I’m in a quandary. There are too many begun but unfinished writing projects on my computer. The ideas are there to start a story, or maybe to paint several scenes, but the plot is always elusive to nonexistent.
When starting a story, I probably have a picture of the opening scene, or perhaps I have the ending clear in my mind. Might even have a few interesting characters worked up. The problem is what to do to the characters to whip them from Point A to Point Z, without them knowing they’re being pushed and without the reader thinking the story is contrived and manipulated. Of course it’s manipulated. That’s the writer’s job, isn’t it? Just as an editor’s hand is supposed to be invisible, just so the writer’s controlling the direction of the characters on their various journeys.
For the readers, character actions should flow from the character’s personality and circumstances. If the writer wants the character to go to the right but the character decides to go to the left, let him/her/it go in their “natural” direction. Force the character and the reader will know. This happens, you know. Characters want to make their own decisions, do their own “thang,” get into and out of trouble by their own efforts. The writer? Nah. Shouldn’t be involved, at least obviously.
I remember one story, The Embezzler Didn’t, in which I had all the characters set up, had them all at one another’s throats and all their schemes ready to go… but I had no plot beyond that point. What did I do? You’ll love this. I threw an earthquake at them and destroyed their town. The company that the characters worked in was revitalized by all the work that came in as a result of the quake, and the characters’ nefarious plots all had to be postponed while their fortunes improved.
Basically, I shook myself up as well as the story’s environment. I had to take the story on an entirely new tack. It worked out quite nicely. I think it’s one of my best books.
On June 10, 2017 I gave a two-hour talk on mystery writing at the Burke County Library in Morganton, NC. The crowd (sic) was small but intense. There were a few good question during the course of the morning, but not as many as I would have liked.
How would I characterize the group? There were nine attendees, only one of whom was male and he was a writer wannabee’s husband along for the ride. I learned later that he was an avid reader. Of the others, one was a retired professional journalist, three had good ideas for books they wanted to write but hadn’t started working on, and the others… well, let’s just say that they were more educated readers by the end of the gig. In other words, I’d say it was a typical small town group. Book sales were good at the end.
Yesterday (June 17) I did a “reading” at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, NC. You’d think that attendance would be light in a tiny mountain town in the middle of nowhere. The shop did a good job of advertising the event though, and we had a dozen people, some of whom drove over from neighboring counties.
My “readings” are always more than merely standing at a podium and droning on from my books. I’d rather talk about approaches & methods for writers. How I do it is by starting with opening sentences from a book or two. I want to show the folks that the initial trick is to hook the reader. Most of my novels begin with the discovery of a body or watching as a crime unfolds. Other writers have advised to begin your story by dropping a body through the skylight onto the dinner table. (I love that!)
Opening with a crime usually starts discussion in the audience. Good questions begin to flow. I can then get into the meat of a presentation.
Typical questions are:
- Where do you get ideas? Answer: they’re all around you. Just look.
- How did you get interested in genealogy? Answer: I was doing family research and decided that a genealogist is really a detective digging up historical facts. Thus, my serial character Ben Bones, Articulator of Family Skeletons, was born.
- How long should a story be? Answer: I quote the Red King from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
- What about research? Answer: Ah, this is one of my favorite topics. I tell about catching other writers in factual errors, and I admit to being caught myself by an observant reader. That mistake cost me financially because I had to dump the books I had on hand and buy revised editions. Live and learn.
And that’s how my two recent gigs went. I love standing in front of a group and spouting my “wisdom” (let’s call it my opinions). Contact me any time. I’m willing to travel and am currently trying to spread myself around. Hey, that’s what Grisham did. It worked for him.
The next appearance on my schedule is too far in the future. I’ll be presenting on writing at the Haywood County Library in Waynesville, NC on August 15, 2017. Check their website for details.
This past Saturday, I presented on mystery writing at the Burke County Library in Morganton, NC. It felt great to be standing in front of a group sharing what I know and (hopefully) inspiring the incipient writers in the group to get started with pen, pencil or computer in hand and Roget’s Thesaurus (no, not a dinosaur) close by.
Remember Mark Twain’s famous quote: The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
So all you writer wannabees out there, settle your butts into comfortable chairs and start cranking it out.
My apologies, folks. I haven’t been writing on this blog for 2.5 years. All I can say is that I’ve been busy and heavily involved in the Asheville writing scene.
