Tag Archives: structure

Writing Mysteries

This month I read two awesome mysteries, Mary Miley’s The Impersonator, and Kristen Kittscher’s The Wig in the Window, and found myself in awe of both authors’ mastery of plot. I imagine mysteries to be a tough genre to write, but what do I know? So I asked Mary and Kristen how they went about plotting their stories.

The Impersonator is set during Prohibition (the Roaring Twenties) and geared toward adult readers, and The Wig in the Window is contemporary and written for young readers. As each plot unfolded, I noticed similarities in the structure of these novels, so I just had to know…

A.B. Westrick: Did you outline the book before you began writing? How necessary is an outline when writing a mystery?

Mary Miley: I don’t outline in the high school sense (with Roman numerals and numbers and capital letters), but I am highly organized and I list my chapters or events in order, then decide when and how to work in the subplots before I start writing. As I go along, I make changes, of course, but I’m guided toward an end.

For mysteries, plot rules. Of course, characters are critical too, but the plot is what mystery readers are buying, and it needs to be intricate or surprising or challenging and complicated to succeed. A mystery writer, I think, needs to know the ending or the critical unexpected element before he/she even knows the beginning. For example, in the fourth of my Roaring Twenties series, which I am writing now, I knew the “trick” before I knew anything else—I knew the unusual way the murderer was going to kill his victim and how Jessie would know—and the police wouldn’t—who did it. I had nothing else for plot, just that. I am now in the process of constructing a plot around that critical element.

Kristen Kittscher: I didn’t outline The Wig in the Window up front but instead charged ahead blindly. I made a mess of things, took ages, then wrote an outline after the fact that helped me shape the story. I’ve taken the opposite approach with the sequel because I do think that outlining saves a great deal of headache (and heartache?), even if the story ends up deviating from the original outline. The ripple effect when you try to revise a mystery is extreme; with so many set-ups and pay-offs, it’s easy to get yourself in a tangle! Without some careful advance planning, you can end up with some elements that are almost impossible to change without rewriting the whole book.

ABW: Okay, so plot rules and outlines help. You’ve confirmed my assumptions! A similarity that I noticed in your plot structures was that in both, the protagonist reaches a low point (fairly close to the end) where she’s sure that her efforts have been for naught. To what extent do you consider this down-in-the-dumps moment to be integral to the plot of a mystery? Do you know of any mysteries that do not structure the plot this way?

KK: Interesting question. I can’t think of any that don’t! However, I’m having trouble thinking of any story that doesn’t have that low point feeling, even in less plot-driven books. Perhaps that low point is essential to show a character changing and growing?

MM: It’s always effective for the reader to think things are hopeless for the protagonist. Make his life impossible, then let him figure out the final solution. Most mysteries, from James Bond to Nancy Drew, follow this pattern. In The Impersonator, Jessie reaches a low point after she’s figured out that the murderer is tied to bootlegging, and it doesn’t do her any good for two reasons. One, she can’t go to the police because during Prohibition, the cops were in cahoots with the crooks. Two, in her case, it’s a standoff—the murderer knows she isn’t the heiress because he killed the heiress. But he can’t turn her in for impersonating the heiress or he’ll hang for murder; she can’t turn him in or she’ll go to prison for fraud. So things get worse for Jessie. For me, that stand-off is the critical part of the book. The Impersonator isn’t a typical who-done-it, but rather a we-know-who-did-it-but-that-doesn’t-solve-the-problem book.

ABW: You’re reminding me why I wanted to feature these two books in the same blog post. The Wig in the Window would also fit the description, “we-think-we-know-who-did-it-but-that-doesn’t-solve-the-problem”! Now, let me ask about characters. In both of your books, a highly curious character sets out in search of evidence to explain something odd that she’s observed. This characteristic—curiosity—strikes me as the fundamental trait for the protagonist in a mystery. Do you agree? Disagree? In your writing process, which came first—the character(s) or the plot?

Kristen Kittscher

Kristen Kittscher

KK: I absolutely agree. Though I never set out intentionally to create curious characters, their relentless drive to discover more truths is what keeps the mystery’s pages turning. The characters came first for me. My first draft was an episodic collection of hijinks between two friends. I didn’t even understand I was writing a mystery, believe it or not. I thought that because I could write passable dialogue and some nice sentences, I could tell a story. I was very mistaken! Eventually, with a lot of help and feedback, I learned some story structure basics and carved out a plot.

