Archive for category Mysteries

It’s No Mystery

My Latest Page-turner.

My Latest Page-turner

Mysteries, whether cozy English, police procedural, or noir detective, fill a psychological itch for us. The police, the detective, and the justice system represent the societal order we all need to feel safe, and the moral order that allows good to triumph over evil. The protagonist outwits the criminal, and brings him or her to justice. The act cannot be undone; the murder victim cannot be restored to his or her unfinished life, and so the detective’s victory is always tempered by the reality that there is more evil out there, always.

Most readers of SF I know read the occasional mystery. I heard someone say that every SF story is at heart a mystery. That may be too sweeping a generalization for me, but the affinity between the two groups is undeniable, given that many writers of SF have also worked in the mystery genres. More than a few writers have written both in the same book.

One of the favorite combos is the mystery combined with alternate history. The alternate history usually deals with different historical political outcomes and shifts of power. Three examples come to mind: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Jo Walton’s Farthing, and China Mieville’s The City and the City.

Some might question my inclusion of the Mieville work as alternate history, but as a kind of alternate now, it has many of the same combination of qualities I find so appealing in the alternate history/mystery sub-genre. The mystery genre has a utopian view of justice, in which the truth outs and justice prevails. The real justice system can never measure up. The alternate history political system strives to impose order, but causes its own chaos. The marriage of the two makes for very interesting fiction.

I finished Farthing, and immediately downloaded the second and third books of the trilogy, having found the first book a page-turner the likes of which I haven’t experienced in years. It begins with a country house murder set in an England that made peace with Hitler in 1941. The investigation of the country house murder, and the Inspector’s solving of the crime, is supposed to return us to the security of a lawful society, as per the world-view of the mystery, as described above. But there’s a problem, and that problem is the corruption of a sane and orderly legal system by the madness of a British government being overcome by fascism. How does the truth-seeking Inspector Carmichael restore order, when the integrity and fundamental morality of that order has been gutted?

China Mieville’s police detective has a different problem. He is attempting to solve his murder case as a citizen of a city state that coexists with another city-state that occupies the same territory, but which he must ignore. All citizens must ignore the other city-state which is right before their eyes. Reality has been fractured, and perception cannot be trusted. How can truth be found in such a state? The detective’s own perceptions are distorted by the lifelong conditioning of his culture, of not-seeing what is right in front of him. What greater handicap can a seeker of truth have than self-blinding from what one is forbidden to see?

The existential threat to Detective Landsmen in Chabon’s alternate history is at once remote and immediate. The lease on the temporary Jewish settlement/homeland in Sitka, Alaska, is about to run out, throwing the detective and all of Alaska’s Jews into statelessness. In the meantime, crime goes on, including murder, one of which Landsmen is tasked with solving. He expects to keep doing his job, in spite of the imminent demise of the jurisdiction he works for. Talk about being a lame duck. Madcap alternate history/police procedural it is, but Chabon also points squarely at a serious dilemma we’ve all faced. Why bother to do the right thing, if no one cares, and if it seems not to matter, to make any difference to anyone?

So here are my speculations for the week: What do we do when 1) We learn the authority that comforts us, and that we depend upon, has become hopelessly compromised? 2) We learn that we have been in denial all our lives about what is true and what is not? Or, 3) Our moral and ethical best efforts are probably meaningless to the world around us?

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I Must Be A Gardener, Because I Measure So Inaccurately

You don’t want to build a house from my blueprints. The house would not stand. You would not want to write a novel from my outline, because I am a gardener.

During his interview at Worldcon last week, George R. R. Martin gave us something to think and talk about as respects a writer’s process. Alec Nevala-Lee blogged on it earlier this week. You should read that post here for what Martin said, and what Alec says, to get the context:

The gardener/architect contrast was brought up several times in various panels, and it seems to me all but Alec identified as a gardener. Is no one else brave enough to identify as an architect? Does it seem less artsy or cool to build your story in a linear fashion, brick by carefully considered brick, than to toss a ton of seeds onto your bed, stand back, and hope something beautiful flourishes?

Whether Martin made all the gardener-writers feel suddenly more cool is unimportant, but knowing who you are is of the utmost. I do know being a gardener is not all that much fun. We can’t-write-an-outline folks are branded early on, in school. We are taught outlining, and are expected to be able to do one, and then write a paper based on the outline. Like one Chicon panelist, whose name I can’t recall, I too wrote the report first, and then did the outline, and then turned in the paper. Yeah, I got the grade, but I also got the sense of being different, of being fundamentally flawed, because of my inability to do something so simple as to create in a linear fashion.

