WHO’S TELLING THE STORY?

DSC_0196

One of the first things you must decide when you set out to write a novel or short story is: who is the narrator? There are lots of decisions to be made. Is it first person or close third person or even second person? Nineteenth century novels were most likely to be told by an omniscient narrator who isn’t a character in the story but an observer.  THE MAN OF PROPERTY, the first novel in THE FORSYTE SAGA by John Galsworthy, begins, “Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight—an upper middle-class family in full plumage. But whosoever of these favoured persons has possessed the gift of psychological analysis (a talent without monetary value . . . ” No one would write like that today.

Now the narrator is often a character in the novel.  Once you’ve decided on the narrator, you must decide who he or she is, where they fit into the story, if they do, and what person to use. THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen begins with the sentence, “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” and it is clear that this story is going to be told in the first person by someone who is very much a part of it.

On the other hand, DEAD EYE by Mark Greaney begins, “Leland Babbitt shot through the doors of the Hay-Adams Hotel and ran down the steps to the street like he had someplace to be.” The reader’s first thought is that this is written in third person and that it’s going to tell the activities of Leland Babbitt. But when the next paragraph begins, “The chauffeur hadn’t been expecting his passenger . . . ,” you immediately realize that the reader is going to have an overview of the activities of several people and that the story is going to be told from a third person omniscient point of view.

Once you’ve decided who is going to narrate, you have to decide where the narrator fits into the story. If the narrator is a character, does the story action happen to him or her, as in THE SYMPATHIZER?  Or is the narrator an observer, one who watches the novel’s characters and tells the story as an outsider, as in DEAD EYE.

I remember once going to a luncheon where a young woman talked about a novel she had written that had interested an agent. She had written the novel in close third person, but the agent thought she should change it to first person. She was at the moment deep into that process and not really happy about it. She was having difficulty telling the story in first person when it had originally been conceived in third person. Changing the voice of the narrator was really stressing the writer out, because many things, not just the voice, had to change as she did the rewrite.

The important thing about narrative voice is of course how that person fits into the story. I often think of W. Somerset Maugham who wrote several novels in the first person narrative voice of someone not involved in the action. The narrator learns the story and tells it to the reader. Certainly that distances the reader from having an emotional stake in the action. We cannot experience the joy or the terror of the characters because we are being told the story at a remove. I often wondered why he did this, but THE MOON AND SIXPENCE and THE RAZOR’S EDGE were very popular in their day.

There are many different kinds of narrators in novels and short stories. Alice Sebold’s narrator in THE LOVELY BONES is already dead when the novel begins, although she watches the action and manages to save her little sister. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor kills off her first person narrator just before the end of the story. I remember thinking as I was reading, “Well, the woman must survive,” but she doesn’t, and O’Connor carries it off.

The book I am currently reading, A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW,” by Amor Towles begins “At half past six on the twenty-first of June 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was escorted through the gates of the Kremlin onto Red Square, it was glorious and cool.” I learned a lot about time and setting from that, but I didn’t know anything about the Count except that he was an aristocrat at a time when that was not popular. The book begins almost like THE MAN OF PROPERTY, but the revelation of the Count’s character throughout the book is one of its delights. It becomes an entirely different book from a nineteenth century novel.

I find it difficult to provide a description of the narrator of my stories. Sue Grafton neatly solved that problem by having Kinsey Milhone tell the reader the background of the story she is about to tell including who she is, why she’s involved, and what her life circumstances are. These include a physical description of her.  As a result, we have a picture of Kinsey in our minds almost from the first page of the story.

The old trick of having the narrator look in the mirror is definitely just that—an old trick. I’ve finally settled on doing the description in bits and pieces: I have a picture in my mind of what Andi Battaglia looks like, but I’m afraid I’ve never conveyed this completely to my readers.

How about other writers? Who do you use as your narrative voice? How do you describe him or her? Do you like to write in third person or first? Do you have a preference when you read?

PLANNING AND PLOTTING

 

I’ve told you all this before, but I am not a plotter. I have an idea, and I follow it, hoping that the story will make sense as it develops. But I’ve fallen into an abyss, unable to figure my way out. My story has hit a wall, and I can’t find my way through. I keep gnawing on the problem, but so far, no answers.

I know I’m not the only one who doesn’t plot—and probably not the only one who falls into an abyss. But recently I’ve found support, at least for the nonplotters.. Just in the last month, the New York Times Book Review has had comments by two writers of mystery fiction indicating they aren’t plotters either.

Chris Bohjalian, author of THE FLIGHT ATTENDENT, which has made it to the Times best seller list, says in the “Inside the List” column, “I’m in awe of writers who outline—or even those writers who know how a book is going to end when they begin . . .I never have even the slightest clue. I depend upon my characters to take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story.”

And in the April 29th edition of the Book Review, in the same column , Lisa Scottoline, the best-selling author who writes three books a year, says, “I plan absolutely nothing.. . .  It’s not in my nature. I write a book in an organic way, asking myself after each chapter what the characters would do next. I never know what the story is until I tell it to myself. Not only don’t I know how it ends, I don’t know how it middles!” Scottoline goes on to say, “. . . the surprise ending always comes as a surprise to me!”

So, I’m not the only one with a problem. But I’m an amateur compared to those guys. How shall I fix my problem? My murderer is apparently unbelievable, and the story has great, big plot holes. Do I need another character? Maybe that would help with the problem. Maybe I don’t want to kill one guy too early in the story. If I keep him alive, he might be the murderer.

Now that’s an idea! Maybe the murderee should be the murderer. I’ll play with that for a while. I need a reason for that, though, and right now my mind is blank. I do have a sense, however, that I killed off the first victim too soon, that I should let him live a bit more and develop more of a story.

I remember attending a writing panel where two writers were non-plotters and one, who wrote for television, was emphatically a plotter. One of the non-plotters told us that when she got to the end of her novel, she liked the person she had made the murderer too much to cast him in that role, so she went back and added another character. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one with these problems.

Do any of you ever get yourselves into this kind of mess? Let me know. It’ll make me feel better, just like Bohjalian and Scottoline did.

BEGINNINGS

DSC_0196What makes you, as a reader, want to read a particular book? Sometimes, for me, it’s because it’s been recommended by another reader. Or I’ve read a review of it. Or my book club is reading it. But suppose you are in a bookstore or library with no reading commitments on your mind. What would make you select one book over another? What would the first paragraph or the first few sentences tell you about the book and give you enough information to want to go on?

There has been a lot written about “the first two pages” of a book: how important they are, how that’s where you capture the reader’s interest and get her to select this book above others. If the reader finds herself in a bookstore, though, she’s not going to read the first two pages. She’s probably only going to read the first paragraph. How much information do you, the writer, give to the reader in that first paragraph or two?

It’s an important question for writers because with so many books to choose from, how can you get a reader to select your book as the one to read? I looked at the first paragraphs of three mystery novels, checking out what information the first few sentences gave me, and trying to determine whether I was interested in finding out more.

I started with a book by Tom Kakonis called TREASURE COAST.

“Like most men closing in on the benchmark forty, Jim Merriman made far more promises—to others mainly, a dwindling few yet to himself—than he knew, heart of hearts, he ever intended to keep. It was a habit by now so deeply entrenched, so much a part of him, that he wore it like a second skin: Generate an earnest pledge today; effortlessly shuck it off tomorrow. Mostly it was harmless, this habitual shortfall between oath and execution, deed and good intention.”

What did those first few sentences tell me about Jim? I learned his gender and age, that forty was important to him, and that his promises, to himself and to others, were mostly empty.  I surmise he’s not a hero and guess that some promise or another is going to get him in trouble.  I don’t know where the story is based, and I don’t know anything more about Jim except that he’s relatively honest about his failings.

How about Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache novel, THE CRUELEST MONTH?

“Kneeling in the fragrant moist grass of the village green Clara Morrow carefully hid the Easter egg and thought about raising the dead, which she planned to do right after supper. Wiping a strand of hair from her face, she smeared bits of grass, mud and some other brown stuff that might not be mud into her tangled hair. All around, villagers wandered with their baskets of brightly colored eggs, looking for the perfect hiding place.”

