Thursday, October 23, 2014

Mysteries

And I'm back after a week in the Upper Peninsula, experiencing fall colors, decompressing and hanging out with the folks. I've had adventures, seen things that would make a billy goat puke, star ships exploding off the Belt of Orion, etc. Same old, same old. Lots of driving around, saw a littoral attack ship get launched in Menominee, ate a lot of good food, experienced nature, transcended my mortal frame and became a pure elemental being of thought and power. Well, some of that list, at least.

I've chosen the Spirals and Triangles story to blow up into a book. Entirely new plot, natch.

The first thing I did when I chose it was to sit down and reread S&T. Holy crap, I'd forgotten how fun that story was. It's actually rather intimidating to think about: can I do that for an ENTIRE BOOK? I mean, holding that voice and pace, keeping the characters awesome for a couple hundred pages. Keeping all the details of the setting straight (it's set in my Down & Out universe, after all, which is full of Weird Shit). Jesus.

I tend to think of things I've previously written as being written by a completely different person, an entirely different version of me which no longer exists. When I read something I've written before, I get psyched out by it pretty easily, particularly when I'm staring at a blank sheet of paper that doesn't even have a title yet and only the barest sketches of a plot.

I have queasy visions of science fiction writers who let their series go to seed, turning them into pale mockeries of the first book. I don't want to do that. If I took the time to make an interesting character, I don't want to betray them with crap writing.

I forget that I've always felt this way reading old stuff. Instead, it feels like I'm reading a story from someone who writes way better than I do, in the same field that I do, who's competing with me. Selective amnesia. Ugh, brains are a wonderful thing, folks.

In this case, the story works because it strikes a balance between comedy and world-weariness. There's a sort of off-kilter world out there tempered by the relationship between the Llerg and his adopted niece, Neah, which works really well, I think. It's also pretty funny in parts. And I've set myself the task of doing this for at least 60,000 words. Good lord, what did I talk myself into doing?

So I'm putting a hell of a lot work into figuring out the plot in advance. I want to make sure it hangs together well, there aren't any dead chapters, everything's paced smoothly and it all makes sense. I figure it's going to be another few days before I even consider actually starting the first chapter.

Both luckily and unluckily, it's a detective story.

Detective stories follow a pretty well-defined structure and formula. This makes them both easier and harder to write.

When I write them, I usually go about it a lot more backwards than I do more traditional stories.

Start with the goriest, most inexplicable killing you can think of. Something that would have the cops arriving on scene hurl immediately. I mean, yeah, you can make a crime novel out of accounting fraud, but that doesn't sell newspapers, kids.

Once you have that, skip to the end of the story. Sketch out the big reveal when the main character figures it all out. Figure out the prime motive, the means, who did it. All the sordid details, the why's and the hows. Write it up, if you have to, like you would the Wikipedia entry on that character detailing their life. Then work backwards from there.

Act I, II, III, etc. The big twists and turns, the red herrings. The other suspects who may or may not be involved. They all have their own agendas and alibis, the reason why your main character would finger them and also, eventually, absolve them. Figure out which one's going to go missing or die during the investigation. Maybe add another who shows up out of the blue a few chapters in, throwing the investigation out of whack.

This isn't a genre that thrives heavily on pantsing, unless you're a natural genius at figuring out crimes. I'm not. Hell, Agatha Christie, while fun to read (Poirot is the man!), gives me a throbbing headache. I don't think I've ever figured out a detective story before the end. Not even once. I'm an idiot.

Luckily, you can be an idiot as an author--you know all the answers, after all.

Also comforting is that, as a science fiction author, you get an automatic pass. The pure detective fiction readership is generally pretty unforgiving: they're better read than you, they're smarter than you and they're generally going to be at least two chapters ahead of you at all times. So you have to be pretty careful. They'll pick up on all the lazy thinking and cliches and run you through the wash for it.

Genre detective fiction? Not so much. In a world where octopi live in fifteen dimensions and lawnmowers are powered by dying stars, the reader will often not rake you over the coals if you skip a step or two while grinding through some deductive reasoning. They might not even notice that you fucked up how fingerprinting works because they're too busy thinking about robots. It's cool that way. It's not an unlimited pass, but you get a bit of wiggle room.

So I've been grinding through that. Twelve chapters, sixty thousand words. During this week, I'm not only outlining, I'm also coming up with three or four different motives for the bad guy to have. At the end, I'll pick the most interesting one and structure the novel about that.

The first motive I came up with was a bit too intellectual. The next write-up is going to be slimy and more greedy. I might go with a cynical take on altruism gone wrong. Or have a bit of fun with some cliches. Who knows.

This comes down to a topic I've touched on before a few times. Namely, that you should never immediately go with the first idea you have. The first idea is usually either crap or at the very least, monumentally uninspired. Maybe it has an interesting seed, but that's all it usually has. Interrogate your ideas like you would interrogate a particularly sleazy crime suspect. Prod them, slap them around, give them the fifth degree.

This is going to be pretty fun. Also, I think it will go a lot faster. With only twelve chapters I have a lot less room to work with. I also tend to do a lot better when writing under tight restrictions.

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