Wednesday, April 25, 2007

How To, Cont'd.

I posted this earlier, but don't see it on the site, so I'm posting it again. I hope it doesn't turn up twice!

How to Write a Mystery, part II

Continued f rom last Wednesday:
7. The hardest part of writing a story is the middle. New and young authors especially have trouble with this. They find (surprise!) it is actually work to write this part. They get discouraged and quit. Or they try to be clever and avoid the work by writing the beginning and then the end. This, unfortunately, leaves the reader with nothing to do -- such as get to know the characters, or solve the crime themselves. But the middle is where the story happens, so spend time on it. Why does your hero stick with it when all he gets is frustration? (Maybe the police think your hero murdered his wife, and the only way he can clear himself is to find out who really did it.) What do the cops think of him doing his own investigating? What does he think of doing it? How does he figure out where to begin? And what does he find out? Something shocking right away, so he -- and the reader -- understand he is right to start digging. Maybe he finds evidence in her checkbook of large, unexplained, regular payments -- was she being blackmailed? Maybe he comes across some dark secret from her past he uncovers when he is packing away her things: a baby given up for adoption, a stint at Betty Ford. Who had motive? Opportunity? Provide a lot of information -- too much. Is the fact that Jessye called in sick Monday a clue? Does the fact that Marvel-Ann came over to borrow a cup of flour on Wednesday when Ingrid says she bought a five-pound sack on Tuesday afternoon a clue or just a piece of information? Or is Ingrid lying? Where did Pedro get the money to bail out Herman? Does Desktop wear second-hand clothes because he likes them or because he can't afford to shop at Wal-Mart? Everything in the middle should move the story toward the solution.
8. Make your characters feel the fright, the pain, the joy, the laughter. If they plod along unfeelingly, the story sags. If your hero is afraid of knives here but casually disarms a knife-wielding bad guy there, the reader quits thinking of him as someone he might know. If your villain is allergic to eggs on page twelve and eats an omelet with no consequences on the morning of page fifty, your reader snorts disbelievingly. If any or all of your characters change attitudes and personalities according to the needs of the plot and not in accordance with their revealed characters, the reader stops thinking of them as real people and interest dies.
9. It is better to show than to tell. If someone is scared, don't say, "He was very frightened." Say, "Sam's face was pale and his palms were sweaty." Even better, "Sam's breath caught in his throat, but it was only the refrigerator starting up. He wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans, crouched even lower behind the sagging couch, and wished for the sound of sirens."
10. Try to think what you would do in the same situation your put your characters in. And what your sister, or father, or Aunt Sarah would do. (Like dialing 911!) That way, your characters should behave like real people, and your story is easy for your reader to believe. A good writer is very observant of the little details of human behavior, and works these details into his/her stories. Next time you are in church, or at the mall, or eating out, take a few minutes just to sit quietly and watch how people behave. Describe how they look and what they are doing in your head, using as few words as possible. You may even want to carry a little notebook around and write down things that strike you as interesting. (Be subtle about doing this; it can become annoying, or even earn you a poke in the eye!)
11. Trite but true: write what you know. But if you don't know, go find out! It is accuracy of detail that creates and sustains suspension of disbelief, and this goes double for mysteries, where "a fact that ain't so" is a clue. (Example: If a character tells the sleuth that she saw someone screwing a barrel-shaped thing onto the end of a six-shooter before firing it, and that’s why no one heard the shot, she’s lying. Silencers work poorly on revolvers.) Writers are researching all the time. They read everything, and are adventurous; they explore, stretch, challenge. They never know what little detail will prove helpful next time they are building a plot, a setting, a character.
11. Just as the carpenter must know how to use his hammer and saw, and which nails to select for framing and which for shingling, the writer must know how to spell and use grammar. But while the carpenter must get each step right before moving on to the next, the writer has every opportunity to go back and re-write a story -- and should take advantage of that. Often the first draft of a story is just an effort to get the thing out of your head and onto paper, to see what it is you have hold of. Then you begin to poke and slice and polish. It is a good idea to set the finished story aside overnight or for a week or even longer, then haul it out and read it again. Errors and omissions not visible earlier will suddenly leap out to be corrected. It is at times like this the writer blesses the word processor, which makes it possible to correct or change portions of a story without having to type the entire thing over again.
12. Study the kind of stories you want to write. Read them several times. Try catching a favorite author as he or she lays down the plot, describes characters, slips clues in. You might even try writing a sample story in his style.
13. Keep Writing! The writer finds it both a love and an obsession, because only love (or obsession) will keep her sitting for hours and hours at her desk. If it is right for you, you will discover no pleasure in the world like that of getting lost in a world of your own making. You will come to care desperately about your hero, and wish him well even when you are putting him in a situation that will test him to the limit; you will find yourself angry at the villain, laughing when your hero is made ridiculous, smiling through your tears at a happy ending. (If this isn't happening, re-write until it does!)
14. Don't be discouraged by rejection slips; every writer gets them, even successful ones. If a story doesn't sell to one magazine, try another; don't quit until every magazine editor who remotely might be interested has turned it down. If you can, keep several manuscripts making the rounds at all times. Persevere: One day, possibly when you least expect it, you will get the immensely flattering news that a publisher wants to pay you for your story!
Although the rules set forth above are true and correct, so was Mr. Maugham when he wrote: "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are." Please don't forget that.

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