Saturday, April 24, 2010

Wow, there's a lot of tension on DorothyL

DorothyL is a mystery Listsrv that's been in operation for eons where readers and authors get together to talk about mysteries. By and large it's fun, plus you connect with people who share your interest in killing people. Every now and then thought it goes through a testy phase where people are irritated with each other and there is much flouncing (as much as one can flounce with words, and, surprisingly, you can flounce a lot!).

Someone posted  a tongue-in-cheek thing (sort of a MadLib) version of how to write a cozy. Protag greets her postman/doctor/gardener and discovers that his wife/dog/turtle is missing. It went on from there, with a cookie cutter plotline. And yes, there are a lot of cozies out there that would fit that mold nicely. But let's face it, you could do the exact same thing with a police procedural or even a political thriller (aside from John Le Carre they all have that Jason Bourne factor these days). And a number of writers who write cozies were affronted, and a lot of other people (including some who write cozies) said, get a sense of humor.

But I think people are missing the point. I believe you could actually write that story, plucking out the appropriate insert at the appropriate time, and it could be a KILLER story. Because, really, most books aren't that different from each other. Sure, every now and then you'll get a book that blows your socks off in how it eschews convention, but these are rare. My point is that you could write a book using that template and write a very good novel. Because it's not necessarily the destination, but how you drive there. That's the difference between a good writer and a great writer: someone who understand voice, tension, and characterization in service of plot. By this point, if I don't know who did it by the end of the third chapter, I'm convinced I'm suffering from some dreadful brain disease. Because there are very few surprises left in me. Some of this is because I believe (like Nancy Kress, see previous post) that the author makes a promise and that promise should be fulfilled. Unfortunately, in the mystery world that means you know, usually, that Miss Scarlett did it in the library with the candlestick. I think the last book that really surprised me, I mean, knocked my socks off whoa, was Michael Connellly's "Concrete Blonde." What a mofo wonderful book! That was written years ago, which will tell you that, yeah, surprise isn't happening. So the getting there is now so much more important because I know what the "there" is and who will do it.

It's like you're driving to L.A. You can go down 5, you can take 1, or you can do a whole bunch of backroads through dusty, poor rural towns where the WalMart in Fresno is putting all the local shopkeepers out of business. The ending is the same, but the drive?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Writing Stuff and Book Rec

Every now and then I'll get all meta-y and write about writing. I can stop now, because someone has said it a thousand times better than I ever could. This is an excellent book; I highly recommend it:

"Elements of Writing Fiction - Beginnings, Middles & Ends (Elements of Fiction Writing)" by Nancy Kress

Example on flashbacks: "A writer always pays a price for flashbacks. Any flashback, no matter how well written or interesting, will distance your reader from the action. This is because flashbacks shatter the illusion that the reader is a fly on the wall, witnessing events as they happen, right now. The flashback is not happening right now--it is , by definition, already over."

OMG! YES! Thank you. Of course, she's not saying never use flashbacks, but you pay a price for this technique and it will slow down the action. If you're at a point in your story where you can spend a little tension capital, then it's worth it if it acts as a critical plot dump or characterization dump. She has a great bit on tension and how you can't have every chapter or section be crazy with tension because then it no longer functions as tension. You need peaks and valleys.

This book is filled with a host of wonderful nuggets of how writing works mechanically. Yes, I believe there are people who are gifted writers. They just know how to throw words together. But I also firmly believe that anyone can write a decent story that will satisfy the reader. Writing is a lot about mechanics. It's about thinking REALLY CAREFULLY about how you are saying something.

It took me years to get to the place in my writing where I am now. Most of what she presents in this book I gleaned through trial and error (mostly error, still error). I don't know if this book would have cut out a year or two of frustration, but it's nice to see someone articulate why a paragraph works and why it doesn't. Why I will read the first 1000 words of a book and I will say, okay, this writer has a map, a concept, and I will keep on reading. And why with another author I will say, no, this is someone who is without a map, and I'll put it down never to be picked up again. This is not to say they won't find a map. That's the great thing about writing maps. They aren't proprietary. There isn't a secret "map" store. An idea is the first step in making your own map. A map you'll share. I liken an author to being like big game hunter without all the awful killing of animals bit. I'm leading you into the bush. There's danger and beauty and drama and humor. Hopefully, neither of us will get lost. No worries! Here is my map! Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Enough with the heart attacks

Two recents authors (both of whom I adore) have had their protagonists suffer heart attacks. I am now asking for a moratorium on this convention, precisely because I think it IS becoming a convention and it's a wee bit deux et machina for me. I have noticed that both these writers are men, and I'm wondering if this is something men think about. Of course, women think about breast cancer (which to my mind is much more insidious and possibly life threatening, as opposed to a heart attack which is--in most cases although not all--a wake-up call).

So. Yo. Male authors. No more heart attacks. It's becoming cliche.