musings, thoughts, and writings of Barbara W. Klaser


September 20, 2007

Into the shadows

Bruce at Wordswimmer writes about story endings in his post, Where the River Ends, and that got me to thinking about some of the problems I’ve encountered in ending mysteries.

With a mystery, the question of how to end the story begins with which character did the crime. I no longer start with a specific villain in mind. The story often changes so much in the writing that a pre-planned ending has no choice but to change as well, or it wouldn’t make much sense.

In the last couple of mysteries I’ve written, I was as surprised as anyone by who the villain turned out to be once I got to the second draft or later. That’s okay, and it has a lot to do with how I develop characters. If I know who the villain is too early, I’m in danger of giving it away, offering hints I’m not even aware of because of my judgments about that character.

If I start out thinking the villain isn’t a villain, I can get to the heart of that character sooner in my own mind. I can get to know him, let him grow and round out on the page. I’m an idealist, and I really like to see the best in people, so there needs to be that spark of sympathy first, without letting on even to myself that he or she is a killer in the making. I guess in that regard my characterization is as organic as raising a child. What mother imagines her infant would harm anyone?

This process forces me to explore the shadows, my characters’ shadows as well as my own, to see possible motivations, both conscious and unconscious.

I first encountered the shadow, as a human concept, in stories I read. I confess that I didn’t understand the concept very well when I was young and still in denial that I had a shadow or that any good person did. But one encounters this idea many times, if one reads at all widely, and the reason for that is it’s a universal truth about human nature.

In exploring the shadows, I’ve come to see that a fully rounded character, even if he’s the good guy, has a shadow, whether that shadow is clear on the page or not, whether that shadow is negative or positive. I want to know each major character’s background as well as possible, so I start with the positives and work my way into the negatives. Though it hurts me to watch a character I’ve come to like or sympathize with cross the line into murder, at least the biggest puzzle of the mystery isn’t lost on me, and I’m not giving the killer away up front. If I decide the murderer needs to be someone else, not the person I thought it was going to be, I don’t have to cast about too far for someone else who could have done it. In truth, any one of the characters might be capable of killing, given the right circumstances and motivation. They all have their shadows. By the time I get to my final draft, I usually have a few characters that, with nudges into poor choices and flawed rationalization, could become much darker individuals. That’s usually a key to how I end the story. Which character, which nudges, and which choices? Which fits this need best? What motivates the villain to do the awful deed and also causes him or her to get caught in the end? How will the reader be surprised and at the same time see that this person and the clues leading there were present all along? (Foreshadowing will have to wait for another post.)

My exploration of the shadows has made me think a lot about the choices we make in life, and how important each one is, especially when we stack one choice on top of another in the way that we sometimes come to think of as inevitable. We don’t have a choice in everything, certainly, but sometimes when we look back over our lives or a course of events, we can see the turnings we’ve made, and many of them were choices, that brought each of us to be who, where, and what we are today. When we’re accountable for those choices, I think we improve our ability to move forward and make better ones.

If there’s one positive effect fiction can have, perhaps it’s to get us to take a look at the cause and effect of choices. What are we capable of? What would we do in the same situation, and where might that take us or what might it make of us, and our world with us? The stories that get me to think in those terms are the stories that stay with me.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 1:13 pm PST, 09/20/07

April 13, 2007

Paper to digital

Has it been more than a week already since I posted? I lost track of time during my panic of the past few days. The other night, after a glitch occurred when I ran my backup program, I thought I’d lost all my files for my current book in progress. Panic ensued, while I scrambled to find and undelete the files. I spent almost 24 hours straight on that, with little sleep, piecing together fragmented files, hoping I still had a complete book there. Finally I came across the directory on the backup computer where my backup program had stored a complete second archive of everything — perfectly intact and up to date, including every last minute of my work on the book.

All that panic because I was too dumb to know my backup program stored an archive of deleted files, and because I had allowed too much other garbage to backlog on my hard drive. (The glitch occurred when that particular hard drive filled up.)

I could sit here and ask why me, or rather ask why I do this to myself, but I’m too busy getting back to normal and on with work. Still, it seems that I go through this sort of panic on a regular basis. It happened two years ago when my old laptop gave out and I lost work that I hadn’t yet backed up. This time it resulted from the backup process itself.

Once I’m finished with this book and it’s off getting a look by some agents, I plan to spend a few weeks getting my life in better order, including both paper and digital files, to prevent future panic episodes.

But one thing I noticed during all of this was that I don’t tend to print out what I’ve written as often as I used to. In spite of what might’ve been lost, overall I consider that a good thing, a good sign that I’m making my personal transition from paper to a digital world.

I admit to some affection for the paper world. It’s what I grew up with, and where I found my love of books and the written word. There is still something sensual to me about the feeling of pen and paper or a book in my hands. I like the shape of the book, the weight of it, the toothy or smooth texture of paper, even the smell of ink, paper, and binding materials. I still recall with nostalgia the particular smell of the book I was handed in third or fourth grade when we studied the culture and geography of Japan. Ever since, I’ve looked for similar qualities each time I open a new book. All these things make letting go of the paper world a clingy process.

