Posted tagged ‘cozy’

Writing is rewriting

December 24, 2007

Finnegans Afoot, the novel I’m currently working on, takes place in part along the Ozark Trail in southern Missouri. As I am imagining the story, I feel a bit like I’m on a winding trail myself. I know where I’m supposed to finish, but I’m discovering all sorts of new scenery along the way. (Actually, that’s not a very good metaphor for what I want to say right now, but writing is rewriting.)

Anyway, there is a scene I will need to write for the climax of the story that involves a visit to a rocky outcropping along the side of the trail. My characters had passed this spot earlier in Chapter Four, but my description was cursory. At the time, I merely needed to set its location relatively close to the bed and breakfast where they are staying so that one of the characters can return to it at the end of the story for the big revelation of the mystery.

The further down the trail I got in writing the story, though, the more I understood that I needed to make this earlier visit to the outcropping more vivid for the reader. If it was going to be the setting for the story’s climax, I realized that I needed to have it more fixed in the reader’s mind.

And so, writing is rewriting. I went back to Chapter Four and joined my hikers along the trail, stopping them at the outcropping and giving them a chance to rest on the boulders while I did more exposition.

It was tough going for me though. I have no trouble with “pencil work” where I am changing a word or two in prose I’ve already written to make it stronger or clearer. I do that pretty regularly as a way to warm up for the day’s writing session. The reworking of part of Chapter Four, however, called for re-imagining a scene I had left far behind on the trail. It meant re-purposing the scene to do more duty in the story.

The trouble I faced was that the scene as I had originally written it was so established in my memory that I really had to fight with myself to see how I could adjust it. My mind fell into the groove of words that I had written before and I couldn’t find room among them to fit any other words in.

The re-write of this section involved more than adding a few words, of course. I had to change the flow of the plotting here. I had to yank out some of the characters’ observations to slip in elsewhere (or to discard entirely) and I had to add others.

Had I known at the time I was writing it that I needed to presage this setting, I don’t think I would have had any trouble at all. I simply would have done the descriptive work as part of the story development when it flowed from my fingertips. Going back, though, changing what has already been fixed in my mind and then making it all work together and read smoothly was tough work. I had to get my mind out of the groove that the existing words led it into. I had to conceive the scene again even as the words I was reading tried to force me to see the scene in its original way.

I think I managed to do it. Writing is rewriting, and I’ll visit this chapter again when I have the whole story finished because then I will know exactly what must be done in advance. The further reworking will be easier then.

Conventional wisdom

December 6, 2007

From conventional thinking comes conventional writing. Each genre has its conventions, of course, but I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m interested in doing a little genre-busting.

This may be an audacious statement from an unpublished mystery writer, but I think most of the mysteries I read are boring and hackneyed. They are formulaic. Now I know that there are hundreds of mystery novels that depart from the script, but most follow the basic structure of a murder and a clever resolution by an unlikely sleuth. Yawn. Half the population of North America would be dead by now if these novels represented anything like reality. It just strains my credibility to submit to one more murder mystery. It is as though there is no other type of crime in the universe. This is especially the case when a series of mysteries is set in the same town, involves the same sleuth, or both. I wasn’t the first person to observe that Cabot Cove had to be the most dangerous place on earth. Even the story’s writers came to realize this as they eventually sent Jessica Fletcher trotting around the globe to solve crimes.

But how many times in anyone’s life does a murder of a friend or community member really occur? Much less murders that are mysterious? Yet some of the mystery series I read have the same sweet, scrappy sleuth solving murder after murder after murder. I think the police should consider looking into the sleuth after finding so many murders connected to her.

In your life you will find plenty of complex puzzles and mysteries that don’t involve murder if you turn over a few rocks. Even the most transparent person you know has secrets and motivations and shames and ambitions that are kept hidden but that drive what they do. And this simple fact is true: there is plenty of evil a bad person can do aside from murder. In the hands of a capable writer, a compelling mystery can be drawn from this fact of life.

So I advocate for mysteries that deal with the “rest of life” and I rail against mysteries that repeat the tired formula.

Chapter 8

December 3, 2007

Chapter 8 of Finnegans Afoot is just rollicking along. I had a really great start, writing about 1500 words in one session (which I consider very good). The best part is that I have a clear idea of where I want the chapter to go as well as what needs to happen in the course of it.

