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

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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!

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

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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…

To Mary Sue or Not to Mary Sue (that is the question) September 6, 2010

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I learned about this term from one of my friends who knows more about the world of fan fiction than I do. And as soon as she explained what it was, I knew that I had heard about it before (albeit not referred to as a “Mary Sue“). New writers are often accused of putting in Mary Sues into their new fiction. And a “new writer” can either be an adult who is publishing their first book, or a young adult writer who is taking a creative writing class or publishing their fiction. And even when they’re not accused of it directly, a reader or critic can always tell. Take Lauren Willig for example. Her books are wonderful, but of course there were the to-be-expected questions from the critics: “So, did you base your main character on yourself?” And when she protested that there was no connection, they pressed her and said something along the lines of “You have to admit, it’s a huge coincidence, isn’t it. You were a grad student at Harvard, your character is a grad student at Harvard…you do the math.” (On that note, Harvard seems to be a tenuous and overly publicized place to begin your creative writing career).

Putting yourself into your fiction is only natural to the beginning writer. With all those people and books telling you to “write what you know” who better do you know than yourself with all of your dreams, ambitions, quirks, and experiences? And the main criticisms of Mary Sue characters is that it is yourself, only a better you. It is a braver, prettier, smarter, more courageous you having all the adventures that you would want for this alpha-version of you. But there are problems with the alpha-you character:

  1.  the wish-fulfillment controversy
  2. the 2D character quandary
  3. the darling-of-the-characters stereotype
  4. and the invincibility paradox

 These are the obvious downfalls that a Mary Sue character can exhibit. However, a very clever writer (or a very normal writer) can avoid these traps. Some people do a splendid job of the Mary Sue. Take Elizabeth Kostova, for example. Her first novel, The Historian, had a main character who is a citizen without a country. Her father was a professor and they would travel from country to country. This has obvious parallels to Kostova’s own life. However, this doesn’t at all detract from the depth of her characters and the parallel, though present, does not dominate the novel. This is an example of someone writing fiction based on what they know, rather than writing their lives into their novels.

Many good writers of young adult fiction do this admirably. Of course, a writer of teen fiction wants to really identify with their audience which often means channeling their experiences as a teenager. However, when channeling, authors need to remember both their faults and their virtues in order to create a likable character. In The Princess Diaries series, Meg Cabot (who looked through her own diary to channel her character) portrays a teenage girl who is clumsy, unpopular, imperfect, and, as a result, utterly likable. The more problems they encounter and the more imperfect your character is, the more readers won’t try to accuse you of Mary Sue-ing. And no one likes a character who faints every other page but still manages to somehow attract every male character in the book (and I’m referring to Evelina here), or even Evelina‘s modern equivalent in terms of character–Twilight.

And although Mary Sues are most commonly attributed to and criticized of women/girls writing novels, no one has really noticed the trend in “Male” novels that is rampant even on today’s New York Times Bestseller List. The 40-something man who is either unattached or has a loving wife, a high sense of the moral/ethical, the courage to speak up against the “system”, and almost superhuman survival powers when the “system” tries to take revenge. I’m particularly referring to Tom Clancy, Ian Flemming, Robert Ludlum, and yes, even Dan Brown. I’m not saying that these books do not have value, but I am simply pointing out that male Mary Sues are ever-present in today’s literary world as well. Everyone can fall into this trap.

So, if you do Mary Sue, do it responsibly:

Surgeon General’s Warning: Mary Sue-ing may lead to two-dimensional characters and bad publicity.

As a general rule, a good writer should be able to create characters that are inherently interesting. And interesting people make mistakes, and are imperfect. I like to think about it in these terms: would you want to meet your characters, even the baddies? Would they make interesting dinner conversations? Or would they drive you up a wall?

A Fly on the 19th century Wall July 18, 2010

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George Eliot

Image by Steve Hunnisett via Flickr

While looking over my last plinky prompt (the product of a burst of late night energy) I began to wonder what perspective I had been writing from. I was too tired to think up any names, so both of the characters remained nameless. However, I also wrote some of what the characters were thinking. This led me to ask the question: Where would you put this sort of dialogue in a novel?

An interesting thing that I’ve noticed about novels (and yes, the 19th century novels in particular) is that there is not always a consistent perspective. The author sometimes switches from third person limited to omniscient without another thought and sometimes even switches from first person to third person!

