Hello dear readers, the HDW (Highly Distractible Writer) for today is still thinking about today’s topic, so I’ve decided to toss my two cents into the blog. I was wondering, what would YOU like to read about? What is important to you as a mystery writer? What do you need to get moving on your latest WIP (work in progress)? Thank you all for your submissions and comments. Lynne
The Thanksgiving Plague finally got me. I hadn’t had so much as a sniffle for six months. Several of my family members were sick in the days surrounding Thanksgiving–my daughter’s fiancé only came out from his room to give the 17 assembled guests a wave at the end of the feast. Fortunately, I didn’t get sick until Monday, after everyone was gone.
I don’t always work when I’m sick, but I always work when I have a deadline. In some ways, I like to write or edit when I’m ill because the illness keeps me in one place–bed, if I can manage it. As an HDW (Highly Distractible Writer, which I just made up), anything that keeps me seated for long periods of time is A Good Thing. I don’t care if it’s the kind of thing that demands two boxes of tissues and a box of Sucrets. (Do they even make Sucrets anymore? I loved those things.)
I edited for eleven hours today. I know that because I tracked it on Office Time which even keeps track of the time you’re away from your keyboard for your counting convenience. On a normal editing day, I get in about six or seven hours, with a bit of web surfing, dog walking, and errand-running at their edges. It’s amazing what a person can get done when they just toss the dogs outside and remind them to do their business, and fling ten bucks at their son so he can bring home pizza for those who can eat.
Today my protag opined about how much she likes to spend the occasional day reading in bed. Doesn’t that sound lovely? Maybe it was transferred wishful thinking on my part because, you know, deadline.
Do you write through the flu or migraines or colds or even broken body parts? Or are you sensible and take good care of yourself by putting all your mental and physical energy into getting better?
A recent article in The New Yorker, “The Serial Killer Detector,” has given rise to a veritable barrage of scare-headlines across social media (“More Than 2000 Serial Killers At Large! In The United States!!”)
The article by Alec Wilkinson describes how a former journalist, Thomas Hargrove, developed a data analytics tool to identify previously undetected serial killers. Hargrove’s Murder Accountability Project (MAP) has catalogued a total of 751,785 murders since 1976 — a number that far exceeds the official tally reported by the FBI (The discrepancy between MAP and the FBI’s totals reflects the fact that many states fail to report their murder tallies accurately to the Feds. Hargrove has taken states to court to reveal those unreported numbers.)
Hargrove’s MAP tool uses an algorithm he wrote to detect patterns in unsolved murder reports within a geographical area. A high rate of unsolved murders is one indicator that a serial killer may be at large (In 2010, Hargrove spotted a pattern that suggested that a serial killer might be responsible for a series of unsolved murders in a Midwest city. Local officials brushed off Hargrove’s attempts to alert them to the potential threat; years later, a man arrested on another murder volunteered a confession that he had committed many of the earlier killings.)
Hargrove says he is still debating how and when to reach out to local police departments when MAP detects a possible serial killer within a vicinity, according to the article. But MAP has already succeeded in making the public aware that the United States is doing a poor job of solving its murder cases. (In 2016, less than 60 percent of killings were solved, down from 92 percent solved in 1965.)
If you’re adept with statistics you can run the MAP tool from their website http://www.murderdata.org to ferret out unsolved murder patterns in your own hometown.
Have any of the crime detectives in your stories (or your favorite author’s stories) used cutting edge data analytics such as MAP to help solve a fictional crime?
Clare’s recent post got me thinking about craft and how, as we write, the story inflates like a Tom turkey. If you think about it long enough and throw in a looming deadline, Tom Turkey and story structure have a lot in common.
Stay with me. I promise it’ll make sense, but I will ask you to take one small leap of faith — I need you to picture Tom Turkey as the sum of his parts, constructed by craft. And yes, this particular light bulb blazed on over the Thanksgiving holiday. We are now having spiral ham for Christmas dinner. 🙂
But I digress.
Story beats build Tom’s spine (hook, inciting incident, first plot point, first pinch point, midpoint, second pinch point, all is lost, second plot point, climax). The ribs that extend from Tom’s spine liken to the equal parts that expand our beats and tell us how our characters should react before, during, and after the quest.
Broken into four equal parts, 25% percent each, we call this the dramatic arc and it defines the pace of our story.
Setup: Introduce protagonist, hook the reader, and setup First Plot Point (foreshadowing, establishing stakes); establish empathy (not necessarily likability) for the MC.