Many of us humans have the tendency to do this very thing: model the format that is against our nature, because we are given to understand that it is the “right” way. When the “right” way doesn’t turn out so well, we feel the failure. We can freeze up and get blocked.

I prefer–my brain prefers–to construct a story by coming up with a situation. A bit of contemplation, and I have a beginning. I may know a bit of the ending; at least, I decide if it’s mostly happy, or mostly sad. The tone of the ending is clearly contained in the beginning, although the details may be fuzzy. The middle is a dense fog that will not burn off for quite a while. My first-draft middles are usually hideous. I’ve no idea what I’m doing. The characters all flatten to two dimensions, and perform stupid, pointless, completely uncharacteristic tasks. Then, suddenly, they come alive and have a satisfying ending.

When I’m writing a short story, I can get through this okay. I only have to slog though thirty pages or so, and when I go back and reread that first draft (an excruciating experience), I can nonetheless find one or two paragraphs in the middle that don’t suck. Little tiny bits that are true, and not dreck. I build on those. Somewhere around the third draft, I get the flash, the revelation, of what the story is really about. The fog lifts from the middle. By the with or sixth draft, I’m good to go.

The process, scary enough in short story form, becomes an author-killer at novel length. I lose track of the tertiary characters. I am unsure enough of the main plot; subplots are therefore impossible to conceive. My main characters go all bland about chapter 5. Secondary characters threaten to take over, as it is clear the author isn’t doing her job. The middle third of the first draft is more than bad; it is unreadable, even by me.

Over the years, and by this method, I have watched my pile of unfinished novels grow and mock me.

I am determined not to die like this, and I believe I have stumbled on the solution. None of us can expect to work in ways against our nature. On the other hand, none of us can be 100% gardener, or 100% architect.

When I redesigned our back yard, I measured out three rectangular raised beds vaguely reminiscent of cloister gardens I had admired. Cloister gardens tend to be square, and our yard was a flat rectangle, but so what. No need to be literal here. I measured badly, and then I brought a contractor in to measure properly and build it. Those rectangular beds were my structure. Within those beds, I planted whatever I wanted. I placed a few rocks here and there, and a few garden ornaments. I knew I wanted roses for color, succulents for form and texture, and perennial herbs for background and hummingbirds. That was it. I loved the result. The trick was that I needed structure, but only the simplest plan I could get away with.

The California poppies were a whim.

When it comes to the novel I’m working on, I finally realized, after decades of despair, that I needed to measure, however badly, however simply. I needed to take my situation and guess at what kind of plot structure it sounded like. I have a convent in a space habitat. Hey, that could be a closed door mystery, where we get to know the vicim a bit, the victim dies, an investigator is brought in and finds the situation to be quite confusing and the witnesses/suspects difficult. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for me to break through. I had found my three rectangular raised beds.

Left brain/Right brain is another way of saying Architect/Gardener. We can place ourselves on one side or the other, but we can’t be all one way. We need both sides of the brain. I will be mindful to respect both my sides in the hopes that both, working together, will serve me and my project well.

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When Characters Surprise Me, I Am Happy

I’ve found another way we can divide people into two groups. Well, writers, anyway. The first is, writers whose characters behave only in ways previously described in an outline the author has written. The second (mine) is writers whose characters do the equivalent of jumping out of closets, surprising and scaring them, and rarely doing what their author had planned for them.

Nine years ago, I was at a Tim Powers Guest of Honor speech at Loscon. Wonderful speech. He spoke of his writing process, which involved spending a year or so writing a whole bunch o’ stuff down on 3 x 5 cards and arranging and rearranging them until he had a detailed roadmap/outline to work from. Only then did he begin to write. He had to do this, he said, he had to know what each character was going to do, because he hated having to throw drafts away.

At question time, I raised my hand and asked, “Don’t your characters ever behave in ways you hadn’t planned?”

He appeared somewhat shocked. No, he said. What, I asked, if they just got up and started walking around, going places you didn’t expect them to?

“I wouldn’t let them,” he replied.

Huh. I know he was telling the truth, but I’m baffled. My characters don’t even begin to come alive until I begin to write. 3 x 5, even 4 x6, cards won’t do. I need 8-1/2 x 11. Even then, by the end of the first draft, only one or two of the main characters will be at all interesting. I require subsequent drafts to fill in the holes of the other characters, sometimes to take them in a different direction entirely. This happens. I am currently working on my almost-readable draft of a novel, trying to turn it into a rough-but-readable draft, and just became aware that the murderer isn’t who I thought it was. Another character revealed him/herself in the clearest and most unmistakable way. I must go with that gut feeling. I can’t help feel this is a good thing, and not an inconvenience at all, because if I can surprise myself with my tale, perhaps I can surprise my reader as well.