A dramatic example of this is in George Eliot‘s Mill on the Floss. She starts the novel with this totally ambiguous narrator in the first chapter. It’s written in the first person and someone can spend ages deciding if its Maggie, or her brother, or one of her two lovers. This is because the second chapter begins in the third person suddenly, and the reader asks the question: is the narrator really referring to his/herself in the third person? Weird. Where did the narrator go?

This is, of course, not playing by the rules. And while the students of modern literature scoff at straight-laced Victorian writing, these so-called conservative Victorians did, indeed, break all the rules of perspective that we now hold in high regard. When someone asks you what you wrote your story in, a budding novelist of today will tell you readily “Oh, third person limited” or maybe “First person, of course.” They probably won’t say: “Well, I started in third person omniscient, but then I switched to third person limited, and ended it in first person.”

Since the Victorian writers are no longer with us, the conventions/rules are that your perspective should be consistent. If you start changing it in the middle,  your readers will (supposedly) be confused and it shows amateurish writing…But not if you do it purposefully.

Let’s take the example above. How do you write a novel in third person omniscient, third person limited, AND first person?

Well, first you would start with a very sparse third person omniscient. Like a fly on the wall only with partial access to characters’ thoughts. Maybe it’s a dialogue between two henchmen:

Henchman 1: “If the boss says we take care of him, then we’d better take care of him.”

Henchman 2 shrugged as he took two guns out of the locked cabinet labeled “Cadbury Eggs.” It was time they changed the label to something classier, he just didn’t know what. He wasn’t looking forward to the job either. He had finally gotten tickets to the big game and now this would eaten into his schedule.

Henchman 2 nudged him and gestured to the fly on the fall, suspiciously listening to their conversation. “Hey, what’s that fly doing there?”

Then, it switches to third person limited surrounding the main character.

Joe Walker, successful businessman, philanthropist, and secret organizer of Project 51, sauntered across the street. He checked his watch demurely. He was already twenty minutes late to work thanks to a faulty alarm clock. But he didn’t worry about that too much seeing as he owned the company. His morning appointments would have to wait. As he waited at the next intersection, he saw two dubious characters lurking in front of his office building.

And finally, near the end of the novel, the first person narrative.

As Joe opened up his mailbox, a mysterious and very hefty letter fell out. Not wanting to stay long in the lobby of the apartment complex, Joe dashed up to his penthouse suite where he could read the letter without an attempt on his life. He had a feeling that this was going to be important and perhaps explain the events that had happened. It was from Sylvia, the maid at number 27 and a secret agent:

In these pages, I am enclosing the details of what happened on September 18th. If you are reading this, something has happened.

Then, there is a narrative from Sylvia’s perspective. Usually during this narrative, the reader forgets about Joe and for a few chapters it is essentially a first person narrative with dialogue, plot, and characters. Some of this account might even overlap with events that have already happened in Joe’s third person limited account.

This switching of perspectives always keeps a reader on their toes and is also a nice addition to a mystery novel, or even any novel. And if someone tells you that this is “just not done!” simply tell them: “You see it all the time in 19th century literature.”

Fiction in a Flash July 9, 2010

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Ah ha! No sooner had I posted Plinky Prompts than I saw this post, also on how to use it to help the creative writing process. On the weekend (apparently when people have more time to write) Plinky users can choose to participate in the “Weekend Writing Challenges.” The first of which will be writing in the third person.

However, the post directs you to a flash fiction story, an example of what you could write in the third person. And flash fiction without a warning label would just be false advertising:

Warning: Flash fiction is not for the faint of heart. Entire story arc must be completed in a limited word count. 

While I agree that flash fiction would be very useful for this era of short/compressed messages, a writer has to put as much thought into it as a novel or short story (sometimes more). I first heard about this genre under the title “sudden fiction” and that’s an even better description. It’s speed dating for the world of fiction. The story starts out slowly but frantically as the writer adds as much subtle detail as possible. Imagine a swan swimming across the water gracefully while its feet are paddling under the surface. Then, the end pops up suddenly and the whole thing abruptly stops. If it’s good, the reader feels that the whole story was extremely clever without knowing quite what it was about.

I’m not sure if all flash fiction is written in the third person or if it could also work in the first person.

For more information on flash fiction, or sudden fiction, there is a wikipedia article on it.

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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