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.
Confession: I murdered someone
I have to confess–I did it. I murdered someone. It was a first time for me but probably not the last. I’ve been advised to say no more.
My sister-in-law (also an aspiring writer yet definitely not someone you associate with murder) here visiting from Florida by way of Pennsylvania was a most eager accomplice. While snapping green beans and sipping wine, we planned the murder. Over dinner, she would interrupt the flow of conversation with “what if…”. Certainly not appropriate conversation for a dinner party but totally acceptable among family members.
You’ve no doubt figured out that I am writing a murder mystery and the person I killed is a fictional character in the novel, whose identity I am not at liberty to reveal.
The outline for this murder mystery is supposed to be my submission for this week’s writing group. I’ve been working on it what feels like every free minute I have (which haven’t been many lately). The outline has been inching and crawling toward the murder; at times I have felt as though I am writing away from the murder instead of toward it.
Thus the decision to jump right to the outline of the murder and skip the remainder of the forty-nine unwritten pages leading up to it. (Murders should happen by page fifty, I am told.) I am certain John, our fearless leader, has instructed me or someone else in the group (we all start to blend together after nearly seven years) to do just that. I am beginning to see the logic in it. Now that I have the murder, or at least the first version of the murder, committed to paper, I can return to the beginning and force the actions of the characters to keep the reader guessing who the murderer is. Reminds me of solving quadratic equations. Creatively.
Building the Plot Machine
When last heard from, I was moaning and complaining about my inability to focus in on the important things, in particular, my mystery novel’s plot problems. Since then, I have followed my own advice: “Apply rear end to chair. Write.” Danged if it isn’t working.
What is going down on paper – into electrons, I should say – is not fluent prose but brief sentences in an Excel worksheet. It’s my fourth attempt to organize this monster in Excel. Fourth time’s the charm.
My earlier worksheets were chimaeras. Along the horizontal axis were the four murders I had concocted. Each column was meant to state, in chronological order, “what happened.” The difficulty was that everybody’s “what happened” was different from everybody else’s.
I don’t mean just the characters, though each of them had his or her own body of knowledge about who was where, when and why, and above all, who hated whom. I also had to keep track of what happened as far as the reader knew. And of things that had happened all right, but that were supposed to make no sense until the big reveal at the end. And of the little event-clouds that shroud those baffling happenings in ordinariness for the time being.
Since my mystery is a cozy, my detective is an amateur. Her personal life impinges deeply on her need to solve the mystery. Her biggest personal problem (illness) needs to be consistent with the action. Even more, it needs to cast light on her actions, and outside events have to feed back into her situation. I added another column.
Her biggest challenge in outward life (a lawsuit) demanded a similar treatment. Add another column.
Then there were the police. They had to be hunting in all the wrong places. Their errors needed to ratchet up the dangers for the detective. Another column.
On top of that, mere order of events wasn’t enough. I needed specific dates for every event. Can’t have people building snowmen in May (actually, you can do that sometimes here in New Hampshire) or going on a shopping binge on Christmas Day.
You can imagine what a ragbag my worksheet became. Columns could be plot threads, themes, or characters. I found myself copying and pasting the contents of one box into three more, where they were just as relevant. Excel can be an excellent disordering technique.
Now I think I’ve got it. In the new worksheet, each column represents a single character and its contents are single-minded: what does this person want right now, and how does s/he go about getting it? No date column yet, but I think I’ll be able to stagger each character’s moves with the others – and possibly get them into a tighter, tenser order. That’s to say nothing of the way the author’s errors light up. I wasn’t half-way through entering my data before I found the murderer acting directly against his own interests. Duh.
I’ve been whining about all this in my writing group for so long that our moderator came up with an exercise for all of us to work on. He went to http://writingexercises.co.uk and used their “random plot generator.” Out popped the following:
Main Character: An optimistic 23-year-old woman
Secondary Character: A rebellious 60-year-old woman
Setting: The story begins on a cliff
Situation: A robbery goes badly wrong
Theme: It’s a story about risk-taking
Character action: Your character sets out on a rescue mission
Our assignment is not to write the story, but to come up with the outline of a coherent plot using these elements. I hope to make this a dry run in miniature of my big Excel project.
