As you can see, compared to yesterday's post, the lists of scenes for the second, third, and fourth quarters are growing. Partly that's the result of asking what must logically follow from the scene before.
But much of this growth depends on the new list of notes on the right. I learned some years ago from a book by James N. Frey that the story of a murder mystery starts with the murderer. The book may start with the sleuth's investigation, but the story starts earlier.
So, the extra set of notes on the right outlines what happens between the victim and the killer leading up to the murder. These are the events the sleuth, Nicole, will discover in the course of her investigation.
At this stage I need to spend some more hours thinking through cause-and-effect to fill out those four columns. Then I'll expand each of these sticky notes into a short paragraph, creating a step-by-step outline. Then I'll start a first draft.
There are plenty of great writers who do not outline. Instead they just start typing and keep going until they get to an ending. Most of them cheerfuly admit they write perhaps 500 pages to get a 300-page book.
I'm not one of them. Isn't it great we can all do this the way we want.
In yesterday's blog post about outlining the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, I showed four columns, representing the four quarters of a story according to Matt Bird in The Secrets of Story.
The gray notes in the first column, represent scenes. This list of scenes outlines the plot for the first quarter of the story. But without some structure, the plot might be a monotonous list of events. Things would happen but we might not be getting anywhere.
Those small gold sticky notes remind me of Bird's notes on the structure of the story. For instance, the third gold note by the first column says, "The hero discovers an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem." That's a good structural point to aim for early in the first quarter of the story.
I like being reminded that a story needs both a plot and a structure.
Bird developed his lists of points relating to concept, structure, characters, etc. by analyzing over a hundred successful films to see what they have in common. In his book, he arranges these into "The Ultimate Story Checklist," a way of testing the integrity of your story.
I'm using the points related to structure in planning this book. I'll use the other lists of points after I've written a first draft to diagnose problems to fix in the second draft.
At least, that's the plan for now.
A year and a half ago, I discovered The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird. At that time, I used his "Ultimate Story Checklist" as a tool for content editing, evaluating a draft of Dark Mural for further revisions.
Now I'm using Bird's book as I begin outlining the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery. Each of those gray sticky notes represents a scene: Nicole goes somewhere, meets someone, tries to accomplish something, and fails (or only partly succeeds). She must therefore proceed to the next scene to take the next step toward her ultimate goal, solving the crime.
The column of gray notes represents the first quarter of the story, which Bird calls, "The Challenge." Next to it are place-holder sticky notes for three more columns, representing the second, third, and fourth quarters of the story. Bird calls these "The Easy Way," "The Hard Way," and "The Climax."
By itself, the plot could be represented by one long list of events. Breaking it into four quarters is Bird's way of helping the writer hit certain marks along the way.
When I used this idea to evaluate a draft of Dark Mural I found I had mostly hit those marks without thinking about them because I had read a lot of murder mysteries had a feel for how they unfold. Still, I had to make adjustments.
I hope outlining with these four quarters in mind will let me write a first draft that is closer to being an entertaining story. As the outlining proceeds, I'll post new photos.
By the way, that circular object in the lower left corner is the thing you put your fingers into when you want to slide the closet door open.
My friend, Liz, and I visited Blackbird Guitars in the Mission District. This factory, about the size of a typical auto body shop, builds acoustic guitars and ukuleles using sheets of linen fiber strengthened with resin.
Blackbird says their product is sustainable because it doesn’t require harvesting hardwoods like mahogany and rosewood, which come from rainforests. True enough: flax, the source of linen fibers, is a part of traditional agricultural.
We gave their guitars and ukes a good workout, and they are very fine instruments. For all the romance about traditional wood construction, there is no reason good-sounding instruments cannot be made from other materials.
Playing guitar remains an important part of my writing life. After pounding out as many pages as I can, I play a few tunes. When I sit down to write again, it seems as if my brain has organized the words that come next.
It’s not unusual for authors to write in sprints, alternating with some activity to refresh the mind. Some take walks. I know one writer who plays pool. Patricia Highsmith writes about how important naps are for a writer. “I go to sleep with the problem and wake up with the answer.”
I sometimes take naps or go for walks, but focusing my brain and my fingers on rhythm, melody, and harmony seems to have an equally clarifying effect.
I volunteered to staff the table for the Mechanics' Institute Library at The San Francisco Writers' Conference this weekend. It was fun. Along with telling conference-goers about the library, I got to chat with them about their writing and mine.
Being there had an extra resonance for me. The SFWC was the first writers' conference I attended after retiring from academic life and starting to write mysteries.
