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The Ick Factor

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.

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W? Or Not?

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Would-be writers can always be lured into taking just one more how-to-write course, buying just one more book, attending just one more conference. Flailing and weeping in the chaos of our own material, we’re sure that someone out there has a system. No, has The System that, with one hard shake, will order our characters, themes and events into a page-turning plot.

I lost a lot of time trying to cram my plot into the shape recommended by imgresMary Carroll Moore’s Your Book Starts Here. Her system is to shape your plot like the letter W. Your protagonist encounters loss or danger, plunges to the depths, pulls herself together and addresses her problem with some success – we’re now at the peak of the first upstroke of the W – then gets really whacked by some failure or complication, descends to the uttermost depths, and finally wrestles her way back to whatever fate you have in store for her.

The W method is good for making a start, and also for combatting saggy-middle syndrome. In the end, though, you have to compound your own prescription. So today, I offer a few alternative plot shapes, as discussed by Kurt Vonnegut on the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog.” In a hilarious (truly!) video Vonnegut explains how simple it all is, really.

Plot 1 is “Man in Hole.” The hero starts in a reasonably comfortable condition, encounters a problem, solves it and ends up better off. Vonnegut graphs this vonnegut-man-in-a-holefrom beginning to end as a nice even sine wave on a happy-unhappy vertical axis. Events head down into negative territory, reverse course at the bottom, and end up even higher on the happy scale than they started. Wonkblog’s example: Arsenic and Old Lace. Note that Mary Carroll Moore’s W could be titled “Man in Two Holes.”

Plot 2 is “Boy Meets Girl,” in which the initial events head upward on the graph, i.e., boy falls in love. From there on, Plot 2 replicates Plot 1, as the lovers are separated, then reunited. Traditionally, “Boy Meets Girl” ends higher on the vertical scale than “Man in Hole,”since (as we all know) they lived happily ever after.

Now we get into the kind of plot I like best: Cinderella. No, not for the happy ending. By me, that prince is a Ken doll. According to Vonnegut (and strangely

The Ken Prince from, I kid you not, "toyswill.com"

The Ken Prince from, I kid you not, “toyswill.com”

mis-graphed in the Post article), “Cinderella” is distinguished by its beginning – among the cinders, way, way below the middle of the happy-unhappy axis. Then (and this is what I love), progress toward the Prince’s ball takes place not in a smooth curve, but in a series of stair-steps. The gown. The glass slippers. The pumpkin coach. The mouse-horses. These lovely items are provided by Cinderella’s fairy godmother, but in more interesting stories, each has its own provenance, sometimes but not always obtained by the heroine’s own efforts.

Broccoli's fractal form, an instance of the Fibonacci sequence

Broccoli’s fractal form, an instance of the Fibonacci sequence

It’s the detail that grabs me. The plot takes on the shape of a Fibonacci sequence. Every step can replicate into a handful of details or issues, which in turn can replicate. This is why I like Proust. (Trouble is, I haven’t yet been able to work out what the heck his stair-steps are leading to.)

The stair-steps also occur in the folkloric creation story, in which a deity or deities generate successive gifts which, combined, produce the world. My favorite literary example is Elizabeth von Arnim’s Elizabeth and Her German Garden, but of course Genesis I is better known. According to Vonnegut, the Old Testament is simply the creation story with an unhappy ending tacked on: God makes the world, we live in it, we die. With the addition of the New Testament, we are back to Cinderella.

Vonnegut does not ignore modern literature. There’s “From Bad to Worse,” in which some poor schlemiel simply gets hammered, and that’s it. Wonkblog’s example: The Metamorphosis. And then there’s “Which Way is Up?”, exemplified by that most modern of stories, “Hamlet.”

You can noodle around with these curves forever, and come up with a story to match anything you can draw . At present, I have no idea what shape my own story (fictional, that is) will take. I got troubles, I got worries, I got stair steps, nobody gets a girl … who could ask for anything more?

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