(By the way, writingexercises.co.uk also provides other sorts of prompts and helps you work on other tasks, e.g., “generate a fictitious ‘English-sounding’ town name.” Check it out.)
So what about it, campers? How do you keep your plot threads untangled? All tips welcome. Or try your hand at the exercise, and let us know how you did.
Why don’t I write?
Today’s post on the Maine Crime Writers blog by Bruce Robert Coffin about why he writes resonated with me, as do many of their posts. Beyond the writing connection, it may be because I spent my “formative” years (ages 4 to 14) living in Bangor.
Funny how my reasons for not writing when I should be writing mirror Coffin’s reasons for writing…
He writes to quiet those voices he hears in the middle of the night. When I can’t sleep, I think about my characters and what they are up to and–just as when I was hypnotized on a stage in front of hundreds of people–before I know it I’m sound asleep. No need to keep pen and paper on my nightstand. (I do but, as you may recall, I can’t read what I’ve written so I use it for grocery lists.)
Coffin apparently has some demanding, strong-willed characters in his stories who have no qualms about disagreeing with his plans for them. My characters, on the other hand, hang around as they lean against the walls, hands in their pockets, and wait for direction from me. Don’t they realize how much work they make for me with their lack of gumption and rebelliousness? Give me a protagonist who has a mind of her own and flaunts (my) authority and I’ll step back and let her take charge.
I don’t know where he gets some of his characters, either. Apparently his Sergeant Byron takes Coffin for rides in his car on his way to catch the bad guy. Instead of the other way around. As none of my characters have drivers’ licenses they expect me to drive them wherever they need to go. I just don’t have time for that. Maybe carpooling is the answer?
One thing we do have in common is that he doesn’t appear to prepare in-depth outlines. (And why should he? His characters run the show.) I’m a proud pantser and I surmise that Coffin is as well, based upon his comment that the enjoyment he derives from writing is not knowing what is going to happen in his stories.
Unfortunately for me, a newbie cozy/murder mystery writer, demands are being made of me that I may not be able to meet. After submitting my rough plot summary and character description for a new cozy to my writing group last night I’ve been asked to write the murder scene. Before I write anything else. The audacity! That I should know “who done it” before, well, before I know anything else. Apparently the writer, unlike the reader, should know this prior to investing time and energy into writing the actual book. Sigh. Big sigh. How do I reconcile this with my badge of honor as a pantser? I suppose it could be to ensure that the reader will want to invest time and energy into reading my book…
More than one
The royal blue three-ring binder taunts me from its secure spot on the bookshelf. Eighty-one completed pages of “Anne” with additional pages of notes, outlines, and prose tucked here and there. Hidden underneath are two manila folders. One holds “It Takes A Village Store,” 50,065 words of my 2014 NaNoWriMo submission. “Full Circle,” my 2015 submission, 50,212 words total, is ensconced in the other. The main characters of each novel are strong women from the same family, a mother, daughter, and niece/cousin. The setting is the same town for all three novels.
Originally I intended to have the novels comprise a trilogy but now I am reconsidering that. I feel that it makes more sense to combine them into one novel. How did I reach that conclusion? Good question. One issue is that none of the three are long enough in their current state to be a complete novel. Another problem is that they are extensions of each other, their plots and characters interwoven as only a family can be. I could solve the problems by expanding each of them, differentiating the plots so that they stand alone yet remain connected. Or I could stick with my decision to produce a single novel. Flip a coin?
I have looked for novels with more than one main character, and diverse points of view (obviously), for inspiration. I am surprised that the last three random books I’ve read meet those criteria. (“The Valley of Amazement” by Amy Tan; “the speed of light” by Elizabeth Rosner; “Life After Life” by Jill McCorkle.) Each one has taken a different approach, probably none of which will work for me.
