If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
—Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon
Gabby has me diving into the freezing cold water of the North Atlantic, searching for the seven-eighths of my book that is underwater. Although just a meager portion of the seven-eighths, this is what I’ve uncovered:
- Subplot. I’ve fleshed out a murder subplot that wasn’t in the original NaNoWriMo novel. I wasn’t certain I even could use it when it appeared but I’ve grown to like it. I’ve been massaging it, expanding it, and I can see its potential as both a red herring and a means of inserting more of the backstory of some characters.
- Murderer. I’ve changed the murderer. This is big!! And it’s involved reworking not just the murder itself but also relationships among the characters. This change helped me flesh out the relationship between a mother and daughter, going back eighteen years to the daughter’s conception.
- Conflicts. You can never have too many of those, can you? Possibly in your real life but not in a book. My NaNoWriMo conflicts were superficial but now I’ve created some meaningful ones that will help Gabby develop into a well-rounded, mature woman.
- Family history. I’ve delved further into the history of the paternal side of the protagonist’s family, starting with the life of her great-grandfather. One of the perks of being an author is that you are in control of what happened generations ago that affects your living characters. It’s more fun, and easier, than using Ancestry.com.
- Whodunit? Most recently I have visited with each of my characters in order to discover who he or she thinks is the murderer. Through these conversations, I have learned more about my characters’ flaws, as well as gained some insight into where I need to place clues.
At this point, working with the separate parts of the structure of the novels means that I will have to fit all of this information together to form the novel. It is going to be like taking the pieces from numerous jigsaw puzzles and jamming the pieces together to create one much larger puzzle, all the while looking under the sofa and the coffee table for the missing pieces that make up the dreaded hollow places.
During all of this, I haven’t written one word that increases the word count of the novel. And that’s okay. For now.
I started out with the idea of a novel set in rural New Hampshire. There’s no such thing as a novel set in New Hampshire that excludes the weather. I decided to spread the plot out over a year – up here, you can’t leave out a single month and still cover the territory.
Fate gave me a freebie: the full-year idea fit well with a problem my protagonist faces. She’s stuck at home, probably for good, after years of regular escapes to Kenya.
Today’s weather reminds me of why I changed my plan.
Last fall was lovely. Dampish now and then, but the beeches, oaks and maples all came through with October fireworks in yellow, red and russet. Winter sidled in with a little snow but then appeared to give up. Open ground could be seen in January and February. We had a storm or two, sure, storms that people in D.C. would call blizzards. But nothing you’d mention. Nothing we would, anyway.
Snow gone at the end of February. Temperatures scaling toward 60 every now and then. And then… BWAH-HA-HA-HA-HA!
Arrives the blizzard that breaks the records. With nine days to go till spring, parts of New Hampshire got more snow in a single day than at any time since Cain discovered writing. (He wrote crime fiction.)
Now we’re back up to March’s ordinary 40-degree highs, on one day out of two anyway. And today is the kind of day I’ll end my novel on. I could stretch it all the way around the calendar, ending on a June day of glorious sun, leaving out the black flies. Or I could end on a July day of glorious sun, leaving out the deer flies and the humidity. But no. My heroine will triumph on the first day of Mud Season.
The frost goes deep here. Even calling it “frost” is misleading. It’s a rock-hard layer of frozen earth that can go down five feet. We like it. Foresters can work in the woods all winter with heavy, heavy equipment.
But when the warmth creeps back, the ground unfreezes from the top first. The layers farther down don’t feel a thing. They don’t absorb moisture, either. So for weeks, meltwater mixes with topsoil and sloshes around — and slides and squishes and slops — on that impervious surface. This is Mud Season.
I took the dog out this morning. Winter is still mounded to either side of our forest road. You can’t walk over the plow piles because you’ll go straight down in and never get out again. The road, though, is all spring, from the surface to about two inches down. This new-born world is gluey, gritty, rich and brown. Runnels of melt water dig channels on the slightest slope. A blazing sun picks out sparkly grains of marble in the 3-inch gravel that is trying to hold the our forest roads in place against strong odds.
Pfeffernuss the dog is a 90-pound black Lab with feet almost as webbed as a duck’s. They sprea-a-ad out under her weight and then snap back into place like little backhoes, storing up hours-worth of pawprints for my floor tiles.
My knee-high muck boots go so deep you’d think “muck” is what they’re made of, not what they cope with. The sound they make on the upstroke is indelicate, nay, carnal.
This is what resurrection looks like in New Hampshire. The delicate blossoms and tender grasses come later, as an afterthought. When Mud Season arrives, you know you have come through the dark night of the New Hampshire soul and back out into the light.