The thing about Tim Powers: his work reads as anything but pat and predictable. His work is smooth, original, darkly humorous, and quirky, as if it had sprung spontaneously and fully-realized from his brain. The year or so of index cards strewn all over the place has been crafted into a seamless piece. Here is what I conclude: His first draft is really his fifth draft. The first four are squeezed on all those little index cards.

This is a great thing to do if it works for you.

Alas, it seems not to work for me, and I accept that. My methods have their inefficiencies, but they hold benefits as well. It may be my brain’s limitations. One of those limitations may involve controlling tendencies that rein in imagination. That is, I want to write something good. I don’t want things to go wrong. Therefore, I must make my characters behave as if they are my children and I’m taking them to a nice restaurant. My characters have to dress nicely, and I don’t want them bothering the other diners.

I have to remind myself my characters aren’t people. They need to bother people. Unfortunately, they often don’t. Not enough. Fortunately, I am good at criticizing my own work. I can look at my characters after I’ve written a full draft, and say, “These people are boring. Can’t you make them do something interesting?”

Aha. Yes I can, indeed. Almost immediately, they start bothering the other diners, behaving immorally, and dressing inappropriately, and the entire project improves greatly.

(By the way, for anyone who likes outside-the-box dark fantasy and hasn’t read Tim Powers, do check him out. He has a new book out, Hide Me Among the Graves, which I’m looking forward to reading. Last year’s collection, The Bible Repairman and Other Stories is a dark hoot. I had never heard of Bible repairmen before, and now I’m glad I have.)

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I Think I’ve Finally Gone and Done It

More accurately, I’ve almost finally gone and done it. Specifically, I’ve completed an almost-readable draft of a novel. This is something I have wanted to do since my mid-twenties, and seriously began to try to do in my thirties. Do the math, but I’m kind of old to be a first novelist, although not the oldest, to be sure.

So, why did it take so long? There was nothing external to overcome, no life problems that any other writer might face. No, the problem was in me–let’s call it a partial writer’s block–but that is a simple term for a rather complex process.

My big hang-up was the plot. I couldn’t seem to make one, not 60-80,000 words worth. Short stories? Sure. As long as it’s short enough that I don’t have to outline.

At novel length, you get into the details. Novel length allows for subplots, all of which affect all the other main and subplots. It can feel overwhelming. Characters have a lot of time to develop. I cannot seem to develop them in an outline. I can’t get to know them well enough without making them play the entire scene.

An outline happens at a distance from me. Conversations are muffled…more than that, I can’t hear them at all; it’s as if I’m being forced to lip-read. The setting is like a 1950’s B movie; the scenery is obviously a sheet hanging behind the actors, and the spaceship is just as obviously a cardboard model being dangled by a string. An outline should be like a map, a scaled-down representation of reality, the reality being the novel. The main guideposts–highways, rivers, cities, and towns–are left in, and the small and unimportant  things are left out, but you can get from point A to point B, from the beginning to the end.

I tend to get confused as to what is important, and what is not. I make bad plot maps. I set off on my journey with my characters, and halfway through, we are totally lost. I have no idea why I began this in the first place. The outline seems stupid, I can muster no feeling for it. I have tried force-marching my characters along anyway, but have ended with something I hate, that makes no sense, that is unreadable, that feels utterly generic.

I need to see my characters in action in order for them to pop into full dimensional color and sound. This means I usually undergo a series of drafts in which my characters say pointless, flat stuff, and walk into walls. I have no idea what I’m doing. I have a mess of unmotivated actions and idiot dialogue. In a short story this is okay. I throw the mess down on a table and look at it, as a whole. You can do that with thirty pages, pretty easily. No matter how bad it is, no matter how hopeless it seems, I can, usually, find some part or parts in the crippled narrative that rings true, that bears some relation to my original inspiration. I keep that, and throw away the rest. At that point, I’ll have a revelation or two regarding characters, plot, and often in particular, the ending. I then rewrite it, and throw away less the next time. The third draft is usually readable; the fifth, submittable for publication.

Doing the same at novel length is daunting, because I can’t keep all the people, places, and events in my head the way I can a short story length. Yes, I know novelists keep big massive files for all the details. I’ve tried that. But I can’t decide the details of my universe until I’ve actually written it. It starts to come out all false. Everything a writer is supposed to do to finish that crucial draft–make an outline, keep copious notes–I cannot seem to do.

But this time, I finished the draft. How?

My tale is science fiction, set about eighty years in the future, in an artificial habitat near the moon. That much I came up with about sixteen years ago. That, for the most part, was where it stopped. About five years ago, I realized the habitat, although quite large, created a “closed room” situation, which suggested, strongly, that my tale should take the form of a murder mystery.

