Staying on Track

Many authors belong to a book group, for a number of reasons. One is a love for reading books, which often predates writing, but another is to listen to others’ reactions to a book that you all read. Emerging from the bubble of your take on a book can be an enlightening experience, sometimes a rude awakening. You want to know how different people felt, though, because a number of issues that are raised are germane to what you’re writing.

A common problem of a book discussion is wandering onto topics unrelated to the book at hand. Most people don’t understand how characters and themes are related, for one example. They only know whether they liked the main character. So once the motley assortment of opinions are raised, the talk may veer into an aspect that several people noticed, such as antisocial behavior. A book club member will discuss an example of an individual they know personally, often to highly humorous effect. That can lead to other personal stories.

Another common reason for drifting off the path is related to theme. A novel may cover a juvenile delinquent, say, and a member starts to discuss what they know about jails and recidivism (criminals returning to prison). That can lead to a form of competition about what members know about the jail experience, often engaged in by males in the group. Pretty soon ten minutes have gone by, and half of the group has their chin in their hand, bored by spouted knowledge they already basically knew.

As an author, you can research topics you don’t know, and you’ll find out much more accurate information that what someone recalls off the top of their head. What you can’t do is find out how others are reacting to a book if you’re not talking about the book. So it behooves you to keep the group trained on the main goal. 

The best way is to be prepared before the group meets. Draw up a list of questions about different aspects of the book. These lists are easy to find. You can look up, in the back of many books, the publisher’s suggested questions for book groups. You can look up online what other groups have asked about the book. Sparks Note and the like contain similar ideas. 

A group discussion is going to stray—that’s almost guaranteed. Yet you can cut it short, without being a jerk, by casually asking the next question on your list. It is likely that a bored member will respond with alacrity, bringing everyone back in line. Fewer ego rants = more provocative opinions for authors.

Exercise: You don’t have to be passive about creating lists. As you’re reading proposed questions, think about your reaction—and what you’d like to know about how others reacted. When you do that, you can tailor the list of questions to address what you’d like to know about issues related to your book.

“The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all.” 

—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Alignment of Beads

A smart author provides multiple suspects in a mystery so that the reader can enjoy guessing whodunit. Not only do you need to keep three or so suspects revolving in the reader's mind, you need to allot increasing importance to each of their clues. In other words, they cannot merely show up, although that is a useful practice. It also entails planting the clues in such a way that they add progressively toward the book’s climax.

That formula seems easy enough to follow. After all, you already have a list of clues that you have dreamed up. Let’s say that Henry was involved in an illicit real estate deal with the murder victim, Shawn. The question is, once we know that, where will he go from there? Are you going to provide some numbers related to the deal? Does learning about that lead to a construction-related person who is sinister? In other words, a clue not only has an intrinsic value in and of itself. It also forms part of a continuum of clues. The more the book goes on, the more you have to raise the stakes of the game. Clues nearer to the climax need to count for more, because in this realm you are playing a game of Top That. For example, after Henry’s revelation of chicanery you insert a lesser clue, that Henry does not have an alibi for several hours during the night of the murder. How is the reader going to react? They’re probably going to feel let down, because an alibi for the time of murder is one of the most common issues in mysteries. 

That is why a good mystery is so heavily plotted. I commonly tell authors that scenes in a plot line are like ever larger beads on a string. Let’s say you are assigning five clues to to each major suspect. You need to devise five clues that build from the first bead. Not only that, but you have at least three strings, a total of fifteen beads. Plus, you don’t want a clue for suspect #1 to be minor relative to the clues given to suspect #2 in the previous chapter. The net result would be that we are less interested in #1, because her clue wasn’t so hot. You do that several times, and #1 is becoming a long shot in the race, so you better have a pretty good twist to explain what she didn’t match up during the course of the building clues. 

The difficulty of adjusting these increasingly heavier beads explains why family relations so often plays a leading role in mysteries. You do not have to work as hard to explain why a wife was embittered by her cheating husband. A son’s caustic views of his mother may set up a pattern in which a minor clue suddenly makes him look very suspicious. The clues may be more minor, but they intrinsically possess more emotional weight. So if you are fiendishly devising how your mystery is going to bedevil readers, you might want to throw a close relationship to relieve your burden.

Exercise: Create a chart with multiple columns. Two vertical columns apiece are assigned to each major suspect, one narrow and one wide. In the narrow column you are going to insert the number of the chapter in which a clue falls, and in the wide column you are going to briefly specify which clue is being used. The horizontal columns are your timeline for the book. Enter each clue you have for a character where you think it should go. That way you’ll be able to see (1) the intervals between the clues for each character; (2) if each clue for that one character builds from the last one; and (3) how the progressive weight of clues matches up among the characters.

“Mere literary talent is common; what is rare is endurance, the continuing desire to work hard at writing.” 
—Donald Hall

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Just in Time

The determination of when to reveal the secret of a character is a vital consideration in the mystery genre, but the placement affects all sorts of stories. The author who rushes to divulge all of the interesting info on a character early on may find they have nowhere to go later. That’s because character building functions in the same way as plot building.

As a novel is opened, a reader starts with a tabula rasa. The promotion copy on the back cover may have provided an inkling of what the major characters are up to, but the experience is quite different once they are plunged up to the waist in whatever drama wants to draw them in. Most books begin with several characters to keep track of, and they are engaged in activities that are must be followed, not to mention the narrator’s comments and thoughts about the proceedings. Do I, as the reader, need to know dark secrets at this juncture? Of course not. I’m just trying to figure out the lie of the land.

Nor do most authors have trouble keeping the reader entertained in the early going. The reader is getting to know the characters, judging which ones to like more. Whatever initial plot gambit got the ball rolling takes a number of pages to play out. As an author, you can count on running out a string of 40 pages at least before you need to take further steps in the drama. In many cases the plot’s construction pushes the initial premise past the midway point.

Now is the time to consider opening a trapdoor. The reader learns, for example,  that the protagonist, who has alluded darkly to a past spouse, was actually run out of town on suspicion they murdered the spouse. Oh, I didn’t know that. That changes what others were doing concerning the character, as well as the reader’s view of the character. We knew something was going to come of the grumbling (the author’s setup prior to revealing the secret), but not exactly what.

Several more secrets can be dropped in during the middle stretch of the novel, helping to avoid any mid-book slump. As long as each one is more serious, affecting to an increasing degree the landscape the reader thought they already knew, the secrets further the obstacles the lead characters face. Their past—or, their ultimate aim—colors how the plot will progress.

You can hold a few final twists for the very end, but usually the climax sequence, of 50-100 pages, is filled with enough active steps forward that secrets don’t need to be employed. You set up the markers, and then you throw them all together in the final chase. Then pull the rug out a last time.

Exercise: Secrets will be most effective if you know what they are before you compose page 1, or well before you reach a plot point. Draw up a list, attach them to a main character, and rank the darkest, most weighty secret at the bottom of the list. Now you can devise the plot so that each secret injects the story with new energy.

“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
—Benjamin Franklin

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.