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How to Handle the Case of the Wintry Mix February 2, 2011

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The face of a black windup alarm clock

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A few snow storms ago, I was poking through a very clever book, which is called (if I remember correctly) The Quotable Lawyer. And it was filled with inside jokes and law truisms–all much more interesting than it sounds. There was one quote in particular that caught my attention:

The lawyer’s first thought in the morning is how to handle the case of the ringing alarm clock.–Edward Packard, Jr.

 The image that first popped into my head was someone in a suit staring quizzically at a ringing alarm clock. Or something a la Sam Spade with a smoky office in black and white and a private investigator taking down a statement from someone who was awoken by their still ringing alarm.

 But, I thought, by no means is this quote limited to lawyers. You could subsitute a lot of other professions and people instead. For instance: “The writer’s first thought in the morning is how to handle the case of the ringing alarm clock.” 

If you think about it, it’s true, isn’t it?  A writer is constantly looking around for potential stories. And if one is trying to write a mystery, this quote is particularly appropriate. How could you make a mystery out of a ringing alarm clock? What if some dastardly villian set all the clocks back so that they could rob a bank?

Today, looking out at the 2-3 feet of snow that has accumulated, everyone is probably thinking “How am I gonna get out of this?” The case of the wintry mix begins. Picture a smoky office in black and white and a grizzled PI sitting behind a desk reading a newspaper while a neon sign blinks through the blinds. Someone in a heavy coat, hat, gloves, scarf (a grizzled New Englander–the kind you see out in every kind of weather) comes through the door. Behind them, snow, rain, and sleet blusters in before the door closes. The PI looks at them inquiringly and the New Englander says, “I’m in a real jam, Sam.”

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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.

Mind your Ps and Qs January 17, 2011

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I once knew where this saying came from (a long time ago in History of the Middle Ages class) but have forgotten it now. However, I thought it would be a nice introduction to my latest writing challenge. Recently, I was challenged to write a lipogrammatic short story. After a very useful session with wikipedia, I found that “lipogrammatic” means a story excluding a letter of the alphabet. Or, it could be that you are sucking a letter out of your novel to make it more slim.

Challenge accepted! I said. How hard can it be anyway? I decided not to use the letter “P” and to stick with 6 pages–complete with a beginning, middle, and end. Because “P”, I thought, isn’t that essential a letter anyway. I knew that “e” was the most common letter in the English language, and vowels would be right out–unless I wanted to write a really artsy book.

And, in fact, one can write a moderately normal story without the letter p. Difficult? oh yes! Impossible? no.

Given that my inspiration came from a tea tin, the story itself does not aspire to be anything like an “insight into the mortality of human kind”–to paraphrase a review of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner. I’m about 2 and 1/2 pages into it and I’m getting the feeling that it might not be able to aspire to anything passing for humorous either.

Nonetheless, I will continue undaunted. I just need to add something in to spice it up a bit…like a tornado (which, conveniently, does not contain in it, the letter “P”).

Surprisingly, while writing this story, I discovered something. When you are conciously avoiding a letter, you are also avoiding certain words that contain that letter. And this means that you are thinking more about word choice. In avoiding certain words, I have found a host of MORE INTERESTING descriptions than I would have if I had written a story without sucking a letter out of it.

Finding your Inner Writer Zen January 8, 2011

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In answer to the question: “How do you stay focused on a task or activity?” the first thing that comes to my mind is “no idea.” Because living in the world of technology–even through my very un-hip, lag-behind gadgets (aka, my laptop and pay-as-you-go phone)– means that focusing on a single activity is a thing of the past. (Which, if that took up our whole time, would lead to the death of the novel.)

Fortunately, the published authors of the world (for the most part) are able to concentrate on their novel long enough to finish it. This thought prompts me to ask, “When was the last time I finished anything?” Papers, yes. My senior thesis–a MUCH longer paper–yes. But a creative writing piece? I honestly can’t remember. Not even a short story.