I think I’ve found my way back to the momentum I was missing earlier. The story-setting work of the early chapters is now mostly over. It’s time to get the plot moving in earnest, and I’m in those chapters. The tension gets turned up a notch here. I hope to have the chapter finished by the end of the week. Wish me luck!

Concerning contracts

December 1, 2007

I signed a contract yesterday for a short story of mine that will be published in an anthology early next year. That was a new experience for me.

In my professional life, I read and negotiate contracts all day long, so I wasn’t confused or intimidated by this short story contract. It said all of the usual things all contracts have, and it spelled out publishing obligations and who owns what rights clearly.

I’ve published more than five dozen feature articles, though, and never once did I have to sign a contract. There was a start-up magazine that was interested in hiring me as a sort of stringer, and they presented me with a lengthy contract, but the magazine’s subject matter was not something I wanted to invest a lot of mental effort into, so I never signed that one. (I don’t know if the magazine even exists anymore.)

The one short story I’ve had published (in a tiny literary magazine) required no more than a congenial conversation with the editor at a literature conference and one or two letters back and forth.

The story that is coming out in the anthology is in the fantasy genre, and the anthology — called Beacons of Tomorrow — is mostly science fiction. This is the second edition of the anthology, and the first had gotten good reviews, so I’m pleased to be a part of it.

Still, I’m a little surprised at the need for a contract for merely a short story. But what do I know, right?

Chapter 7 completed

November 25, 2007

I finished chapter 7 after a flurry of writing in recent days. It’s another “conversation” chapter, but it sets up a lot of the mystery that will be resolved in the end. I also managed to squeeze in a little tone of menace that should keep the reader’s interest level up.

Maybe it’s all of the iced tea I’ve been drinking lately, but ideas for new stories have been flowing through my head lately. My old paper journal has seen a flurry of new entries as I try to get down the rudiments of these ideas. As I noted with that novella story I’m also working on, I tend to let story ideas incubate for a while before I try to write them. (I think this is why I’ve been having so much trouble with Finnegans Afoot — I started writing it before I had sufficiently imagined it.)

I’ve always found success with the cluster approach to creativity. (I had one professor in college call it the flypaper approach.) I have a few story ideas knocking about in my head, and as I see facts of everyday life, or as I overhear conversations, or as various little enlightenments come to me, I always consider how they might fit with the story ideas. Sometimes perfect fits come along that help develop a story. Sometimes if the discovery doesn’t work with one story, it will with another. Sometimes a little twist will make a discovery work. Sometimes the discovery becomes the kernel for its own story. And so on. Over time (the incubation part) enough of this accumulates and I have all of the material I need to begin writing with the goal of finishing in mind. (I will do a lot of writing just to play with the words and see what happens but without the idea that I’m working on an actual story. I believe this is called prewriting, but I am dubious about quantifying creativity.)

Which takes us a long way from the news that Chapter 7 is now finished, but shows how my mind tends to work.

Of shorter matters

November 23, 2007

As I continue to make progress on my novel Finnegans Afoot, I have returned to a very old short story I had fiddled with and left unfinished. They say that the ideas that just won’t go away are the best ones. I hope that is true because I will have to invest a great deal of time and creativity to this effort.

The short story is going to clock in as a novella; I don’t think I can possibly finish it under 10,000 words. There is that much story to tell and that much tone to establish and maintain. I guess you could classify it as a crime/horror story (without the supernatural angle), which is truly odd since my novels are cozy mysteries. I’m not sure that there will be a market for such a story, at least from a barely published writer with no name recognition.

Nonetheless, I think it is an excellent story that deserves all of the time and attention it will require. I’m really on fire about it. (I hope I can sustain the excitement, because it will be a long way to the finish.)

As I said, I had started the story some years ago, but it petered out without any clear resolution in my mind. Actually, it was more the idea of a set up than an entire story. What was I going to do with the nifty set up of the story? I didn’t know at the time, so the writing just stopped. Somehow, though, a resolution popped in my head recently. A perfect way to both develop the story in an interesting and psychological way and end it satisfactorily.

Now I know where I want the story to go. The hard part will be sustaining the tone. It is a first-person narration, and the narrator is a bit affected, so I’ll have to keep that up even as the story takes its odd twists and turns.

