Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Mind Of A Mystery Writer, Part Deux

I participated in a panel discussion on crime writing the other day as part of an all-day program called Literary Life in the Lymes that was held at Old Lyme Town Hall.   Believe me, this was quite some impressive event they put together.  There were panels crammed with local poets, children's authors, illustrators and non-fiction writers.  There was even cake.  Really good cake.  Honestly? I had no idea there were so many talented people living in this area.  My panel featured top-notch crime writers like Jim Benn and Eugenia West.

Anyway, when our moderator threw things open for audience questions a very nice lady looked in my direction and asked how I manage to write such intricate murder plots.

To which I replied, "Excuse me, are you talking to me?"

She was talking to me.  "Do you already know who committed the crime before you actually start writing the book?" she went on.  "Do you start with the ending and then write your way back to the beginning? Or do you have no idea who the killer is as you go along? How do you do it?"

How do I do it? Wow, how do any of us do it?  Really good question.  If you ask a hundred mystery writers how they do it you'll get a hundred different answers.  Trust me on this.  I know a hundred mystery writers.  And we all go about our business differently.

Some writers like to outline the entire mystery in great detail, scene by scene, before they ever start writing it.  They want to know in advance exactly who did what, why, when and how.  I don't do that.  For me, outlining a book in advance eliminates the joy of discovery, which is half of the fun of writing (the other half is finishing).  Outlining also reminds me way too much of my years in television, where you're often required to break a story down, scene by scene, before you're allowed to go to script.

Some writers are strict adherents of Sturgeon's Law, a philosophy attributed to the great fantasist Theodore Sturgeon that goes something like this: The reader can never know where the story is going if the writer himself does not know. In other words, they have zero idea ahead of time who the killer is. They're uncovering who did what as they go along, much as the reader is.  I don't do that either.  For me, it just doesn't work.

How do I do it?  Here's how: Before I ever set out to write a mystery I need to be able to grasp in the palm of my hand what the story really, truly is going to be about.  Which means I want to know who did the killing and, more importantly, why they did it.  I can usually sum it up in a single sentence: The sister killed her brother so she wouldn't have to share the inheritance with him.  Once I know that then I can start having some real fun.

For me, writing the first draft of a book is a lot like taking a cross-country car trip.  It's a journey.  I know that I'm starting out in here Connecticut.  I know that my destination is, let's say, Los Angeles (see above re: sister killing her brother so she won't have to share inheritance).  What I don't know is which roads I'm going to take or where I'm going to stop along the way or who I'm going to meet or what sorts of strange, interesting things are going to happen to me.  I have no itinerary.  I don't want one.  I want to be surprised.  That's the whole point of making the journey.  I'm excited when I wake up in the morning because I don't have any idea where I'm going to end up that day.  I just get behind the wheel and start driving.  Sometimes I get lost.  Sometimes I stumble onto wonderful people and places that become the highlight of the novel.  The only thing I know is that I will eventually arrive in Los Angeles.

It usually takes me about six or eight giddy, dizzying weeks to get there.  When I have what's before me on my desk is a very sketchy draft of the book.  It isn't until I write my second draft that I strap on my tool belt and really begin to construct the book.  That's when I focus on the mannerisms and speech patterns of the characters who I've met along the way.  Describe the places I've been to in detail.  Do the research I need to do.  And so on.  I usually produce about 25 pages of second draft a week.  Then I spend a couple of months cutting and polishing.  That's when my pacing and style come to the forefront.  I pay little attention to my voice early on.  I'm just trying to have fun on my way to Los Angeles.

That's how I do it.  And it's how I've been doing it since I first started writing mysteries 25 years freaking ago.  You want to hear something insane? I thought I was going to write one mystery and then move to something completely different.  But, like I said, I have no itinerary.  I want to be surprised.  And I almost always am.


1 comment:

  1. You cant imagine how much I enjoyed this post! I so genuinely enjoy the Books you write!