A long time ago I heard that first-time authors should stick to a straightforward, one main character, one point of view, story. I can see the wisdom in that advice. Yet I’m in a situation where that won’t work. Unless I write three separate novels. Can you hear my teeth gnashing?
No wonder the binder and the two folders that took up valuable space in my suitcase—at least two pairs of shorts worth–have sat untouched on the bookshelf for two months. (Of course, they also are on my laptop but a hard copy is easier to edit. You’ve got to pick it up to do that.)
My only writing goal for this winter in Arizona was to work on this project. Instead, I have devoted my writing time to my short story, “He’s All She Has” (originally titled “The Intruder”). The last revision of this story garnered the suggestion from John, our facilitator, that I put it aside and move onto something else. And I thought it was one revision away from being completed…I’ll try to put a positive spin on it–guess I’ll have time to work on my novel(s)!
Adios to the gun
Two Thursdays ago I submitted to my writing group for critique my short story “The Intruder” now renamed “He’s All She’s Got.” As usual, my submission generated a fair amount of “positive criticism.”
Our facilitator, John, pointed out that I had “not fully imagined from the inside” the main scene that involved the gun, the intruder, and the tying up to the newel post of my protagonist. I have since attempted to immerse myself deeper into this scene only to discover that I have imagined it to the fullest extent possible. I just can’t write any more realistically about guns and tying up people.
I’ve given my story a hard look–a VERY hard look–and decided to rewrite it with more of a focus on the relationship between the mother and her daughter. I think it best to say adios to the gun scene. What a relief. Eleanor, who has worked tirelessly on a gun scene for possibly years suggested an alternative to my opening scene that does not involve a gun and I’m going to give it a try. Naturally, this change will ripple throughout the story. It’s all for the good. I am better at writing about relationships than guns.
Once again I am thankful for the input from my writing group. Without their advice, I’d–well, I’d be a wannabe writer without any possibility of publication. With them, my odds are slightly better. When we concluded the discussion of my short story, I made a negative comment about it. Immediately, thousands of miles away, I heard “it’s a good story” and “I like your story.” That was enough encouragement for another go-round. Thanks, guys!
What I find of interest is that when I am working on one project, my short story in this instance, all sorts of ideas for my other current project, (my book, “Anne”) erupt unbidden. I do wonder if all other writers have this problem, or if it just belongs to us procrastinators, for whom it is a means of getting out of what we are supposed to be doing.
Last week I took a break from my writing group and writing as my mother, sister and brother-in-law visited from New Hampshire. We relaxed by the pool at their resort, did a few tourist activities, and ate out, naturally. We were pleased we could reward them for their long flight with sunshine and some record-breaking temps in the 80’s. Too bad they had to return to temperatures that were nearly 100 degrees lower (with wind chill) than what they enjoyed here.
Now I will have time to write–the grandkids will be in school, Joy will be working, Steve will be golfing, and, oh, darn, the sun will be shining and temps will be even higher….
My (so-called) life as a writer
Technology is great (when it works, of course). For the past two Thursday nights I’ve been able to FaceTime with my writing group back in New Hampshire. I hope the second Thursday was an improvement for them–I used my iPad instead of my iPhone and they added speakers. The only problem on my end is that it’s harder to interrupt someone when you’re an image on a screen!
With the two hour time difference, I had no choice last Thursday but to eat my dinner while we had our discussion. I don’t imagine my slurping spaghetti noodles was a very appealing sight. That won’t be an option this week as I volunteered to submit. Tacky to eat and present at the same time.
Yikes. What was I thinking? I’ve been much too busy enjoying myself in sunny, warm Arizona (not so much today as we had a storm blow through last night–thank you, El Nino) to find time to write. And we’ve had visitors from New Hampshire. And the three grandkids passed a diluted version of their debilitating virus to me which kept me in bed part of this past weekend. And this coming weekend we have family from New Hampshire arriving.
And…that’s my life as a writer. Full of excuses as to why I haven’t written. But as I look through my two yellow pads of paper, I see pages of notes about both my story, “The Intruder,” and my book, “Anne.” But notes, in my book, don’t constitute writing. And as useful as they are to me, I can’t submit them to my writing group.
