It’s a Mystery

mystery_machine_side_view

Ruh-roh

July Camp NaNo is finally over, and my summer class has finished up, and S and I are on vacation this week.  We’re at Panera today so S can write some more of her rapidly-expanding Musketeers fanfic.  At this point, she thinks it’ll end up being at least 70,000 words long when it’s all finished.

I’ve updated the section of this blog about The Myrciaverse with my two latest novels, including the one I just finished, Joint Command.  I had a lot of fun writing that one, and the outline I used was somewhat more complicated than what we normally use.  There were three POV characters, so I decided to do a different sort of story for each one of them.

For Deborah, whom I describe in my synopsis as “a veteran, fighting her disillusionment,” the story is about rediscovering her love for her job as a spy and for her rather eccentric colleagues.  So I used Nigel Watts’s Eight Point Story Arc in plotting out her chapters.

  1. Stasis (everyday life)
  2. Trigger (something beyond hero’s control sparks the story)
  3. The quest (hero spurred to action by the trigger)
  4. Surprise (obstacles and complications)
  5. Critical choice (hero makes a crucial choice, revealing character)
  6. Climax (highest point of tension, direct result of Critical Choice)
  7. Reversal (change in status of characters, direct result of Climax)
  8. Resolution (a new Stasis, result of Reversal)

The second POV character, Geir, is on the same side as Deborah, though working for a different, allied country.  He thinks he’s on the trail of a mole, but he discovers to his horror that there’s a conspiracy that goes much deeper than he thinks.  So I plotted his eight chapters as a Thriller.

  1. Shock opening.  Meet the hero.
  2. Meet main characters, intro into some of hero’s backstory and personal life.  Disaster threatens.  Hero understands what’s on the line if he doesn’t do it.  He has to step up.
  3. Subplot introduced.  Hero on bad guy’s trail, always behind, figuring out the bad guy’s game.  Midpoint.  Stakes raised.  New character introduced, and an old character is killed.
  4. Bad guy on top.  Bad guys get worse.  Hero’s team dissents, and hero is on his own.  It’s all gone wrong.  (Other people doubt hero, but hero doesn’t doubt self yet.)
  5. Someone else gets killed.  More pressure on hero.  Hero comes to doubt self.  Then hero figures out what to do.
  6. Climax section.  Hero gets bad guy’s underlings, then gets bad guy.  Payoff.  Hero prevents the disaster that threatened in Chapter 2.
  7. The real threat emerges.  Twist: the hero realizes there’s another layer of threat (hopefully foreshadowed).  Rush.  There’s no time to waste.
  8. More payoff.  Breathless pace.  The uber-bad guy is stopped.

My third POV character, Nitya, is on the other side from Deborah and Geir.  She’s trying to find the mole and bring him (or her) home.  So, since she’s trying to solve a mystery, I outlined her chapters using “The Classic 12-chapter Mystery Formula,” only with the events condensed to fit the eight chapters I had allotted her.

  1. Mystery, clues disclosed with dramatic event.  Sleuth introduced.  Ground reader in time and place where crime occurs.
  2. Sub-plot introduced.  Sleuth set on path to solving mystery.  Plausible suspects (each with a motive) introduced and questioned by sleuth, one of which must be the perp.
  3. Reveal facts about suspects.  A clue is discovered that points to ultimate solution.  Flight or disappearance of one or more suspect.  Sense that if mystery not solved soon, there will be terrible consequences.  Investigation broadens to put suspicion on other characters.
  4. Return to sub-plot to reveal sleuth’s background—show what drives sleuth/haunts her/is missing in her life.  Sleuth shown to have personal stake in outcome.  Hidden motives and secret relationships revealed (romantic involvements/scores to be settled/kinships).  Clues from Chapter 1 clarified.
  5. Sleuth reveals results so far of investigation.  Reader can review things so far.  Sleuth is stymied, as she has misinterpreted clues.  Sleuth has to look at things from new direction.  Chain of events that provoked crime revealed.  Crucial evidence from Act I points way to solution.
  6. Sleuth weighs evidence and information gleaned from other characters.  Based on what sleuth knows, sleuth must seek positive proof to back up undisclosed conclusion.
  7. Resolution of subplot.  Protagonist, having been tested by his or her private ordeal, is strengthened for the final action leading to the actual solution of the mystery.
  8. Resolution.  Revelation of clues and the deductive process which led to the solution.  Establish that the case has been solved and justice has been served to the satisfaction of all involved (except the villain).

