Planning, Plotting, and Tying it All Together

Red_Betsy

In response to “Winging It: Our Ever-evolving Mystery Writing Method #1,” another writer asked for hints on tying everything together and making sure there are no loose ends.

The authors of some books on plotting recommend calculating the number of scenes based on desired word count, then dividing the scenes to fit into a three-act structure, or a five-part structure, or whatever formula the author is employing. It not doubt works for some writers, but if did that, I’d never finish anything. It looks too much like the word problem from hell.

Some writers plot out all of the scenes and then write each scene, which are then pieced together—I can’t speak for Aki here, but that’s too organized to work for me. Our method (which is probably driven by my random thought processes) consists more bullet points noting where we want things to go. This “list” then evolves into a standard Roman numeral, Capital Letter, and Number outline format as we go. This outlining is a latter step, coming when we need more details to move the plot forward. Basically, we tend to solve problems as we go.

Yes, we had a plan for A Halo for Red Betsy, and we maintained a number of the original elements, but we didn’t used a more structured method because we didn’t want to be tied to any particular element. At least, I don’t.

For example, as I noted in the previous post, we had a killer, a motive, and a solution (how the detectives, Keegan and Takeda, figured it out), but as we developed the character of the killer, we realized that our assigned motive didn’t fit with his personality. That left us with one of two options: change the killer’s personality or find a new killer. Changing the motive could have been a third option, but we didn’t consider it.

This character was pretty well developed by the time we realized that there was a problem, but we also liked the character as we had created him and so didn’t want to make that change. Plus, his personality as developed tied into another aspect of the story that we wanted to keep, so that wasn’t going to work.

Which left us with either introducing a new killer early on (no surprise killer coming out of nowhere for us), or enlisting one of the existing characters. We chose the latter, which then required making changes to that character, including more scenes.

Given that we use a method by which we are not tied down, how do we tie everything together?

We read it, then read it again, and keep reading it, always considering how things fit. It works something like this: Frank did X on page 36, but now the situation on page 112 is such that Y would have been the better choice. And so, I go back and change X, and subsequent references to X. Then re-read it some more to be sure everything fits. It’s like frosting a cake; it looks messy, you get it smoothed out eventually.

A Halo for Red Betsy, available in paperback and on Kindle.

Our Mystery Writing Method #1

Red_Betsy

I got the idea for this blog while reading Alicia Dean’s Find the Magic – How to Plot a Story in 10 Easy Steps, a $0.99 Kindle book that I like for a couple of reasons. First, it’s short and to the point (Here’s what I do, here’s how I do it.), and bereft of the excess verbiage (and excessive self-promotion) typical of such how-to books. Second, while some of her steps are what one expects to find in such a book, in some cases, she is less conventional. For example:

“Get to know main characters, at least a little. For me, I don’t really know them until about a third of the way through the story. Whether you know yours thoroughly or partially is up to you. I personally dislike lengthy character questionnaires, profiles, interviews, and so forth.”

BOOM! My approach, exactly. Still, her system is more methodical then how we (my co-author, Aki Liao, and myself) went about creating A Halo for Red Betsy, the writing of which was a haphazard affair. As was the writing of the second in the series, The Cheongsam Bombshell.

However, I’ve been reading books about plotting because we’re considering a more complex story for Lost Daughters, the working title of the third Frank Keegan mystery. Plus, we’re hoping that more planning will shorten the overall writing time.

How we came to write A Halo for Red Betsy is recorded there, so I’ll skip that story and jump to the process of writing it.

The basic structure of a mystery requires a crime (with murder being the most common), a setting, and a detective or detectives. We first conceived this project back in 1998, so I don’t recall which came first in our planning, and I’m not sure it matters since moving forward requires all three. Some books name the perpetrator as the fourth essential element, but we managed to get going without being particularly clear on this point.

Naming the killer did come next, however, even though we ended up with different killer by the time we finished it (explaining that would give too much away). We also thought that developing a solution to the crime at the beginning would help the process, but that changed with the killer. Then our beta-readers so hated the new ending, so we had to rewrite it anyway.

From this I learned that while planning has advantages, letting the story develop “organically” also proved fruitful. And not that difficult (a lot of text did end up in the trash, however). I’ve read many mysteries and know what’s suppose to happen; the conflict in the story needs an ebb and flow. For me, that works something like this:

The last conflict occurred X number of pages ago—time for my detective to run into some trouble. As I said, haphazard, but we’ve made it work. Twice.

We took the same free-wheeling approach with our supporting cast and our clues (and red herrings), but I’ll save those discussions for future posts.

A Halo for Red Betsy, available in paperback and on Kindle.

The Exile Has Ended

 

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The previous name of this blog was “Tokyo Exile,” but now that the exile has ended and I’m back in Hawaii, I’m renaming, and re-tasking, the blog to serve a new function.

I returned to Hawaii to write, and specifically to write mysteries. My co-author, Aki Liao, and myself have so far written two historical mysteries set in post-WWII Honolulu. The first, A Halo for Red Betsy, was begun in New Jersey, and finished in Tokyo and Taipei (where Aki currently lives). The second, The Cheongsam Bombshell (due out in March 2015), was written entirely in Tokyo and Taipei.

However, writing about Hawaii from outside of Hawaii was proving to be more difficult, so, when the opportunity to return presented itself, I took it.

So now I’m on the Big Island working on the third Frank Keegan mystery, which will also take place mostly in Honolulu (Frank may have to go to the Philippines). So yeah, I know, living in Honolulu would make more sense than Hilo, but this is where I am.

This new blog, Winging It, will be dedicated primarily to discussing my writing process, and our (mine and Aki’s) approach to mystery writing.

Green Flash

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I stand on the beach, staring out at the flat sea, thinking this is how must have first appeared to Magellan. The movement of the water lapping at my feet is almost imperceptible.

A band of gray clouds hang over the sea, but the horizon is a straight line. As the sun breaks through the clouds, angelic shafts of light cast a blinding slick upon the sea. The clouds then thickened, pushing the perfect red yoke of a sun toward the now burning sea.

“Hey,” I hear Josie yell from behind me, “c’mon or you’ll miss it.” I turn to see her heading up the beach, to the iron stairs bolted to the nearly sheer cliff.

I’d moved the California the previous month, fleeing the small Midwestern town where I’d grown up; I’d left the day after I graduated from high school. My mom had come west after divorcing my dad a few years earlier, but I had stayed to finished school with my friends. My dad re-married and by my junior year, I knew I’d made a mistake, but decided to stick it out. Even that was a bad choice, but thanks to Josie, I can now live with it.

“Miss what?” I yell back. She keeps running, her tie-dyed skirt flowing around her.

Josie is the daughter of one of my mother’s friends. I met her the day arrived and fell for her immediately, but didn’t know to gauge what she thought of me. Back in high school, I was one of those loner kids who were frequently bullied and awkward around most people, especially girls, who would seldom give me the time of day anyway.

Josie was different. She didn’t care that my hair was short, my glasses square, and that my clothes looked as though I’d just walked off the farm. To her, everything was beautiful and groovy.

I reached the top to find her sitting in the grass at the edge of the cliff. I sat next to her and asked again, “What am I missing?”

“Shhh,” she said, smiling and point out to sea. “Watch.”

So I watch. The clouds and the sea had turn lavender, separated by a strip of yellow ochre. The ragged clouds higher up are bright splotches of bittersweet pink—higher still, I can see the slightest sliver of a moon.

Then, as the last light of the drowning sun ranges the spectrum and ducks beyond the waves I saw it, the green flash.

We don’t speak, and as the night and stars enveloped us, I finally take her hand.

coyote go see whats what

coyote_pretends_to_be_a_cardboard_box_by_hoaxeye-d5r85hb

coyote he hungry powerful hungry
and they tall-walkers they movin’ in
tearin’ up the ground  scarin’ off
rabbit and snake they timid folk
don’t like much coyote anyway
squirrel and mouse they stay
coyote still powerful hungry

yeah they tall-walkers they
movin’ in buildin’ they strange
hutches, they bright hutches
makin’ rabbit get gone snake too
they bring some big others
some not so big others
some small others too

coyote but not puma but not
easier than rabbit sometimes
sometimes not
still tasty but too few

so coyote go down
down to the strange canyon
with the hard ground and
the big movin’ run you down
you not careful yeah coyote
go down and see what’s what
tall-walkers they dangerous
but they tall-walkers
they always have food

 

This piece came to me pretty much as is, and pretty much all at once, upon hearing an audio presentation of Calvin Forbes’ “Talking Blue” about a raccoon in New York City. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/242274

The photograph, Coyote Pretends to be a Cardboard Box, is by my friend, James Sorby, AKA, hoaxeye on Deviant Art: http://hoaxeye.deviantart.com/art/Coyote-Pretends-to-be-a-Cardboard-Box-348060863

The painter of the mural is unknown to me at this time. 

Hagridden — Guest Author Post #1

Hagridden Newest Cover

Hagridden is a historical novel by Samuel Snoek-Brown, published by Columbus Press (ColumbusPressBooks.com).

Straddling the line of historical and contemporary literary fiction, Hagridden is a haunting drama that unflinchingly approaches race, culture, apathy, and humanity stripped to its core. It reveals what real people will do to endure, as well as how some morph into unrecognizable beasts while others hollow into shells of their former selves.

The novel follows two women struggling to survive in the war-torn South as the Civil War tumbles to an end. In a storm-ravaged bayou, their efforts and sanity are further threatened by the intrusion of a revenge-bent Confederate officer and supposed sightings of the fabled rougarou, a fierce wolf-like creature of local lore.

Shaded in Southern Gothic and classical motifs yet written in a sharp contemporary style reminiscent of Tom Franklin, Charles Frazier, and Cormac McCarthy, Hagridden presents a strangely beautiful world where humanity plays the contradictory roles of protagonist and antagonist.
Hardback, paperback and e-book editions of Hagridden are available at Amazon.com and at all major e-book retailers.