Response: The MC’s reaction to the new goal/stakes/obstacles revealed by the First Plot Point; the MC doesn’t need to be heroic yet (retreats/regroups/doomed attempts/reminders of antagonistic forces at work).
Attack: Midpoint information/awareness causes the MC to change course in how to approach the obstacles; the hero is now empowered with information on how to proceed, not merely reacting anymore.
Resolution: MC summons the courage and growth to come up with solution, overcome inner obstacles, and conquer the antagonistic force; all new information must have been referenced, foreshadowed, or already in play by 2nd plot point or we’re guilty of deus ex machina.
Tom Turkey is beginning to take shape.
Characterization adds meat to his bones and interesting, conflict-driven sub-plots supply tendons and ligaments. When we layer in dramatic tension in the form of a need, goal, quest, or challenge, Tom grows skin. Obstacle after obstacle, conflict after conflict, he sprouts feathers. Utilizing MRUs — Motivation-Reaction-Units; for every action there’s a reaction — sets our story rhythm. They also aid us in heightening and maintaining suspense.
When we use MRUs, Tom Turkey fluffs those feathers. Look what happened. He grew a beak.
Providing a vicarious experience, our emotions splashed across the page, makes Tom fan his tail-feathers. The stakes add to Tom’s glee, and he prances for a potential mate. He thinks he’s got the goods to score with the ladies. He may actually get lucky this year.
Then again, we know better. Poor Tom, he’s still missing a few crucial elements in order to close the deal.
By structuring our scenes, Tom grew an impressive snood. See it dangling from his beak? The wattle under his chin needs help though. Hens are shallow. Quick, we need to imbue the story with voice.
Ah, now Tom looks sharp. What an impressive bird. Watch him prance, all full and fluffy, head held high, tail feathers fanned in perfect formation. Stud muffin.
Uh-oh. Joe Hunter leveled his shotgun at Tom. We can’t let him die before he finds a mate. We need to ensure he stays alive. But how? We’ve given him all the tools he needs, right?
Well, not quite.
Did we choose the right point of view to tell our story? If we didn’t, Tom could end up on a holiday table surrounded by drooling humans in bibs. In other words, we’ll lose our reader before we even get a chance to dazzle them with Tom’s perfect structure.
We also need narrative structure. Without it, Joe Hunter will murder poor Tom. We can’t let that happen!
Narrative structure, by the way, is almost impossible for me to define (maybe one of our craft teachers will weigh in here). I call it the “oomph” and I know it when I write it. I also know when it’s missing. Have you ever started writing a story but it didn’t have that certain something? The story was just … meh. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but it didn’t sizzle like it should for some reason.
Yeah, so have I. Those novels are now trunked. Without the oomph, the story doesn’t work. We need the oomph — aka narrative structure.
Tom needs narrative structure, too, if he hopes to escape Joe Hunter’s bullet. He also requires wings, in the form of context. Did we veer too far outside of our readers’ expectations for the genre we’re writing in? Did we give Tom a heart and soul by subtly infusing our theme? Can we boil down the plot to its core story, Tom’s innards? What about dialogue? Does Tom gobble or quack?
Have we shown the three dimensions of character in order to add oxygen to Tom’s lungs? You wouldn’t want to be responsible for suffocating Tom to death, would you?
1st Dimension of Character: The best version of who they are; the face the character shows to the world;
2nd Dimension of Character: The person our character shows to friends and family;
3rd Dimension of Character: Our character’s true character. If a fire broke out in a crowded theater, would she help others or elbow her way to the door to save herself?
Lastly, Tom needs a way to wow the ladies. We better make sure our prose sings. If we don’t, Tom could die of loneliness. Do we really want that on our conscience? No! To be safe, let’s review our word choices, sentence variations, paragraphing, grammar, and the way we string words together to ensure Tom lives a full and fruitful life. Don’t forget to rewrite and edit. If readers love Tom, he and his new bride could bring chicks (sequels or prequels) into the world, and we, as Tom’s creator, have the honor of helping them flourish into full-fledged turkeys.
Aww … it looks like Tom’s story will have a happy ending after all.
Over to you, TKZers. Is Tom Turkey missing anything? What would you name his mate?Can anyone define narrative structure in a more craft-appropriate way?
Want to meet more feathered friends? The antagonist in BLESSED MAYHEM has three pet crows, Poe, Allan, and Edgar. The Kindle version is on sale for a limited time.