MM: You may be right about curiosity, Anne, but I never thought of Jessie, my protagonist, as especially driven by curiosity. A lifetime spent on the vaudeville stage made her highly alert to nuance and expert at reading other people (the audience, the other performers on stage) because that was critical to her success. And success meant eating. The 1920s was an era when there was nothing even close to welfare, government assistance, or food stamps—you worked or you starved. At her lowest point, Jessie was completely without stage prospects and realized her only other option was prostitution. So she joined up with a swindler and become part of a scam to impersonate a missing heiress. Her sensitivity to people (she’s almost psychic) and her ability to get inside the heads of others gave her an edge in solving crimes. She noticed things that the police didn’t. More than curious, I thought of her as tenacious.

ABW: Good point, Mary. The characters in The Wig in the Window are tenacious, too. And both books are real page-turners. While writing, how conscious were you of the need to raise the stakes? How much of the novel’s tension was present in the first draft, and how much was added during the revision process? (How different is the final, published version from the manuscript that your editor first saw and on which you got your initial contract?)

KK: Thank you for calling it a page-turner! The final, published version is not drastically different from the manuscript my editor first saw. However, my very first draft and the one I ultimately submitted to my editor are barely recognizable! The Wig in the Window is my debut novel, and while writing, I was learning how to tell a story, so I was very conscious of the need to raise the stakes, create tension, and try to eliminate excess. It’s still a little bit more meandering and complicated than I would’ve liked, but there were limits to what I could do in revisions without pulling it all apart entirely. I’m still happy with it, of course—but that’s why I’m now an outlining evangelist!

Mary Miley

Mary Miley

MM: I never track the number of revisions I’ve made; it would be impossible, there are so many. For The Impersonator, at least 50. Maybe some writers can say that their first draft is great, but I can’t say that. I re-write and re-write and re-write before I even submit to my critique groups, and then I re-write some more after their input. I learn by revising. By the time my St. Martin’s editor saw (and loved) the manuscript for The Impersonator, there wasn’t much she wanted changed, and I accomplished her requested revisions in a couple days.

ABW: It’s helpful to hear how much revision happened before you showed your manuscripts to your editors.

MM: Absolutely. Revision is something all writers must do, and when I hear some complain about it, I cringe. When a critique group or an agent or editor says changes are needed, it’s because they want the book to be better. I once knew an agent who told me she had a client whose manuscript she managed to sell for a decent amount, and when that publisher requested certain changes in the manuscript, the author turned huffy and refused to make them. He thought his work was perfect as it was. The publisher, of course, backed out of the agreement and the agent dropped the client, and I can almost guarantee that he never sold his work anywhere with that attitude. Publishers and agents are on the writer’s side! In almost every case, their changes will improve the book.

ABW: Are both of you big readers of mysteries? What authors and/or books would you recommend for writers who want to pen a mystery?

KK: I’m a big reader of mysteries! I’m embarrassed to say that I never noticed what a mystery fan I was until after I wrote a mystery myself, but I do read voraciously in the genre. I’m a big fan of Kate Atkinson (Case Histories) and Tana French (In the Woods), as well as Scottish crime novelist Denise Mina. I like mysteries with richly developed characters—and I’m willing to sacrifice pacing to get them!

Kids’ mysteries I love include the Kiki Strike series by Kirsten Miller, about butt-kicking delinquent Girl Scout/detectives fighting crime in the underground tunnels of New York City, as well as the classics The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg.

There are a lot of great resources for mystery writers: How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James Frey has a silly title but great tips. Now Write! Mysteries, edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson, has some outstanding exercises.

MM: I’ve loved mysteries since I discovered Nancy Drew at age eight. Back in the 1950s those books cost $2 each. I’d get one for my birthday and one for Christmas—the libraries didn’t carry them because they were “trash”—and I’d finish them in a couple hours. I pined for more, but there was no place to get them. So the best day of my young life was when an older neighbor girl went off to college and cleaned out her room, sending a couple dozen Nancy Drews across the street to my house. It’s a wonder I didn’t die of happiness. I still have them on the top shelf.