I enjoy mysteries, and I’ve read enough of them to know the formula. Oh, I couldn’t stand up and give a chalkboard lecture on the subject, but I realized it was a form I knew intuitively. To be certain, I pulled a few mysteries off my shelf to deconstruct. I could not bring myself to write an outline of my story, but I did write a twenty page synopsis. Even that was horrible, because although I knew the relationships between the main characters (and therefore discovered pretty quickly who the murderer had to be), I did not know (for instance) the cause or means of death. It was enough, however, to start writing.

My first draft (although that is a generous term for it) was about two hundred pages. My second, still not readable, was three hundred-ish. My third, the almost readable one just completed, is four hundred. The final third still doesn’t make much sense, but it gets me where I’m going.

I wonder if it’s a variation of dyslexia, this inability of mine to deal with outlines. I don’t like pie charts or spreadsheets much either. I react to them the way some people react to spiders. I recoil and cover my mouth. My heart starts to race. I have an urge to flee.

It is possible getting through plotting a novel once will allow me to get through it in the future. I hope so, as I have a short list of novel ideas I’d like to try. Or it may be the key is merely accepting my process. Perhaps, the more I try to use the dreaded outline, the more trouble I’ll cause myself. Perhaps I need to trust my own method.


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When Characters Die

One of the crucial skills an author must develop is knowing which characters to kill off, when, and how. This is important. Fiction is not life, but it reminds us of it. Strongly. Or we wouldn’t spend our time on it. Fictional grief is not real grief, but it does remind us of the real thing, and if an author’s killing of a character isn’t justified (and I’m speaking in terms of story, not morality), we are offended. We are offended, because fictional death must do honor to the real thing, and the real grief that ensues when we lose someone.

In fiction, as in life, we have varying degrees of attachment. If a main character dies, it’s a big deal. On the other hand, we are all familiar with the term “shreddie.” Captain Kirk’s party is transported to planet surface, and there’s Spock, there’s Uhuru…oh, wait, there’s a new ensign or somebody I’ve never seen before. No sooner than we’ve noticed him, ZAP, something kills him, the defeating of which will consume the Enterprise’s efforts for the next hour. The previously unknown crew member is a shreddie. We have no connection to him whatsoever, but the plot required someone to die in the first scene, and we know they can’t kill off a regular cast member.

In murder mysteries, we have of necessity another sort of shreddie, the murder victim. More often than not, the victim is killed early on, and we have no opportunity to get attached. Sometimes, the author goes out of her way to make the character unlikable, or at least unappealing in some way. P.D. James does this with her victims sometimes. In any event, when we pick up a murder mystery, we know what we’re getting into, and we’re not the least surprised if the first character we meet is quickly dispatched.

In the same fashion, we expect characters to be killed in the course of novels about war, espionage, or adventure. These can be characters we like and have gotten to know. It is usually not the main viewpoint character. Usually. In heroic fantasy or heroic space opera, while there may be a sacrifice of one or two “good guys,” the main, number one good guy is expected to survive. But not always.

Sometimes, readers refuse to accept the death of a hero. Famously, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attempted to kill off Sherlock Holmes, readers revolted. The author was forced to bring Holmes miraculously back to life. Stephen King fictionalizes a similar situation in Misery, in which fan Annie Wilkes imprisons and assaults novelist Paul Sheldon for killing off favorite character Misery Chastain, eventually forcing him to bring his character back to life.

The reader may not always win these battles, but the reader does have power.

If you do a web search on the subject, you can come up with some sites that ask the questions surrounding the killing of fictional characters. Some give answers as well, when it’s “right” and when it’s “wrong” to do away with a character. I’m not so certain it’s that easy. For every rule given, I can think of an exception.

Successful character-offing is more than rules, and more, even, than art. It is part of the greater conversation between author and reader that storytelling is. Storytelling is a conversation. The responsibility for the successful transmission of a tale is only half the writer’s job. The other half belongs to the reader. Most of the time, readers are happy for the author to direct the conversation, and to go along with the plot, but not always, and certainly not if they feel the author has violated what they feel to be the purpose and the spirit of the work. The character-killing readers resist most, I believe, is the killing of the hero of a series.

Harry Potter cannot die. Neither can Sherlock Holmes, the Doctor, Adam Dalgliesh, or Superman. They need to outlive everyone, including their authors. They are all supermen, able to hold back the forces of evil that surround us. They have been with us forever, surviving adventure after adventure to start over again in the next installment. They are magic. If they die, the magic dies. We lose hope.

In one wildly irrational corner of our brains, we need to believe that they are there, really there, just in case the wrongness in the world gets to be too much for us. We need to believe it is possible to outsmart death itself, just as they have.

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