It is a supermarket-style conference, covering everything from poetry to genre fiction, with journalism, and literary fiction along the way. It offers everything from how-to-write sessions to how-to-promote consultations. I got a good sense of what was going in the world of writers.
At SFWC, I met and talked with a fellow writer about my wish to join a writers' group. That writer told me the Mechanics Institute Library hosts groups for writers.
Four years later the Mechanics' has become my literary home. I've been in a mystery writers' group for three-and-a-half years, and have participated in many other writerly activities, including Writers' Lunch, every third Friday.
Representing the Mechanics' at SFWC reminded me of something I heard recently from fellow writer Ethel Rohan. Writers must be in community with other writers. One must be a good literary citizen. Hear, hear!
I admit: I'm not much of a sports fan. I enjoy going to a few Giants games with my wife each season. Recently I tagged along when The San Francisco Chronicle hosted an evening with three of its sports writers.
Susan Slusser is the beat writer for the Oaland A's and also writes about hockey. In 2012 she became the only woman to be elected president of the Baseball Writers Association of America in its 111-year history.
Al Saracevic is the Chronicle's sports editor and he writes a weekly column in the sports section. In the past, he has covered major stories in business such as the dot-com bust of 2000 and the recent financial crisis.
Henry Schulman has covered the San Francisco Giants since 1988. He has seen it all: the "Earthquake World Series" in 1989, the era of Barry Bonds, and the World Series championships of 2010, 2012, and 2014.
The hundred-or-so baseball fans gathered to hear this trio were a wonky bunch. Most of the questions about trades, free agents, and contracts were over my head, but I could feel the energy in the room as the writers geeked out for the crowd.
I also learned some lessons about writing. Saracevic said with pride that the Chronicle does not run formulaic reports such as, "The Giants won in the ___ inning when ___ hit a home run with __ men on base."
Slusser and Schulman recalled with joy interviewing players, teasing out the story behind the game, and writing in real time as the innings go by.
And then there was this: Schulman said the story is written from the bottom up. Intuitively I get that. You write down the thing that amazes you about the event, and then you lead the reader to discover it.
But I wish I'd had time to geek out with Schulman about how he does it.
As I prepare the third Nicole Tang Noonan mystery for publication, I am thinking about how the series will sell on Amazon. For one thing, the books must look good when shoppers use the "Look Inside" feature.
That means the potential reader must see Nicole discover the murder at the end of about twenty pages. With this in mind, I checked my new book and saw the murder was discovered on page thirty-one.
So I picked up my pen and marked everything that could possibly be removed from those pages or postponed until later in the story. I found that by doing so I could make the murder visible in "Look Inside."
I don't mind rewriting for the sake of marketing. Writers have always had to do so, especially writers of genre fiction.
By the way, traditionally there is no hard and fast rule about when the murder must be discovered. Agatha Christie puts the murder on page forty of The Murder at the Vicarage. Of course, she wasn't publishing on Amazon.
Successful writers seem to agree that to be a writer you must be a reader. For me, this becomes more urgent as I write more. Even re-reading an old favorite yields revelations. "So that's how she does it!"
Usually I read what I write, mystery and suspense, but a friend recommended this book (Thanks, Doug!). It's full title is Colorless Tsukuru Takazi and his years of pilgrimage.. I think it's fair to call it literary fiction as opposed to genre fiction (mystery, suspense, thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, etc).
Opinions vary on what makes a novel literary or genre. I got my definitions from an article by Laura Miller, book critic at Slate. Here's my summary of her discussion. In literary fiction, the action is like real life: mostly things happen to people. In genre fiction, the action is what life would be like if we had control over our lives.
In this novel, things happen to the title character. The first half of the novel describes the things that happen from the time he is in high school until he is in his mid-30s. At that point, he discovers something that changes his and the reader's understanding of the earlier part of his life.
If this were a suspense novel, it would start with this discovery. Tazaki now has what one genre writer calls a story question. What really happened when he was in high school?
In the second half of the novel, he talks to his friends from high school and comes to understand what really happened, just as the hero of a suspense novel would do. But he does so while continuing to accumulate experiences, as he did in the first half.
The author, Haruki Murakami, has an impressive list of published novels and awards. Clearly people enjoy his books. Those people might find a suspense novel too focused on action. Readers of suspense might find this book too leisurely in its descriptions. We all get to like different things.
I admire Murakami's writing, though I can't see myself writing what he writes. And, by the way, the English translation by Phillip Gabriel is a pleasure to read.