Last week we lost a very dear man. Earle Hyman was known to most people as Bill Cosby’s father on The Cosby Show. But he was so much more. An accomplished stage actor, he was one of the great Othellos.
I know because I got to watch him play the role night after night.
I was a young and hungry actor, freshly arrived in New York City and living at The Leo House on West 23d. Across the street at that time was the Roundabout Theater. I walked over there one day and asked for a job. I got one, pushing around scenery for the current production, Shaw’s You Never Can Tell.
As part of the deal, I got to audition for their upcoming production of Othello.
JSB in his triumphant role as Attendant in Othello.
And I got the part! My first paid acting role! As … Attendant. No lines, but I didn’t care. I was doing Shakespeare Off-Broadway, in tights and everything!
Earle Hyman was Othello. Also in the cast was a young Powers Boothe as Roderigo.
And so we began rehearsals. I loved every minute of it, even though my part was just walking on, standing, and walking off. But when I was off, I’d listen. I’d listen to how Earle and Nick Kepros (Iago) did Shakespeare. Iago has some of the best lines in the entire canon, and I determined to play that role someday.
In fact, one night before the show I was sitting backstage with Earle. He was so generous to the young actors, down-to-earth and always willing to give advice. I mentioned I wanted to play Iago someday, and he said, “You’re perfect for it!”
“I am?” I said, wondering if some nefarious part of my personality had leaked out.
“Oh, yes,” Earle said. “You have an open, honest face.” (This, mind you, was well before I went to law school.) He explained, “Othello calls him ‘honest, honest Iago.’ It’s wrong to play the part as an obvious villain.”
I then breezily but sincerely told him I was going to mount a production of Othello someday and play Iago, and that I wanted him to play the lead.
“I’ll do it!” he said.
A lovely man.
So the show opened and was well received by the Times. I continued to listen. I was something of a voice impersonator in those days. I’d crack up the cast by doing imitations of the various actors.
Then one night it happened. My big moment.
Now, to fully appreciate what I’m about to relate it is necessary that you know the classic film All About Eve. If you have not seen it and wish to be spared knowing the plot twist, you might want to skip to the last paragraphs of this post.
In brief, All About Eve is the story of a theater diva named Margo Channing (Bette Davis). A devoted young fan named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) comes to her and pours out her heart about loving the theater and idolizing Margo. This gets her a job as Margo’s assistant.
What we come to learn is that Eve Harrington has only one thought in mind—to displace Margo as the star of a new hit play. She underhandedly snags the understudy role. And then she sets in motion an elaborate scheme so Margo will be unable to make curtain one night.
Eve is a sensation, and from there turns her back on everyone who’s helped her as she ascends the stairway to stardom.
Back to Othello. One night, about an hour and half before curtain, a call comes in from the actor playing Montano—a minor role, but with significant lines. He was stuck in Brooklyn and wouldn’t be able to make the show. I can’t remember why, but I assure you I had nothing to do with it.
The stage manager was in a panic. There were no understudies. Then someone told him, “Jim knows the part. He knows all the parts.”
The stage manager rushed over to me and put his hands on my shoulders. “Do you? Do you really know the part?”
“What from the cape can you discern at sea?” I said, quoting Montano’s first line.
“You’re going on!”
On! Me! I was giddy as he spent twenty minutes with me on the stage, walking me through the blocking. I only half listened, for my other half was loop-quoting the Bard: “Yet heavens have glory for this victory!”
Then I was dismissed to go get ready for the performance.
As I entered the dressing room, everyone was already putting on makeup or getting into costume. The moment I appeared our Iago, Nick Kepros, in a voice dripping with droll amusement and loud enough for all to hear, said, “Well, well, if it isn’t Eve Harrington!”
The room exploded in laughter. It was the perfect line, brilliantly delivered.
So on I went.
Though it was one night only and did not catapult me to stardom, it was supremely satisfying. I had spoken Shakespeare on a stage in New York! And received warm congratulations from the cast, including Mr. Earle Hyman.
All that to say, writer, be ready. The old saw about luck being the intersection of preparation and opportunity applies.
Be ready when you read. When you come across a passage that moves you or compels you to turn the page, ask yourself why that is so. Mark up the book with notes.
Be ready when you write. Listen to your book and the characters as they take on life. What are they telling you that you didn’t know before?
Be ready when you edit. By studying the craft and having tools that actually work, you become more adept at creatively fixing your manuscript.