So, case and point, I have no magical tips on how to stay focused on an activity. But I do know WHY it’s so difficult to stay focused in your writing life. There are so many ideas buzzing around, faintly in the background, that it’s sometimes difficult to pluck one out of the air and work on it. The brain is like a field of fireflies flickering on and off. Sometimes, when you’re working on an idea, the little firefly idea turns OFF and you’re left with nothing (only to have it flash ON later only at the most inconvenient moment when there really is no pen and paper at hand…or keypad).

For instance, I just read an article that connects exactly to a book idea that I had (supplying the magical missing motive that’s always so elusive). I even wrote down my idea, with an eye to finally finishing the book that’s been buzzing around for a  few years, flashing on and off in my idea field. But then I think, “I should really wait to start writing until”…

Here’s a tip to finding your inner writer zen: IGNORE thoughts like those. They will only lead to you farther away from your goal of just finishing something.

It doesn’t have to be perfect, or correct, or even what you thought you wanted it to be. It just needs to be finished. Every time I think about this goal, I think about the novel a few of my friends wrote me for my birthday. It was, I think, the most thoughtful present I’ve gotten, and every time I think about not finishing a novel, I tell myself, “If they can do it, I can do it!”

So, channel your inner zen, ignore thoughts such as planning and procrastination, and (at the risk of sounding like a certain commercial) JUST DO IT!

Squirrels, Traffic, and Sales: The Saga Continues November 13, 2010

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Squirrel

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This post will be dedicated to all the things that keep one from fulfilling one’s word count for the week. It’s safe to say that this is officially catch-up day for me as I have only had time to jot down a few handwritten pages during my lunch break this week.

Incidents keeping me from writing my novel:

1. A very sleek, large squirrel infiltrated our house through the chimney, was “chased” upstairs by our two lazy cats, and promptly proceeded to ravage my room. These elements I got simply from deduction save the part about the ravaging. I was the eye-witness for that. And the really ironic part was that this is not the first time that’s happened. Since there was no large, squirrel-shaped hole in my wall, and a picture frame had been knocked over on a shelf that my very round cat could not possibly reach, we know it spent a little time in the living room. The flue had been left open and one of my cats sniffed very suspiciously around the fireplace–it had come down the chimney. And finally, I saw it in my room. Where it panicked. And was very difficult to chase out. As a result: word count dropped.

2. Sales: there was a very nice, spur of the moment sale at a department store in my mall. Result: word count dropped.

3. Traffic: The commute is long and dark enough without traffic and accidents. Heavy traffic ensued sometime in the middle of the week and I got home later than I had planned. Result: word count dropped.

However, I think that I’m making headway in the character development at least. In one scene I have three different characters talking to one another and their dialogue sounds different…hopefully. This is very important and a really hard element to obtain. Because without characters, your story inevitably flounders. Of course, clichés also get you places in that you can have two different clichés and call them characters. But making your characters different from one another really is the most difficult part about writing a novel.

As an illustration of this, a very long time ago, I wrote a story where two characters were the same people from different dimensions who had the same name and were essentially the same person. Eventually, I had to give them different names because it would have been confusing, but this is precisely an example of what NOT to do.

Writing in characters is like a little paradigm shift. Sometimes, your character will have a different viewpoint on life that you might have. Or they might just take their coffee differently. Either way, in order to be convincing, your characters have to be individuals and not just your little puppets (which can sometimes lead your novel in surprising directions).

Now, time to catch up on those words…

NaNoWriMo Saga: Days 3 and 4 November 4, 2010

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I read somewhere, from some famous author (it was very likely Diana Wynne Jones) that sometimes the things you write about “come true” in a very surprising way. It can be big details or small details. While you’re in the thick of writing, you could see a person walking down the street that looks exactly like one of your characters, or something happens that ressembles part of your plot.

