Category Archives: writing

Me being me

NaNoWriMo 2018 starts in two weeks. I’ve participated five times since 2011, with four winners and one loser. Last year I skipped it. My rationalization: “. . . the best use of November is figuring out what I am going to do with all of those drafts I have spent years crafting. With any luck, that might include producing one completed novel.”  That didn’t happen and neither did much writing.

History will likely repeat itself. With or without a NaNoWriMo draft, I won’t produce a completed novel. But over a span of thirty days I’ll have written fifty thousand more words than I would have without participating.

NaNoWriMo was on my mind on Saturday when I took a forty-five-minute drive. As I often do when I’m traveling alone in the car, I turned opened the voice memos on my phone, anxious generate some ideas for NaNo. This trip, I had a companion. My muse? My alter ego? Or just me being me.

Here’s the condensed version. (The full one is available upon request.)

A new project is hard because I know my Woodbury characters so well. But it’s an opportunity to develop new characters.

How about something revealed when someone dies? Already done that with Alexandria. That sucks.

Secrets? It’s always about secrets.

A mystery? Oh, heck yeah. Why would you even ask that?

I could throw some darts at the dart board. But there’s no dart board yet. Why can’t you just start a new project and finish it? That’s me being indecisive. Procrastinating. I think its laziness. Not procrastination. It’s hard work. You may be right. May be right? I admit, I can always find something better to do. Better? You mean easier. NO! More urgent, pressing. Writing isn’t urgent. It’s important to me but it isn’t urgent. So, you put out all those fires and then you don’t have any energy or time left to do the creative things. Yeah, that’s about right. Let’s figure out what you’re going to do.

SILENCE. Throat clearing. Thinking. Glad you told me because I wouldn’t have known. Do you have to think to talk? It always works out better for me when I do. You’re being creative, do you need to think?

Here goes. I’m driving along 302 on my way to Whitefield to pick up garbage along the highway. I could write a mystery about someone who kills a DAR member. The DAR mysteries? That would be fun! It would need some history. Someone is going to reveal that someone else isn’t really descended from a Revolutionary War patriot. Wait, doesn’t that already belong to someone else in your writing group? But it could be something to do with ancestry…someone buried in the wrong place, two families? Less than satisfactory.

Let me think about this.  No. No thinking. Just say whatever comes to mind. What about the downfall of a man. And? Isn’t that enough? Big fish, little pond. He and his wife seem like the perfect couple. But there are cracks in the façade. He’s in the state legislature and has ambitions. He’s not important, he just thinks he is. He acts as the town’s unofficial mayor. His wife is always by his side, except for when she isn’t. Where is she? She has a life of her own, one that allows her to be gone from town. Daughter in college, son working in a city. Daughter is about two hours away and the wife visits often, but she doesn’t stay very long. Her husband hasn’t figured this out yet. What is she doing? She’s a freelance photographer. She’s getting money, we don’t know how, he assumes it’s photography. He doesn’t care what she does as long as she is there when he needs her. Who ends up dead? Her? Him? It’s too early to say.

This is hard, trying to get out of the Woodbury mode. I know I need something fresh, but I can’t think of anything that excites me. Are you giving up already?

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“You Want Me To Explain?”

Peril at End House, first edition cover

“You want me to explain?”

So begins Chapter 22 of Peril at End House, Agatha Christie’s 1931 mystery. The suspects are gathered at End House, frightened and baffled all. Hercule Poirot, master detective and proprietor of the most efficient little gray cells on the planet, proffers a complete explanation of the mystery, pulls one final ace from his sleeve, and Inspector Japp pounces upon the murderer.

I’m thinking about endings at the moment, because I’ve just read Love Lies Bleeding by Edmund Crispin, originally published in 1948 and recently revived in e-book form. Happily nestled in a cozy setting (a mildly parodic English public school), the reader encounters a murder scene fairly littered with incomprehensible clues, a rather affected amateur detective – Oxford don Gervase Fen, who drives a very fast car – intrepid schoolgirls and a long-lost Shakespeare manuscript.

Unhappily – it made me unhappy, anyway – Fen refuses to discuss his observations or deductions except to suggest that the police and presumably the reader should have made them already. It’s description, dialogue and car chases all the way down.

At least, it is until the 85% mark on my handy smartphone e-reader. At that point, the unrecognizable body of the villain has been hauled from his wrecked car, detective and headmaster are back at the school, and Fen proceeds to explain exactly what we should have noticed and deduced. He does this for a very long time.