In a show of solidarity with women in the United States and around the world who are observing International Women’s Day, I considered a boycott of my blog post for today.
However, as my writing is a hobby and nothing more–I don’t have to do it if I don’t want to– and not wanting to demean this cause, I am proceeding with my post. A radically different post than originally planned. (Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory can wait. Is there anyone who thinks Hemingway should be written about on International Women’s Day?)
Originally, I assumed– a gross mistake on my part–that this is a cause focused in the United States, where “A Day Without A Woman” is the rallying cry, urging women to strike by not working, whether paid or unpaid, or not shopping (except in small businesses or female-owned businesses). If you have to, or want to, work or shop, you can wear red to show your support.
A quick search on my phone left me in shock. And awe. And with the realization of how uninformed I am about women’s issues around the world even though I consider myself a feminist from way back. While we in the United States focus on the enormous contribution of women to the economy, women in other parts of the world are concentrating on more basic concerns.
Today’s “New York Times” mobile article International Women’s Day: Calls to Action, Words of Praise and Rallies describes how Iceland, Russia, Egypt, Georgia, South Korea, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Manila, Kenya, Ireland, Poland, Italy, Hong Kong, Turkey, among other countries, observed the day.
And then there is India. Where a hole in the ground constitutes a family’s toilet. Where three hundred million women defecate in the open. Where these very women are susceptible to sexual assault.
That’s when I started crying.
My economic contribution to this cause will be to donate money to an organization that helps women in India dig toilets for their families.
And my husband and I are wearing red today.
The Thursday Night Writers had another set-to this week over my exploding canary. Only four of us were present this time, but the controversy has raged through the whole group since I submitted the first draft of chapter 36 – longer ago than I care to admit.
Here’s the passage:
For my part, I kept the Stark file spread out all over my desk, like one of those impossible variations on solitaire. I inspected every line of every document, straining for some way in which it might imply a deadly secret. I marked Jeremiah’s house purchase with a Post-it memo to trace the sellers. Somehow, the sale wasn’t legitimate? Or Jeremiah’s check bounced? Or maybe way earlier, somebody with the same name had just pretended to be a descendant of Enoch Stark when they bought the house? Pretty thin, Eliza. But it got another yellow sticky note. In the end, the solitaire game looked like an explosion in a canary.
Disregard the plot conundrum. It can’t be quickly explained, and the only problem, as far as the TNWs were concerned, was the canary.
One member is admittedly squeamish. She loves cozies because of their basic rule: no explicit sex or gratuitous violence. Simile or not, she does not want a piecemeal canary obtruded into her consciousness. In a later chapter, a mere reference to “my canary” in the context of the annotated documents was enough to set her off. (Granted, she had been recently lacerated by an episode involving a frog in William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. It wasn’t a good week to reprise the canary.)
The others, it seemed to me, were going deeper into the image than … I was going to say “a normal person,” but perhaps I should just say “the reader” is likely to. There was speculation as to the appearance of a real exploded canary. A consensus emerged that the resulting color would not be yellow. I believe someone brought up the probable radius of the debris. And there was me, just visualizing little Tweety-colored feathers floating down.
The title of this post comes from a critique I received from Mary Carroll Moore, with whom I’ve taken two live workshops and one online class. She used it when she advised me to abandon the opening sentence of my novel and, indeed, to remove all technical or at least all vivid medical details from the scene, which takes place in a doctor’s office. Here’s the paragraph:
I don’t deny that I was riddled with parasites. I always was when I got back from a field trip. But I saw no reason for Brad to take that tone with a woman twice his age. His father never had a problem with my parasites.
I submitted that paragraph, as part of my first two pages, to a panel at the New Hampshire Writers Day last year. The panel consisted of well-known NH writers – all genres, not just mysteries. Each submission was read aloud by the moderator. The panelists were instructed to raise their hands at the first word, phrase or other issue that “stopped” them.
When my first sentence was read, three out of four of them jumped, but no hand went up. Which means…? You tell me. Please.
(We got well down the second page before I got a hand. Several at once, in fact. But that’s another story.)
So maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m made of grosser clay than the average cozy fan. Or maybe I just make my friends and seek advice from lovely people who are more-than-average refined. The one thing I’m sure of is that neither the canary idea nor the existence of parasites would boggle the mind of my protagonist. So maybe I’ll keep them both.
The Ick Factor may be on my mind at the moment because of the winning response to the challenge I posed in my last blog: to use in mystery plot the following two words:
Ylem: (in big bang theory) the primordial matter of the universe
Feague: To put a live eel up a horse’s bottom. An eighteenth-century horse dealer’s trick to make an old horse seem lively.
