Mystery Writers of America “Mystery Writer’s Handbook”

Another book purchased years ago and finally read because a work-in-progress, Search, had mystery elements and I wanted to know ahead of time what I should be doing and what to look out for.

 
Mystery Writer’s Handbook, like most of the writing books I’ve reviewed on my website, is a worthy read for all authors, writers, and writer-wannabes. It’s focus is mystery and its view is broad. Romantic suspense novels fall into the mystery fold. I didn’t know there was such a genre, but I do now and surprise! my work-in-progress with mystery elements is more a romantic suspense novel than not.

Like all writing books, it discusses character, scene, POV, dialogue, description, and the like. Its real power is in both plot – because good plot tends to drive most mystery and the plot techniques are gems – and editing – the chapter on revising and editing is truly a standout. An extra bonus is a short section on contracts. Many of the books I’ve read mention contracts, Mystery Writer’s Handbook provides a roadmap of potholes and things to avoid.

Strongly recommended.

Two Pieces for a Workshop

I mentioned back in Four pieces for a workshop that I’m taking an online writing course.

I’ve taken a few courses from this provider since then. It is a fascinating experience. A few of the students are worth the price of admission. I can’t stop thinking of them as characters – truthfully, more like caricatures – and wonder if their behavior is how they believe auteurs should behave or how they genuinely behave.

Some of the other students are also worth the price of admission, and differently; they’re witty, forthcoming, enjoy a good laugh, … I’ve engaged a few of them out of the class. Good folks, all.

Anyway, I’ll be sharing more of the exercises from the class in this and subsequent posts.

Here we have the same story told through Character and then via Description. Fair warning; I didn’t take this particular class too seriously.

Character
Bob sat calmly reading a story about a woman in a barn watching a neighbor drive a car by. It didn’t occur to Bob how amazing this was, nor did Bob’s owner, Frieda, seem to notice.

But Sylvester and Carmine, Bob’s two kits, were incensed.

“Yo! Momma!” they mewed. “Roll over! Give us those teats!”

Frieda looked down at the kits plaintive cries. “Oh, my. Bob. You’re starving your children.”

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Description
“Bob’s not feeding her kits.”

“You know this how?”

“I watched her. She sat curled on a magazine. Sylvester and Carmine practically knocked her over to get at her, poor things.”

“You watched our cat not feed her kits. How long did you watch our cat not feed her kits?”

“Must have been a half, three-quarters of an hour.”

“Were they quiet through all this?

“Wailing like tiny banshees, they were.”

“You sat and watched all this, listened to the kits crying, but did nothing?”

“What would you have me do?”

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Ansen Dibell’s “Plot”

First, Whoa!

The book’s entitled Plot and it has immediately useful (to me) techniques and examples on

  • Plot (duh!)
  • Story
  • Structure
  • Setting
  • Description
  • POV
  • Exposition
  • Scenes

and it does it all in 170 pages (which includes a seven page index)!

I’m blessed because I purchased most of my writing texts in the 1970s-early 1990s, long before anybody with a mobile could claim expertise and back when people had to demonstrate their abilities repeatedly to make any kind of claim.

One such demonstration was (duh!) getting a book published on a subject in which you demonstrated expertise. Publishing books cost money and took time. Honest-to-god real editors (line, copy, proof, continuity, …) actually read through a manuscript before sending it on to printing. Publishers weren’t going to put money into a project just because someone said they were an expert, that someone had to demonstrate they were an expert. Often.

And let me add, most people didn’t claim themselves to be a guru, maven, jedi, rock star, queen, genius, leader and last but not least, expert. Other people claimed it for someone once said someone proved their guruness, mavenhood, jediability, et cetera.

And usually it took a lot to prove.

How I long for the time when people’s expertise was actual expertise and not a vacuous claim because, by god, they’re going to get their fifteen minutes if it kills them.

But I digress.

Dibell’s Plot is comparable to sitting in a writing intensive. There are examples throughout, and she picks her examples wisely. Each example demonstrates several techniques but she never throws them at you all at once. She starts by demonstrating how someone is a good story/novel opening then cycles back to show how the exposition reinforces the nascent plot elements then cycles back again to demonstrate how the character reveal points to plot elements yet to come.

As I wrote above, Whoa!

Want more? How about Dibell’s explaining alternative plot structures (beyond traditional western 3-act, conflict oriented plot) back in 1988? (I’ll admit I missed these in my first reading.

Plot is one of several Writer’s Digest books I bought way back when. As a working author, they are revealing in so many ways. Most of these authors are recognizable by work if not by name, and all were full-time authors.