Keeping a journal

November 21, 2007

I’ve kept a hand-written journal for more than twenty-five years. Into it I’ve poured story ideas, bits of dialogue, research, musings, and even, occasionally, accounts of my day (though it’s not really anything like a diary). Sometimes I make only a couple of sentences as my entry. Sometimes I go on for pages. Sometimes weeks will go by without an entry. Sometimes I’ve made four or five substantive entries in a single day.

I began keeping notes in a battered, spiral-bound notebook — the kind commonly available for school work. I was fresh out of college at the time (this was in the mostly pre-digital age), so I guess I was accustomed to using these college-ruled notebooks. Somewhere along the line I started using notebooks with college logos on the front cover. I now have a couple of these in reserve so that I can always keep my journals in college-logoed notebooks. I guess that’s just something strange about me.

But I have to confess that I’m not satisfied with my journals. I have about one for every year I’ve been keeping them, so the teetering stack of them in my closet is intimidating. If I ever want to dig out some note I made in months or decades past, I take one look at the pile o’notebooks and give up the idea. That seems to be the real problem I’ve found with this manner of keeping a journal. The information becomes lost. There are hundreds and hundreds of pages of hand-written notes, crossing the spectrum of my thoughts, scattered without order in my journals. If it wasn’t a recent entry, I really have no hope of finding what I’m after.

Once I found that I was returning to my journal to make another entry about a topic that interested me, such as the development of a story plot for example, I began putting titles at the top of the entry. In this way, I could flip through the pages of a given notebook and only pause on the entries with the title of the story. That seemed like a proactive solution to the spread of information, but when these notes on the same subject began to cross into succeeding journals (because I was busy “making notes” rather than writing the actual stories?) the effectiveness of the method decreased.

Even more depressing, though, is the quality of what I’ve written in my journals. When I open an older journal and select an entry at random, I never see the great gem of wisdom that my memory tells me is there. Rather, my thoughts seem mundane, even immature. Or bland. It is rare that I come across an entry that I want to read all the way through for some forgotten insight I just had to get down in writing. It is as though all of that feverish writing was done by some other fellow — and not a very clever one at that. Sometimes I cringe when I see the thoughts that once seemed so profound but now seem embarrassing. I understand that John Cheever was greatly embarrassed when most of the short stories across his many productive years were collected in a single volume because the oldest ones seemed so immature to him. I don’t pretend to be a writer of Cheever’s caliber, but I think I understand his sentiment.

Still, I’ve kept at it, so I must find some value in keeping a journal. I’ve often said that I can’t begin to understand something until I’ve written it down. I truly do believe that the measured pace of writing by hand allows me to think a thought through and see its range and implications. It causes me to focus and reflect, and therein lies the insight. I really do believe that I have worked out some story problems by writing them out. I think I have evolved some characters and crafted some clever dialogue with mechanical pencil to paper. I think I have helped order and organize my thoughts about different issues of the day through my journal writing, and if I’ve moved on to different opinions about these issues, then it is because I progressed from good foundations.

I’ve been writing less regularly in my journal in recent years. I don’t know why that is except, perhaps, that blogging is becoming its substitute. My daughter has her eyes on my journals. She will be my archivist, I suppose. (She also tells me I should write in ink rather than pencil because it is more permanent, but I’m not going to make that switch. I like the feel of pencil on paper.) I guess for that reason I should keep pouring my thoughts onto paper.

Nancy Drew moment

November 18, 2007

And I don’t mean that in a good way.

What I’m referring to is the tendency — nay, the obligation — some writers seem to feel to describe in great detail the clothing a character is wearing. In great and utterly useless detail. In detail that interrupts the flow of the story or the drive of the narrative.

I suppose these writers believe that the reader needs to be able to picture the character in the mind’s eye. I’ve never had much use for this kind of thinking. The fact is that most of us will conceive an image of a character that suits us. Often, I find that I disregard how the writer has dressed the character because it makes no difference to me (and it almost always makes no difference to the story). Honestly, unless a character is meant to be understood as a fop or a fashion-conscious person, I really don’t think what they’re wearing contributes to the tale at all. If you think about it, most of the people you encounter every day are not exceptionally well dressed (or poorly dressed) and you don’t generally need to tick off their daily garments as you are having a casual conversation with them. What they have to say, or their mood, or where they are going is what is important to your interaction.