I know that there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this:

  1. You’re more open-minded than usual
  2. Your sense of detail is heightened
  3. You’re thinking about your story so when you see something ressembling on it you notice it more
  4. Since you’re writing about things you know (presumably) you’re bound to sooner or later come across what you write

I know all that. But I also like to think of it as a sort of magical element. And a NaNoWriMo novel is doubly magical because you’re writing it too fast too think almost. And whatever comes out comes out. And there’s nothing you can do about it, except try to steer the plot in a reasonable direction. When the novel comes into its stride (which I hope will be soon) I intend to sit back and enjoy the ride.

To give you an example of the magical NaNoWriMo element, I have already seen things popping out of my novel. And I smile a little every time I notice it. My heroine has a beat-up white Camry. And no sooner do I add this, than what do I see but a beat-up white Camry on my morning commute! I write about the Boston clothing-type, which is dusty jeans and a jean jacket over a grey hoodie. And, lo and behold! while I’m waiting in line at a store, the man in front of me is wearing that exact style. And just as I’m typing up a character who is starting to ressemble a person I know who likes tennis, the real person pops up on my AIM chat.

Pretty spooky, but pretty cool all the same. So all you WriMos, get out there and notice the magic in the making 🙂

How to Make Easy Money: 5,389 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?

Plot *sometimes* happens July 30, 2010

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I don’t know if many writers experience this but it is very difficult for me to both write compelling characters and a good plot-line. I’ve heard from different sources that all you need to do is choose whether your novel should be plot centered or character centered. It’s the difference between an Ian Flemming novel and an Ernest Hemingway short story. But shouldn’t your story really have both to make it a ripping read?

And it isn’t true that once you’ve fully developed your characters, the plot will fall into place. I’ve tried to find a good plot to put some of my better characters in but I keep starting and stopping. Maybe I’m trying too hard, maybe I just need to start writing and see where the story goes. But I know that a successful story takes at least a little planning. If you are writing and then suddenly hit a road block, you need to know at least a little of what’s going to happen at the end in order to overcome it.

And some writers have different strengths. Some can hatch fantastic plots (the Ian Flemmings and Dan Browns of the writing world) and others realistic characters (the Ernest Hemingways and Wilkie Collinses…though Wilkie Collins does an amazing job with both). What I’m thinking of doing is putting my ideas into two categories. 1) Plot ideas and 2) character sketches. Would it be easier to match the character to the plot separately, or would it be more consistent if  the two were created at the same time? In any case, there must be a writing excercise to strengthen the bond between character and plot. Sometimes plot happens naturally and sometimes it doesn’t.

Go Figure! July 26, 2010

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   We might not realize it, but numbers rule our lives. Whether it’s creating a budget, calculating discounts, or even looking at the time, we inevitably incorporate them into our day (a little like the book Math Curse by Jon Scieszka). But what, might you ask, does this have to do with creative writing?

Well, recently, I’ve been putting a little star on my calendar for every day that I excercise. Simple enough. Theoretically, if I excercise frequently, my calendar will be awash with little stars giving me the elementary-school satisfaction of a job well done. But I wasn’t quite sure if this was enough to motivate me.  What if I created a chart tracking my weekly progress? The possibilities for calculation and reward whirred in my head. Because it always pays to do the numbers. Instead of vaguely saying “Well, I jogged a lot this month,” isn’t it more satisfying to say “This month, I went jogging, on average, 4 days a week”?

This inevitably reminds me of NaNoWriMo (which I am eagerly awaiting). Chris Baty has ingeniously equiped writers who sign up with a word count bar graph. In November, a writer has their goals and graphs practically handed to them. And when your word count goes up, even by a little, your graph does too! But why does this have to be limited to November? Why can’t writers use a tool like this all year long?

Writers need excercise too–as far as their writing skills are concerned. However, tracking every word might be the kind of pressure-cooker extreme only to be used in November. If someone were to, say, track how often they fit an hour or half-hour of writing into their daily schedule, they might find they write more instead of writing whenever the mood hits them. 

Because the only magic pill you can take to improve your writing is a long-term goal coated with layers of practice. And surprisingly, to make this pill less bitter, it might be nice to have a chaser of graphs, stars, and numbers.

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