It’s a Mystery to Me

A little bit about the mystery novel I’ve been working on (or not working on) for the past year.

About a year ago, I started writing a mystery novel. It’s the same novel I mentioned in the entry titled “Writer’s Block Sucks” earlier in this blog. I haven’t added a word to it since then.

The book’s characters are very strong, based roughly on people I knew not too long ago. They were odd people with odd relationships, the kind of people who would be memorable in a novel. I haven’t seen these people in over two years now, but my memories of them are very clear — especially the memories about their unorthodox attitudes and behaviors. In recreating them for fiction, I changed them enough to avoid a lawsuit if the work ever got published. The similarities remain, but there’s not enough of them for any of the people to say, “Hey, she’s writing about me!” Even I’m in the book, changed enough to be barely recognizable. My character is both secondary protagonist (or sidekick) and suspect.

The protagonist or detective is completely fictional. From New York, he’s well-off and lives a comfortable Manhattan life. Yet his wealth is relatively new and he’s down-to-earth. He can mix well with all kinds of people. And the southwest town environment he’s in for this novel is a true test of his ability to adapt. His name is John and he’s a first-person narrator. In writing about the small town of Coyote Springs as seen through his eyes, I explain small, southwest towns like Wickenburg as seen by New Yorkers. It’s a view I had when I first came here, but is quickly fading as my memories of New York fade away. Part of what I’m trying to achieve in this work is to capture the wonder and disbelief I felt about the southwest years ago and document it for all time.

When I started this work, I wrote quickly with only a handful of notes to guide me. I knew who the characters were, I knew who was going to die, I knew who killed him, and I knew why the murder was committed. I also knew motives for a few other characters (red herrings). The words came quickly as I developed scene after scene. Some scenes did what they were required to do: provide background information and move the plot forward. Other scenes developed character relationships and shared information about the fictional setting with readers.

About 100 pages into the work, I stalled. And I remain stalled, to this day, right there.

A little writer’s block is normally nothing to be worried about. I’d had it before and I’ll have it again. I usually snap out of it within a few weeks, depending on what I have to write. If I’m writing a computer book, I snap out of it in a day or so — I have to if I expect to continue earning a living. But a work of fiction, with no buyer lined up for the finished product, is different. There’s no one prodding me for more pages, no one asking when the next chapter will come. There’s no milestone advance check dangling in front of me, like a carrot on a stick. There’s no real reason to finish.

But I wanted to finish this work. I wanted to try to get it published. I’d read a lot of mystery novels and I felt strongly that I could craft a story with characters, puzzle, and plot that was just as good as most of them — and better than quite a few. Still, I remained stalled.

I thought about what had gotten me started in the first place. It was a combination of things. One was the idea of killing someone I couldn’t really kill. No, I couldn’t murder someone I didn’t like, but I could, in writing, tell the story of how a fictional representation of that person was killed. And, along the way, I could entertain and educate readers. And write something other than computer how-to books and articles.

The other thing that motivated me to begin was a Stephen King book. No, it wasn’t one of his horror books. Although I was a big fan of Stephen King years and years ago — when his first novel, Carrie, came out, in fact — I hadn’t read any of his work in years. But while browsing the bookstore shelves, I came across a nonfiction book he’d written: On Writing. I bought it and devoured it (with my eyes, not my teeth) in just two days. It was an excellent motivator for me. It told the story of how he’d gotten started and the way he works. It then provided guidance for writers that didn’t talk about grammar or usage or any of the nonsense many writer’s guides go into. (If you can’t structure a sentence, you shouldn’t be a writer.) The other thing conspicuously missing from the book: exercises. Stephen King wasn’t leading a “how to write a novel” course. He was telling the reader about his experiences and what he thought worked. And, given his record, that’s something worth reading.

When I finished On Writing, I felt charged up and ready to go. And I did. I wrote about 100 pages in less than two weeks. But that was it.

I tried to analyze the problem. I knew I had scenes to write, but I was worried that the plot wasn’t progressing at a fast enough pace to keep the reader interested. I felt that the problem I was posing was too easy to solve, that the murderer would be too obvious. I made notes about other character relationships, building stronger motives for other characters. And when all that thought and note-taking didn’t help, I hopped onto Amazon.com, shopped around, and bought a few more books about writing. I hoped that some of them would motivate me.

