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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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Surviving New England Crime Bake, NaNoWriMo, and Babysitting

Already the middle of November and this is my first blog post of the month. That means you’ve had two full weeks of not listening to me extol the pleasures of NaNoWriMo participation soon followed by my wails of despair as my word count lags behind my goal of 1,667 words a day.

This year was going to be different, of that I was confident. First of all, I started with a detailed outline of approximately the first ten thousand words of the minimum fifty thousand words required. Imagine the shock of this pantser turned plotter when I discovered that writing from the outline was easy. When the outline ran out, I transformed back into a pantser. And the writing transformed into it’s normal state: hard work.

I didn’t let that minor obstacle slow me down. Ignoring most everything else going on in my life, I focused on my novel, racking up well over the daily minimum word count. The New England Crime Bake, an annual mystery conference for writers and readers, was coming up, November 11th through the 13th, and my goal was to spend those three days in Dedham, Massachusetts, without even thinking about my NaNo novel. Except for those moments of pure inspiration when I had to jot down a note for my novel, I almost achieved that goal.

I don’t recall anyone mentioning NaNoWriMo at Crime Bake…There was plenty else to talk about, many wonderful people–published authors and wannabes like myself–to meet, and much to learn. Hallie Ephron’s master class, “The Character Web,” provided a unique way of looking at character development. Julie Hennrikus, Bruce Coffin, and B A Shapiro, among others, enlightened and entertained. My attention never wavered from the Guest of Honor, William Kent Krueger, during his talk, “High Roads and Low: A Writer’s Journey.” He looks like the twin of one of our writing group members–and even Kent agreed! 

Eleanor, William Kent Krueger, and Karen

Eleanor, William Kent Krueger, and Karen

 As soon as I returned from a weekend away with adults I was immersed into babysitting for our two New Hampshire grandchildren for a week. Luckily they are in school all day, as I needed a full day to recuperate from Crime Bake as well as a full week to get caught up on NaNoWriMo. Enough said.

This afternoon, typing away on my laptop, I happened on the “Ultimate Survival Alaska” show on the National Geographic Channel. I’ve never seen this show before, and technically I wasn’t watching it, I really was working on NaNoWriMo. I quickly identified with some of the competitors struggling to win their race. One of the women fell into the whitewater she appeared unequipped to handle. She floated down to her raft that another team member had stopped for her and climbed into it. They took a break on shore where she emptied out her boots of water and removed her wet socks. I realized that if they could put themselves into physical danger to win a race surely I could write a book sitting on my couch in the comfort of my home with the furnace running and a snuggly fleece blanket wrapped around my legs, a hot cup of tea for sustenance.

I can do this.

 

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