As you look through these, you’ll probably see how they can work together.  Geir’s “Shock Opening,” for example (number 1 on his outline) is the same event as Deborah’s “Trigger” (number 2 on her outline): they go together to meet a third agent and discover that he’s been murdered by the mole.

Finally, I had to set up all the various suspects who could be the mole, so I outlined each “Suspect Arc.”  First I briefly stated the Means, Motive, and Opportunity for each suspect.  In other words, I figured out why my three POV characters might even consider that person a suspect.  Then I listed two clues and two counter-clues (or alibis, if you will), like so:

Clue one: Bob’s hat found at the scene of the crime.
Counter-clue one: But Bob was at work when the crime was committed.
Clue two: Proof found that Bob wasn’t really at work.
Counter-clue two: But he lied because he was with his mistress.

Then there’s a “twist,” which can be a further clue or a definitive alibi, followed by a “resolution,” where the detective, and the reader, can see whether the person is guilty or innocent.

Having figured this out for each one of my four suspects, I went through my story outline and figured out where my three POV characters could encounter each of the suspects, and where each of the clues and counter-clues would be revealed.
In the end, I think it turned out pretty well.  When the reader gets to the end and finds out who the mole really is, I think it makes sense, but isn’t so obvious that the story is boring.

J

 

Welcome Back, Potter

Some thoughts on rereading the Harry Potter series, yet again.

Another school year is now upon us.

Another school year is now upon us.

My summer vacation is, sadly, over, and it’s time for me to go back to work.  Looking back now, I’m pretty pleased with the amount of writing I got done.  I’m not quite done with my reference work on religions, but I had only thought I was going to get halfway through, and I’ve finished about three and a half of the four major denominations.  The file is over 45,000 words now.

S, of course, continues her adventures with fanfic.  I’m sure she’ll have more to report about her experiences sooner or later.  I’ve been helping her by typing a little; her fans are eager for the next installment, and I know she doesn’t want to disappoint them.

Other than working on making up religions and typing and getting ready to go back to work, I’ve started rereading the Harry Potter books in the evenings.  Someday I’m sure S and I will do a formal “reread” of the series, with regular posts on what we’ve read and detailed comments.  But this is not that day.  I’m mainly just reading it because I have to get back onto a regular schedule after months of being able to stay up as late as I want, and reading physical books at night makes me tired.  Also, Harry Potter is fun.  I’ve been reading for a few days, and I’m a little over halfway through the fourth book.  Sometimes it takes me a while to fall asleep, okay?

So here are some things I’m noticing, as an amateur writer, as I go through the series this time:

1 The POV is trickier than I remembered.
When we think about the HP books, we tend to think of them as limited third person from Harry’s POV.  But they aren’t always.  And I’m not just talking about the first chapter of the first book, which is a sort of omniscient third person POV, or the first chapter of the fourth book, which is from the POV of the old caretaker who’s about to be murdered by Voldemort.  You may recall chapter 11 (“Quidditch”) of the first book, where Harry is playing Quidditch for Gryffindor for the first time, and someone (Quirrell/Voldemort, though we don’t know that at the time) is trying to knock him off his broom.  Hermione and Ron think it’s Snape, and they run to the other side of the stands and Hermione sets Snape’s robe on fire to distract him.  In the resulting commotion, Quirrell gets knocked over, thereby inadvertently saving Harry.  The interesting thing about this chapter is the way Rowling slides back and forth between Harry’s POV and the POV of his friends in the stands (especially Ron).  There is no break or line of asterisks to tell you that the POV is shifting.  One moment you’re up in the air with Harry, the next moment you’re down in the stands with Ron.  It’s not especially jarring, but it’s exactly the sort of thing that books for beginning writers tell you that you’re absolutely not supposed to do.