Real love-lies-bleeding, Amaranthus caudatus, droopy as Crispin’s conclusion

That last 15% was where, as a writer, I learned something. I could see Crispin’s method of creating his book as clearly as if he had personally explained it to me. Fen lays out the course of events, everyone’s actions, motives and even thoughts. Here and there, alternative explanations that might occur to the reader are explained away or dismissed as unnecessary to the main line of deduction. I’m morally certain that Crispin has simply placed his original outline, complete with his second thoughts and his solutions to them, in his detective’s mouth.

Once he had the outline, Crispin (IMHO) plucked out his list of clues, clothed them in  pieces of necessary action that made striking scenes and trotted Fen through them. The occasional ‘but surely you have already realized…?’ reminds us that Fen is solving the crime – entirely out of the reader’s sight.

It didn’t make a satisfactory mystery novel. That is what sent me to Agatha Christie, who regularly wound up her books with concluding explanations by the detective. They are shorter than Crispin’s (and crisper), though Poirot does break the Detective Club rule that the reader must have all the clues in his hand before the revelation.

So, by way of contrast, let us consider the ideal, the perfection of the form: the solution of the murder of Philip Boyes, lover of the accused murderer, Harriet Vane, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison.

As the book opens, Harriet’s trial has ended in a hung jury. Lord Peter, suddenly in love, has only 30 days to find the real murderer before her retrial. For the first two-thirds of the book, we follow him down blind alleys and through unproductive interviews, unearthing suspects and clues aplenty in vivid, entertaining venues, but no proof. The last of these chapters ends with the collapse of the most promising theory.

Then, in a refreshing change of scene and pace, informants whom Lord Peter has planted among the suspects reward his foresight. Miss Katharine Alexandra Climpson – surely Sayers’ most delightful secondary character – unearths the motive. Miss Murchison, who has infiltrated the murderer’s office, finds the means. And rather than instantly deducing the opportunity from these facts, Lord Peter spends a sleepless night struggling to imagine how the crime was committed.

Sayers does withhold his reasoning on this one point from the reader, but only for a few pages. For the rabid mystery fan, she even drops three hints: Lord Peter found the answer after consulting these books: “The Trial of Florence Maybrick; Dixon Mann’s Forensic Medicine and Toxicology; … and A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.” The clues are in the reader’s hands. Using them, Lord Peter proceeds to trap the villain.

The latest paperback printing of Strong Poison, first published 1930.

So. I think I can see how Crispin produced a passable mystery. It sounds like an exercise worth doing as a start. Now all I need is the wit and the stamina to take the result of that exercise and turn it into the next Strong Poison.

****

To end on a happy note for less-than-Sayers-level writers: Love Lies Bleeding is a “best seller” on Amazon – in the category of “Kindle kidnapping crime fiction” By some measurement or other, fame awaits us all.

 

Consider yourself caught up

Time to bring you up-to-date on everything that’s kept me away from here since April 23.

Turns out that leaving Arizona a few weeks early this spring was a good idea. Within two weeks of our return, my ninety-year old mother was in the hospital with a compression fracture and three weeks later she died. With lots of help from family, we cleaned out her apartment in two days then sold the things we couldn’t keep (along with lots of my things–another good idea) at several yard sales. Her graveside service followed a few weeks later; the extra time allowed us to plan a very special service to honor her memory.

My husband and I have always said that once my mother passed, we would sell our house and move. Somewhere. That moment suddenly was upon us. We worked like crazy getting our house ready to put on the market, had lots of showings, and less than two weeks later we were under contract. That was pretty much the extent of our summer.

Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park

Except for the fantastic trip to Utah, Jackson Hole, WY, the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks that we took with our Arizona crew in the middle of July, that is! We were fortunate to take our nine-year old grandson from NH with us, for a total of twelve. He loved his cousin time and the bears, bison, elk, Old Faithful, white water rafting, horseback riding, and pool time.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park

Amidst all of that, we worked feverishly on plans for a small apartment over the garage of my daughter and family in a town about twenty miles north of us. When the contractor calmly suggested cutting the roof off the garage to put in a shed dormer, we knew it was time to regroup. My daughter suggested we look down instead of up. Her finished, wide-open, walk-out basement makes much more sense–it’s larger than the first house we built back in 1975 and will cost twice as much to make it into an apartment.

We are now at a point that I never thought I would be at again: picking out kitchen cabinets, flooring, appliances, bathroom fixtures, paint colors, new furniture. I’ve managed to push as many of the decisions as possible onto my daughter. It is her house.