I’ve been busy writing (though not on Cryogens, Ben Bones & The Twin Pistols or Ben Bones & The Uncivil War). Instead, I’ve written Holy Heists, The Embezzler Didn’t and I’ve put a bunch of my short pieces together into an anthology entitled Bloody-Minded Fictions. I edit a monthly newsletter for my local Mensa group (French Broad Mensa), and I’ve been doing writing workshops and readings here and there, and running WNCMysterians.org, my mystery/suspense/thriller writers’ critique group in Asheville, NC.
As you can see, I haven’t been sitting around contemplating the state of the universe and my minimal place in it.
I tell you what… If you’ll check back weekly, I’ll write blog posts weekly. What day? I dunno yet. But I’ll put in in my datebook and I’ll get on it. Hey, it gives me a chance to air my philosophies and misc thoughts. Another platform to parade my B.S. (no, that’s not a college degree). Check back in.
I’ve been postponing working on this book for several years. I’ve used all sorts of techniques, including working on other Ben Bones adventures and cranking out several other books and lots of short stories. But suddenly this past week, some of the unsolved plot issues have become clear to me.
The Ben Bones stories all begin in a historical event. Ben is called in to solve a conundrum in the present that was caused by that long ago event. And each book is built around a greatly detailed fictional family genealogy that I build to support the story and establish the present day relationships between the characters.
In Ben Bones & The Uncivil War, the precipitating event is the Civil War, the War Between the States. The featured family is split by two brothers who go to fight on opposite sides. I’ve known about this conflict for several years, from the time I first wanted to do this story. I knew how the brothers acted in battle, and I knew that a descendant of the Federal soldier returns to Dublin, Virginia to reconnect with the original family on its home ground. Needless to say, it couldn’t go well.
The other morning I awoke with new knowledge about what happens to the returning descendant and the family members who still live on the ancestral farm. The lights are finally on and I’m home. I can now write the story. Ideas are flowing and the words rush to the keyboard from my fingertips. It’s a great feeling. Another Ben Bones adventure (misadventure?) is a’borning… creeping in the night…
Ben Bones & The Conventional Murders proofing is done (again) and I’ve ordered a second proof from CreateSpace. It’s been a slog, but I have confidence in the story, the quality of the writing, my writer’s “voice.” It’s a good little book. You see, it all begins when Ben goes to Asheville, North Carolina to attend a genealogical convention. He’s planning a relaxed weekend with professional colleagues, but the bodies begin to pile up. Why? Is it the $100,000 book contract that’s up for grabs? The bastardy bond problem soon after the Civil War and Emancipation? Professional jealousies? Sheer cussedness? You’ll have to read the book to find out. It’s available as a physical book and on Kindle.
And now, I’m digging into the re-plotting of Ben Bones & The Uncivil War. This one deals with wartime betrayal and two brothers who decide to fight on opposite sides. But that’s only where the story begins. Ben Bones lives in the present, and it’s here and now that he has to deal with the ramifications of the betrayal, people’s jealousies, and a war that some people simply refuse to let go of.
Meanwhile, I’ve discovered issues at benbones.com. Looks like I have to rebuild the website. OMG, indeed! There’s never an end to all this, is there?
I wanted to write a NaNoWriMo this year (2014) and began with great enthusiasm using an old science fiction idea from 1972. Unfortunately, I bogged down on Nov 7 at approx. 9100 words with a great idea, a handful of unlikely characters in similar but varied troubles, and a static situation… but I didn’t have a plot.
I flailed around for a few days, adding a few words here and there, changing others, but not making any forward progress. When I was a week behind the word quota of almost 12,000, I gave up the idea of doing the story as a NaNoWriMo project. Instead, I dove into the libraries, my own writing library and the public libraries, and read everything I could find on plot and plotting. The bottom line: plot derives from conflict. I had no conflict. What to do? What to do? (Wring hands here.)
Today is Nov 26. I awoke at 4am this morning knowing what the story is about. It’s essentially a dystopian escape story: people trapped in the future (I already knew that), some 400+ years in the future, on an island created by sea level rise, the remnants of civilization in desperate straits, populations depleted and demoralized by disease, pollution, resource wars… and those in control are afraid that the cyrogens’ ideas will cause revolution. They are kept isolated from the world on their island. What they do about their situation is the story I can now dig into and begin to write.
The characters will remain, but the situation has evolved now that I know they are on an island. I need a protagonist, though he/she won’t have a square jaw and wear a white hat. He/she is a victim like the rest, but will be the leader who changes the situation for all. I’m off to the races. The slog now begins. This is the writing process & how it works.