2 You actually can unsee the wrylies…mostly.
I read the books as they came out.  In the case of these first several books, that was when I was in grad school (where I met S, as it happens).  Back then, although I had studied a lot of literature, I hadn’t tried seriously to write any of my own, so I hadn’t read any books on how you’re “supposed” to write a novel.  That meant that, among other things, no one had told me how terribly, terribly bad adverbs are supposed to be.  Thanks to Rowling, though, everyone on earth has had a lesson on the horror of adverbs in articles like this one, and this one, and this one.  The thing is that, as I read these books late at night, I don’t really notice them.  Yes, a few of them stick out.  Take this one, for example, which adds a clunky note to one of my very favorite exchanges in the entire series:

     But Ron was staring at Hermione as though suddenly seeing her in a whole new light.  
    “Hermione, Neville’s right—you are a girl….”
    “Oh well spotted,” she said acidly. 

Is there any question at all, even in the mind of the youngest reader, as to the tone of voice in which Hermione would say, “Oh, well spotted”?  But by and large the “wrylies” just roll over me unnoticed.   This isn’t to say that I’m now going to have all my characters constantly saying things “coolly” and “sarcastically” and “irritably” all the time.  But it does make me suspect that a lot of people who complained about Rowling’s adverbs were writers and writing teachers who, thanks to reading a lot of crappy writing in their time, are hyper-vigilant for “problems” that ordinary readers just don’t see.  Also, as the writer of the blog at that second link suggests, the wrylies stand out much more when you’re either reading the book aloud (as S and I have done together) or listening to the audiobook (which S and I have also done together).  When you actually can hear someone read Hermione’s line in an acid tone, the adverb becomes redundant.

3 The stories take a while to get started.
In my U.S. hardback editions, the first book is 309 pages long.  Harry doesn’t even get to Hogwarts until page 111, more than a third of the way in.  Fighting the troll in the restroom (the event that makes Hermione friends with Harry and Ron, thereby finally bringing together the central trio of protagonists) doesn’t finish until page 179, well after the halfway point.  In book 4, they don’t get to Hogwarts until page 170, though that’s much earlier in the story, comparatively speaking, since that book is 734 pages long.  This isn’t a criticism, necessarily.  A lot of what Rowling does in those long opening sections is worldbuilding and setting up clues and red herrings for later in the story.  But it is somewhat at odds with the idea you need to start your story as late as possible (“in late, out early”) and have something exciting happen at the very beginning.  Let’s not forget how Rowling starts the whole series.  With the murder of Harry’s parents?  With Hagrid bringing Harry to live with his aunt and uncle?  No, actually.  That comes later in the first chapter, and as for the murder of Harry’s parents, we don’t get to see that.  We just get to listen to people standing around, talking about it sadly.  No, the story actually starts with a couple paragraphs about the Dursleys, explaining how boring they are.  It’s an amusing little opening, but one can’t help feeling that it’s not at all the way most books on writing a novel would advise to do it.

Anyway, those are the main thoughts I’ve been having on this particular read-through.  As I say, I’m sure someday S and I will do a true “reread” with more detailed comments.  And then you can hear all of S’s complaints about how Quidditch makes no sense as a sport (S played a lot of softball when she was younger, so she has far more experience with team sports than I do).  But for now, I’ve got more reading to do.

J

Sympathy for the Devilishly Handsome

The outline for my next story is moving along, and as soon as I finish grading my next batch of papers, I think I’m going to start on my character profiles.  And as it happens, I have already spotted a potential problem: my main POV character is handsome, smart, funny, and romantically successful.  Oh, and he’s a pretty powerful wizard, too.  And also a famous general.  And of course in our fictional ‘verse, the fact that he’s a wizard means he’s gifted with nearly eternal youth, as well.

You can probably already spot the potential difficulty.  If I’m not careful, the reader is going to absolutely hate this guy.