Among the books I bought were books specifically about writing mysteries. I read a few of them right away. One of them said something that chilled me to the bone. It said that if you wrote without being fully prepared, you’d get about 95 to 100 pages into your story and stall. At the time, I didn’t know how far I’d gotten, but I whipped out my laptop and checked. 98 pages. Sheesh. How did he know?

All the books made one important assumption: that the murder had been committed before the novel opens. In fact, they all seemed to assume that the story opens at the scene of the crime, with the body still in place.

My mystery doesn’t start like that. In fact, 100 pages into the novel, the victim is still alive. I’ve been giving that a lot of thought. Why isn’t he dead yet? Why haven’t I killed him? My conclusion: I’m developing his character along with the others. I want the reader to feel like I do: that he deserves to die. But in reading these how-to books, I realize that may be a mistake. To make a reader care about solving the murder, you have to make him care either about the victim or about clearing the name of a suspect he likes. Although I’m establishing one character as a likable suspect, one that the reader doesn’t want to see as guilty, I shouldn’t waste pages making the victim so unlikable.

In looking at my notes, I realize that at least another 50 pages will go by before my victim dies. That’s something I need to fix.

Years ago, I had a friend who was passionate about becoming a fiction writer. She wrote short stories, novels, and other works of fiction after work. She frequented writer’s message boards on BBSes (before Internet mailing lists), and spoke up about what she believed. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a very good attitude about the business of writing. In her mind, editors were evil and their sole purpose in life was to destroy the work and moral of writers through extensive editing and rejection. When she quit her job to write full-time, I knew what the outcome would be. I was right: a year later, she was deep in debt and still hadn’t sold a single piece of work. I don’t know where she is now or what she’s doing, but I’m pretty sure she’s not making a living as a writer. Yet there was one thing I remember her saying, one piece of advice that I can’t argue with: “If you can’t go forward, go backwards.”

I don’t know if I understand that statement the way she meant it, but it does make sense to me. If you can’t continue a story, there must be something wrong with what went before it. Go back to previous pages and examine them. Where did the plot take the wrong turn? Tear out the bad pages and write new ones.

The idea of discarding something you’ve written is sometimes referred to as “killing your darlings.” It’s a fact of life: when you write something, you often fall in love with it. It’s difficult to discard it, never to use it again. But a real writer — a professional who cares about the final product — shouldn’t be so in love with her work that she doesn’t edit out what doesn’t work. So I need to do some editing.

I have a plan of attack on my novel that isn’t fully fleshed out yet. Basically, I plan to ruthlessly cut away scenes that aren’t moving the plot forward. Some of them can be salvaged. For example, there’s a scene where John is taken on a tour of the ranch. Later, he takes a horseback ride that covers some of the same territory. Some of the places he sees on both trips are important later in the novel. But do I need to talk about them twice? No. I can cut out his first tour and keep the later one (not written yet). I can use some of the descriptions I’ve already written when I write the new material.

Another goal: kill the victim by page 50. Now I know I just told you that all the how-to books say the book should open at the murder scene with the victim already dead. But I’m not writing a murder mystery that’s just a puzzle for the readers. My story is also in entertain and inform. To do the job properly, I need to develop relationships between characters. And I can’t do that if one of the main characters is dead. Besides, I believe that by bringing the narrator into the story before the murder, I’m giving readers a clearer vision of what the events leading up to the murder are. They see what’s going on because the narrator sees what’s going on. The facts aren’t brought forward solely by the detective having question and answer sessions with witnesses and suspects. Instead, the reader is in on the plot.

Besides, I’ve read plenty of mysteries that started out with a live victim, so there’s obviously more than one way to get the job done.

But although I write for a living, I don’t write mystery novels for a living. That means I need to take care of my day job — writing computer how-to books and articles and building a helicopter tour business — first. To further complicate my life, a tenant recently trashed a rental property I’m trying to sell, and I’ve been spending a lot of time there, cleaning up her mess and dealing with contractors. So I don’t think I’ll be writing much more about Coyote Springs over the next week or two.

But I’ll be thinking about it, and that’s the most important part of writing any complex plot.

What do you think?