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How I Wrestle with Red Herrings or, The Herring Stratagem January 30, 2011

Posted by laurenrobbins6 in Characters, Plot.
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Cover of "Clue"

Cover of Clue

I have decided, rather foolishly, to try to learn how to write mysteries. Old fashioned mysteries with, you know, suspense, thrills, intellectual puzzles and all that. NOT to be confused with “mysteries” following such clichés as “the man against the system”, “the D.A./attorney/doctor with a vendetta”, or “follow the ancient clues to a conspiracy theory”…not naming any names (Dan Brown).

What I’m thinking about is something more along the lines of a Wilkie Collins/Agatha Christie sort of mystery. Which brings us to the question of the red herring. I find, at least, that red herrings are always the key to a good mystery. (If anyone is familiar with Clue! it’s also the key to a good spoof). But whenever I attempt to write a mystery, it always ends up being blazingly obvious “who dunnit” or so obscure that the motive is obliterated, never to return to any semblance of believability.

Writing a good mystery is no easy feat! And writing a thriller/mystery is even more of a challenge because you have to set the tone and mood with a wide, varied, and brilliantly descriptive vocabulary in your arsenal. Reading Mary Stewart novels, for instance, has been like seeing so many old friends  I’ve been out of touch with. I’ve stumbled across some very good, descriptive words that I haven’t heard for ages…especially in the real world, and perhaps in America. And, of course, you need to be descriptive about what your hero/heroine is feeling–“blood racing”, “heart pounding”–things like that. A good way to do this is to take particular notice of how YOU feel in terrifying situations (or, if you can’t think of anything particularly terrifying and have been incredibly happy-go-lucky, you should go watch some horror/thriller movies at the cinema). 

As I see it right now, the formula for a red-herring mystery is to set up your hero/heroine who necessarily (according to the rules) is above suspicion and perhaps a trustworthy sidekick/victim (unless you are Wilkie Collins and even the main character is not eliminated from the list of suspects). Then, you should plant at least two to three more characters with varying personal histories/motives. Either your protagonist or reader should, at this time, begin to suspect one character in particular, putting more trust in the other characters until… *Bam!* It turned out that the planted character that you trusted the most was the culprit!

I still, obviously, have more tweaking to do on the formula, more mystery novels to read and movies to watch (Hitchcock is particularly good for this sort of research).

If anyone has suggestions for good red herring stratagems, I would love to hear them!

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Wild, Wacky, and Woolly Character Arcs January 23, 2011

Posted by laurenrobbins6 in Characters.
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While plot arcs are somewhat important in the novel structure, I find that without believable characters, they are like a car with no gas. Characters are the soul/fuel of the novel. Take Exhibit A,(*shudder*) Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Or (the more pleasant shudder), Exhibit B, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. Even their titles suggest that these are character-centered novels. And even novels that don’t profess to be character centered ARE, in fact, character centered.

If you take out all of the characters from a novel, you have (aside from a very creepy Ray Bradbury short story) absolutely nothing. You have no “whodunnits”, no love interests, no angsty teenager worrying over something, no running around the moors, no quest. In fact, you never even get out the front door. And, if you’re like me, a book captures your interest more if it starts with “Marcy decided one day to meet a loan shark” than “It was a bright, sunny day and the bees buzzed on their way to collect pollen” (no offense, Steinbeck…)

If characters are important to the novel, character arcs should be focused on even more than plot arcs (unless you are a TV sitcom). The most popular of these (and mythical) is: the character is fed up and leaves home, the character learns something about him/herself, and the character matures (coming of age-style).

Perhaps you want to try something a bit different: the character is arrogant, the character decides to save someone (or the world), and the character changes for the better, perhaps becoming humbler.

But what if you really wanted to go WILD? What if you just wanted to keep your readers guessing as to who or what your characters really were? Maybe you write about a thief who tries to go straight only to fall into prison again and then has a revelation. Or maybe you’re making your readers guess WHO the character is: a character tries to mask their identity or gets amnesia (this latter example is the premise of a very good series by Anne Perry).

This can also decide, in a large part, your plot. If your main character is a gorilla who has just escaped from a zoo, for instance, you can’t create a plot around white-collar crime (unless, of course, you add some other characters).