Be ready with your elevator pitch. If anyone asks you what your book is about, you should be able to tell them in thirty seconds, and in a way that makes their eyes light up. (An elevator pitch formula may be found here.)
Do all that and you know what you’ll be ready for next? To “put money in thy purse!” (Iago, Act I, Scene 3.)
So what serendipitous event has happened in your own life? Were you ready for it?
Without villains, there are no heroes. Without conflict, there is no story. Without lies, greed, theft, lust, jealousy, betrayal, rape, and murder, there is no crime fiction.
Those of us who write mystery, suspense, and thrillers embrace evil as a dark blessing to our chosen profession.
Sue Grafton famously admits the inspiration for her alphabet series sprang from an ugly divorce during which she fantasized about killing her ex. She grabbed adversity by the throat and transformed it into a blockbuster series.
Dark Blessing #1: In the 1980s, my husband and I were parties in a grueling lawsuit. Our opponents retained a greedy, unethical attorney. During weeks of depositions in his office, I noticed this framed image titled “The Lawsuit” on his wall. In person, the lawyer’s smug mug bore a startling resemblance to the illustration.
He was quite proud of himself as he milked hundreds of thousands in fees from his clients, which naturally raised our own legal costs as we had to fight back.
For five long years, this attorney dragged out the suit, convincing a judge to rule against us for reasons that had flimsy legal basis. We suspected the attorney was paying off the judge, but couldn’t prove it.
Then again, maybe the terrible strain of the lawsuit had made us paranoid. Maybe.
We ultimately won the case, but it nearly killed our bank account…and my spirit.
Some years later, the judge was convicted of bribery and sentenced to prison. Too late to help our case, but our suspicions had been vindicated. We weren’t paranoid after all.
The attorney retired comfortably and later died of cancer. Nope, we didn’t send flowers to his funeral.
In a twisted, unintentional way, the attorney did me a favor.
Because of that ordeal, we moved to Montana. There, I’ve followed my dream of fulltime writing ever since. Plots and villains continue to pour from the cornucopia of that lawsuit. And I’ve repeatedly inflicted fictional revenge on the attorney.
Dark Blessing #2: My adopted mother was a sweet, kind, loving lady. This photo was taken at her birthday several years ago.
She was also ferociously independent and determined to remain in her San Diego home where she’d lived for over forty years. Despite health problems, she refused to move in with her daughter in L.A., nor me in Montana—too cold. She could take care of herself just fine, thank you very much.
My sister and I respected her wishes, but wangled one concession: a visiting caregiver checked on her several times a week. That solution appeared to work until…
Mama had a stroke a month shy of her ninety-first birthday. While she was in the hospital, my sister and I discovered the caregiver had run up more than $15,000 in fraudulent charges on Mama’s credit cards. We confronted the woman who admitted wrongdoing. We also reported the theft to the police and the elder fraud unit. They promised to investigate further.
Dear Mama maintained her independence to the end. Two weeks after the stroke, she died with dignity, on her own terms.
After her death, my sister and I learned to our horror that, despite abundant evidence and the caregiver’s admission, she couldn’t be prosecuted without Mama’s testimony. What???
Eventually, the credit card companies reversed the bogus charges, but the caregiver skipped away free, no doubt looking for her next victim.
Guess who’s receiving her comeuppance in my current WIP about elder fraud.
Justice that eludes us in real life can sometimes be found in fiction.
This Thanksgiving Day, I count many happy blessings. My incredible husband makes sacrifices so I can live the dream. I’m surrounded by a large community of supportive writer friends. TKZ gives me daily valuable lessons in craft, as well as the opportunity to write guest blogs.
And…there have been enough dark blessings in my life to provide endless inspiration for more novels.
Happy Thanksgiving to all at The Kill Zone!
Your turn, TKZers.
If you’re a writer, how have real-life tribulations inspired your stories?
If you’re a reader, what books helped you through difficult trials?
Whenever I finish a new book, my publisher is kind enough to ask me if I have any ideas for what the cover should look like. It seems like a reasonable thing to expect, right? After all, I spent a year writing the thing, so you’d think I have some inclination as to what I want the cover image to be.
