Monday, May 30, 2016

Review: Writing Mysteries, A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of Amerca

Last time I wrote about how I selected the point of view for my murder mystery, and why I did not use the first-person point of view loved by many mystery writers and their readers. This time, I'm providing a book review relevant to mystery writing.

As I've said before, I like to read and learn from books on writing craft. I was pleased to discover a book specifically about writing mysteries, Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, edited by award-winning mystery writer Sue Grafton.

The book consists of 35 chapters written by A-list mystery writers, each chapter on a different element of writing mysteries. My biggest takeaways from this book were

  • show telling details of character
  • maintain conflict throughout the book
  • details are important

Telling details of character are small things that say a lot about a character. Michael Connelly uses as an example a homicide detective who always takes off his glasses and sticks an earpiece in his mouth to hold them while examining a corpse at the crime scene. The telling detail is the indentations in the earpiece caused by biting down hard. Upon learning this detail it becomes immediately clear that not only does the detective work on cases, the cases work on him. A telling detail of my protagonist, Evelyn Malsage, is that there is always a bit of truth in any of her paranoid beliefs.

As for maintaining conflict throughout the book, advice from Kurt Vonnegut is offered. This master said that each character on each page of a book must want something--even if it's only a glass of water. The ultimate advice introduced through Vonnegut's proverb is that in a mystery every page should have conflict of some kind and that from conflict comes suspense.

In a mystery, details are important because readers of the genre enjoy hunting for answers and many of them will sift every word in the search for clues to the solution. So, even more than is so for other genres of fiction, details must be precise and accurate.

There are other things I learned from this book, such as that many mystery authors are discovery writers (also called pantsers, as in "by the seat of the pants") who work out what a story is about by the process of writing the first draft. This in contrast to outliners, who determine their story, sometimes to great detail, by advance planning. Many authors are, like me, somewhere between the two, doing some planning of story before writing but also working out important details of plot and character by writing the first draft.

I will probably reread this book, or at least select chapters, from time-to-time. I found the lessons valuable enough that I can recommend this book to other beginning mystery writers.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Point of View, or Through Whose Eyes Do I Present My Murder Mystery?

Last time I reviewed the writing guide Don't Murder Your Mystery. The time before that I wrote about the advice to "write what you know" and why I found the advice less limiting than it first sounded. This time, I'm going to talk about point of view options for a murder mystery and how I settled on the one I would use in writing my first murder mystery.

Any story is written from one or more points of view (see the movie Vantage Point). The term point of view means pretty much what it sounds like: from where one sees (or more broadly, experiences) a story. The most common ones are

  • first person
  • third person limited
  • third person multiple
  • third person omniscient

I'll describe these options only briefly. In depth explanations of various points of view and their advantages and disadvantages can be found in many writers' guides, such as Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.

First person point of view is written through the eyes of a character. It is written using words such as "I" and "me" and "we" and "my." Many detective stories are written in first person. You see things through the senses and thoughts of a character who is personally telling you the story. With writing in this point of view, the reader gets to know only what the character knows and experiences. It is perhaps the most intimate point of view. Usually, only one character is the point of view, but not always, such as in The Judas Line by Mark Everett Stone, where two characters are used for point of view, but only one in any chapter.

Third person point of view is written through the voice of a third-party narrator. It is written using words such as "he" and "she" and "they" and "their."

With third person limited point of view, the reader still knows what the character knows and experiences, but a (perhaps anonymous) narrator is telling the story and that narrator is free to tell the reader things a little more truthfully than the character might admit. Only one character is used for point of view. This point of view can be nearly as intimate as first person.

Third person multiple is like third person limited, but more than one character may be used for point of view, but usually only one character per scene.

With third person omniscient point of view, the narrator is an all-knowing being that can enter the mind of any character and even share with the reader what no one is present to witness.

When considering which point of view to use for my story, the biggest thing I had to consider was the schizophrenia of the main character, Evelyn Malsage. She hallucinates voices, believes odd things that are mostly untrue, and is mildly paranoid. Her self-awareness is poor.

When I tried to imagine first person narration by Evelyn, I quickly found it wouldn't work. I wanted readers to hear the voices she heard, and that presented a problem. I don't hear voices now that I've found the right regimen of medications, but when I did, it was so disturbing and confusing that the last thing I wanted to do--that I don't think I was even capable of doing--was try to repeat the stream of voices I heard as they spoke. I could not use first person narration if I wanted to be authentic about the voices she hears. Also, Evelyn, like many schizophrenics who don't have their symptoms under control, has impaired self awareness. That would make use of first person problematic. Topping things off, I think being inside Evelyn's hallucinating, confused head all the time would exhaust readers and turn them away.