I graduated from Nancy Drew to James Bond (not the movies—the books), Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Sherlock Holmes, Dasheill Hammett, Laurie King, and Mary Roberts Rinehart. By and large, I prefer historical mysteries to contemporary (no surprise, as I am a historian) and like the more traditional mystery formula, not insipid “cozies” or extremely violent, bloody horrors. And as a mother, I simply cannot read any book about the killing of a child. I just can’t do it.

ABW: Any last words of advice for aspiring mystery-writers?

MM: Nope. Just good luck!!

KK: Having advice to give implies I know what I’m doing! I don’t have specific mystery advice, but I will offer some cheerleading: do not waste time worrying about whether you have talent or whether your writing is going somewhere. It will soon enough!

ABW: Thank you, Kristen and Mary! Your answers here have made me marvel at the many ways books affect us as readers. And let me just add that I hope the emphasis on revision doesn’t scare away any aspiring writers. Yes, revision is tough, but the pay-off (publication) is very sweet, indeed!

The desire for a glass of water

Last month, a friend entrusted me with the privilege of skimming and commenting on her draft of a novel. Her writing was excellent, the setting unique, and the characters engaging, but there was something not quite right. I paced around my room, tracing the edge of a braided blue rug, mulling over the disconnect, and eventually got to thinking that the protagonist’s desire was not in alignment with the trajectory of the story. The novel drifted like an untethered canoe—one floating past the dock, just beyond reach.

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut

As novelists, we learn to figure out what our characters want and send them in search of their desires. We’ve all heard what Kurt Vonnegut had to say on this topic during an interview posted in the spring 1977 issue of The Paris Review: “When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”

But how dull, right? A glass of water. And what if the character desires something immaterial, such as acceptance or a sense of belonging? It’s hard to communicate ethereal desires in an opening scene and hook the reader there. A novel has to build to them. I suspect Vonnegut would agree, but I think he’d tell writers to give a protagonist an interim motive—something to strive for en route to the climax. Something concrete like thirst. All desires (immaterial or otherwise) lead characters to take action in a world experienced through the senses—taste, touch, sight, sound and smell. Characters do stuff (they’re boring if all they do is sit around and think about meaninglessness or feel despair), and readers connect with them when they do stuff. When a writer describes a scene so well that it pulls readers in, inviting them to experience the world in which the character lives, details as seemingly insignificant as a glass of water matter.

My friend crafted unique and endearing characters and set them in a story that holds tremendous promise. Now her protagonist needs to want that glass of water that is… look… over there… in that glass tumbler on the windowsill… the one with the ribbon of yellow-green pollen dust at the base where the condensation has pooled… the one just out of reach… just past the edge of the bunched-up rug she’ll have to step over when she wants a sip, but she’s not looking down and her heel is going to get caught, and… uh-oh.

Many thanks to The Paris Review for posting the entire 1977 interview with Vonnegut.

Many thanks to The Paris Review for posting the entire 1977 interview with Vonnegut.

On Plots

Plots. So hard to conceive. So necessary to craft well. You’ll often hear writers talk about the struggle to tease the plot out of the characters, but when I asked YA author Megan Shepherd about her process, she reflected more on the joy than the struggle. She wrote:

The Madman's Daughter“One of the trickiest parts of writing for me is also one of the most fun: plot twists. I adore books with surprising twists in them, and so I always try to add unexpected turns in my own. However, it’s a fine balance to plant enough clues so that readers don’t feel cheated when the twist hits them, but not too many so that they guess the twist way in advance. My rule of thumb is to set up a situation where there are two possible outcomes, Outcome A or Outcome B, and you try to make readers guess which one it will be, and then bam! You hit them with Outcome C.”

Okay, that paragraph alone made me want to read Megan’s debut, The Madman’s Daughter, just out from Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. Megan made it sound tricky, but … easy… when I know it’s not at all. I turned to another YA writer, Lenore Applehans, and asked about her plot-process. (Lenore’s debut, Level 2, has just been released from Simon & Schuster.) I wanted to know whether her approach was similar to Megan’s. But do any two writers have the same process? Of course not. Lenore told me:

Level 2“When I got the idea for Level 2, the main plot twists and characters kinda showed up at the same time. I worked hard with my editor to make sure that the plot made sense within the context of character motivations and choices. While I wrote with a minimal outline, I did have a vision for the story—so that everything I wrote was in service of the ultimate character arcs and I didn’t have to go back and cut a lot of filler.  In fact, my first draft was very spare, so revision was about adding instead of subtracting.”