Our closing date for the end of October fast approaches. We have categorized our remaining furnishings as keep, sell, or give away. My husband says get rid of everything and start fresh. He may get his wish. After this weekend’s yard sale (the fourth of the summer!), we may be left with just the essentials: our bed, couch, television, coffee table, and coffee maker.

Starting fresh is my new approach on Gabby, one of my Woodbury trilogies. Though I’m not scrapping everything I’ve written, I have made some major changes. I’ve moved the beginning of the book back a few scenes, setting the murder a few chapters into the book. Gabby has a new background and family. If I can pull it off, the third act will include different points of view. Borrowing a memorable line from one of my favorite movies, we think you got a lot of potential, Gabriella.

 

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.

Packing Day

Packing day—to return home—is never long enough. (Packing to go to AZ should be a piece of cake. It starts as soon as I stop wearing my summer clothes. That can be any day from October 1 until the second. Of October. I am not kidding you. That’s when summer ends in New Hampshire, which gives me almost three months to fill two suitcases. Does that mean I start packing on October second? You already know the answer to that if you have been following this blog. Just search “procrastination” and you’ll have a good idea of what day I start packing.)

My largest suitcase (my LARGEST suitcase lost a wheel in Australia and is unfortunately sitting in a landfill) was packed three days ago, though I did struggle. Whittling my wardrobe down to three days worth of clothing was difficult, especially when you consider everything we packed into these last three days.

Saturday we watched a grandson play two games of a basketball tournament; they won both! (The most fun was when the grandmother from the other side of the family and I agreed to collaborate on a book together!) By seven p.m. we were at Rawhide Western Town and Event Center for a granddaughter competing in the Regional Level 7 Gymnastics competition. The other regions represented were Utah, Nevada, Southern California and Northern California. She did extremely well and brought home three medals.

Garden at the plaza

Garden at the plaza in Care Free, AZ

Yesterday the ladies of the Arizona family (two daughters, three granddaughters, and me) dressed up for lunch at the English Rose Tea Room in Carefree. So much fun!! The Tea Room is in a plaza of cute shops with a gorgeous Southwestern garden area. Elephant Bluff and Skull Mesa were visible to the north.  

Last night some of the men (my husband and two grandsons) joined the ladies at San Tan Flat for a farewell dinner. Margaritas, outdoor tables, rancher tips and steak, two vicious games of Uno (my granddaughters are sharks), s’mores cooked over our own fire pit, and dancing to live music. We couldn’t have asked for a better sendoff (unless our sons-in-law were not tied up with work obligations and could have joined us)!!

See you in New Hampshire!!

 

 

 

 

 

Try doing any of those things with a novel

I’ve never considered myself a short story writer. I read them—and enjoy them–but I never feel as satisfied when I’m done with them as when I read a novel.

Yet here I am, reviving a short story that I’ve been working on for a few years. I have twenty-six saved versions of this story (with four different working titles) on my laptop. When I originally wrote it—back in 2014—the total word count was eleven thousand words. I’ve condensed it to five thousand words. As you can imagine, it doesn’t read like the original story. (And that’s a good thing–I’ve reread the original story.)

Why revive this project if I couldn’t finish it in 2014—or 2016—or 2017?

The need to complete a piece of writing is driving me, not exactly insane…more like to write. Something  that I can submit for publication. Or rejection. Going back and forth working on the novels of my Woodbury trilogy without making any discernible progress has left me frustrated, unsure of my ability to write and revise, over and over, until I can say it is as good as it gets.

Just possibly, I’m finding that writing a short story is good practice for writing a novel. (Or just for learning how to write.)

With my short story, I can revise the entire piece in a day less than a week, submit it to my group for critique, and, within six days, I can produce another revision. Of the entire story. I can keep track of the changes I’m making from the beginning to the end of the story. I can reread the entire story each time I work on it. Try doing any of those things with a novel.

A major problem I am facing with my short story is fitting in all the scenes and dialogue that I need with a limited word count. I believe the story can be told in five thousand words. But I am beginning to suspect that I need more words than that to write it. It’s easier to take words out than to have to add them in. Or so I’ve been told. Maybe I’ll just ignore that nagging word count on the bottom left of my screen and write.

Does this mean I will abandon my trilogy for the pleasure of writing short stories? Doesn’t strike me as likely right at the moment. Though I can envision always having a short story in progress to turn to whenever I need the instant gratification I can’t get from writing a novel.

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.

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