Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Changing Horses in Midstream

Today I passed page 200 in editing my current work-in-progress, and as I did so another method of murder occurred to me, along with a different murderer. This may seem a little late to be coming up with two crucial factors in a murder mystery, but instead of blotting them out of my consciousness, I stopped what I was doing and thought about it.

Like many other writers, I consider myself a pantser with a few caveats. I begin with an image of a character doing something. This is not quite a scene but close to it. I know who he or she is, mostly what they’re doing but not the implications and consequences. Who the person is in relation to the victim (or even if he or she is the victim) and the murderer isn’t yet clear. As I think about the image and how it grows in my imagination, the general outline of a story becomes clear.

I like to have the murder weapon or process be true to the setting and the characters. I don’t want to see a quiet, steely librarian suddenly whip out a gun, though that might make for a fun story. Nor do I expect longshoremen to use poison, or anything that could be considered genteel. So I was thinking up a method of murder that fit the setting, a farm in a part of rural America. I was satisfied with what I developed (and won’t mention it here because I plan to use it in another story).

And here is where the moment of inspiration comes in. It occurred to me that I had a much more appropriate method of murder that I had overlooked—perhaps because it was so obvious to someone like me (and no, I can’t say what that means). And then I thought about the admonition not to change horses in midstream. The method I’d been using made sense, it worked, and I was already in editing. But the new one made a lot more sense, implicated a lot of other innocent people, and was still true to the characters and setting. Plus it required a minimum of rewriting. I had to remove one short chapter, fewer than a thousand words, and the replacement chapter all but wrote itself.

I can’t say with one hundred percent certainty that I’ve solved every problem in switching murder methods, but I like the feel of the story I’ve produced, and I like seeing some minor characters become more interesting to the reader.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done this—changing a character in some important way in the middle of the story, combined two characters, changed locations, changed characteristics of a character—but this is perhaps the most significant one. I’m all for rules that guide the writer, ensuring a tighter, deeper, more compelling story. But I’m also all for breaking those rules when something better comes along.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

My New Website

For the past month or so I’ve been struggling to set up a new website. After my web maven died this past October, I knew I really had to learn how to do this myself. A friend who designs websites thought it would be easy for me to catch onto HTML, and another offered to help me, for a fee of course, and still others had lots of advice and references. It seemed to be as hard to pick someone to do this for me as it would be if I did it myself. I remembered how frustrating it was to keep a running list of changes or updates I wanted my web maven to make, and then I had to review the results and follow that up with a list of corrections. It was time consuming and sometimes things were never quite what I wanted. Hence, my decision to jump in. I would build a simple website and all would be well. Famous last . . .

First came all the sites that offered do-it-yourself websites for a fee, and all of the advice from those who know how to do this for free. I tried four sites. In the end I chose Squarespace.com largely because I could try out their templates over several days before paying, and the templates were easy to work with. I had twelve days to try things out. To my amazement, I had two pages after the first afternoon. Since I knew what I wanted, sort of, I figured I had enough time. In the end, I didn’t need all the time allowed.

The most serious challenge came with transferring the domain name and the other technical stuff. There were a few glitches along the way, but with the help of the support staff (I’m a new convert to live chat features) I seem to have managed. Then came the magic of “propagating,” which seems to have its own heart beat regardless of the work with Google Search Console.

I’m not sure what the point of this post is except to report that given the right tools and the right support, even a Luddite like me can manage some of the new technology. And yet all is not high-tech ultra modern. I still needed older skills, such as patience, the ability to read someone else’s shorthand, an intuitive sense of which pages to close and which to leave open, and the skill of figuring out which question to ask. I give high marks to the folks on live chat because some had to jump in in the middle of my befuddled query. But all is well—mostly. I’m still waiting for the old website pages to completely disappear, and the new ones to take over.

Overall this was a fun adventure. I got to use some of my favorite photographs, watched the software surprise me as it picked up links I worried about, and learned more than I expected to. I have a much better understanding of how the Internet works, but it’s still very basic. But the site isn’t finished (these things never are). If you see where I should change or improve things, please let me know. Now that I have learned how to get into the pages and do all the work myself, I’m glad to do so. And I'm always glad to hear other people's opinions and suggestions.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Taking Out the Errors and Filling in the Blanks

I’ve been working on the second book in a new series that I’m hoping my agent will sell. She has the first book, and I have an eighty-thousand-word draft of the second. That’s a fairly long draft, but as I read it over I can see I’ve missed a few things.