My notes on “Anne” pertain to combining my three related novels into one, not as easy a task as I originally anticipated. The process of writing my thoughts down on paper led me to the realization that I am starting the novel with Anne’s story and I need to conclude the novel with her story. My original plan was to end the novel with her daughter Olivia’s story. I suppose if I keep writing notes about the book I’ll come to a different conclusion.
I did have a motivational experience at, of all places, my grandson’s soccer tournament in Tucson. The opening ceremonies included the typical dais with a podium, microphone, and folding chairs. And a replica Olympic torch. Just the sight of the dais (sans the torch) transported me back to a scene in “Anne.”
Time to write (revise, finish) the damn book!
So heads up, writing group. If I get my act together, you’ll be reading a new (improved?) version of “The Intruder” this week. If I don’t, well…I’ll just have to blame it on technology.
Do what you love
I’m still hard at work on the short story (“The Intruder”) that takes place in my daughter’s house in Virginia. I reduced the word count and simplified the convoluted plot line and am now ready to smooth the rough edges, increase the word count, and add complexity to the plot line. I plan to have a draft to submit to my writing group “soon” after we arrive in Arizona. Warning to my group: do not expect it the week we arrive (next week).
Recently I read on a writing blog (not certain which one) that a writer (obviously) keeps a journal for each writing project that she works on. I promptly went to Barnes and Noble, purchased one of their ubiquitous,
always “reduced price,” journals, and started recording my experience revising my short story. I have two entries.
This is the year (I hope) that we get FaceTime functioning so that I can participate in our Thursday night writing group from Arizona. Even if we are only able to communicate via the phone, I will be satisfied. Without the structure of my group to motivate me, I spend my time there basking in the sunshine, resting, and exploring. Add being a spectator at the numerous sports and activities that our three active grandchildren participate in and you can see why I haven’t gotten much writing done these past two winters.
Something that has limited my writing in Virginia is that, as a Christmas present to myself, I renewed my subscription to Ancestry.com. My daughter and I have been researching rabidly various branches of my husband’s family. She’s traced his paternal grandfather’s ancestors back to hanging out with William Bradford, a Pilgrim governor of Massachusetts. (I thought I had done well to determine my fifth great-grandfather was a Minuteman!) It’s an addictive–and at times frustrating–hobby.
Last year in Arizona I participated in an online support group for writers, “Creative Monsters Club,” with other members from around the world. Our mentor, Marcy Mason McKay, has published (among other writings) an award-winning novel, “Pennies from Burger Heaven.” She soon plans to start work on the second book in the Burger Heaven series. I am going to post a review of her book on Goodreads and Amazon, which I have never done before. The quality and detail of the reviews I have read prior to deciding to purchase a book have deterred me from contributing my own paltry review. But I’m going to take the plunge and submit a brief review of this book. Please read her book–my review is optional!
Dancing About Architecture
Singer and composer Donald Swann once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. You can walk around that simile for quite a while. The writing is pointless? Music is bigger, more impressive, more lasting and hence more important? The one can’t substitute for the other?
At the moment, I’m writing about architecture, and Swann’s dictum haunts me. I need to take my readers into a house that is as real to me as my own. I know that each reader will blend my descriptions with her own home, her family’s homes, her feelings about home in general and god knows what else. But I need her to see some parts of the house clearly, and I want her to experience much more than an architectural plan.
The fictional house in question, recently named Fallowfields by its snobbish owner, was built in the late 1800s in rural New Hampshire. It is an uneasy blend of Victorian-era ostentation and New England tradition. Both aspects are important to my plot and to the personalities of my characters. So both have to come through.
My plot requires that people sneak around the place, in and out, upstairs and down, undetected. So I designed Fallowfields on the model of ‘big house, little house, back house, barn.’ Farm housekeeping in the nineteenth century required more than one structure. The little house was usually built onto the back wall of the big house, which was where the humans lived. It might be a summer kitchen, a dairy, a woodshed or all three. A third structure, the back house, would share the back wall of the little house and shelter a different activity. One way or another, all the space that made up the house was formed around the chores and the home production of goods that supported the family.