At my library the other day, I was working on publication of the third Nicole Tang Noonan mystery (more on that later this month). I needed to be sure about the physical dimensions of the book, but I hadn't brought a copy with me.
Then I remembered the library has a copy in its collection, so I went downstairs to the second floor where fiction is shelved alphabetically by author. After scanning past "Hoffman" and "Holmes," I came to where "Homan" should be and found . . . "Hopper."
After wondering why my book wasn't on the shelf, I ran to the catalogue, looked up "Dark Mural," and discovered it is "Due 01-18-19." It's checked out. Someone is reading it. The first Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, published last September and placed in the collection shortly after, continues to attract readers.
I know this is what we expect books in libraries to do, but this was the first time I became aware of my book doing it.
Last fall I was thrilled every time someone emailed a photo of paperback copies of Dark Mural and Dark Exhibit, along with the padded envelope they arrived in.
I've been thrilled every time someone tells me they got the ebooks.
I've been over the moon when someone says they stayed up late to finish one of the books so they could find out who done it.
Compliments and favorable reviews on Amazon are great, and it's nice to sell copies. But the real thrill is just knowing that people are reading them.
Reading this autobiography of Samuel Fuller, I met a man who lived a remarkable life and became a remarkable artist. He grew up poor, became a crime reporter while still in high school, wrote novels, fought in World War II, and succeeded as a screenwriter and director in Hollywood.
I'll be absorbing the lessons to be learned from this book for a while, but for now I'm focused on two ways in which Fuller exemplifies Stephen King's approach to writing as described in his memoir, On Writing.
King says the "Great Commandment" is "Read a lot, and write a lot." Fuller certainly wrote a lot: 42 produced screenplays, 11 novels, and 19 unproduced screenplays over a period of sixty years. Since he also directed the films made from most of those screenplays, his accomplishment is even more impressive.
Apparently he also read a lot since he often refers to ancient and modern works of literature as inspiration for characters and plot devices in his screenplays.
King also earnestly advises writers to write truthfully about their subjects. Fuller returns to this theme again and again, especially in reference to his movies about the Second World War: The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets, and others, including The Big Red One.
Producers, Pentagon officials, and J. Edgar Hoover all pressured him to portray American troops as heroes, dedicated to fighting for liberty. In each instance, he refused.
As a soldier in the First Infantry Division (the Big Red One), Fuller survived amphibious assaults in Northern Africa, Sicily, and Normandy. He was one of those who liberated concentration camps and fought all the way to Berlin. He knew there was nothing heroic about war. He portrayed it as chaotic and terrifying.
Sometimes he got to make the movie he wanted to make, sometimes his project was cancelled. He never compromised.
Fuller made other kinds of films, notably Pickup on South Street (1953), a cold-war espionage thriller and Shock Corridor (1963), set inside a mental hospital. I'm ready to see some of his films.
The Three works collected in this volume are Serenade (1937), Love's Lovely Counterfeit (1942), and The Butterfly (1947). They illustrate what a great writer James M. Cain was, and also why he is little appreciated beyond his first two works of fiction, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), and Double Indemnity (1936).
Serenade is about an opera singer whose career ends when he is seduced by a gay man from high society. Love's Lovely Counterfeit is about a driver for a mob boss who becomes the boss in a corrupt city. The Butterfly is about a moonshiner in Kentucky whose long lost daughter shows up to live with him.
Not only does Cain treat widely different subjects in these stories from the 1930s and 1940s, he does so in distinct voices. Love's Lovely Counterfeit is told in gangland slang. The Butterfly captures the stark poetry of Appalachian speech.
No one would say Cain should have continued writing about a man plotting with a woman to kill her husband, which is the subject of his first two books. But he might have stayed closer to his original material.
Instead, Cain seems to have set out to prove he could write in different styles about different worlds. He challenges his readers to try new experiences, but many readers want more of the same.
The three stories in this book have one thing in common with "Postman" and Double Indemnity. Each centers on a man trapped by his own compulsions. Cain's wrote consistently in the tradition of the naturalistic novel, but he strayed from the sub-category called noir.
"Where Bush Street roofed Stockton before slipping downhill into Chinatown, Spade paid his fare and left the taxicab." This is Dashiell Hammett's description of Sam Spade arriving at the scene where the body of his partner, Miles Archer, has been found in The Maltese Falcon.
In this photo, we are looking north on Stockton Street, through the tunnel. Bush Street runs across what looks like a bridge. Thus "Bush Street roofed Stockton."
Before the tunnel was opened in 1914, Stockton street rose steeply up one side of Nob Hill and ran down the other side. The part of Stockton the crests the hill can still be seen at the top of the photo. The original purpose of the tunnel was to create a level roadway for street cars.