And the winner is….
Judy W.! She commented:
Your current words call to mind a Dick Francis-like mystery set in a racing stable. “The feaguing of the poor horse set loose an explosive diarrhea in the stall that splattered the walls like ylem after the Big Bang. Underneath the residue lay the missing gambler.” Ugh. Sorry, but you did issue a challenge.
Congratulations, Judy! After that, an exploding canary is nothing. It wouldn’t even cover up a dead gambler.
Writing is hard because you try to be better with each word you put down, or don’t put down, on a piece of paper. You can only be better than you’ve been. You can’t be better than say, Hemingway, who hardly put any unnecessary words in his stories. He was a master of succinctness. I am trying to be better in that category, in fact I must, if I want to write short stories.
Last posting I mentioned that I was in the doldrums. February does that to me. But look, there are still two days left in February and I’ve been working on a short story for over a week now. Amazing. I think it was listening to some rousing classical music that started the imagination process, and then a wonderful couple of articles in Writers Digest about short, short-short and flash fiction.
So I buckled down to writing a story called WAGON RIDES TO NIGHT. A homemade sign with those words intrigued me and wouldn’t let me go. I’ve gotten as far as determining that the wagon is a ’57 Chevy station wagon, turquoise and blue, with a driver who specializes in returning to the scenes of crimes committed against the young and innocent. I’m not done yet, but I try to push a little further each time I sit down to write. Some of the story is autobiographical and that makes it more difficult for me as I want nothing more than to forget my past.
Now comes the tricky part. Well, besides actually finishing, that is. I need to reduce my word count. I need to go back to the beginning and make every word count as two, and if it doesn’t then it needs to be ripped out. No darlings in a short story. Show no mercy to those words that, like phatic utterances, only take up space and time.
My story may never amount to much, it may not even reach the place I was hoping to take it. But, it will be a story, and I’ll try to make it as good as I can. Maybe it will need time to sit and rest, like bread dough, before it grows into what it’s meant to be. That’s the beauty of short stories, they are more malleable than novels.
The Writers Digest issue I referred to above (March/April 2017), mentioned an online short story challenge called StoryADay in which participants write a short piece every day for the month of May. I think I’m going to take that challenge this year. Interested?
I know I’m taking a chance when I download “bargain” books from BookBub, Choosy Bookworm, and Amazon, or pick up used books at my favorite Arizona bookstore, Changing Hands. I may end up with a book that doesn’t appeal to me, to put it nicely. Looking on the bright side, it can be motivating to realize that if that book can get published, surely I will have no problem getting my novel into print.
That was not the case with the used book on writing I recently bought, “The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing” by David Morrell. I am only 36 pages into the book and I have already gotten my $8.50 worth. (The other used book on writing included in that same purchase, for just $6.50 and to remain unnamed, was barely worth that amount. Even so I read the entire book.)
On page four of “The Successful Novelist,” Morrell states that the correct, and only, answer to his question, “Why do you want to be a writer?” is “Because you need to be.” “Writers write.” A real writer would squeeze writing into any time available, even if it’s just fifteen minutes a day.
The sign of a good book is that it makes you think. (I made that up. I think.) Reflecting back over my younger writing years, this is what I think my writing life should have been. When I was young and energetic, busy with my family, work, and volunteer activities, I should have found a way to say “no” to just one thing. And then locked myself in the closet. (That’s correct. When I wrote in 1987 my very first draft of the book, “Anne,” from which my other books have spawned, I put a desk in my clothes closet. In our open concept house, this was the only place I could escape from the activity and noise. The bathroom was my second choice.) If I’d been smart enough to lock the closet door and write for fifteen minutes each day, by now I actually might have a book completed and, dare I say, published. Thirty years later.
As I ruminated over how quickly those thirty years have passed with so little writing to show for them, the accountant in me picked up my phone, clicked on the calculator app, and started punching in numbers. If I had spent just a half-hour every day writing, 365 days a year, for thirty years, I would have racked up 5,475 hours writing.
I tried to relate that number to something tangible, such as how many books 5,475 hours of writing equates to. Due to the fact that I don’t have any completed, full-length novels to my credit, I can only draw a parallel to my NaNoWriMo experiences. In the month of November I can write 50,000+ words, without writing every day. I estimate that I spend three hours a day on average writing like crazy during the month, which totals ninety hours. For a first draft of 100,000 words, I quadrupled those hours, 360 hours total. In half-hour increments, that equals 720 writing sessions of a half hour each, or pretty darn close to two full years.