This is a charming portrait of a village preparing for an Easter egg hunt, centering on one woman, Clara Morrow, about whom we know only that she doesn’t pay a lot of attention to her appearance. But what’s this: “Clara Morrow [. . .] thought about raising the dead, which she planned to do right after supper”.  What’s that got to do with hiding eggs for the Easter egg hunt? Penny has thrown a scary mystery element into the midst of a bucolic village festival.  Do I want to continue? You bet I do. I want to find out about raising the dead.

In Julia Spencer-Fleming’s I SHALL NOT WANT, the author begins in the middle of events.

“When she saw the glint of the revolver barrel through the broken glass in the window, Hadley Knox thought, I’m going to die for sixteen bucks an hour. Sixteen bucks an hour, medical, and dental. She dove behind her squad car as the thing went off, a monstrous thunderclap that rolled on and on across green-gold fields of hay. The bullet smacked into the maple tree she had parked under with a meaty thud, showering her in wet, raw splinters.”

Spencer-Fleming has told us quite a lot about Hadley Knox. She’s a cop and doesn’t make much money, although she has benefits. Right now she’s terrified because someone is trying to kill her, and she’s not sure the money is worth the danger. The setting is a country farm in late spring or summer.  We’re in the middle of the story.  Events have already occurred that have brought Hadley Knox to this position. Am I interested in finding out what happened before and what will happen in the future? Probably.

My own first paragraph in my current WIP goes like this:

“The day Captain Bradley disappeared was ordinary—at least it seemed like that to Andi Battaglia when she arrived at the station just before eight that morning. Halloween had come and gone with all its craziness, crazy at least as far as police were concerned. Christmas decorations had arrived in the Burgess Beach stores in mid-October, even earlier than the year before, and with the temperature hovering in the low nineties, Andi was in no mood for holiday cheer.”

What does the reader learn from this? Andi Battaglia is a cop. Someone disappears, and we assume he is Andi’s boss. Andi is feeling a bit grouchy about holidays. It’s November, but because the weather is in the nineties, we know the setting is tropical.  Not nearly as attention getting as Penny’s or Spencer-Fleming’s beginnings. Something to work on, so that hypothetical reader will choose Carole Sojka’s book when browsing.

This was an interesting exercise for me. Have you tried it with your own WIP?

THE JOYS (?) OF EDITING

DSC_0196            You’re probably wondering why I have a question mark after “Joys” in the title of this blog. And if you’re a writer, you know that editing is not a joy. It’s a painful slog through verbiage which seemed well-expressed and literate when you first put it on the page, but which, when you review what you’ve written with a view to just making it a little clearer, more literate, a better expression of what you wanted to say, has become idiotic, banal, and thoroughly uninteresting.  Not to mention inexplicable.

That’s where I am now. I’m editing the third novel in my series set in Burgess Beach, Florida, featuring Detectives Andi Battaglia and Greg Lamont.  It’s called REASONS TO DISAPPEAR, and the mystery concerns the disappearance of Captain Bradley, Andi and Greg’s boss, and their efforts to find him.  It seemed like a good idea at the time I conceived it, and it’s still a good idea. The problem is that although I know why he disappeared, I need to give him more motivation to do that. Duh!

Because I am a pantser and write without knowing the plot but simply start with an idea—Captain Bradley disappears—when I go back to edit the material, I often find I have insufficient motivation on the part of one or more characters. Not just insufficient motivation but perhaps incredible motivation: Why would he do that?

So that’s why the editing. Now if I were plotter I would know what had happened and why in advance before I even started writing. But then of course I couldn’t surprise myself with the answer to the question of why Captain Bradley disappeared or what’s going to happen to him. And I really like to be surprised, in my writing as well as my reading. I don’t like to read mysteries where I know the guilty party too early on. Spoils the surprise! And so I like to surprise myself, too, in my writing.