So Megan and Lenore came at their stories from very different angles, but both crafted plots that made sense and didn’t make the reader feel cheated. What I find interesting is the notion that if writers do their jobs well, they become transparent; readers don’t see or feel the writer’s presence on the page. It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? The writer puts in all the work, but in the end, it’s not about the writer. It’s about the story. The characters. The surprising twists. The vicarious experience of another world… And just thinking about it makes me want to curl up in an overstuffed chair with a good book. Okay, I’m done here…

Storytelling à la Pixar

Here is yesterday’s fabulous post from io9.com: The 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar, written by storyboard artist Emma Coats, with an intro from io9 editor Cyriaque Lamar. This hits so many elements of the craft, I’m posting it on the bulletin board over my writing desk. Thank you, Emma, and thank you to io9.com, a daily publication that covers science, science fiction, and the future. You can see the original article here, but in case it disappears from the cloud, I’ve pasted it below. And how fun—in the moment when I took this screen shot, it captured the fact that two of my Facebook friends also gave this article a thumb’s up. Go Clay and Clete!

Storytelling accoring to PixarStorytelling according to Pixarstorytelling according to Pixar

Killing your darlings

It’s kill my darlings time. Major revisions a-comin’. Seasoned writers talk easily about it—the need to delete descriptions, characters and scenes that served a function during an early draft but later detract from the story as a whole. We wish it weren’t so. Wish that the first draft would work just the way it was. Wish the process weren’t so brutal.

A Beautiful MindLast week I enjoyed Ron Howard’s movie A Beautiful Mind for the second time, then viewed the deleted scenes with the commentary turned on. Talk about killing your darlings! Howard reflected on the way each cut enhanced the film’s dramatic tension. Some of the cut scenes were especially touching and well-acted, and some shed light on schizophrenia, the protagonist’s illness. But they slowed the pace, so they went. The movie won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2002.

Dramatic tension. Emotional arc. Pacing. I come back to these elements again and again. From my current work-in-progress, I just slashed an entire section in which a secondary character took center stage. I’m thankful for early-readers who identified problem spots I hadn’t seen. Which darlings will I cut next? Like Howard, I keep them in a “deleted scenes” folder. I fight off the lament—the disappointment—the fear—that I wasted my time writing them in the first place.

Cut & PasteHere’s a snapshot of my cut-and-paste work on one section of the muddy middle. (I use Scrivener, but this revision was hard to picture until I laid it out across a bed.) I have to remind myself that writing those now-deleted scenes was a necessary part of the process. Even Ron Howard develops scenes that end up on the cutting room floor. And he blows a lot more time and money in his process than I do! Somehow I find that comforting. The creative process is nonlinear and sometimes maddening and frustrating and seemingly wasteful, but it is what it is. Either you love the process and accept it, or you’re better off doing something other than writing.

The structure of a novel

In the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Poets & Writers magazine, John Stazinski (page 29) bemoans the tendency of MFA programs to concentrate nearly exclusively on the short story at the expense of the novel because it’s too time-consuming to workshop complete novels. Thank goodness Grub Street is now experimenting with a novel-revision class to fill the gap.

VCFA logoLucky for me, VCFA was not one of those MFA programs. In the first few semesters, there were limits to the number of pages I was allowed to submit for critique/review, but in the final semester, the complete draft of a novel was welcome. It was an intense final semester. My faculty advisor, Kathi Appelt, required multiple re-writes of my novel—never mind line edits. The focus was on structure—on the intersection of the story arc and the emotional arc—on Big Picture elements of the craft.

Now I can’t read a novel without marveling at and dissecting its structure. Of course writers need to learn how to craft engaging characters and settings with mesmerizing descriptive details. But plot matters! A well-conceived story arc is just as necessary as beautiful prose.

Take John Green’s Looking for Alaska, for example. He intentionally deviates from the classic climax-and-denouement structure with brilliant results. Early chapters are labeled “before” and later chapters “after” and the life-changing moment occurs in the middle, leading to a denouement that at first glance appears too long. But no. The climax is not that moment-in-the-middle, but comes when the protagonist realizes he can’t live fully if he remains stuck on life “before Alaska” and “after Alaska.”  The structure Green has given to his novel is the very structure the protagonist is struggling to escape.

Or take Uma Krishnaswami’s delightful The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. Her theme involves life’s coincidences, and she presents the story from the points of view (close-third person in alternating chapters) of one protagonist and multiple secondary characters. Readers glimpse a postal carrier here and a Bollywood movie star there, and in the end, of course, the characters’ lives intersect. But it’s the structure of the novel in multiple POVs that makes the intersection work.

It’s one thing to know the story you want to tell, and another to figure out how best to tell it. Such is my current quandary. Last week I completed the draft of a novel, and I’m now letting it rest so that I can return later with fresh eyes to ask: what structure—what sequence of scenes—will provide maximum dramatic tension for my readers? Right now I’ve got one viewpoint in part one and another in part two. But will alternating the points of view (the way Uma did) serve this story better? Hmm. Thank goodness I have early-level reader-friends willing to critique an entire novel, not simply ten or twenty pages at a time.

Bringing in the back-story

For a few years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as a primary-level reader/judge for James River Writers’ Best Unpublished Novel Contest.  We hold a large, quiet party.  Readers pull blind manuscripts from a pile and stretch out across sofas and chairs to score them while nibbling on sandwiches, sipping coffee… It goes on all day and sometimes more than a day, depending on how many writers enter the contest.

Every year without fail, the manuscripts that don’t score well are those that begin with back-story rather than in scene.  Back-story is the history a writer needs to know to create characters who ring true. But readers only need to know that today, now, in this opening scene, the character feels and wants something. The emotion hooks the reader, giving the author time to supply back-story later.

The challenge is to figure out which details are absolutely necessary for the reader to know, and when and how to bring them in.  Richmond writer Dennis Danvers gave me a great tip in this area:  introduce back-story as the protagonist needs to think about it, or as the past occurs to the protagonist, not as the writer thinks she needs to educate the reader. In other words, back-story is relevant only if it matters to the character.

Early drafts will run heavy with back-story, and so they should.  But in the revision process, as the right structure for a novel emerges, writers who focus on present-action scenes rather than back-story have the greatest potential to hook their readers and keep them turning pages.

The difference between content and process

In mid-March, as I staffed the James River Writers (JRW) table at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, it occurred to me that the JRW Conference differs from the VA Festival in the way an MFA differs from an MA or PhD. The VA Festival is all about books and the JRW Conference, about the craft of writing.  Of course, there’s an overlap.  But it comes down to the difference between content and process, between analyzing literature and writing it.

I particularly enjoyed hearing Kekla Magoon talk about molding historical facts to heighten her protagonist’s struggle in The Rock and the River.  But if Kekla were to speak at the JRW Conference, she might go into more depth about the challenges of the craft.  She might note how she picked up the narrative pace in the fourth chapter by manipulating readers’ sympathies (her policemen characters beat up a boy, then charge the boy with resisting arrest).  She might tell us how she wove setting into plot.  She might talk about scenes added or deleted to enhance the story’s emotional arc.

It’s one thing to have a story to tell, and another to tell it well—to show up at the page every day in order to wrestle with the tense and pace and voice while developing characters and searching for the right structure. It’s one thing to love reading, and another to embrace the art and process of writing.

The VA Festival may not have showered me with tips on craft, but it drenched me in warm fuzzies.  I staffed the JRW table with Meg Medina and caught up with writers who have spoken at the JRW Conference over the years—Clifford Garstang, Charles J. Shields, Bill Glose, Michele Young-Stone, Irene Ziegler.  JRW members Linda Dini Jenkins, Kristi Austin, Beth Rogers and Judy Witt were there, as were conference-regulars Becky Mushko, Stephanie McPherson and Michelle Ehrich.  I saw SCBWI colleagues Ellen Braaf, Kathryn Erskine, Valerie O. Patterson and Anne Marie Pace, and Vermont College alums Kekla Magoon, Tami Lewis Brown, Maha Addasi, Louise Simone and Winifred Conkling. JRW shared a table with Rose Esber, and Lee Knapp sold her fun, grammatically-correct ceramics. I’m already looking forward to VA Festival 2012.