Well, I never do. I testify with neither pride nor shame that my mind simply does not work that way. I think I’ve mentioned here before that after 11 books in the series, I really don’t know what Jonathan Grave looks like. I know how he thinks, and I know what his skills are. I know his strengths and his weaknesses, but, physically, beyond having intense blue eyes and a number of scars, I don’t see him in my head. If I can’t see him, then I guess it should be of no surprise that I can’t cough up a cover image. That said, I know a good cover when I see one, and this one for Scorpion Strike (July, 2018) is my favorite of all my books.
I think that the old adage that a book cannot be judged by its cover is at best disingenuous, and at worst a lie. We all do it, and publishers understand that we do. That’s why they have art departments. A book’s cover telegraphs more than just the story it tells. It says a lot about the attitude of the book and its intended audience. While my book covers are designed to project a Big Commercial Thriller, other covers, such as the one here for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, telegraph quite clearly that they are targeted for a more literary audience.
When my first thriller, Nathan’s Run, was released in hardcover in 1996, I was horrified by the cover. I was a rookie in the business and afraid to express my opinion, but I thought the cover with its drab brown tones and its weird font expressed nothing about the story while conveying the wrong tone. This was supposed to be a Big Commercial Thriller, but it projected . . . well, I don’t know. At best, the message seemed muddled. While the book sold well–certainly for a first novel–it fell short of expectations, and I’ve always thought the cover was a contributor to that.
My British publisher, Michael Joseph, on the other hand, had a vision of the cover that fit way more closely to what I thought a cover should look like. The bad guy’s sunglasses reflecting a fleeing boy was “too literal” in the view of my peeps at HarperCollins, so I kept my mouth shut, but I loved the UK cover. And the tag line, “At twelve, Nathan has seen just about everything … Now all he wants to see is thirteen,” was a stroke of brilliance. Per capita, the book did much better in the UK than it did here in the U.S. We all know that correlation is not causation, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me that the cooler cover played a role in the better sales.
Roughly eight years after the paper copies of Nathan’s Run went out of print, Kensington re-bought the publication rights and put it out as an eBook, along with my second novel, At All Costs. I’m not sure what I think about this latest cover. It shows motion, and I can’t complain about the size of my name relative to the title, but, to my eye, this version of the cover is kind of a place holder. It doesn’t really convey anything about the story, but I think it projects that it’s a commercial thriller. Maybe that’s all it needs. Again, I don’t know about this stuff.
Ultimately, I think cover art achieves its primary goal if it convinces a reader to pick up the book and take a look at the first page. After that, it’s all about the writing.
Or is it?
I suspect, in the utter absence of any empirical data, that covers are one of the big obstacles that keep a lot of genre fiction from reaching mainstream acceptance. We all know the story of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain. In its original printed form–before the movie tie-in version–the cover is clearly literary in its focus, and Western in its setting. In my busiest days of my fire service career, I wouldn’t have hesitated to carry this book with me and read it in the day room of the fire station. Replace the cover with a picture of a bare-chested man in chaps, though, and not only would I not have carried it, I never would have opened it. (Yes, I’m that shallow.) I know professional women who are secretly fans of romance novels, but won’t read them on the subway because the bodice-ripping covers.
And, in all fairness, I’m sure there will be professional men and women both who will feel a little uncomfortable toting a cover that features rusted bullet holes. But, man-oh-man, I do love it.
I’ve learned one fascinating fact about covers over the years–and titles, too, for that matter: They needn’t have much to do with the story the book tells. Friendly Fire, for example, features a picture of the White House on the cover. I think it’s a terrific cover, but it hides a secret: Neither the White House nor the presidency play a role in the story. Once again, I was told that I was thinking too literally. The Jonathan Grave novels are “corridors-of-power” thrillers, and that is the message being conveyed by the cover image. Certainly, no one is going to mistake it for literary fiction or a romance. If it’s an engaging enough cover, people will pick it up. At that point, the cover will have done its job.
A critical component of any cover design is the title. Here again, the sole purpose of the title, in combination with the cover design, is to get a potential reader to crack the spine and take a peek inside. Thus, the title needn’t connect directly to the content of the book. Rather, it should convey the feel of the story. The most obvious example of this in my own career is Hostage Zero, the second in the Grave series. The phrase means nothing. There is no Hostage Zero in the book, but my team at Kensington liked the sound of it–and the look of it, too, when put on the page. In the ten years or so since that book dropped I haven’t heard from a single reader or critic who felt cheated by the asymmetry of title and story.
Now I throw it to you Zoners. How important are covers to you in your decision to give a book a try? Any favorites out there we should know about?