The scene continues: "Spade crossed the sidewalk . . . went to the parapet, and resting his hands on the damp coping, looked down into Stockton Street." Sam Spade would have been standing at what looks like a stone fence on the bridge, facing in our direction, looking down.
"An automobile popped out of the tunnel beneath him, with a roaring swish, as if it had been blown out, and ran away." The white van in the photo did what Hammett is describing seconds before I snapped the shutter.
The scene changes as, "Spade turned from the parapet and walked up Bush Street to the alley where men were grouped.." That is, he walked to the left, as we view the scene. Today, at the mouth of that alley there is a brass plaque marking it as the place where, "______ shot Miles Archer." The plaque actually names the murderer. I refuse to do so.
The pages describing Spade's actions at the murder scene give much more detail about stairways, railings, buildings, and other details of this intersection. Obviously, Dashiell Hammett, who lived in San Francisco when he wrote The Maltese Falcon, walked this intersection and took detailed notes for this scene.
Somewhere I read that Elmore Leonard said, "I write about Detroit because I live in Detroit. If I lived in Buffalo, I'd write about Buffalo." Lessons from the masters.
When James M. Cain published The Butterfly in 1946, he added a preface. Perhaps he did so because it was a novella, about half the length of a novel, and he needed to bulk up the book.
Whatever the reason, this preface gives us glimpses into his life as a writer.
He talks about his travels in Harlan County, Kentucky and how meeting people and working alongside them in the mines and elsewhere gave him the desire to write a story about them. This sounds more like immersion than research.
He says writing for newspapers prepared him to approach a subject this way, and he praises other forms of writing as useful to becoming a novelist.
He disagrees with critics who compared him to Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway, and goes on at some length to distinguish his writing from theirs.
Most surprisingly, he distances himself from "the picture business," denying accusations that he writes with adaptation for movies in mind. Coming from the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, this is surprising, especially since several other works were adapted and he worked for a time as a screenwriter.
I've blogged about books by novelists that mix practical writing advice with memoir: Patricia Highsmith, Lawrence Block, Stephen King. I enjoy these because they teach me not only how they wrote, but what it was like to live through it. This preface by Cain is a miniature version of those books.
I grew up going to a library and taking notes for my school reports. I thought I was doing this simply to gather information, but there was something else going on.
Coin-operated photocopy machines showed up when I was in college. Instead of taking notes, I made copies and highlighted them. I thought this was more efficient.
The World-Wide Web came along, and I started cutting-and-pasting and downloading. Later I started bookmarking web pages. This seemed like a super-efficient way to gather information.
As my browser's list of bookmarks got longer, I had lots of information at my fingertips, but I found it harder and harder to use it.
Recently I decided to slow down the information-gathering and take notes . . . longhand . . . in a notebook.
I'm finding this very satisfying. It takes time and effort to read a blog post, for instance, and decide which parts to write down verbatim, which parts to summarize, and which to ignore. I become very selective because It takes even more time and effort to write the note or quotation in my notebook.
When I take notes, I not only gather information, I also think about it. I move some of it from short-term memory into long-term memory, and somewhere in my brain I must be connecting the new information with things I already know. Now I'm ready to use it when I want to write something new.
I see now that all that photocopying, highlighting, cutting-and-pasting, downloading, and bookmarking was only postponing this process. Some things you just can't automate.
SPOILER ALERT: I will discuss one aspect of this very suspenseful book, leaving out as much detail as possible.
Stephen King’s The Outsider starts out as a heck of a murder mystery. He convinces us the murder suspect and the man who arrests him are bitter enemies and makes us care about both. We find ourselves pulling for both sides in a struggle for justice. This is a remarkable accomplishment.
In doing so, it seems to me, King demonstrates the power of focusing on situation rather than plot. This is an approach he describes in On Writing: a memoir of the craft. Rather than outlining, he suggests the writer develop a detailed description of the situation the characters are in at the beginning of the book.
As an example, he shows how a news story about a man getting out of prison can be turned into something more intriguing. What if it’s a woman getting out of prison? What if she escapes? What if her husband doesn’t know she has escaped?
Once the enhanced situation is in hand, King suggests the writer begin with what the main character would do to get out of a painful situation and then imagine what new obstacle the character would face as a result. The writer then repeats the process until the main issue set up at the beginning has been resolved.
Working this way lets the writer discover possibilities that are not obvious when developing a simple cause-and-effect outline. That’s what King has done in The Outsider. It is nothing like a routine police procedural.