Back to the 5,475 hours that I could have spent writing in the past thirty years. If I divide those hours by the 360 hours to produce a rough draft, I could have easily whipped out fifteen rough drafts. Instead of the four unfinished drafts I have, I could have fifteen. Unfinished. Rough. Drafts. Sounds about right.
P.S. Please go back and read Heidi Wilson’s latest blog post. She issued a challenge. Read the comment section for a hilarious response from Judy.
For some reason, when your friends know you are a writer, they become obsessed with sending you words. They may feel you are a connoisseur. They may feel that your vocabulary is inadequate.
Several of my friends have recently been hit with the word-sending bug. While they all said that their lists comprised merely “weird” or “interesting” words, a high percentage of the entries had intriguing connections with the mystery genre. I here offer the best of them to you, conveniently arranged in categories useful to those who murder on paper.
Apple-knocker: an ignorant or unsophisticated person (I was raised to call such persons oyster-shuckers.)
Badmash: Indian, a hooligan
Shot-clog: An unwelcome companion tolerated because he pays the ‘shot’ (i.e., the bill) for his companions (Note: as this word is attested only in the works of Ben Jonson, perhaps it should appear below, under Historical Fiction.)
Snollygoster: An unprincipled, shrewd person guided by personal advantage, not respectable principles
Suedehead: a youth like a skinhead but with slightly longer hair and smarter clothes
Wittol: a man who knows of and tolerates his wife’s infidelity
Absquatulate: to leave somewhere abruptly
Cacoethes: an urge to do something inadvisable
Eucatastrophe: a happy ending to a story
Exequies: funeral rites
Flews: the thick pendulous lips of a bloodhound or similar dog
Sprunt: To chase girls around a haystack after dark
Brannock device: the thing they use to measure your feet at the shoe store.
Peen: the side opposite the hammer’s striking side
Probang: a strip of flexible material with a sponge or tuft at the end, used to remove a foreign body from the throat or to apply medication to it
Bruxism: involuntary and habitual grinding of the teeth
Carphology: convulsive or involuntary movements made by delirious patients, such a plucking at the bed clothes
Uhtceare: Anxiety experienced just before dawn when you cannot get back to sleep for worry about the day ahead
Resurrection man: a person who, in past times, illicitly exhumed corpses from burial grounds and sold them to anatomists for dissection
Skimmington: a kind of procession once undertaken to make an example of a nagging wife or an unfaithful husband
Amphibology: a phrase or sentence that is grammatically ambiguous, such as She sees more of her children than her husband.
Interrobang: what it’s called when you combine a question mark with an exclamation point like this: ?!
Finally, I offer a small prize (a shout-out in my next blog) to the reader who can suggest the best way of incorporating the words below in a (single) mystery.
Ylem: (in big bang theory) the primordial matter of the universe
Feague: To put a live eel up a horse’s bottom. An eighteenth-century horse dealer’s trick to make an old horse seem lively.
. . . in the doldrums (overseas stocks are in the doldrums): inactive, quiet, slow, slack, sluggish, stagnant.
Is being in the doldrums an act of will, like a temper tantrum gone on too long? Is it an ‘I will not write, you can’t make me’, sort of thing? Or is it something beyond control, like overseas stocks.
I don’t know anything about stocks, overseas or not, I do know that February brings on the doldrums in me. ‘Fantods’ was how David Foster Wallace referred to the feeling, though he usually placed, before fantods, an adjective which escapes me now.
nounN. Amer. informal
a state or attack of uneasiness or unreasonableness: the mumbo-jumbo gave me the fantods.
Maybe the word was galloping, like in consumption. I know it wasn’t, but it sounds good.
February gives me the galloping fantodish doldrums.
I have ideas for stories the plots of which are not to be found. I have characters for which no story is available. I have plots that have no arc, arcs that sag, lines with no one to speak them, premises with no promise, settings with no descriptors and worst of all , an inclination to recline with a glass of wine and forget that I ever took up the silly business of writing.
If this condition is willful, or even an unwilling one, but one that is only a passing phase , I will be very thankful when it’s over. February’s galloping fantods and doldrums have always passed in the past, I’m sure they will pass now and in the future, but at present they are unreasonable and slow down progress. I want to write the story of a wagon ride to night, the story of how gravity really works, this story and that one, but must wait until March. And that is truly annoying.
I noticed a couple of links to blog posts on Facebook today. Possibly there were more but it was hard to pick out what was a blog post, what was a news (real or fake) article, and what was a personal post. Any post that wasn’t about Elizabeth Warren, Betsy DeVos, or the New England Patriots didn’t have much of a chance of getting noticed today.
One of the links was to a blog about benches. Yup, those uncomfortable wooden couches you sit on in the park. I read the tantalizing first line of the post and continued scrolling. But it did make me think, always a risky proposition.