Find Hagridden here! Link to- http://www.amazon.com/Hagridden-Samuel-Snoek-Brown/dp/0989173798/

When Love is a Habit You Don’t Know How to Break

love_habit_2

She had wanted to surprise him, to prepare dinner and get everything ready. He had wanted to go out, but she had a better idea. What idea, he had asked, but she told him he’d have to wait. And so, she had taken a half-day off and left work early, but the freezing rain had come unexpectedly, and the roads had not yet been salted. He wasn’t sure that anyone at the time knew it was needed since the temperature had dropped so suddenly.

He left the college late, unaware that his wife was not yet home. He usually called her before leaving, but had been distracted by a student wanting a last minute conference. He didn’t think much about it since he’d home soon enough.

The ambulance was gone by the time he arrived at the spot where her car had skipped into a tree, an old maple that stood skeletal against the fading light, but the sheriff was still there. The red and blue flashers on his cruiser had cast alternating shadows as he walked toward the professor, who waited in his car.

What’s going on, Sheriff, the professor had asked, but then saw the car.

I’m sorry, the sheriff had said. She’s alive, but that’s all we know. I’d better drive you. The professor nodded, handing his keys to a deputy who would bring his car later.

At the hospital he learned that she probably wasn’t aware of the cold when the hypothermia overtook her, having been knocked unconscious when the airbag failed.

That, perhaps, was a blessing.

A blessing, he agreed numbing.

She had been found too late; there was nothing to be done.

He continued to nod, mesmerized by the lights and beeps of the machines that were keeping his wife alive.

Do you know if she had a DNR? No, he had said. No, she did not.

She’s an organ donor, according to her driver’s license. What do want to do?

He stared at the doctor, uncomprehending. The machines continued to beep and blink.

When he finally got home, he found that she had purchased all of his favorites including a rolled roast for the rotisserie; it eventually spoiled and had to be thrown out.

He took all the leave he could, then a sabbatical, declined summer classes. She lie in her bed, unmoving, wasting away. He worked her arms and legs, massaged her muscles so they wouldn’t atrophied, preparing for the time when she would finally wake up, which he knew would never come.

His world narrowed to his home, now empty and hollow, his wife’s hospital room, and the vistas offered by history books. The ancient past was safe, a comfort. Those people were not dying; they were blessedly long dead. Traversing his own past, their past, that was now dangerous, a constant reminder that “they” were now a statistic.

By fall, he had to return to the classroom. Everyone murmured the proper, empty words. Time to return to the living, his friends had said. He’d nod and thank them, appearing to agree. He knew he would not rejoin the living until she did, which she would not.

He offered only his standard classes, the ones he could teach in his sleep, the ones he could phone in. It would be his last semester nonetheless. He should have seen it coming.

The end came on the heels a girl, a sub-par student used to getting by on her wits and charm, which included ample breasts that strained against her always too-tight blouses. She knew he was married, knew his wife was in a coma, but thought she could work that to her advantage. When she was unable to seduce him, when he refused her offer of sex in exchange for a passing grade, she went to the administration and accused him of what she had offered.

Her actions were so blindly selfish he could barely fathom what had happened. He lost his position, and with it, his insurance. The machines keeping his wife alive were expensive to run. He would soon be forced to pull the plug.

The student eventually recanted, but it no longer mattered. The damage was done and he knew he could not go back to that or any other school. It didn’t matter that he was innocent; one does not get out from under such charges. And besides, his wife was dead.

The day he was packing up his office, the student came to see him, begging forgiveness. Instead, he thanked her, saying he too had been selfish. He wanted to strangle her.

Through the entire ordeal, he had managed to hold it together, the days and nights beside her bed, the endless cups of bad coffee, the lack of sleep, the green line going flat, the green line screaming.

She had not believed in embalming so he was spared from seeing her dolled up, looking so natural.

During the prayers and eulogies, the trip out to the cemetery, even the lowering of the polished box into the earth, he held it together so well that he began to wonder if wasn’t he who was dead.

But then came the dirt, throwing the dirt into the hole, the dirt that would cover her forever. He couldn’t do. With both hands full, he sank to his knees and wept. Someone, he didn’t know who, tried to console him, to get him to his feet, saying it’s not what she would have wanted.

He shook them off and continued to howl.

By the time he had spent himself, everyone had gone and the sun was low in the sky. He stood and looked around, saw a shovel leaning against a tree, took it up and stood next to the hole. Some moments or hours later, a workman, an old black man he’d seen around town but had never spoken to, appeared at his side, and with more kindness than the man thought possible, said, here, let me do that.

The professor shook his head, saying no, he had to do it, but all he could do sink back to his knees and resume weeping, holding on to the shovel for balance. He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up expecting to see the old man, but instead found the face of the girl, the student.

He felt her hand on his arm, urging him to his feet. He could not comprehend why she was there, what she wanted, but he stood willingly nonetheless. He let go of the shovel, allowing it to fall to the ground. She took his hand, beckoned him to follow. He hesitated but then complied, allowing her to lead him into the gathering darkness.