Thursday, October 21, 2010

Scary books

The book that scares me the most is the one I haven't written yet. The blank screen taunts me, daring to get the words and pictures and characters out of my brain and onto the page. I heard Michael Cunningham (author of the Hours and other books) being interviewed on KQED's forum the other day. He said you never write the book you're happy with. That's scary.

When I get scared about writing, I read writing books. How-to's, Dummies, Guides to this and that. I reread old favorites like Donald Maass or James Scott Bell or Sol Stein, but sometimes I buy a new book because I'm always sure that there's an author out there who's figured out a method or a secret or the perfect formula for injecting clues.

Turns out there is not. Just in case you were wondering. The only true formula is to read, write and rewrite. Read, write and rewrite. Rinse and repeat.

I'm teaching a class next week on mystery writing at the Redwood Writers Conference so I've been reading a lot about writing mysteries. Trying to pin down how mysteries are different from regular novels.

I'm reading books by Hallie Ephron, James Frey and William Tapply. I got a lot of practical information from the anthology Writing Mystery. Most authors agree that mysteries need a strong hero/heroine, an clever evil villain, a cast of quirky characters to help or hinder progress, a strong narrative hook. Clues must be cleverly disguised.

Easy peasy. So I'm asking readers out there. How do you like your mystery?

James Frey says we like our heros handsome and possessing a special talent. How do you like your protagonists? Do you need to like/love them?

Do you care more about the mystery or the lives of the characters?

Are you trying to solve the mystery? How hidden do you like your clues? Do you suspect every person who's introduced?

Fair play comes up a lot. Did you ever feel cheated by an author hiding the killer too well?

Give me some good feedback, I'll include it in my class notes and I'll send one lucky reader a set of the Stamping Sisters mysteries.


Dru said...

I love trying to figure out who the killer is. Sometimes I'm right, sometimes I'm wrong. I especially love it when I'm wrong because they author did a good job of stumping me.

I like an equal mixture of the mystery and caring for the characters. I need to have someone to root for.

Terri Thayer said...

Thanks, Dru. I appreciate your thoughts. We work hard on stumping you!

signlady217 said...

I always try to figure out "whodunnit". And I love it when the characters become "real"; that is, they seem like they are actual people you would want to have a cup of coffee with or go shopping with (esp. in a continuing series, it's like getting togethere with old friends).

Terri Thayer said...

Yes, signlady, that's a good sign when you want to have coffee with your favorite characters. What a conversation that would be.

Betty Hechtman said...

It sounds like we have a lot of the same books. I think it was the William Tapply book that made a good point. You really have to write, or at least have in your head, two stories. What the reader sees and what really happened.

How great that you're doing a workshop.

Terri Thayer said...

Betty, that Tapply book is my favorite. I love that bit about writing two stories. So true.

Monica Ferris said...

I read, or heard, years ago that the biggest difference between mystery fiction and mainstream fiction is that mystery fiction turns other fiction on it head. That is, in any other novel, the climax would be the murder. The protagonist is picked on, pressed, infuriated, tricked, cuckolded and/or betrayed throughout the story and at last rises up and kills. In mystery fiction, the murder happens first and you spend the rest of the book trying to figure out who the protagonist is.

Terri Thayer said...

signlandy, please email me your snail mail address. I have some books for you!