When Heidi, Eleanor or I write a new blog post, the link gets posted on our personal Facebook pages so that our friends can get to it with just a click. I’m wondering how many of our friends “Like” our blog posts without reading them then quickly proceed to the more appealing posts of puppies, babies, donkeys, and a moose standing on top of a car.
Hey, I’m OK with that. If you aren’t interested in reading about writers, writing, books, and authors, you shouldn’t waste your time reading our blog. BUT if we were to make our blog more personal, a little sexier, might we make loyal readers out of you? Keep in mind, we are three gray-haired ladies in our sixties so you might want to temper your expectations .
While I wait for the green light from Eleanor and Heidi to spice up our content, I have some updates for you.
“NCIS New Orleans” tonight on the leak of sex tapes: we all have secrets. I believe that is true, whether the secrets are current or just partitioned off in our memories. (Feel free to reveal yours in the comment section.) I’m developing secrets for all the potential suspects in my novel, Gabby. I think you’ll like them–my suspects as well as their secrets.
Speaking of Gabby, I’m making progress but I haven’t added a word to my NaNoWriMo novel. How is that progress, you ask? I’m working on what I call the infrastructure of the novel. I’ve summarized the novel into a fourteen page timeframe, which helped me find errors in the timing of plot events. The timeframe summary is also useful for inserting and moving scenes instead of fumbling with 154 pages. At Eleanor’s suggestion, I set up an Excel spreadsheet with the dates and times of day on the left side and my characters across the top. Each cell contains a summary of where each main character is during that time period and what he or she is doing. It makes babysitting all of my characters easier. Still a long ways to go before I am ready to rewrite my first draft.
Arizona is heating up…slowly. We are looking at two days of eighty-plus degree weather then a cool down and some rain. Looking forward to when the temperature stays above seventy-five. I love walking out the door at night or in the morning and not getting hit with a blast of cold air. And when the sun is shining, which it does a lot more than back in New Hampshire, it always feels warmer than the thermometer says. I’ll admit, the cooler weather has kept me in the casita chained to the bed. Writing.
Aspiring writers, rejoice! There really is a point when the plot tangle breaks.
I was sitting on a logjam the other day when it suddenly broke up beneath me. No, I wasn’t swept downriver to my doom. The logjam was the one that had been afflicting my plot almost since it became complex enough to constitute the skeleton of a book.
Every new idea for a plot development took the story forward, but almost every idea also implied a situation rendered impossible by what had come before. One character, for instance, was intended to instigate a lawsuit against a certain building project. His personality was unpleasant: in fact, he was intended to be the first murder victim. Idea! What if he was, in fact, the murderer? I found him a victim. Two victims.
But wait! To commit the first murder, he had to be in town. Unfortunately, at the intended time of death, he was elsewhere. (In prison, as it happens.) Well, that could be changed.
But wait! If he murdered for the reason I had come up with, he wouldn’t have taken the stand he did on the building project…. You see the problem.
For what seemed like aeons, I shifted and chopped and changed. The longer the manuscript grew, the more changes every new development required. I persevered.
And then, one day, the logjam broke
As it happened, I had been amusing myself with a book of acrostics the night before. When the logjam broke, I recognized what was happening, because it had just begun to happen in my acrostics.
(If you don’t do acrostics, they work this way: as in a crossword, you are given a definition and must come up with the word intended. Each letter in that word is assigned a number, which you then enter in a numbered space in a linear form. When all the correct letters are entered, they make up a quotation.)
I had reached the middle of the puzzle book, where the “medium difficulty” acrostics take on a new character. The definitions become vaguer, more allusive, slangy or punning. The quotations include longer and rarer words, names and complicated clauses.
At this point, the game shifts. Your ability to see the shape of the quotation’s prose, the rhythm of its clauses, its repetitions, lets you fill in words before you have guessed many definitions. The meaning of the quotation leads you to the detail of the words, not the other way around. And the puzzle goes much faster while also being much more fun.
Here is the beginning of the quotation I was working on when the game shifted. Have a go.
_ _L _Y L_V_ _Y P__N M_ P _SS_ _N
Just like that, as I drew near the end of the umpteenth draft of my mystery, the feeling of the changes changed. My solution worked, if only… and I clicked in my Scrivener binder to an earlier scene, altered three words, and all was well. Onward. The solution continued to work, if only…. Back up in the binder, cut a paragraph, and all was well.
I now have only two or three scenes to rewrite (plus a couple of new ones to tie up a subplot), and I will have, not a draft, but a book. Still deeply in need of editing, but a book.
Here’s the whole acrostic: