Thursday, January 19, 2017

Opening Lines (2)

I last wrote on opening lines two months ago, but I recently joined a FB group called First Line Monday, where we post the opening sentence or sentences of a book we’re reading or have read. (Or intend to read. No one checks.) This has proved to be more fun than I expected, and I spend a leisurely few minutes pulling books from shelves and rereading first lines. Over the few weeks I’ve been a participant, I’ve become pickier and pickier about what I’m willing to post. There’s a reason for this.

To my surprise, about four out of five books open with the weather, either by describing the season or the day or the promise of the week to come. At the end of this line is a shorter one about someone who’s cranky despite the sunny weather. The sentences are usually well crafted though not arresting in style or vocabulary, and they do promise the style of the story to come.

I’m self-conscious about opening lines right now because I’m trying to come up with a good opening for my current WIP. I have only 15,000 words left to write but I still have to go back and redo the opening. What I have doesn’t seem to work; at least it doesn’t feel right.

Generally, I think there are four broad choices for opening a story. The physical setting (weather, location, time), character description, character in action, and an incident (arrival of a letter, for example, or a looming danger). These are broad categories designed to help me focus on something other than weather, which I didn’t use but seems to pop up no matter when I’m writing a beginning.

There’s no question that getting the first line right is important and can be the hardest part of the novel to write. But a good opening becomes a classic. The American Book Review lists the hundred best opening lines, including the opening of Moby-Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five, The Color Purple, and Paradise. To read the whole list, go here.

Reading these opening lines helps me move past orienting the reader in physical space, and closer to locating the reader in the psychological space of the novel. I want her to feel like she has walked up to a friend or acquaintance and sees what she’s doing, and wonders why. I want the reader to be in the story, not sitting in a seat in a noisy theater waiting for the curtain to rise.

Once I have located my character in her life, I’m reading for inviting the reader in. There are plenty of ways to do this. On her website Bryn Donovan lists, not first lines, but ways to begin a novel. One suggestion is the arrival of a letter. Another is a courtroom scene, which is used in Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. Donovan lists thirty openings, and gives examples for most of them. You can find her website here.

In the seventh Mellingham mystery, Come About for Murder, I open with a funeral. “In his last will and testament, Commodore Charles Jeremiah Winslow, one of the greatest yachting enthusiasts in the history of Mellingham Yacht Club, asked to be wrapped in a mainsail and cremated, with his ashes left to sink into Mellingham Bay. His family argued for six days and six nights over whether or not to comply with his wishes, but when they understood how much money was riding on this, they agreed to do as he wanted.”

This is a story about sailing, and the people who live to be out on the water. And they also clearly have the money to spend as much time as they want sailing along the east coast. To read more, go here.

Crafting a strong opening for a novel is perhaps the hardest writing but also the best. A good opening sets the stage for the story and draws in the reader. We all have our favorite opening lines, and I find myself returning to them when I’m working on my own.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Daily Word Count

I’m almost exactly in the middle of my current WIP, and I know my subconscious has figured out the ending by the change in my daily word count. There are lots of signs that a manuscript is going well, but my changing daily tally seems to be one of the most reliable.

Like most other writers, I set myself a daily goal, usually fifteen hundred words. If I don’t meet this figure, I feel like I’ve been slacking off. But this is a guide, not a requirement. On some days my word count is as low as five hundred, and on other days the number can run up to six thousand.

Any figure over two thousand makes me uncomfortable because I question how good the scenes can be if I’m pushing out such a high word count. I once listened to a writer talk about his daily goal of fourteen thousand words. I wasn’t the only one in the audience who gasped. Was he really this good? Was he really that brave? He went on to explain that he felt he had to get the outlines of the story on paper. He had to see the skeleton lying on the sidewalk, in order to feel he had some control over the plot line. After he got through his first draft, which took him barely a week or two, he went back and worked through each sentence. His process sounded a lot like automatic writing. He just let the words pour out without any thought as to how good they were or whether they made any sense. This is a writer who truly had learned to shut off his inner critic.

I would never attempt to write at such a rate. But when I write only five hundred words in a day I look for a reason. There are several. First, I begin my work for the day by going back over what I’ve written the day before. I’m likely to cut lines, perhaps even an entire scene, or rewrite a crucial passage that I pondered all night. If I cut eight hundred words and add in nine hundred, my net gain is only about a hundred words. And then I write five hundred more. I guess I can say that I’ve met my quota for the day. A second reason is that I come to a passage that requires more research, so I stop to work on that. This may take all morning, leaving me less time to meet my quota, but it may also give me material that will ensure I don’t have to rewrite the passage later. A third reason is that I’m stuck. I don’t know what’s happening in the story and I have to stop and think it through. Frustrating but necessary.

In Come About forMurder, I spent a lot of time reworking the final scenes on the water. On those days my word counts were pretty low, but in the end I was satisfied. I did a lot of rewriting of the short story “Variable Winds,” in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (October 2016), to make sure the technical information was correct and clear in very limited space. Some things just take more time.

I keep a running list of my daily word count, as well as what has happened in each scene, and both tell me if I’m on track. There are times when the daily tally doesn’t matter, but in general this is one simple guide that lets me know if I’m on track, or need to rethink the direction of my WIP.

For this and other work in the Mellingham series and the Anita Ray series, go here.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Closing Out the Year 2016

At the end of every year I look forward to the opportunity to begin afresh. This is fairly typical of Americans, and probably of everyone. We like markers to tell us where something ends and something new begins. We like certainty. We like knowing. But the end of December is an arbitrary date, no matter how we justify it. Every culture finds significance in certain parts of the calendar, and we base our thinking on these artificial dates.

The people of Kerala have three New Years to celebrate and use as markers. Everyone in Kerala celebrates New Year's Eve on December 31. But Hindus also celebrate Vishu, which is the beginning of the harvest year and occurs in the month of Medam, which roughly corresponds with April. Everyone in Kerala celebrates Onam, which falls in the month of Chingam, which corresponds roughly with August/September. This lavish holiday celebrates the return of King Bali from the underworld, who visits to see that his people are happy.

I had expected to write a piece on setting and meeting expectations, and perhaps that is still a good idea. I began the year planning on finishing up certain manuscripts and publishing them, either with my regular publisher, Five Star/Gale, Cengage, or on my own. Some of my goals seemed perhaps too ambitious, but all of them were realistic in that I knew they were doable. I could write a certain number of words per day and complete the mss. But that, as it turns out, is not enough. My goals were tied to those of people I'd never heard of. 
I finished a Mellingham mystery, but on the day I sent it in to Five Star, word came down that Five Star was ending its mystery line. The publisher that had brought into the world two Mellingham mysteries and three Anita Ray mysteries, with another under contract, had decided to move on into another line. I wrote about that here, almost exactly a year ago, January 19, 2016.    
Let me say here and now firmly and clearly that I greatly admire and appreciate the decision by Five Star to honor their contracts. Days after I signed my first book contract, with G. K. Hall in 1985, the new owner, Macmillan, sent out notices to dozens (or more) authors that their contracts were being cancelled. And that practice is the norm. You can imagine the uproar. I'm grateful Five Star/Gale, Cengage didn't do the same. They published When Krishna Calls in August, as promised.

As a result of the change in direction at Five Star, two manuscripts sit almost finished (an Anita Ray mystery and an Anita Ray collection of stories). Why? Because there is little future for a series for which most of the rights are held by the author, who has already exercised them. In a few words, there's not much for someone else to buy. I will finish the mss, but there is no deadline to motivate me.

But there's another reason. I think we have to acknowledge when it's time to move on. I loved visiting Joe Silva and Mellingham, and I have always been passionate about India. The Anita Ray mysteries were a way for me to participate in a culture I have loved and studied throughout my life, but the opportunities for that have shrunk, and I am first and foremost a writer. It's time to move on and write something new. 

So why a photograph of a winter wonderland? As people in cold climates know, winter is a season when the earth prepares for spring. The trees may look dead, but they're not. The land may look desolate, but it's not. Beneath the gray and white are colors and new life waiting to burst forth. 

Over the last year and a half I've been working on a new idea. I don't write fast, certainly not like some of my colleagues, but I have committed myself to a new series that won't be a complete surprise to some who know me. (But it certainly will be to others.)

As we close out this year, which has had its share of surprises, ups and downs, and miseries for many, I hope we all find something better in 2017.

Watch this space. More to come in the New Year.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Useful Sites for Details of Setting

In an interview P.D. James once described consulting an accomplished climber on the details of scaling a particular cliff. She took careful notes, wrote up her description of the ascent, and showed it to her friend. He read it through carefully, nodding at each line, and then laughed out loud at the end. When she asked him what was so funny, he replied, “You’ve gotten all the details of the climb right but you let him make the climb in an hour or so. It’s an eight-hour climb!” Details matter.

Whenever I begin a new story I establish in my own mind, and often in my ongoing notes, the time of year, general weather considerations, and any other details I’m going to rely on to tell the story. This can be more complicated, or less so, depending on where the story is set.

When I’m writing about India, for example, I don’t worry about the length of day because my setting, in Kerala, is so close to the equator that the weather is hot or hotter, the sunrise and sunset are consistent throughout the year. Further, each one happens quickly. South India doesn’t have lingering, color exhilarating changes at twilight. South India does have, however, deciduous trees, and I have to make sure I refer to them dropping their leaves, for instance, at the appropriate time. For the most recent Anita Ray mystery, When Krishna Calls, all the trees mentioned are in full leaf if not in bloom.

When I’m writing about New England and other parts of the world, I like to have a reference for the relevant time changes. Several websites allow me to track sunrises, etc., for any part of the year. I use one that allows me to printout a calendar for a particular month that includes daily timings, such as sunrise, solar noon, moonrise, and length of day. I can choose to include other information if I want.

I also like to use a real sequence of days, in order to get the weather right but also to avoid using the same kind of weather day in and day out, unless it bears on the story. There are lots of weather sites that allow a user to type in a zip code to get the weather for that location over a period of days or longer.

In Come About for Murder and other Mellingham mysteries, the setting is sometimes established by noting what is in bloom. I want to avoid using the same plants again and again, so for this problem I consult one of the many online calendars for planting. I prefer the site for the National Gardening Association, which offers several useful pages of information.

Details matter in a mystery, and getting the setting right is just as important as getting right the effects of a particular poison or details of the uniform of a serviceman or woman.

For the Anita Ray mysteries and Mellingham mysteries, go here.