Well, this was fun. Nothing like a good bad guy to get things rolling. Here, for our consideration, is today’s First Page Critique, titled Goodbye Detective. After you read it, we’re going to dig down into the burnt-cinder souls of villains.
As you are reading this, Detective, know that I did not mean to kill her at first. I do not seek absolution from you, or anyone – we have moved well beyond that by now – but I want you to understand how we arrived at the here and now.
This has not always been about you. I have done this before you came around, and I will continue long after they have called your End of Watch. You were nothing to me – a faceless badge – until you first stepped in front of those microphones. A rising star in the department, youthful and clean-shaven and with your freshly minted shield gleaming in the camera lights, you were quite the sight to behold. You seemed comfortable in the spotlight as you fielded questions and recounted the sparse evidence I allowed to be found. When you delivered your promise to bring me to justice, it was not the first time that I heard those words. But there was something about the way you said them and that fire of determination I recognized in your eyes that made me take notice. You were different than the ones before you, and this would require my full attention.
At first, I simply wanted to throw you off. Let you follow a trail that leads nowhere or deliver you an with an unwitting patsy you can build your case around. This has worked for me in the past, but you saw right through those attempts to lead you astray. You snooped and dug ever deeper, connecting bodies to me that I had all but forgotten and you became all-consumed by this case of yours. By me.
Each time you stepped in front of those cameras – a small update here, a major break in the case there – you looked worse for wear. Gone was the well-groomed youth, his place taken by an ever more disheveled figure, stubble-faced and unkempt. The dark furrows beneath your eyes grew deeper with every long hour you spent on the case. I came to understand that you would not be deterred, and I respected your tenacity. But it meant that for the first time I had to alter my approach. You had become my biggest fan and I had found a playmate
We’re back. This is certainly an interesting start. And I think it’s well-written, so I am not going to do my usual line edits. Got no nits to pick. What I like about this is that the voice is solid, and we get a hint of the villain’s personality. Notice that the word choices, the vocabulary and syntax imply a man of some education. He feels almost Hannibal Lector-ish. Good job with that.
We also get some early glimpses of the protagonist (the detective) through the villain’s sensibility. One of the most effective ways to show your protagonist’s character is to reveal it through the thoughts or others. We are told he was a fresh-faced rising star. But time, and this case, have worn him down. We are told he is tenacious. And he’s not the first man to work this case…there have been a lot of bodies. All of this is smoothly inserted back story. Good job, writer!
The only thing I don’t like — the title. It doesn’t do this justice. But it’s an okay working title and maybe the real title will reveal itself later. It often does. Shoot, I’d rather see this called End of Watch. Which would work on a couple levels — it’s the end of a policeman’s shift but might it also describe what the detective seeks — the end of the watching (stalking) done by the bad guy. A good title does two important things — captures the tone of the story and works on several levels of meaning.
I would read on. But I am not sure how much further, if you overstay in the villain’s head. The usual caveat here with our First Page Critiques: Because the submission has to be short, we don’t really know where this is going. But the opening pages do illuminate an important point — you have to seduce the reader (be it editor, agent, or reader) in the first page or so and make them want more. I think this writer succeeds, but I would caution that this opening be short and sweet and get us to the hero soon — or some kind of action because this opening is, essentially, character thinking and not doing.
In film, this kind of opening is called the Establishing Character Moment — a red flag to pay attention to a major character. You can’t wait too long to do this because it breeds impatience. And you can’t dwell on false protagonists or secondary characters too long or the reader will assume this is the hero, get attached, and then be disappointed. A couple months back, I read a manuscript for the Mystery Writers of America Critique Program and the submission had a fatal flaw — the writer introduced five characters in the first 30 pages, each with their own point of view. Because the book’s title has a subtitle (ie A Sylvia Drake Mystery…not the real name) we know Sylvia is the protag. But poor Sylvia is showing up way too late for her own party. Not good.
Back to the Establishing Character Moment. Novel writing is a series of choicesthe writer makes, and who comes on stage first is an important choice. I have no problem at all with the villain in the submission, instead of the hero, getting prime time. It’s a common trope in thriller books and movies.
The movie Dirty Harry begins with a rooftop close-up of a gun barrel, zooms down to a pretty girl taking a swim in a pool, then zooms back out until we see the sniper take his deadly shot.
Joyce Carol Oates (under her crime novel pen name Rosamond Smith) opens Snake Eyes with a tight-focus scene about her tattooed convict Lee Roy Sears before she pulls her camera back and switches to the suburban couple who fatally take him into their home.