So first person was out for Evelyn but it didn't necessarily mean first person was completely out of the question. The Sherlock Holmes stories were mostly if not all written in first person using Dr. John Watson's point of view. I wondered if I could Michael's point of view in first person. No good. I definitely want to enter Evelyn's head part of the time, so a Dr. Watson approach wouldn't work.

So third person multiple seemed to fit the bill.

Multiple meant more than one point of view, but how many?

Well, who was my story about? Sure, many people: victim, suspects, witnesses, sleuths. But when I decided on a conflicted partnership between Evelyn and her brother-in-law crime reporter Michael Lawson, I knew the focus had to be on those protagonists. So, for now, I'm trying to limit point of view to just those characters, getting as close to the characters as I can get with third person. (Now I'm a big fan of British TV mystery shows, so I may cheat and use fly-on-the-wall point of view, variouslycalled cinematic or objective point of view, occasionally to show some suspicious (and red herring) behaviors, as I often see in shows such as Broadchurch and Midsomer Murders.)

So now I was settled: I would use third person multiple almost exclusively, through the vantage points of Evelyn and Michael. I have written three chapters so far using these points of view, and so far it has worked acceptably.

I hope you found this an interesting journey into the mind of a first time mystery writer and maybe even got some ideas for your own mystery.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Review: Don't Murder Your Mystery

I like to read books on writing craft, so it was an instinct of mine to find some books on writing mysteries since I am new to writing the genre. One of them I just read was excellent but, I think, misnamed. The Agatha award-winning Don't Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden could have been titled Don't Murder Your Prose. (Roerden went on to publish Don't Sabotage Your Submission, which has much the same content but is written for fiction writers of any genre. Roerden advises people to not bother buying both books.)

Roerden's stated goal is to help you, the writer of a mystery novel, reduce the odds of a literary agent or advance-paying publisher throwing your manuscript onto the rejection pile after reading only the first few pages. She draws upon her forty-plus-years experience as an editor to identify twenty-four areas of writing where she has seen most writers she has edited demonstrate "average" writing. She advises that average means amateur.

I think she exceeds her goal. This book is also for the indie writer who doesn't necessarily care about agents and publishers because it is about how to make your writing decidedly better than that of the hordes of other indie writers you are competing with. People are going to read only so much of your book when they see it in a bookstore or on Amazon, often only the first page. Wouldn't you like them to want more rather than see reasons to put your work down?

In each of the twenty-four areas of writing she discusses, she offers plenty of specific examples from award-winning and bestselling mystery novels to demonstrate what she means by "good" in that area. She also offers bad examples, some contrived and some real but unattributed, to explain by contrast.

She also explains why common mistakes in these areas matter. Bad mechanics in your writing are distracting and pull readers out of your story. Why let something under your control--your writing--undermine your storytelling?

What this book is not is a book on storytelling. It is not about how to plot a mystery or how to develop the character of your sleuth. It's about writing prose that it is heads above the crowd and more on par with successful authors.

Roerden mentions a few things specific to mystery but far and away her clearly explained and backed up advice applies broadly to genre fiction. One of my takeaways from this book about writing mysteries is that details matter. She does a marvelous job explaining how to embed details in your prose without it sounding stilted or stopping action. She also makes clear you should be prudent about the details you add, avoiding detail that means nothing to the rest of the story.

I am glad I read this book. I know that applying its lessons will improve my craft both at writing and at editing. If you are a fiction writer, I recommend you read this book.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Why Writing What You Know is Not the Same as Playing it Safe

I last wrote about deciding the sub-genre of my story and deciding whether my sleuth had a Watson. In this post, I will talk a bit on what it means to "Write what you know."

Advice I've read countless times, as I'm sure most writers have, is "Write what you know."

I think some writers take this to mean "Write about your experiences." My cousin James Carroll certainly did that in his semi-autobiographical novels, such as Memorial Bridge, and his biographical book American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us. But I believe writing about your experiences has a broader meaning.

If you're not an arachnophobe yourself, it may seem tough to write about someone terrified by a spider hanging over them by a slender thread. But if you have ever been deeply frightened, you do know how to write about your heart pounding in your chest and finding it hard to catch your breath. If you can recall how you felt nauseous and shaky after the fear began to subside, you know how to write how someone felt after getting away from that spider. If you've ever imagined some terrible possibility you panicked over, only to have it not come to pass, you can describe a phobia. These, at least to me, are all about writing what you know.

