by Barbara Ross
Looking out at the melting snow and knowing there will be a fresh coating tomorrow. Sigh. This winter…
There comes a time with every book when I have to take a pause from rolling up word count to figure out what really happened. Not the vague hand-wave of the synopsis, but the mechanics of the crime and the precise roll-out of the who-knew-what-when. And then solve the problem of how, in a first person narrative, the sleuth figures it out. What can be revealed to the audience gradually so there’s not a big information dump at the end (which is where my current book was heading–hence the pause), but at the same time doesn’t give the game away?
I have to make a time sequence, minute by minute, of what happened on the night of the crime. If my murderer and several credible suspects have opportunity, as well as motive, I have to keep them all from running into one another. I have a book, unpublished, where the body is found on the golf course with the sprinklers running. II have so many people walking around that golf course in the middle of the night in question, it feels like I need a traffic cop.
Then I have to list every thread of the story beat-by-beat and then interweave them again into their most dramatic sequence, but also a sequence that makes sense in the story’s time and geography.
And that’s just the plotting. Then there’s understanding the characters and their motives. In mysteries almost every character has a secret and at some point in the process, I have to know exactly what each secret is.
I hate doing this, because I know with every decision I’m making, the perfect, but perfectly vague, platonic ideal of the book in my brain is disappearing.
In a recent article in the NY Times Magazine, Catherine Martin, Oscar-winning costume and production designer, said about her collaboration with her husband, director Baz Luhrman-
Often, when he starts a new project, she said, she can feel herself straining to grasp the idea. “I imagine it as if there’s something out there, like a shape that I can’t quite make out, and that he’s actually pushing my synapses to map the surface of this object. You can feel the pain of that mental effort.
Sometimes I feel that way chasing my own brain.
I have to push myself to do these tasks and it is exhausting, but I also know I can’t finish without doing them
So, fellow writers, does everybody feel this way? I know we all have different processes, but at some point in every project, do you have to take that trip through the tunnel into the light?
Doesn’t everyone? My biggest problem at the moment is that the light is so faint that I keep getting lost!
LOL, Kathy. Yes, getting lost…
Like you, I’ve always stopped–usually about 2/3 of the way through the book. I’m trying something different this time around. I have a tablet beside the computer where I’m keeping detailed notes, including clues dropped, what day it is, etc. I’m also jotting down what might need to change in a previous scene because of whatever. Whether this will help or not? We’ll see!
Whatever works, Joyce. Whatever works.
Going through that process was quite revealing for me, Barbara. I *did* have an info dump at the end. Taking bits and pieces out of the end, refitting them into earlier parts of the book where they made sense – and fitting them into dialogue or reflection – meant a lot of mental exercise.
It was good that i did it because I discovered that I had the wrong killer. It wasn’t that my original killer didn’t fit as a killer. But in the overall time frame – all those minute-by-minute, clock-ticking moments of who-did-what-when, it made more sense to have someone else be the killer. At the time of the murder, though, neither “murderer” really knew who’d done it (delayed death over time that made the story work better). Changing the killer also made more sense in terms of the personalities involved and why they were at the scene in the first place.
But what a struggle to take it there after working so long with another killer in my head!
Thanks for the post – makes me ever more conscious of how much work every author puts into the final product.
So much work! We only do it because we’re crazy.
My editor often jumps all over me because I’m far more interested in the “why” of a death than the “who”–which usually means I have few suspects up front. In my head there is really only one, with maybe a red herring thrown in, but not a crowd waiting to be eliminated one by one. My defense is that I’m mirroring the narrator’s process, starting from complete ignorance and slowly homing in on the most likely person. But we as writers have to play fair with the readers, dropping in details and hints and clues from the beginning, so the answer doesn’t come out of nowhere at the end.
I’m not a writer but a reader. As such, I must thank all of you for taking the time to do that. Nothing drives me crazier then reading a book where the author clearly didn’t think things through and the time line makes no sense in the end.
I can certainly see why it is a frustrating part of the writing process, but for the reader, it is well worth it.
I see those time line problems a lot in movies. I know what the director is doing–jamming the story into a compressed timeframe to up the pacing, but it still drives me crazy.
Funny, I don’t notice as often in movies. Maybe because there is so much else happening I don’t have time to think about it. But in books, I am focused on trying to follow the timeline, and when an author messes it up (two Saturdays in a row for example), it drives me up a wall.
I’m still trying to learn Scrivener.
I have so much happening in the last twenty-four hours that I’d go crazy without a timeline. Nice post.
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