And so it is, to me, with the fictional characters I encounter. Nine times out of ten, it doesn’t matter at all what a character is wearing. I’ve read more than a few mystery novels in which the narrative gets interrupted by a quick fashion statement, and I always get annoyed with this. It is unnecessary — so unnecessary that it knocks me out of the fictional universe for a moment. Since I’ve come to recognize this writing flaw, I’ve looked for it in other fiction I read. What is notable to me is that I almost never see this kind of sartorial inventorying in “serious literature.” I’ve been watching for it, and it just ain’t there. Nor does it need to be.

I can’t take credit for this use of the term “Nancy Drew moment.” I first read of it more than a year ago on the Maud Newton blog. One of her guest posters, who is a writing instructor, made reference to it, and I quote it here. She is writing about her girlhood reading of Nancy Drew novels:

As much as I loved them, and god, did I love them, they’ve inspired a phrase I use over and over again in teaching writing. “That’s a Nancy Drew moment,” I’ll say. “You don’t need that.” A Nancy Drew moment is when a writer has spent a disproportionate amount of time describing the character’s hair and clothing, particularly when neglecting things like, oh, say, character development. As in, “Nancy darted out of the house in her lime green mini-skirt, her pink casmere sweater and white PVC go go boots which she’d only bought the day before, her strawberry blond hair glinting in the sun as she joined George, in her navy blue wool pea coat, in the convertible.”

A couple of typos in there, and a pronoun reference problem at the end, but the meaning remains.

Got the tee-shirt

November 9, 2007

“No book is worth reading once if it is not worth reading many times.”

Susan Sontag in the foreword to Pedro Paramo

That’s a lofty sounding thought, but I’m not sure I agree with it. At least, I think that different people come to reading with different expectations or requirements. Someone might come to a popular novel with no hope other than to be entertained for its duration, not to have a lasting, life-changing experience from it.

Nor can one know if an unread book meets the standard set above, though I’m not sure that’s the spirit of the sentiment. I suppose it is meant to suggest that you should try to read good books that merit multiple readings or that if a book is good, you should not hesitate to read it again and again. But on the face of it, the statement sounds elitist.

There are a few books I’ve read several times. Walden. Moby Dick. To Kill a Mockingbird. A Country Year. I’ve read Philip Roth’s novel The Ghost Writer more than a dozen times. I knew a man who said he always reads Huckleberry Finn each spring. Christopher Lee is reported to read The Lord of the Rings each year.

I’ve often thought that you can’t really begin to understand a serious novel until you’ve read it at least twice. But that may just be a deficiency of my own. Not all novel reading has to be serious business. Obligation, pleasure, or just casual interest may justify reading a novel one time with satisfaction, but that novel may not call for a second reading. Yet I would consider it a good novel if it did what it set out to do.

I’ve known people who state that they can’t imagine why anyone would read a novel a second time since they already know how it is going to come out. I suppose these people only read for plot, which is perfectly fine. Yet there are so many other reasons for reading. Character development. Tone. Beautiful sentences or images. The clever crafting of metaphor. Coming to a better understanding of important themes or ideas. Or simply reliving the enjoyment you felt the first time through. When you think about it, most people will listen to the same pop song hundreds of times and get plenty of enjoyment from it. I think something like a novel, which is much more complex than a pop song, deserves at least as much attention.

When I finished Pedro Paramo, I immediately began reading again at the first page. It is supposedly the novel that inaugurated the whole realm of magical realism, and I was confused by what was going on in the story. A second, quick reading helped me understand it a lot better. Still, I think Sontag was being a bit crafty to make her bold assertion in the foreword of this book. It is a book many people will have to read again just to understand the basic story.

Chapter 6 coming along

November 3, 2007

I had a good writing session with chapter 6 of Finnegans Afoot this morning, putting down more than 2000 (first draft) words. After the troubles I had with chapters 4 and 5, I worried that I was going to have to fight the whole way to the finish, but not so. At least not so with chapter 6.

There is no “action” in this chapter. It’s mostly conversations and background, but a lot of the story gets developed or hinted at here. Some of my metaphors get a work out as well. I think I’ll be able to finish it in my next session at the computer.

Still no word from either of the agents who asked for samples of Finnegans Festive. Nor have I heard from any of the several other agents I have queried in the last couple of months. But I keep at it.