What causes a full-time author to write an how-to-write book? All the Writer’s Digest books I’ve read are wonderful learning tools. These authors definitely know their craft and are able to share it.

But writing an how-to-write book took time away from their writing their stories. I know I loathe anything which takes me away from my crafting (save posts such as these, were I relax my authorial muscles, stretch my imagination tendons, and basically take either a necessary or welcomed break from being creative (being creative is work. Ask any woman who’s gotten pregnant and delivered a child)).

But writing an how-to-write book is another creative process. Was this their relaxation?

Perhaps it was their way of testing their own knowledge? Of encapsulating it? I critique other’s writing and learn as much about my own craft as I do helping them with theirs.

And such musings are largely irrelevant. Plot is an excellent learning tool and strongly recommended.


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World-Building – Language

There are three basic questions when considering language in world-building:

  • Does language play any role in your world?
  • Does everyone speak the same language, or is there a variety?
  • Do you need to invent any slang or terminology as part of the world-building process?

Here I paraphrase Aristotle’s Poetics, “Avoid neologisms unless introducing some new term/word/phrase is crucial to the plot; use jargon only to move the story along.”

Do you need to invent any slang or terminology as part if the world-building process?
The Augmented Man uses lots of military, biologic, and psychologic jargon, little of which is invented. One first reader asked me “Am I suppose to understand this stuff?” to which I answered, “If that stuff was replaced with something like ‘Oh, and we did lots of biologic and psychologic stuff to them’ would you have accepted Trailer could do what he could do?”
“No. Probably not.”
“More to the point, did you believe Donaldson (the character using most of the jargon) was an authority on what he talked about?”
“Definitely.”

Long story short, I could have reduced the jargon and it would have weakened the story and that brings us back to Aristotle’s Poetics; The jargon is crucial to the plot because it adds credibility to the story.

All cards on the table moment: Some reviewers comment they had to look up some terms. Lots of readers comment on the jargon. So far all of them kept reading despite the jargon. This poses and interesting problem to me:

  1. I could explain the jargon in greater detail so readers don’t have to look things up.
  2. I could use less jargon.
  3. I could include a glossary.

I have issues with each solution (and am open to suggestions).


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World-Building – Moving from Mundane to Fantastic Settings

When asked, “How do characters move from mundane to fantastic settings?” the correct answer is:

  1. The take the 45st L, get off at the first stop, then go left at the bottom of the stairs.
  2. By grounding the unfamiliar in the familiar.

In the Harry Potter Universe, children get to Hogwarts from Platform 9 3/4 at London’s King’s Cross station. Aside from people not noticing a young person with a tram of luggage and a caged owl on top or that youngster and all their belongings suddenly disappearing into a brick pillar, we’re back to the familiar in the unfamiliar mentioned in World-Building – Revealing Settings Through Relatable Characters.

It’s worth noting that Harry Potter’s Platform 9 3/4 is a representation of the starting point for every hero on every hero’s journey regardless of culture or mythology: We enter the fantastic via the mundane. The invitation to the mythic must be accepted or there is no journey and the invitation must be accepted in front of others – Muggles – who can’t accept or refuse to accept it. Usually there’s a mentor/guide/guardian/herald/… someone to help the young adventurer on. Harry Potter’s Mrs. Weasley told him how to “enter”, ie, pass the first challenge.

The message here is that entry into the fantastic is always around us, is everywhere, is waiting for us to become aware. Consider Keith Jarrett’s preface to his album Treasure Island:

The treasure has always been there
It is not hidden
But is only where certain people would look
At all
Thus it remains a secret to the rest
And to solace themselves
They say it’s hidden
Or buried
To still their invading thoughts.

Some are calm and content
Or at peace, in their words

Some are stirred and cloudy
But they are improving their vision

Of the island
Of themselves

I make use of these “we must see the magic for it to exist” concepts myself in my short story The Magic Tassels: A shaman lives in a village and is known for the magic tassels he wears on his wrists. Different villages come and ask what the tassels are for and he asks them, “What do you think?” Everyone tells a magic story about them save three old women who mock him. Later the village is threatened and everyone will die. The villagers come to the shaman for help and his tassels turn into the magic each saw, which saves them.

Except for the three old women. When they ask him to save them he answers, “No, the only magic in my tassels is that which others put there. All the magic I gave others they already had. I merely reminded them of the magic within them. You saw nothing in my tassels, so there’s nothing I can give you. There is no magic in you for me to remind you.”


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