The story concerns one of the heroine’s cousins and his wife. This is his second wife, and he has two children, a son by his first wife, now deceased, and a daughter by his second wife. I’ve set up the story with a reasonable number of suspects, developed and set out clues, explored the characters so that readers can see their motivations if not their guilt, and explored the setting and its influence on people’s behavior. In the end I have what I think is a sound confrontation scene, a few surprises, and, of course, changes in the protagonist’s life. What have I missed?

I missed the obvious. The teenage son is pivotal to the crime and its aftermath, though he is never a suspect. He is mentioned by the parents, the high school principal, the town librarian, and some other characters. He comes up in conversation, and he triggers some significant developments. So what have I missed? The protagonist never talks to him.

The protagonist is Felicity O’Brien, who owns a farm in a small community in a very rural part of New England. She talks to just about everyone, but somehow I managed to get her through this entire crime story without ever having her talk to one of the key players. I’ve set out to rectify the omission, with several scenes lined up at crucial points in the story.

I don’t think I’m the only one who falls into this trap. Indeed, Agatha Christie used the omission of the obvious as a clue (and the title) of one of her mysteries, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934). I can’t speak for other writers, but I know that I sometimes focus so closely on what’s happening on the page that I miss details (and bigger things too) I should be including—location, time of day, day of the week, name of the character I’m writing about, and a number of other details. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was famous for changing his character’s eye color.

Correcting these errors is the work of the near-final draft and a good beta editor. But let’s face it. It is impossible to be both human and a perfect writer. But it is possible to look for errors and omissions and correct them. You can take this too far, and be obsessed about the text and miss the story itself, but overall, every writer should want the text to be as clean and as complete as possible.

When I began working on the scenes for the teenage son, I discovered other parts of the story I could strengthen. One change suggested others, and once again I followed them through the story. My task now is to fill in the blanks I’ve created, and make sure every detail is present and makes sense.

For a longer discussion of errors in books, you may enjoy this article on editors who also make mistakes: http://penultimateword.com/editing-blogs/when-editors-make-mistakes/

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Reading William Trevor

Today I finished The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor, one of my favorite writers. When I came to the last page, sad that the story was coming to an end, I thought at once of how this tale and Trevor’s writing style had influenced me. The author is a quiet, careful writer, who takes the time to let the characters live and breathe on the page. There is no rushing about, no surprises out of the usual twists and turns of a life in a rural corner of Ireland.

Lucy Gault is just eight years old when the violence reaches a pitch in Ireland, and as a landowner married to an Englishwoman, her father Everard Gault comes to the unhappy conclusion that he and his family must leave the country he loves. As the day of departure nears, young Lucy has plans of her own, running away to the home of a favorite housemaid. But something happens, and she disappears. Everyone searches for her fruitlessly, and the conclusion is drawn that she has drowned after they find one of her missing sandals and an abandoned blouse on the beach. Stricken, the Gaults abandon Ireland for what they believe is forever. When Lucy is found weeks later in the woods, crippled with a broken ankle, the family solicitor is unable to reach her parents. And so begins her solitary life.

The novel held me in its gentle narrative, moving along seemingly at the pace of Lucy’s life in the care of the family servants, Henry and Bridget, who remained to tend the cattle and bees and gardens. At certain moments, a scene included an illusion to the future, or a knife was picked up. My mystery-writing mind expected a swiftness in plotting now, but Trevor held to his plan, and the story continued on its fluid way.

Throughout the novel I felt several opportunities for the author to change direction, to speed up the story, notch up the suspense, deepen the conflict. But he never took these pathways. Instead, we ached for Lucy’s mother, who never knew her daughter was found alive, and we ached for the young man, Ralph, who lived with a different loss.

I’m sure a number of readers would have found this book unpleasantly slow and dull, but I found it held me, page after page. I found something else. As much as I looked forward to reading this, and as often as I stayed up late to read a few more pages in this very slim volume, the pace slowed my reading. This book is shorter than the average mystery, but I spent twice as long reading it. Every word, every phrase seemed to matter. I took the time to be with Lucy in her story, and in a different world.

Trevor's language is simple and direct, his characters uncomplicated by the outer world but their depth of living in constricted circumstances is fully realized. Despite the pace and nature of the story, which recalls a much earlier time and style of writing, the novel was first published in 2002.

For a change of pace, you will find my books at the sites here: