31 March, 2010

Day 9

Total word count for last 2 days:  too embarrassed to post.

It's been pouring rain here in the Northeast for the last 2 days and I've spent more time in the basement vacuuming up water (no sump pump) than writing.

I did sit down with my laptop 2 nights ago, but I couldn't seem to get motivated.  I've got some serious plot issues that have me stymied.  I've also been rethinking my protagonist, wondering if I should change her background/personality.  These are major hurdles, at least for this writer.

I tried free writing.  I don't know how that works for others, but it doesn't seem to do the trick for me.  I can write.  Give me a topic and I'll give you 1,000 words whether I know anything about the topic or not -- that's one of the things that got me through college.  My problem is relating the free writing back to my own manuscript.  Just doesn't seem to happen..

Monday night I decided to free write about a super power - a theme suggested at a workshop I recently attended.  The idea is to pick a way-out-there super power -- not something boring like x-ray vision -- and right a story or something about using it.  My super power?  The ability to pop popcorn with my mind.  And no, I had not been drinking.

Anyway, I free wrote (typed) for 5 minutes and ended up with a quirky little tale.  Amusing, but in no way helpful with my mystery.  And when I opened my manuscript back up, I was just as blocked as before.  What does popcorn have to do with my mystery?  Nothing.  But it sure tastes good slathered in butter...

Yes, I'd cleared my mind, but I still couldn't focus on the basic plot issue what is blocking me.

I'm not knocking free writing. Anything that clears the little grey cells should work, including exercising,  learning a new skill (mountain climbing?  lock picking?), or even doing a crossword puzzle.  The theory is sound, it just doesn't work for me. Some bacteria are drug-resistant; I'm free-writing resistant.

So, any suggestions on how to get back on track?  What do you do when you're blocked?

29 March, 2010

Day 7

Current word count:  3,791.
Now that I've got my protagonist down on paper, I need to flesh out the secondary characters.  These are the people Kensing will interact with on a day-to-day basis; turn to for help, advice or a shoulder to cry on.
Kensing is a neophyte caterer.  This means she'll need help not only with catering knowledge, but also with legal/police matters in order to solve the mysteries she'll face.  And, of course, we need a potential love interest.  What's life without love?
To that end, she is going to meet her future business partner, Abby, early in the first book.  At the same time, she will be meeting her second partner, AnneLise, a French woman who just happens to be married to the local District Attorney.   
Love interest?  How about a handsome, unattached police captain?  Maybe several years older than Kensing, but still young enough to give her a run for her money.  Friction between the two can gradually shift to grudging admiration/approval before moving on to something more meaningful.  This is stock fare for traditional mysteries, but then again, that's what makes them enjoyable reading.  The challenge is to add some unexpected twists and turns to their relationship, to make the tried and true new again.
Kensing's parents are globe-trotters, always off in some remote country, ironing out global economic problems.  This may be a good thing, as neither parent approves of her current business venture.  Indeed, both would be happy to see her married, pregnant, and settled.  I'd tell you what Kensing thinks of that idea, but bad language is not used in traditional mysteries.
In loco parentis, Kensing will turn to her paternal grandmother, Nanny, the matriarch of the family.  Her advanced age and physical frailty may restrict her movements to her Boston brownstone, but her wide circle of knowledgeable and influential friends will benefit Kensing .
Whimsy will be provided by Kensing's neighbour, Felicity, a middle-aged flower child and practicing member of a local coven -- white magic, only.
And let's not forget the obligatory pet.  In this case, a Golden Retrieve modeled after my own pampered pooch.  Unfortunately, the mystery world already has a Golden called Clue (mine's real name, as in "hasn't got a ….."), so her alter ego has been renamed Bailey (as in Irish Cream).  Here's the real one! 

26 March, 2010

Day 4

Yesterday's writing total: 1,076 words.  And half an hour's research into my chosen weapon - but that's a secret.

Characters need to change throughout a series, to develop and grow.  That keeps them interesting and real.  Characters succeed if they're vivid (if they have likes, quirks and habits the reader can relate to).  They need physical traits and internal motivation (what makes them do what they do).  When I wrote my first mystery -- Never Eat Fish on Monday -- I carefully plotted out character descriptions for my protagonist and the three recurring secondary characters.  I found myself constantly revising the charts as my manuscript progressed and the characters evolved. 

For 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall, I'm starting with the protagonist I developed last time.  It's a very detailed chart, running some five pages in total.  It covers everything from physical appearance to where she lives.  I also made a list of ten things you'd didn't know about Kensing , but that's a for another time.

Here's the Cliff Notes version:

Name: Kensing Shannon Keeley Delaney
Nickname:   Kenz or Kenzi                               
Birthdate:  12 Sept 1980
Age:   30, looks 16                                             
Eye Color:   Green                                 
Weight:   100 lbs, exactly                                         
Height:  5’2”
Distinguishing Marks: freckles
Hair: auburn, long, thick & straight. Usually worn in a long, french braid, or in a pony tail drawn through the back of a baseball cap
Favorite color:  green
Least favorite color:  purple
Favorite Music:  irish folk
Least favorite Music:  opera
Food: Any
Literature:   murder mysteries
Car:  1990 Chevy Blazer (klunker)
Drinks wine or beer
Hobbies: swimming, skiing, ice skating.  Anything outdoorsy except camping.
Hometown:  None.  Lived all over the world as a result of father's job.
Education: private schools, Princeton ( Summa cum laude English Lit.), Wharton (MBA, Strategic Management)
Religion:  Catholic
Mother:  Mairead (Margaret).  Relationship good, but strained at times.
Father:  Michael .  Relationship: Daddy's little girl, but he disapproves of women in business.
            Monsignor Sean, 38, parish in the Northwest 
            Ryan, 36, business guru turned peripatetic diplomat in some
            Patrick, 34, research at Cambridge, MA.
Pets: Golden retriever - Bailey
Greatest physical fear: darkness; lightening
     Why? Crib hit by lightening when baby
Greatest emotional fear: Not being as successful as male siblings
Past failure she would be embarrassed to have people know about: flunked driving test 6 times
Perfectionist and "practicing" pessimist. Extremely competitive, especially with her brothers
Mannerisms: twirls/chews on hair when nervous, upset or thinking
Peculiarities: allergic to clams/cats.  Can't watch a film or TV show if an animal is injured, or worse. 
Never met a piece of cheese or pasta she didn’t like.
Biggest regret: not being able to carry a tune
Accomplishments:  ability to swear in 27 languages
Darkest secret:  didn’t learn to drive until she was 22 because scared of she was afraid of hitting a pedestrian.

 Now you know as much about Kensing as I do.  What do you think?  Do you want to read about her or send her off to the nearest recycling center?

25 March, 2010

Day 3

I've set myself a quota of 1,000 words per day -- wishful thinking -- but it's something to aim for. Most days, I'll be lucky to 500 words down on the page, and I expect most of those will be revised or deleted down the road. But at least I'll be writing.

Big drum roll: yesterday I wrote Chapter 1, Scene 1, a total of 1,249 words. About fifty percent of them have a chance of surviving the editing process.

When I was a journalist, many, many years and careers ago, I learned not to obsess about getting it right the first time, especially the opening paragraph. Just start typing and let it flow. You can always go back and make it pretty. And it's a lot easier today with word processors than when I started with an IBM Selectric and a big bottle of White-out.

Chapter One opens with:
"Help! I need help. Please!"

I'm sure I can do better, but for now, I'm going to work with that. Believe me, it's a vast improvement over my first attempt at a mystery which opened with 12 pages of back-story, guaranteed to turn off agents and readers alike.

Several experts - I've been reading a lot of self-help books - suggest that after you write your book, you simply ditch the first couple of pages, and wherever that leaves you, that's your opening. I may just try that when I revise my first manuscript. I'm really trying to resist the temptation to dump information on my readers this time, but it's not easy. I've already purchased three red Sharpies to begin the editing.

24 March, 2010

Day 2

So.  I'm going to write a mystery.  Sounds easy enough.  All I need is a plot and about 70,000 words.  No sweat. Yes, I know I'm delusional, but that's an asset when it comes to plotting.
I am an unashamed Type-A personality.  Translate that into meaning that I will be working from an outline.  Said outline will become more and more detailed as the plot develops in my head.   That's why they include the outline numbering function in MS Word, right?
My genre -- cozy or traditional mystery - says my word count should be between 60,000 and 80,000 words.   I'm going to target 75,000 and cut from there.  This equates to about 300 pages in a paperback.
Ross Mahler is an author and screenwriter who has come up with a theory and a tool called the Script Beat Calculator. You type the number of pages in your script and Mahler’s Calculator will give you a guide (within a typical 3-act structure) of the page numbers by which the various “beats” in your story should be taking place. According to the "beat" calculator, my manuscript (were it to be a screenplay) should break down as follows:
  Opening Image: pg 1
  Establish Theme: pgs 1 - 14
  Setup: pgs 1 - 27
  Inciting Incident: 33
  Debate - Half Commitment: pgs 33 - 68
  Turn to Act II: 68
  Subplot intro by: pg 82
  Fun - Games - Puzzles: pgs 82 - 150
  Tentpole - Midpoint - Reversal: pg 150
  Enemy Closes In: pgs 150 - 205
  Low Point: pg 205
  Darkest Decision: pgs 205 - 232
  Turn to Act III: pg 232
  Finale - Confrontation: pgs 232 - 292
  Aftermath: pgs 292 - 300
  Final Image: pg 300

Now this may not translate directly to a mystery novel, but it will help prepare the outline.
First, however, I need a title, at least a working title.  I'm going to start with 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. It's kind of catchy, and I can hum along as I type or if I get bored.
My protagonist is a caterer, so beer ties in nicely -- there's nothing like a good pot of Carbonnade Flamande made with Belgian beer. I'm going to start out in her kitchen and move on from there. There will eventually be a potential love interest (Finn O'Malley is his working name) and a couple of friends/cohorts in crime.  Since I live in Fairfield County, CT, the action will take place in a town similar to mine, with a suitably disguised name to protect the innocent.  Or maybe the guilty.
Being a caterer provides my protagonist, Kensing -- or Kenzi, as her friends will call her -- with plenty of opportunity to trip over bodies, overhear threats, and otherwise become involved in mysteries.  Since I want this to eventually be a series, that's a big plus.
For this book, I've decided she will find the body of her client's husband lying, with his head bashed in, on the wine cellar floor.  Seems a shame to waste an expensive bottle of wine as a murder weapon, but we have to make sacrifices...
All that talk about beer has made me hungry, so here's a recipe for Carbonnade Flamande (or Vlaamse stoofkarbonade - Flemish beef stew) the way they made it when I lived in Antwerp as a child.
Tante Germaine's Carbonnade Flamande
3 Tbsp flour
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
2 lbs beef chuck (round or rump) cut into 1 1/2" chunks
2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, sliced
2 cups Belgian beer (two 12-oz bottles with some left for the cook)
1 Tbsp vinegar
2 bay leaves
1/4 tsp dried thyme
1 thick slice white bread
2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp brown sugar

Melt butter and oil in a heavy Dutch oven.
Mix the flour, salt, and pepper in a plastic bag.  Dredge the meat well in the flour, covering all sides and shaking off excess.  Sear meat in hot butter until all sides are brown.  Remove to a bowl. Add onions a sauté a couple of minutes, until they begin to caramelize.  Pour in half the beer and deglaze the pan, scraping up all the brown bits.
Add back the beef, the remaining beer, vinegar, bay leaves, and thyme,  If necessary, add  just enough additional beer or water to cover the meat.  Spread the mustard thickly over the bread and place, mustard-side down, on top of the meat.
Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally, until meat is tender.
Remove bay leaves, stir in sugar, and taste for seasoning.

Serve with noodles and beer to drink.

