocent commitment will betray him.

From his resentment and malice flowed a conviction that “Hell is other people.” To him, they are either obstacles or nuisances, though he is usually careful to conceal this. It hampers him in dealing with new people in new situations. At the same time, it causes him to be a loner and to be perceived by those he encounters as lonely, a sympathetic trait.

Spending time in the character’s mind brought me into his physical world as well. I felt rather than deduced that his natural pace is slow and his focus on details. As he is well up in years, this lifelong trait can come across to new acquaintances, incorrectly, as the slowing of physical and mental faculties with age, another sympathetic trait.

This perception of his physical traits, in turn, spilled over into the creation of another character, with whom he will be in conflict. She was always going to be more than a generation younger than he, but now she is also taller, robust where he is lanky, obtrusively energetic. He, in contrast, seems hardly fit for the pace of the 21st century.

And while I was thinking physically, another connection occurred: I want the setting of my books, northern New Hampshire, to be vivid to my readers, almost a character in the story. So my villain, thin and not robust, is always cold no matter where the thermostat is set.

Draven knew what she was doing when she put the vulnerabilities before the strengths. Once I had watched my villain develop layers of motivation, it became clear that his strengths would not all appear, or in fact be, villainous. His desire for distance from other people, along with the demands his professional associations, require him to have excellent manners. His extensive knowledge of his academic specialty is necessary for his crime – but it also garners deserved respect from his colleagues and gratitude from the few outstanding students whose careers he promotes. (They, in turn, can be put to good use in his nefarious schemes.) It will also, I hope, form an additional thread of interest to readers.)

The whole exercise was so inspiring that it was hard to keep the categories separate even on the first run-through. Vulnerabilities suffered through no fault of one’s own blossomed into flaws via unfortunate methods of coping. Strengths quickly became ideals – because our own good points are always the really important virtues, aren’t they? Initial problems bred solutions that became complications of a straightforward criminal enterprise.

So thank you, Ms. Draven. If this thing ever sees print, a fulsomely autographed copy will be yours.

P.S. I have to say, the “one month” thing isn’t working out. Each new exercise takes me days to think through and tinker with. However, if you’re a wo/man of steel, and don’t eat or sleep much, maybe you could manage it.

The Taste of the Rose

Being days late with my blog post, and having been inexplicably visited by a poem this morning, I’m going to imitate Karen (see Dec. 12) and favor you with it. Apologies to non-poetry-fans.

The Taste of the Rose

Here it is imperceptible
That the rough calyx has begun to retreat
And the pink point to encounter the sun.

Here pink folds are still one solid mass
Though already they are crisp and smooth.
The scent is already thick.

Here at the tight center
It is fortunate for me
That I am hardly larger than my egg.

The taste is pink, crisp, smooth, as well as scented
All the way out to the edge of the drooping bud.
Now I encounter air. Now is the time

When the fact of my future wings is clear to me.
It is not my nature to consider
Whether they will be black or bright.

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