One of my fave Hitchcock’s openings is from Rope with two murderers garroting a victim, stuffing him in a trunk, and sharing a drink — all before James Stewart sets foot on stage. Check it out:
So what do we make of the opening of our submission Goodbye Detective? As I said, I think it’s good. It’s not a normal third-person or omniscient narrative (“The man watched her from the rooftop, aiming his rifle carefully.”) It’s not even a normal first-person point of view (“I set the barrel of the rifle on the ledge and waited until the girl below drove in before I took aim.”) No, this is more stylized with the villain (in first person), “talking” to the detective, or perhaps actually writing to him. But in a way, he is also talking to us the readers, like an actor breaking the fourth wall with an audience. I think this is tough style to maintain over 200+ pages, but I will give the writer the benefit of the doubt and hope s/he moves toward a more active first-person voice for the villain.
I tried to think of an example from a published book that was similar to what the writer is attempting here but drew a blank. But I will offer up one terrific example of an opening featuring the villain. First we get one orgasmic graph describing the moon then comes this:
I had been waiting and watching the priest for five weeks now. The need had been prickling and teasing prodding at me to find one, the next one, find this priest. Three weeks I had known he was it, the next one, we belonged to the Dark Passenger, he and I together. And that three weeks I had been fighting the pressure, the growing Need rising in me like a great wave that roars up and over the beach and does not recede, only swells with every tick of the bright night’s clock.
That’s from Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter. I know, I know…technically Dexter is both hero and villain. He’s a little like the main character in Jim Thompson’s classic The Killer Inside Me, about a small-town good ol’ boy sheriff who is actually a depraved psychopath. I’m bring them up only to make a point here:
If you open with the bad guy, it better be good. Make sure his voice is pitch-perfect, original, and that it’s your best possible writing.
Another example of a villain opening, from one of my fave college reads, John Fowles’ The Collector:
When she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her almost every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annex. She and her younger sister used to go in and out a lot, often with young men, which of course I didn’t like. When I had a free moment from the files and ledgers I stood by the window and used to look down over the road over the frosting and sometimes I’d see her. In the evening I marked it in my observations diary, at first with X, and then when I knew her name with M.I saw her several times outside too. I stood right behind her once in a queue at the public library down Crossfield Street. She didn’t look once at me, but I watched the back of her head and her hair in a long pigtail. It was very pale, silky, like Burnet cocoons. All in one pigtail coming down almost to her waist, sometimes in front, sometimes at the back. Sometimes she wore it up. Only once, before she came to be my guest here, did I have the privilege to see her with it loose, and it took my breath away it was so beautiful, like a mermaid.
Let’s talk now about structure. If you do open with a villain, you have to make choicesabout how you present him, what form it will take:
What point of view — third or third?
Prologue or chapter 1?
A constant presence throughout the book or limited?
Identify by name or leave him a ghostly figure?
Our submitting writer chose first person, and I assume it’s Chapter 1. We can’t tell if this POV will be constant throughout the book, but I will caution that if you do decide to give your villain screen time, you should make him a constant presence throughout your narrative. One opening scene isn’t enough; in my opinion, it feels tacked on, like a false attempt to inject tension in the opening.
If you’ll indulge me, I think a recounting here of my own experience with villain openings might help us understand this. I’ve used a villain POV many times but opened with it only twice. The first time was with our third book Paint It Black. Here it is:
The car was just sitting there, its hazard lights blinking like beacons in the darkness. In a flash of lightening, he could see someone walking around the car, in and out of the shadows.
Stop here? No, no, not right. Rain…too much rain. It wasn’t supposed to happen here. Stop! Stop!
He slowed the truck, pulling onto the shoulder behind the stalled car. A man came around the car and looked back at him, shielding his eyes in the glare of the headlights.
The wipers beat with the thick pounding in his head. He could see the man’s face. And his eyes, hopeful, as they squinted back to his rescuer.
This was Chapter 1, not a prologue because it segued right into the following scene. The killer gets his own scenes in the book, at a ratio of about one-to-three vs the hero. I didn’t name him until Louis figured out who he was. Choices…
Now I’ll tell you about the villain opening I almost screwed up. But first, I have to talk about the book that inspired my choices — Michael Connelly’s The Poet. If you are considering giving your villain a starring role, you must read this book. Connelly toggles between his reporter hero Jack McEvoy (using first-person) and his villain William Gladden (third-person.) The first two chapters are from Jack’s POV, but then Connelly opens Chapter 3 with the slow-build tension of Gladden watching kids on the Santa Monica Pier merry-go-round.