The Fallowfields barn now has an apartment built into the old hay loft. My heroine has converted the tack room into a home laboratory for her botany experiments. Readers need to notice that proximity. The little house has, unusally, a second story and an internal flight of stairs. There’s another flight at the front of the big house. Before we can do exciting scenes of rushing up and down and dodging round the house, I must lay the routes out for the reader in the course of their ordinary use. Needless to say, my writing group read the early drafts and scratched their heads. “Wait! She was in the barn. How did she get to the bedroom?” Time to revise.
I want much more from Fallowfields than these mechanics. My heroine is facing forced retirement from work that took her around the globe. Unless I can convey her growing contentment with a life in northern New England, she and the book will come to an unhappy end, which is not my intention. Fallowfields and the rest of her home town must convey the possibility of that contentment.
Parts of Fallowfields are based on my grandfather’s house in Peacham, Vermont, purely for the pleasure I take in recalling it. To a five-year-old, its little house was Aladdin’s cave. It held pairs of rubber boots tall and thick enough for Jack-in-the-Beanstalk’s giant, or to survive a universal deluge. There were thin bamboo sticks as tall as my father and balls of bright green twine that would stake vines in the garden next summer. There were little, square wood boxes streaked inside with bright crimson, waiting for yet another year’s raspberry crop. There was a tub of something called paraffin, which I was forbidden to touch. It felt smooth and slick.
Grandpa’s back house was a chicken house. Every egg we ate in that house was less than 24 hours old. At Fallowfields, the old chicken house has been converted into a paradise for a pair of pet ferrets, but hovering sharp and dusty in the air, somewhere between a scent and a memory, is the smell of the feathers, droppings and dirt generated by a flock of healthy chickens. Even today, one breath of that scent takes a half-century off my age. Can I manage to show that? Because telling just won’t do.
I am not Salman Rushdie
The September 2015 issue of the “Harvard Business Review” (creativity section) included an Interview with Salman Rushdie by Alison Beard. Thank you to Heidi, who admits to being obsessed with Rushdie, for sharing this inspiring article.
This is how I interpreted some of the interview in relation to how I write (I know, how arrogant to compare myself to a writing giant such as Rushdie):
Rushdie states that he evolved from a plotter to a pantser. He appears to write in a linear fashion, composing only 400 to 500 words a day—mostly complete scenes, requiring minimal, if any, revision. It’s perfect the first time.
I have never succeeded as a plotter. I attempted to outline my current novel, “Claire,” using a storyboard and post-its. Instead of sticking to my outline I ended up writing an island for our most recent writing group and then I determined where it would fit in the plot. (I was told that’s the definition of an island!) I was surprised to find that it closely matched an existing post-it. However, it was neither perfect nor the next unwritten scene.
Rushdie does not share his writing until it is finished. That is hard to pull off in a writing group as the expectation is that you will submit your work on a regular basis. And since I tend not to finish anything—you can see where this is headed!
Undisciplined: me. Disciplined: Salman Rushdie. He treats his writing as though it were a job with a regular schedule—no waiting for inspiration to strike.
I am nowhere near that point in my writing progression. I write when I have committed to submit to my writing group and when it is my turn to post on our blog. That’s not much. Heidi (who else) has suggested that we resurrect our group writing project centered on a bridal shop. Why not? At least I’d have a third reason for writing.
Would Rushdie ever delay publication of one of his works because he had to paint a bedroom to match a quilt? Or even just not write for the same excuse—I mean reason? Certainly not. For one thing, he most likely hires out his painting. Does he realize he’s missing out on the pleasure of a sore back, of putting on the same smelly painting tee shirt every time he paints, of putting Vaseline on his elbow where he scrubbed too hard with a pumice stone to remove stuck-on paint?
Yet I am a day late with this blog post so that I could assist my husband with just such a task. Further proof that I am not Salman Rushdie. As though any further proof were needed….