But never, NEVER write an atavistic character arc! This would be the character who changes for the better and then goes back to his/her life before without learning anything. A very depressing and anti-novel indeed. Even anti-heroes change a little bit–a small insight into their situation or a bit more wisdom.

Anything with a plotline–be it a drama, a movie, a play, a novel–has some sort of character arc if you’d care to find it. In fact, it’s usually staring you in the face. And if you are concious of it, who knows? Maybe your next party trick will be acurately predicting what will happen next in a movie based on what you know about the characters.

NaNoWriMo saga: Day 5 November 5, 2010

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Apo Hsu and the NTNU Symphony Orchestra (Natio...

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I have to say that after a rocky start and my total unwillingness to type up anything today, I’m feeling good about my novel for the first time. After a few days of pushing prose and man-handling plotline, my novel is starting to take off and my characters are falling into place.

Well, I thought that I had to add a natural disaster to get my story cooking, but the characters all did it by themselves…sort of. My heroine has just met a mysterious CIA agent while attempting to steal a mysterious package from the basement of a concert hall for a loan shark. And now she’s being taken in for questioning.

And…the best part is yet to come! A few years ago, I got really close to making the final word count. And in that novel, I added in a boring bit (boring to anyone except me) about a philosophy conference. In this novel, I plan to write in a professorial debate on Darwinian theory. It’s a good way to boost your wordcount, it gives your characters a break from running around (and your readers with them), and it’s a good way to “get on your hobby horse” (as they say in the UK). 

And, of course, I add a few things that catch my eye in the news. 

How to Make Easy Money: 8,552 words and counting…

My Favorite Comfort Book July 7, 2010

Posted by laurenrobbins6 in Plinky.
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I have, possibly, the most beaten-up copy of Howl’s Moving Castle sitting in a special place on my bookshelf right now. Diana Wynne Jones, the author, is a British children’s fantasy genius and this is one of my favorites. I read this book every year (sometimes twice a year) and also enjoyed the Miyazaki film. I am also known to hoist it onto other people to read and everyone who has reports back that they also enjoyed it.

I first checked out this book years ago from the library and I kept checking it out so often that I decided to buy a copy for myself. It is part sophisticated fairy tale, part romantic comedy, and part whimsical fantasy. The novel follows the story of Sophie Hatter who runs away to seek her fortune when an evil witch turns her into an old lady in a hilarious case of mistaken identity. The novel deals with such subjects as challenging social norms, not judging people or things on appearance, and Welsh Rugby.

Howl’s Moving Castle is my “comfort book” and I can vividly remember my first night in Scotland, studying abroad, when I started to re-read it for maybe the dozenth time. I had had a harrowing time navigating through Heathrow on practically no sleep (not to mention the nervousness that comes with traveling alone for the first time) and waiting out a layover that took hours. Then, after a long bus ride, I somehow stumbled across the right dorm and, after unpacking all of my important items, grabbed blindly for Howl’s Moving Castle to read the first few lines that I had practically memorized. I forgot all about worrying where to find the mysterious Tescos that the orientation volunteers told me about or what my new roomate might be like. Diana Wynne Jones invites you into new worlds by the first sentence and it is definitely a book that I can continue to read over and over again.

Novel Writing 101 July 3, 2010

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I love novel analysis! Not “what do the eyeglasses represent in The Great Gatsby?” but “how does this author develop his/her character throughout the novel?” or “how does the novel reflect the contemporary society of the author?” This is perhaps a good interest to have when you’re an English major. And, of course, once that skill is developed (novel analysis is highly habit-forming) you’ll always be assessing the novel from a structural standpoint as well as for enjoyment.

And I’ve heard that this is good for novel-writing as well. Lots of reading and even more writing. However, I am also interested in the how-to novel-writing books that occupy the bookstore shelves in  the dozens (even hundreds). Everytime I walk past them, my eye is glued to the bindings in hopes of finding one that reveals the secret of good writing. Most of them are just not very useful, but a few of them are gems! And I will devote some posts to reviewing a few of the ones that I found not only helpful, but compelling.

The majority of posts in November will, of course, be dedicated to my efforts in the writing marathon: NaNoWriMo! However, posts outside of November will not only deal with my attempts at novel-writing (which might not be scintillating enough to post about) but will be fueling the other side of my writing hobby: looking at publishing trends and new authors.

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