I've started drafting initial chapters of my mystery, which has a working title of The Voices Cried Deception. In the first chapter, I described how disembodied voices spoke from behind Evelyn Malsage, narrating her life to her ears only. That I've experienced, and its anywhere from annoying to deeply disturbing. But I had to use my imagination to give her delusions that I've never had. Since I have believed things in that past that turned out to be true, I knew how to write some of her delusions. All I had to do was think of something a little absurd that involved an assumption of malicious intent. Evelyn, for example, keeps the television that was a recent Christmas present turned to the wall because she knows Google and others watch people through their televisions. That makes this a great delusion is that I've read stories about Web-connected smart TVs with cameras being hacked to observe people without their knowing. A good delusion has a grain of plausibility to it.

In case I'm not making my point clear, it's this: Writing what you know does not mean safely sticking to your experience and direct knowledge. It means using your experience and knowledge to help you imagine a circumstance well enough to vividly and credibly describe it, even though you've never experienced that circumstance.

When I catch cases of it while writing my murder mystery, I will write about when I describe experiences that were new to me while still writing what I know.

Well, back to writing more of my first draft. I hope I've said something that helps you write your own mystery.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Picking the Sub-genre of My Mystery and Do I Have a Watson?

Last time I wrote about the importance of working out the solution to a mystery before beginning to write the story. This time, I'm going to write about the following two things:

  • picking the sub-genre of the mystery I am about to write .
  • deciding if my sleuth has a Watson, and how to make their relationship interesting.

Mystery and detective stories come in many sub-genres--cozy, hard-boiled, police procedural, amateur sleuth, woman sleuth, private detective, to name a few.

Well, I've never been a cop and have no law enforcement officers among my friends or close acquaintances, so I didn't want to write a police procedural. It would have required more research than I was ready for. The same for private detective and hard-boiled. I didn't know the PI business and I really didn't know life on the streets.

I also didn't want to write a "cozy" mystery. These stories are very light on grit and sexuality and swearing, often set among the rich and beautiful. Think Agatha Christie or Diane Mott Davidson. I knew I wanted harsh realism in my story involving the struggles the protagonist has with her schizophrenia. As can often be the case with hallucinated voices, there would be foul language. Cozy this story was not.

Besides, I had already picked my protagonist, Evelyn Malsage, a reluctant detective who hears voices. So that narrowed it to amateur sleuth and woman sleuth.

I know I will have to handle some things regarding police procedure and probably forensics, but by going with an amateur sleuth, I could minimize that.

Now I had to decide whether my amateur sleuth has a sidekick, as many do. Did Evelyn have a John Watson as her foil?

A sidekick, yes, I decided, but not a John Watson. I kept thinking of the Oracle at Delphi, and how people came to her. I wanted that mythic element. Nero Wolfe crossed my mind, but I didn't want Evelyn to figure it all out in the agoraphobic comfort of her home. I wanted to explore Evelyn's personality and insecurities as she struggled with life. I couldn't see why Evelyn would get involved in a murder. She needed a sidekick that would draw her into a crime.

Enter Michael Lawson, her brother-in-law and crime reporter for the Denver Post. Michael could feed her information. He could sometimes ask Evelyn about her take on human nature since she has met many struggling people in support groups she attends.

I want to make use of Michael as a reporter but it is Evelyn that I want in the forefront. I've made a note for myself that Michael is not the detective.

Was that enough for the character of Michael to be? I didn't think so. The relationship between Evelyn and Michael had to be interesting. It had to be messy. That's when I decided that Michael's wife, Evelyn's sister, Nan, was dead.

Always remember to escalate, take things further, is advice I've read from more than one knowledgeable source on writing fiction. Michael needed a reason to be uncomfortable around Evelyn, something beyond mundane reasons. What if Evelyn looked so much like Nan that it pained Michael? What if Evelyn was the only living link Michael had to Nan? What if he needed to see Evelyn because it made him feel close to his wife, but he hated it because Evelyn wasn't her? What if Evelyn picked up on Michael's uneasiness but misconstrued it?

Now Evelyn and Michael could be cohorts in mystery solving but with tension between them. It offers reasons for each not to share important information with the other. And the story can focus not just on the mystery but on how Evelyn's struggles with life and grows in order to solve it. Sounds good to me.

Now I know the sub-genre I am writing in, and I have my Watson. I hope this helps you in writing your mystery.