At a presentation I attended at a local bookstore, a panel of writers talked about how they worked and whether they knew what was coming in their books. One of the authors was a television writer who was used to writing tight scripts where everything—plot, characters, ending— was known in advance. The other two writers were pantsers who didn’t know what was coming next. One of the panelists confessed that she had had to rewrite her entire book because she was deeply dissatisfied with the person she had appointed as the murderer. He just wasn’t the right person. So, she went back, rewrote the book, and added a character, one she was confident was indeed the murderer. And was happy with the result.

I guess it would be easier for me if I had all the plot lines figured out in advance. Then I wouldn’t be stuck with not knowing who the murderer is and why. However, I’m afraid that’s the way I write. So I edit a lot and figure out why the characters behave as they do. Then I edit again. Then, again. Again and again. Finally, I’m done.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

DSC_0196Christmas is almost here, and as usual, I’m not sure I’ll be ready in time. I never seem to start early enough. In a cartoon strip called “Drabble”, there’s a woman, the mother of the title character, who always finishes all her Christmas shopping by August. I don’t want to be that early, but it would be better if I weren’t still shopping on December 22nd. Now’s the time for gift cards!

But what I’m thinking about now is the coming year and making New Year’s resolutions. There’s no real reason to start doing things differently just because it’s the beginning of the year. One can start that any time, but this is what we do: a clean sweep, a new start. Giving up things that aren’t good for us and doing things that are: this is the New Year’s tradition.

The ancient Babylonians are said to have been the first people to make New Year’s resolutions, although the year for them didn’t begin in January but in mid-March when the crops were planted. In ancient Rome, Julious Caesar changed the calendar in 46 B.C. and established January 1st as the beginning of the New Year. Named for Janus, the two-faced god who looked back into the previous year and ahead into the future, it was a time to offer sacrifices to the god and make promises of good conduct.

An early Christian tradition looked back on past mistakes and resolved to do better on the last day of the old year or the first day of the new. So, I’ve made a few resolutions for 2018. My first is to spend more time writing. I’ve gotten lazy about putting in time on the keyboard, and my latest book has taken nearly two years to complete and is still in the editing stage.

It’s called REASONS TO DISAPPEAR and is the third in my Andi Battaglia-Greg Lamont mystery series. In it, Captain Bradley, the hard-driving and apparently upright boss of the Burgess Beach Police Department, suddenly disappears along with a lot of city money. It’s up to Andi and Greg to discover the Captain’s secrets and then find out who is murdering people with ties to him. I had hoped to have it done to publish in January, but . . . .  Hence, New Year’s Resolution No. 1.

Resolution No. 2 is to work harder on my blog on Ladies of Mystery, which you are reading right now. I have even missed a couple of months because I was away and didn’t get them done on time.

Resolution No. 3 is to make more efforts at self-publicizing myself and my books, not sitting around waiting to be discovered. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I am, unfortunately, not the author of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, a book which suddenly (apparently) catapulted to number one on the best seller list. My first self-publicizing venture will be a podcast with Laura Brennan, Vice President of Sister in Crime/LA. I’ll be talking about my writing journey beginning late in life. I’ll keep you posted.

There you have it. A New Year and a New Me! How about you? Do you have New Year’s Resolutions to make and keep?

 

WHODUNIT?

I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries lately, perhaps to unstick myself from where I am stuck in my own book. I read to find the solutions other writers have come up with in their books. When the soluton is revealed and I find out who the murderer is or why the murderer did what he or she did, is it satisfactory? Does it leave me with a feeling that although I was mystified, I am now satisfied by the answer. Those mysteries are a pleasure.

Sometimes, though, I think that the writer doesn’t play fair or comes up with a solution that doesn’t make sense. The solution may be a great surprise, but it leaves the reader feeling cheated.

Sometimes writers do the “Hercule Poirot” ending where the detective or amateur sleuth gathers all the suspects together and accuses each character in turn of committing the murder, lays out the reasons why they did so, and then exonerates each one until he gets to the real murderer. That was good for Agatha Christie, who may have been the first to use it, but it get tedious when it continues to be used. Perhaps everyone has a reason to kill the victim, but not everyone is capable of murder or has a reason serious enough to kill.

That’s an other thing: the reason to kill must be serious. The killer must not only be capable of murder but must also have a really good reason to do so. Revenge for a terrible injury or protecting an important secret or shielding a loved one,. yes. Revenge for a social slight or insult, no. Revenge must be for something really serious.

