Who? When?

by Janis Patterson

If there’s one thing in the writing world you learn very quickly it’s that no matter what you do you cannot please everyone. Sometimes it seems almost impossible to please anyone! Another thing you learn is that the ‘rules’ change almost as quickly as the weather.

Well, I don’t believe in ‘rules’ – other than the hard and fast ones like good grammar and spelling and a cohesive, interesting book, of course. What I dislike are the God-like pronouncements of how a story should be structured. Such as in romance, for example, say you have to have a ‘cute meet’ between the hero and heroine in the first three pages or (in certain kinds of romance) a hot sexual encounter no later than the second chapter. A corollary in mystery is that the body has to appear early in the book – ideally in the first three pages.

Well, being by nature a dedicated contrarian, I find such ‘rules’ to be inimical to the integrity of a story. They smack of ‘writing by pattern’ and while each genre has certain expectations like as a happy ending and justice done such arbitrary ‘rules’ are the antithesis of creativity… and all too often good storytelling.

That said, I have written – sometimes at the ‘behest’ (i.e., orders) of a publisher or out of pure mischief –  some stories that follow these ‘rules’ and some which most delightfully turned them on their heads. One example is a Regency Romance (written as Janis Susan May) where the hero and heroine, though lovers a decade or so before, do not meet in the here-and-now present of the novel until the last chapter. This particular book has won a couple of awards… and been used as an example of how not to write a romance.

On a different note, I once wrote a mystery where the body appeared as demanded in the second or third paragraph, and that was a very hard book to write. Murder is by definition a violent crime, no matter how delicately it is committed, and one should feel outraged that someone – anyone – should have their life taken from them. However, there is almost a prerequisite that to feel sympathy for a character you have to know them, and that’s almost impossible when said character first appears as a lifeless lump on someone’s rug.

How do you create empathy for a character about whom no one knows anything and feels less? This victim, this human, this person, is perforce little more than a stage prop who elicits very little feeling or sympathy. I gave him a name, simply because it was more convenient than calling him ‘the body’ or ‘the decedent’ or ‘the dead guy,’ but although he had the requisite number of arms and legs he never really became a real person – merely a humanoid construct.

I have been dinged and called down because in my mysteries (save that one) the murder doesn’t happen until one-third or one-half through the book. I feel by giving the reader such a delay it creates two mysteries instead of one. The first is, who is going to be murdered? while the second is, who is going to be the murder?

When I write a murder I want the reader to be outraged at the deliberate taking of a human life, no matter how much that person deserved to be offed – and believe me, in my mysteries there are several characters who deserve it. Don’t know why bad people are so interesting, but they are, so I always have several of them… just like in real life.

A murder victim – whether in a book or in real life – deserves to be more than a stage prop.

Seeing the Bones

By Janis Patterson

No, this isn’t a forensic column, at least not in the physical way. No bones, no blood, no autopsies, no dead bodies. Instead I’m talking about the skeleton (again a bone reference, sorry -) of your story.

Not long ago a dear writer friend of mine and I were talking (while sitting out under a leafy tree, eating ice cream – lovely!) about writing technique. She was telling about a conversation she had had with another writer about the skills needed to construct a good, sound, readable story. She used a story she had read for an example. It was a good story (I had read it too) but it lacked something. There was a ‘mechanical-ness’ about it. You could almost hear the writer thinking, “Have I put enough emotion here?” “I should put more description here.” “Got to watch my beats and pacing.” “What is the proportion of dialogue to narrative?”

It was, she said, like looking at a hand performing a graceful motion, but instead of seeing the skin, you saw the working of the bones through the skin.

And I don’t care how carefully the story is crafted, that is bad writing.

A story (short, novella or full novel) should take the reader away, give them a different reality that is totally believable within its own framework – not a look at how the story is created. It would be like being taken for a ride in a luxurious car, but with every action a mechanical voice announces “turning steering wheel 90 degrees to the right, now turning steering wheel 90 degrees to the left to get back to straight progress” or “applying 10% brakes to slow down for approaching crosswalk” or some such nonsense. It would take all the pleasure out of the drive.

Every action and reaction in a book should happen because it is dictated by the needs of the story – the action and the characters – not because of some esoteric road map of plot shape, beats, pacing, dialogue/narration proportions and other underlying necessities of construction. Readers should see the story as a cohesive whole, unbothered by the mechanics.

The reader should see only the gesture, not the bones beneath.

Where? When?

by Janis Patterson

It is one of the so-called pieces of wisdom in mystery-land the body should appear as quickly as possible, just as in some parts of romance-land the hero and heroine have sex almost immediately after they meet. I’ve even read some stories where they end up in bed before they’ve been introduced!

Haven’t these writers ever heard the phrase “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey”?

This isn’t a new rant of mine – you’ve probably heard it in one form or another before, but I believe it bears repeating, especially in mystery-land. Murder is a terrible crime. It permanently alters everyone even remotely touched by it. It should not be treated as an hors d’oeuvre.

Back when I was traditionally publishing I allowed the house editor to convince me (convince, as in “We won’t publish your book if you don’t!”) to bring on the body as early as possible in the first chapter. I wanted to be published by this particular house, so always an over-achiever I put the discovery of the body on the second page, and it was a grand disservice both to the poor thing and to the story. The victim had no history, no backstory, no personality, and there was no emotion, no sense of loss in his passing. In other words, he was nothing but a stage prop. (“Hey, Fred, put the body down stage left!”) Even a villain – which he was – deserves a more fitting end than that.

Of course, we had learned something about him by the end of the book because to solve a murder you must know why someone would want to kill him, but it was dry and anticlimactic – nothing but tags that eventually pointed the way to his killer.

I am a whole-story kind of person. I believe that to feel the kind of outrage that murder should engender we have to know the people involved in the tale so that when there is a murder we feel a sense of loss, of outrage (even if the character deserved his ignominious and premature death) and a sense of satisfaction when the murderer is finally run to earth and justice is served.

Not everyone agrees with me. I have been severely dinged and chastised for having the murder occur close to the middle of one of my mysteries. It’s a good story, it has a large cast of characters (three of whom are killed) and it is a complex story, with the solution inextricably interwoven with the dynamics among the characters. But apparently that’s not fast enough to be acceptable for some readers. Neither, I hasten to add, was the setting – a scholarly Egyptological conference without a tea shop, a B&B or knitting store in sight. One correspondent was particularly incensed that the entire conference did not shut down in order to bring the murderer to justice. I don’t understand that; yes, everyone is somehow altered when murder enters their sphere, but unless they are close to the crime or the victim few change their entire focus. Most of us would probably cling desperately to what is normal in an effort to bring stability back – unless, of course, the murder affects them personally, which changes everything.

As I’ve said before, murder is an horrific crime. Both it and its victim need to be treated with a certain respect and dignity. To cheapen death is to cheapen life.