Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sssssssh! My Show is On: a deux

Part 2 of Everything I Need to Know about Writing Mysteries I Learned from my Television: Ten Lessons in High Definition

6. Stargate: It's all in how you tell the story. Let's face it, there are only so many plots to go around. The important thing is to keep it fresh. A cool idea will only take you so far. You go through the gate into another world and something happens that you have to set right in 1 hr (2 hours if you've got a continuing story). You can take the story and twist it. Add compelling characters and torture them. Yes, the story is important, but it's in how you tell it. The great storytellers of our time know how to hook you and keep you absorb. They make you care with their art. I'm convinced that this part of writing, more than any other, is a natural gift. I think part of the knack is simply paying attention. Look at a great story and break it down. What appeals to you? How does the teller build the tension and hold your interest? Old can become new and shiny if it is done well, but the more familiar the trope, the better job you had better do in execution. The little black dress is a staple. Everyone sells one. But the perfectly tailored little black dress from the right fabric? Magic. Your locked door mystery or village cozy had better shine.

7. CSI: Plant your clues with care. A mystery can be as twisted and complicated as you like, but you must play fair with the audience. I'll say that one again. YOU MUST PLAY FAIR WITH YOUR AUDIENCE. There is a sort of pact between mystery authors and their readers. The mystery must be something solveable. If you do it well enough, they will be surprised but in an "Of course! Why didn't I see it?" sort of way and not in an "OMG! WTF BBQ on top! You have got to be kidding me!" sort of way. One should be able to work backwards through the book after reading it once and spot the clues. The evidence must be there. If you drop in the solution that no one could possibly predict and solve your mystery with a flourish of deus ex machina, you will end up with some pissed off readers and we know where that leads. (Toe nail stringing and the pummeling, remember? Stay with me!) The villian should make sense, not be some tacked on element, but an integral part of the story.

8. The Ghost Whisperer: Pay attention to the dead guy. He needs to be more than just a body in the library. This was a person and his death is your catalyst. He needs to be a fully fleshed human being. We need to know him intimately and understand how he relates to all the people in your story. The same goes for the villian. Please don't let him be the guest star of the week (Murder, She Wrote, I'm looking at you!) I could do another show on this, but I've already devoted an entire blog post to the cardboard villian. It isn't a murder mystery without a murder. Make yours count.

9. Sex in the City: Everything tastes sweeter with a little romance. And it isn't just romance that sweetens things. It's relationships. What makes genres like romance and mystery so enduringly popular are the characters and their relationships. Monk is just Monk, but when he's paired with Sharona as a foil, he's funny. The show isn't just about some weird guy. It's about his relationships with his dead wife, his earthy streetsmart caretaker, his former boss, etc... We need to feel the relationships. Murders should involve passion, greed, betrayal, something to provoke enough emotion to kill. Think of these as more than just "detective", "killer", "love interest", "dead guy". It's all in how they relate to one another that makes the story compelling.

10. Lost: Don't be that guy. You know the one. He corners you at the cocktail party and proceeds to tell you his life story. The info dump: fear it! Just when you get embroiled in events on the island, suddenly the story shifts and you learn allllllllllll you ever wanted to know about a character's back story. This is tough to do well and even harder in a novel. Obviously, a mystery is going to be about a past event and these people will have motivations and histories that are crucial. You have to dole it out in bites. Don't try to cram an entire steak down the readers' throats in a single sitting. They'll gag. (Then pursue you for more pummeling.)

11. Project Runway: Shut your face. Did I say ten lessons? This is a bonus. I adore PR and if you've ever seen the runway critiques at the end, you know where I'm going with this. Invariably there is a contestant or two who becomes unhinged when the judges say unflattering things about their precious creation. Those loser judges just didn't appreciate the creativity and the staggering genius of his work and besides it wasn't his fault because his partner was a slacker and the model didn't do things correctly and someone sabotaged his sewing machine, and blah, blah, blah. This never goes well. Sometimes we just have to learn to turn a critical eye on ourselves and try to see what others do. Shut up. Listen. Maybe we can learn something. Maybe not. But you never know if you don't listen. It's better to simply say : okay, thanks. And then digest.