23 March, 2010

Day 1

The critical aspect of any book, plot aside, is the characters.  For a book to succeed, its characters must be either a) likeable, b) memorable, or c) both.
Not only is the character's personality important, but also his or her name.  Take the obvious Hannibal Lecter.  Not a particularly likeable character, but definitely memorable.  Read The Silence of the Lambs and you will never forget him.  Thomas Harris could have, I suppose, named his character John Davis, but would that have had the same effect? Hannibal rhymes with cannibal; Hannibal was also a fierce warrior.  Lecter?  Say it out loud.  It has a clean, slashing sound.  On another level, maybe we want to equate it to the church lector, the person who delivers the word of….Hannibal?
Harris' second character is Clarice Starling.  Clarice is a fantasy name, one a writer might give to a fairy princess, yet it derives from the Latin claritia or fame.  It can also mean illustrious.  So we have an illustrious fantasy paired with a plain, common bird, the starling.
Names are important for our characters, but what about their physical traits.  Some authors describe their characters in great detail, while others leave much to the reader's imagination.    I'm sure that if Sue Grafton asked her readers to send in a photo of what Kinsey Milhouse looks like, there would be a wide diversity.
To continue with Harris' characters -- I just finished rereading the book -- Harris gives us a a lot of detail without actually saying much.
Dr. Lecter's eyes are maroon and they reflect the light in pinpoints of red.  Sometimes the points of light seem to fly like sparks to his center.
….Dr. Lector wore the white asylum pajamas in his white cell.  The only colors in the cell were his hair and eyes and his red mouth, in a face so long out of the sun it leached into the surrounding whiteness; his features seemed suspended above the collar of his shirt.
Those two short paragraphs paint a vivid picture.  Each reader may see the picture slightly differently, but each will have a distinct image of Hannibal as they read Harris' book.
Most writers I've asked tell me that their characters take on a life of their own, and it is only at that point that the character becomes successful -- when the writer no longer controls what his character says or does.
Obviously we have to start somewhere, though, and the easiest place is with a character profile where we flesh out both our protagonist and antagonist (yes, we need both or there's no story).   Start with the easy stuff:  name, age, sex, profession, marital status, height, weight, ethnic background, religion, education, occupation.  Then move on to more individual traits: taste in clothes, mannerisms, favourite foods, pet peeves.  These are the details which will make the character come alive, take on a life of his/her own, and become memorable -- if we, as writers, have done our job properly.

So here goes.  My protagonist is a thirty-year-old woman who grew up competiting for attention with three older brothers.  She is well educated (Princeton MBA) and was on the fast track for partnership in a top notch NYC consulting firm -- until she ditched it all to be her own boss and start a catering firm, much to the horror of her slightly retro parents.  She's engaged to an "entrepreneur" and struggling to keep a new business afloat while planning a wedding only eight months away.  Her mother is helping with the planning, although help is probably not the word the bride-to-be would use.  Her name is Kensing Delaney. She's five foot two inches tall, weights exactly one hundred and one pounds, and her copper hair and thick dusting of freckles leave little doubt as to her ethnic origins. 
Kensing is a family name, my grandmother's maiden name.  So even though I've been warned that it is very similar to Kinsey, I'm sticking with it (for now).  Delaney is an Irish surname derived from the Gaelic Ó Dubhshláine.  It's clean, short, and recognizable. 
So there's my embryonic protagonist.  I know she'll change, grow, morph, but that's okay.   In the immortal words of Alison Willcocks:
If you love something, set it free.
 If it comes back to you, it's yours.
I can only hope Kensing comes back to me as a fully developed amateur sleuth, ready to take on mystery after mystery.

22 March, 2010

Day Zero

Earlier today I was sitting in the dentist's chair. On his ceiling was a pseudo newspaper with witty items and games, presumably to keep you amused while you're waiting for the real show to start. After I figured out the mathematical quiz (about 3rd grade level), one item caught my eye, a quote by Will Rogers:
"Even if you're on the right track, 
you'll get run over if you just sit there."
That made me think about my writing career. My stalled writing career. Some two years ago, having sold my software consulting company, I decided to fulfill my dream of writing a book -- a mystery. Had I known at the time the amount of sweat and tears (no blood so far) it would take, I probably would have taken up painting instead.
I didn't just decide to become a writer one day -- I'd worked as a reporter for several years before going back to school for an MBA -- but I was blissfully ignorant of what it took to write a book.  So, I started writing. And I plugged away faithfully, hour after hour, day after day, until the manuscript was finished. It took me a whole week and ran just under 10,000 words. Ooops…
I really did want to write a book, not a short story, so I went back and added a little here, a little there. I joined a critique group, went to some seminars, read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, etc.
After about 15 months, I started sending out queries. And receiving rejections -- lots of rejections. Not being totally stupid, I made revisions, and more revisions, until I thought I'd corrected all my "newbie" writer mistakes. And finally, I bit the bullet and forked over an obscene amount of money to an editor for a "critical read." Her feedback would have sent a weaker person straight to a "do you want fries with that?" job.
I treated myself to a couple of days of self-pity, enormous amounts of chocolate (and a couple of bottles of wine) before deciding that hers was only one woman's opinion. Everyone else, including my brutally honest friends, liked the book. So maybe -- make that definitely -- it needs some polishing, but it's not fodder for the composter.
So I've decided to start over. From page one. On a new mystery. I'm pretty sure I'm on the right track, but I'm just sitting there with mystery #1. I'm not giving up on the first one, but I think I need to keep moving. So here I am, starting a diary blog, of how I'm going to write my second mystery and get this one published!