On the drive into work this morning, S and I were discussing something similar, in the context of our new favorite show, The 100.  At what point does a character become so incredibly awesome that the viewer (or reader) stops being impressed and starts thinking, “Oh, come on.  Give me a break”?  I don’t think the writers on that show have crossed that line with Clarke yet, but they have occasionally danced awfully close to it.  When readers run across a character like this, sooner or later, someone is going to accuse the character of being a “Mary Sue” (or Gary Stu, in the case of my main POV character).  As a shorthand for various sins of characterization, I suppose that’s fine, though as TV Tropes points out, the term has been stretched to the point that it’s hard to say exactly what it means anymore.

In general, though, I think the term “Mary Sue” implies a kind of wish-fulfillment on the part of the creator that isn’t really present in the case of my hero.  (For the sake of convenience, let’s call him Phil, though that’s not really his name in the story.)  I’m not writing a story about Phil because I wish I could be like him, but because there’s a particular moment in his life that I want to explore.

“Oh, sure you don’t want to be him,” the cynical reader sneers.  “You’re only writing this story because you wish you could be as awesome as Phil.”  Honestly, I’m not.  But I can’t just tell the reader that.  I can only show it in the way I write the story.  Execution, as always, is everything.

So how am I going to make Phil sympathetic?  Well, basically I’m going to do the same sorts of things that make any character sympathetic, but I have to be more careful than usual, lest the reader think I’m making a Mary Sue or a Creator’s Pet.  Here’s what I’m planning to do:

1) Disrupt his perfect life as soon as possible.  I’m not going to let him wallow around in his awesomeness.  In the very first chapter, he’s going to get raked over the coals by his boss, the emperor.  Sure, he might have been a bit self-satisfied and overconfident in the past, but almost from the very beginning of my story, he’s going to be worried about losing his job (and possibly his life).

2) Give him serious doubts and conflicts.  I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but the main conflict of the story is between Phil and an old friend of his.  The emperor wants the old friend dead, and Phil doesn’t want to do it, even though he also doesn’t want to annoy the emperor.

3) Make him “Save the Cat.”  He’s loyal to his friends.  And he’s kind to people when he doesn’t have to be.  One of the other (minor) POV characters is, shall we say, his new assistant.  Even though this assistant doesn’t really know what he’s doing, and even though there’s nothing that Phil actually needs from him, Phil is nice to him.

4) Keep him from getting everything he wants.  Phil is going to start the story believing he can balance his different loyalties and obligations.  He’s going to think he can keep the emperor happy without having to kill his old friend.  He’s going to discover that he can’t.  He’s going to make choices that make people mad.  Which leads to….

5) Make sure not everyone likes him.  His awesomeness isn’t self-evident to everyone.  There are people (including POV characters) who disagree with him and dislike him.  Over the course of the story, he’s going to lose friendships and disappoint people who admire him.  When he makes a hard decision, people aren’t just going to pat him on the back and congratulate him on his gutsy call; there will be people who think he screwed up.

Oh, and if at all possible….

6) Make him funny.  Just like in real life, you can put up with a lot from a character if he makes you laugh.

Hopefully the end result will be a character the reader likes and sympathizes with, in spite of his magical powers and flawless dark good looks.  It’s still a risk, though.  S and I love the title character of Jane Austen’s Emma, who is famously “handsome, clever, and rich,” but we know people with excellent literary taste who can’t stand her.  Oh well.  At least in my case I’m going to have seven other POV characters.  If readers can’t stand Phil, maybe they’ll find one of the other people to identify with.

J

What do you want? It’s November.

J and I are busy doing NaNo, as you can see from the handy word count widgets. J is a crazy machine and I feel like a total slacker, but in reality, we are both moving along quite nicely.  (Well, I restarted my novel, The Queen’s Tower, 5 times, but that restart and the fact that I’m writing that novel and not book 3 in my Oleg Omdahl series are stories for another day.)

Anyhow, neither of us is feeling especially bloggy tonight.  But we didn’t want to miss our usual Sunday evening, so I stopped in to at least provide a link to a good blog.  It’s a longish, but very worthwhile read from Scott Westerfeld about POV.  (POV being my nemesis this weekend. See: started novel 5 times comment above.)

So, enjoy the link and NaNo if you’re participating.  See you next Sunday, at least briefly, if not before!

S