Okay, this was fun for me. How about you? What lessons have you learned from TV?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sssssh! My show is on!

Everything I need to know about writing mysteries, I learned from TV: Ten lessons in high definition.

Yes, it's true. I know that it is fashionable to bash the boob tube, but I'll go on record as saying that I love me some tv. It is SO educational. Don't believe me? Yes, I've learned everything from secrets of an awesome souffle to sacrifical rituals of the Moche. Plus some other stuff. I've even learned a lot about writing mysteries. Yes, the lessons are there if you only pay attention. Missed them? You must be watching the wrong shows.

1. Six Feet Under: Beginnings count. Oh, yes they do. This show was the master of the spell-binding opening sequence that dared you to look away. It was impossible. I would try not to get sucked in, but somehow--even though you KNEW someone was about to bite it--I couldn't tear my eyes from the screen. Someone was about to die. Who? How? Why? If only I could master this art, I would be a happy woman. I guess the most important thing is that something always happened in these openings. They weren't static. There was no thoughtful rumination on life and everything, no extended periods of examining the weather. It wasn't always a bomb or something going off, but it was always something. You don't have to kill somebody on the first page, but you had better do it soon. Conflict begins with the first paragraph.

2. The Sopranos: Endings count too. This show had probably the worse WTF ending ever. Seriously. Nothing happened. No resolution. No answers. Nothing. They went inside. W. T. F. Don't do this. Even if your novel is part of a series, you must resolve the murder and provide some closure or readers will hunt you down and string you up by your toenails while they pummel you into unconsciousness with an organic carrot. M'kay, maybe not, but they will be pissed at you and that isn't what you want. It doesn't have to be a sappy, perfect, everybody-now-poops-rainbows sort of ending and it's okay to leave some questions and allow for a multi-book story arc, but you must actually reach some sort of resolution or risk losing your audience. {bonus lesson: most heartbreaking ending ever? Quantum Leap. What do you mean he never returned home? :cries:}

3. Quantum Leap: Keep your settings interesting. We never knew where Sam would end up next, but you can bet he wouldn't be sitting around the table sipping tea and discussing the weather--at least not unless he were in the body of a woman and there was a man with a gun or a bomb under the table or a rabid bat attack or SOMETHING. Static is boring. Sitting in the car is boring. The breakfast table is boring. Looking out the window is boring. Any scene can be improved by a unique location. Take the rabid bat attack and move it from the kitchen to the windswept plains of outter Mongolia. It's even better.

4. Seinfeld: A show about nothing. This won't work in a book and it really didn't work in Seinfeld. It wasn't about "nothing." It was about conflict. There is no story without conflict. Will George's boss catch him sleeping under the desk? Who will Jerry choose, Schmoopie or the Soup Nazi? Conflict! Every single scene, no matter how small needs the push and pull of opposing forces. Remember: static is boring. Movement is interesting. Without that push and pull there can be no movement. Kramer wants something. So does Newman. The race is on and only one can prevail. Conflict.

5. Survivor: Torture is fun. At least it is when it happens to other people. You've heard the old addage. Run your characters up a tree and then throw rocks at them until they fall and break something. Yes, don't be ashamed to torment your characters. No one wants to read your version of Mary Sue's Perfect Life. Everyone needs flaws and they need bad shit to happen to them or why else would we care. And the bigger the stakes, the more serious the risks, the more interesting the conflict. Give them a no win dilemma. Who will they save from the burning building, their child or their spouse? Either way, it sucks to be them. Yay! So enjoy creating your fascinating, defective characters. Fall in love with them. Dream about them. Talk to them when no one else is around. And make their lives hell. Your audience will thank you for it.