When I was writing my first stand-alone thriller, I knew I wanted to toggle between hero and villain. Using Connelly’s template, I also mixed first and third POV. But because I had written a dozen books in third person — my comfort zone — I gave that to my hero, and gave the villain first person. Can you see the problem?
Well, the fifty pages in, book was a snoozer and I couldn’t figure out why. Luckily, I ran into Mike Connelly at a writers conference and asked his advice. “Give the more intimate first to your hero,” he said. Once I did that, the book wrote itself. I opened with the villain, watching his victim in Saint Chapelle in Paris:
He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
The last rays of the setting sun slanted through the stained glass window over her head, bathing her in a rainbow. He knew it was just a trick of light, that the ancient glassmakers added copper oxide to make the green, cobalt to make the blue, and real gold to make the red. He knew all of this.
But still, she was beautiful.
I loved writing from this villain’s point of view. Which is another caution flag I need to throw out here. Villains are very seductive. They are more fun to write than heroes. So be careful you don’t use up all your writer juice on them.
A couple more tips about villains:
Keep in mind that once you enter the villain’s mind, you risk sacrificing some of your story’s tension because the reader will know what’s going to happen. Find ways to keep them guessing, even when in the bad guy’s head.
Make your villain a worthy adversary. In real life, criminals are usually dumb as stumps. But in fiction, a complex villain gives your hero something to push back against. What’s the old quote? Even a villain is the hero of his own story. Develop your antagonist with as much care as your protagonist. Every character must want something. Especially your villain. Figure out what that is and drill deep.
So this November I tried for the second time to complete NanNoWriMo (for those unfamiliar with this, it represents an opportunity/challenge to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November). Although I never publicly launched a new novel or attended any of the social writing events in either attempt, I did start both challenges with the intention of trying to see if I could knock out a 50,000 word draft in a month. Turns out, I can’t…
This post isn’t really about my failed attempts but rather what I learned about my own writing process as a result. While I think NaNoWriMo is a great exercise for many writers it (obviously) didn’t turn out to be the best for me. In both of my attempts I was in the early stages of a new project and I thought it might be a way to overcome the dreaded internal critic and kickstart my project into high gear. Turns out my creative process just doesn’t work that way…Here is what I learned:
I write quickly anyway. With determination I always finish my projects and the deadlines I set with my agent provides motivation (and fear) enough for me to push through to the end of the first, second, third and fourth (or more) drafts. That being said…
The first 50-100 pages for me are critical. I have to get these right or I cannot (and I mean cannot!) move forward. I often spend the first month or so on these pages alone – making sure they are written, edited, rewritten and re-edited to my satisfaction. NaNoWriMo helped me realize and understand this – the 100 page mark was the exact point in both drafts where my brain froze at the thought of continuing on without fixing what I knew was wrong.
This second failed NaNoWriMo test enabled me to come to grips with the hows and why’s of point # 2. It’s all about the voice. If I don’t get the voice and characterization correct, everything I write from that point forward feels inauthentic and forced. In this last attempt, I found myself going through the motions of writing scenes to satisfy the NaNoWriMo word requirements until eventually my creative process shriveled up and died…until I went back and started working through the voice in the first 100 pages…
Word targets freak me out. I don’t do well focusing on a target number of words to write per day or week. As a plotter I do much better with setting goals in terms of chapters and scenes than focusing on the number of words. I will often lay out an outline and move along that trajectory until I come to a point where I have to go back, reread everything and make course corrections as necessary. NaNoWriMo taught me to make peace with this…and also to realize that…
Although my internal critic can be a pain in the bum it’s also what helps me craft the voice that I need to move forward with my novel. It was the same with last year’s project (which, by the way, resulted in a novel that is currently out on submission, so my NaNoWriMo failure isn’t all that bad!).
Finally, I realized that I need to trust, accept, and love my own particular creative process.
So, although I think NaNoWriMo is great for kickstarting other people’s writing – I need to accept it isn’t for me. Undertaking the challenge, however, has helped me realize that I have to honor my own creative process and since mine (so far at least!) usually results in a completed novel, then it’s a process that ultimately works:)
So TKZers, are any of you doing the NaNoWriMo challenge this November? How does it work for you and your creative process?