I like an ending where the sleuth suddenly realizes who the murderer must be and pursues him or her to a satisfying climax, preferably with a chase or confrontation scene. That’s only my preference, of course. Obviously, not all mysteries should be alike. I’ve read many satisfactory mysteries where the murderer is known by the reader from the start, but the story is about the pursuit of the murderer by the sleuth or the sleuth’s realization of who the murderer must be. Or even, although this isn’t my favorite, a story told from the murder’s point of view as he or she escapes from the detective. In that kind of mystery, I find myself rooting for the murderer, and that’s kind of uncomfortable.

Anyway, the sticking point in the novel I am currently writing, the problem which is driving me to read one mystery after another in an attempt to forget my problem or, with luck, solve it, is the discovery early on of a safe deposit full of very expensive jewelry. The novel is the third in my Burgess Beach, Florida, series, featuring detective Andi Battaglia and her partner, Greg Lamont. It’s called REASONS TO DISAPPEAR, and the story concerns their captain, the man who ran the Burgess Beach Police Department, a real stickler for rules and regulations, who has disappeared, taking with him a lot of the city”s money and leaving behind the safety deposit full of jewelry. Is it solen? If so, from whom? By whom? How did the captain get hold of it? Why didn’t he take it with him when he left? What, if anything, does it mean?

I am inclined to trust my writing subconscious, which often causes me to put something in as I’m writing that I’m not sure I know the meaning of. This safe deposit box full of jewelry may be one of those things. Who does it belong to? Was it stolen? How did it get to the Captain’;s safe deposit box? Why is the Las Vegas mob interested in the jewelry? I hope my subconscious knows the answer and will reveal it to me soon.

CHARACTER ARC

The main character in any story needs to transform in some way or the story doesn’t go anywhere. If the main character remains the same throughout, there isn’t any story.

The narrative tells the story of how the main character grows or changes. But the character may not develop or change but remain even more intensely the same, that is, recommitted to the way he or she is at the beginning of the story. This is harder to write than a story in which there is clear character growth or change.

In a clear character arc, the narrative is the story of the change to the main character. Ths may happen through experience, the learning of new skills or simply through the passage of time. The character starts out in one way, and throughout the story, he grows and changes. The narrative arc of the story is that of the main character’s growth, however it is accomplished.]

But in some stories, there seems to be no change in the character, no character arc. The main character remains who he or she was at the beginning throughout the story. But, when you read the story carefully, you see that there is character movement. The character does not perceptibly change, but becomes even more steadfastly what he was at the outset.

A class I was in read a novella by Cynthia Ozick called THE SHAWL It’s the heartbreaking story of a woman in a concentration camp who has only the shawl which held her now-dead baby and its smell as a memory. The class members, as I remember, argued with the teacher that there was no discernable character arc in the novella, that she had not changed from beginning to end, and that this was a flaw, but as we talked, we saw that the essence of the story was the protagonist’s steadfast memory of her child and her commitment to that memory.

My novel PSYCHIC DAMAGE is a story of growth and change. In that story, Eva Stuart, addicted to allowing advice from psychics to guide her life and unable or unwilling to make decisions on her own, learns to be strong and independent, to make decisions and even to rescue her partner when he is kidnapped. Her character arc is clear.

This is more difficult to do in a series because the changes are often incremental and not as striking as they would be in a standalone novel. Still, within each story in a series, the protagonist, who doesn’t start out being perfect, gains new knowledge and becomes more adept at what he or she does.

For example, in the first book in my Florida series, A REASON TO KILL, the protagonist, Andi Battaglia, new on her job as a detective, learns through her work on the case to question suspects, evaluate informations for its truth or falsity and determine the solution to the murder. In the second book in the series, SO MANY REASONS TO DIE, Andi defies her supervisior in the hunt for the murderer, ending up suspended from duty but solving the murder.

How do those of you who write series create the incremental changes that contribute to the growth of your character? Do you find it difficult to do and do you plan those changes ahead or do they occur as the novel progresses?