Okay, that is my first five. Next blog will be the final five lessons from TV Land. Stay tuned until tomorrow (or maybe Sunday.) Same bat time. Same bat channel.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Full of Awesome

I have a lot to rant about. Something (we're thinking opossum) has killed all my pet ducks. My queries have stalled. My writing has stalled. My work schedule for the next two weeks is grinding me to a nub. My insomnia is back and I've probably only slept three hours in the last two day.

Now I'm done. Yup. No long SpongeBob Rantypants style posts today. Today I'm going to focus on the fact that I'm here and alive able to hug my children. I'm married to a nice man who tolerates my eccentricity. I live in a lovely little town with a great school district. Both my children are healthy. My parents live close by and I see them every day.

I have a house filled with love and toys and lots of animal companions. This morning I woke up, hugged both my boys and trudged downstairs for coffee. My elderly dog who has been with me for 15 years padded over, tail wagging. I ate chocolate with my coffee and read a romance novel until it was time to get the kids dressed for school. There was no traffic on the way to school. The weather this morning is cool and lovely. We need the rain with which the hurricanes have thoughtfully drenched us.

I had plenty of hot water for my shower. Clean, comfortable clothes for work were hanging in my closet. There was no heavy traffic on my way into work. All my morning cases were resolved in my favor. I get paid on friday.

My neice is four this weekend and saturday will be a huge family party (Barbie themed of course). Everyone will be there and my sister will have double the amount of food required to feed us all. We'll sit around watching the kids play and keep careful eyes on the college football scores.

Amazon just shipped me the order I placed with all the gift certificates I got for my birthday last month. I should have about 10 new novels to read this weekend. I intend to spend Saturday night (and perhaps all night if I still can't sleep) sipping hot tea (decaf) and nibbling on ginger snaps while devouring my new books.

My life if full of win and awesome and on this anniversary of the day so many people lost their lives, I'm going to celebrate it. I'd like to pretend that I won't return to my whiny ways tomorrow, but the truth is that I'm funnier when I snark and I like to rant.

Just not today.

Friday, September 5, 2008

I can haz do over?


I suck at them.

There is no nice, sugar-coated way to say it.

It is a propostion universally accepted that a Soccer Mom in possession of a novel needs a better beginning. Or something like that.

I know all the wisdom about how to make a great beginning and yet I fumble them time and time again. I just looked at my WIP (I know. I know. Never look down. Too late. Dammit.) and realized that that I must have five pages of people talking and dancing. Dancing. And talking.


I don't kill anyone until like page 30. I'm thinking this needs a lot of work. I should plow on, but I have some ideas.

Cover me. I'm going in.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Uphill Both Ways...


In the snow.

Okay, so now I'm doing the hard stuff in my novel. I love, love, love reading historicals, right? And I adore research, right? Plus I've read like a zillion things set in this time period, right?


It seems like two steps forward and one step back. Everything I write sends me running for a reference book. I compulsively fact check because I have a horror of getting things wrong. If I get things wrong, I'll be called the stupidest laziest author to ever live. I'm not kidding. I read on a message board I frequent where a well known author got something wrong with the money system. You should have seen the scathing over-the-coals treatment. Honestly, folks sounded ready to banish her from the kingdom. It was scary.

I've loved the characters, but this mystery has taken more time to come together. It is finally starting to gel. I haven't written new words in three days (oh wait. I rewrote two scenes. I guess that counts. Nor really new, more like "pre-owned" words.) But I feel like I've answred some important who and whys, plus even a couple of hows that had puzzled me. There are multiple baddies running around (with varying degrees of badness) which was getting my little kitteh brain befuzzled.

Now if I could only find more information about the Chinese Pagoda that burned in St. James Park in 1914 during HRH's Grand Jubiliee. I want to throw a body off it and I need to know the feasibility of this. Strangely, I'm finding this info difficult to locate. Go figure. History books never do tell me the good stuff.