At the same time, I love trees. Because of that, I’ve always been troubled that my chosen form of expression — writing — has a history of felling so many trees. So when I went through my computer files and some paper files over the past few days, I was pleased to realize that I recently have less tendency to print as I write. I used to feel a need to print out what I’d written more frequently, to edit or proofread on paper rather than onscreen, or just to get a sense of what the printed story would look like.

Maybe it’s so many years of writing on a computer that’s changed this. Maybe it’s the laptop’s portability and reduced glare being easier on my eyes. Maybe it’s no longer having a job that requires me to stare at a screen all day and then do the same all my evenings and weekends for my fiction writing.

Maybe it’s blogging. The immediacy of blogging tends to encourage me to edit onscreen. My blog is even set up now so I can view what I write in two or three different fonts before I post it, which I think aids the onscreen editing and proofreading process.

Maybe it’s a combination of all those factors. It’s interesting to note that more publishing venues have opened up to electronic submissions just since the CRT monitor has begun to vanish. Hopefully the less glaring monitors that are replacing them will be much easier on all our eyes, and continue to save more trees.

I still write a good half of my personal journal pages by hand, and I still use handwriting to jump-start or unblock my writing process. This blog post is in fact a segue from my morning pages. But my journal pages don’t get reproduced, except by typing them into a digital format, and they’re unlikely ever to be published in book form. The paper is eventually recycled if they do become digital, so I’m not as concerned about my journal pages killing trees. At least that’s what I like to tell myself.

Now if we can get the ebook technology to the point where fewer paper books have to be printed, at least for popular fiction, then we’ll have made real progress in taking publishing from deforestation for profit to a more pure form of edification, expression, and entertainment. Of course there will always be uses for paper. I can’t think of a better way to keep certain legal documents or accounting records, right now, though that’s not a world I work or have much expertise in. There are also some types of books that just work better, for now, on paper. One that comes to mind is the coffee table variety, with color plates of artwork or photography. But the less trees cut down for paper and books, the better.

Even if what this Guardian Unlimited article says is true, that planting more trees in temperate latitudes won’t help assuage global warming, it also states that destroying more trees isn’t the answer, that the greater need, and indeed our motivation for attempting to slow global warming, is to preserve ecosystems, including but certainly not limited to our own.

Perhaps my panic over my files had some value. It got me not only to change what I file away on my computer and how I back it up, but also to take a hard look at how I use paper, to keep heading along the road I’ve started down, of conserving wherever it’s reasonable, and wherever I can.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 2:16 pm PST, 04/13/07

March 7, 2007

Words and weeds

Why is it that seeds I plant never sprout and grow the same way weeds do? They’ve sprung up since our last few rains, and the yard is now lush with their greenery. Yesterday I went out and murdered some weeds to keep the foxtails and other burrs from developing and spreading even more. I barely made a difference. I thought how my words sometimes grow the way weeds do, with wild abandon, and then have to be trimmed, uprooted, rearranged, or killed on the page, so the flowers can show through, get their piece of sunlight, and be seen by anyone but me. Sometimes both Mother Nature and I are too creative.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 11:53 am PST, 03/07/07

January 16, 2007

Pages to Paragraphs: conquering inflated word count

My weakness as a writer is wordiness. I’m painfully aware of it, and it still plagues me after years of working to improve my fiction. This is a serious problem. No one in the business will consider a manuscript over a certain length, let alone publish it, from a first-time writer. My self-published efforts don’t count. I’m a new writer to them. Printing costs money, and the greater the page count, the greater that cost — aside from causing more deaths of innocent trees. A thick book is intimidating to readers. The authors of Gone With the Wind, Moby Dick, or The Grapes of Wrath might’ve gotten away with it, but not a modern-day unknown.

Experts say that, over time and with practice, one unconsciously learns to write to length. It didn’t happen to me. I’m either word-count learning disabled, or I haven’t done enough of the right kind of writing. I never wrote for a newspaper or for magazines. My technical writing was nuts and bolts, cut-and-dried stuff, with no opportunity to be wordy. I learned a lot about deadlines, organization, and proofreading doing that, but not about writing a creative project to length. Cutting to length after the fact is time consuming.

One solution I plan to employ in the future is to write more poetry. I love it, and I can’t think of a better training process to conquer my wordiness. Poetry requires sparseness, the selection of the best word to express a thought. I plan to write more short fiction and essays, too.

In the meantime, on this project, I outlined between drafts, to help ensure the story was staying on track. I’m also employing a method that my quasi-personal-editor (husband) came up with while we got Shadows Fall ready to self publish. We call it Pages to Paragraphs. It doesn’t prevent bulk, but it helps reduce my writing to something manageable after the fact. (more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 8:44 pm PST, 01/16/07

September 29, 2006

When reading is impossible

I’m in what I hope is my next to final re-read of my novel before I start submitting it. I’m attempting to just read, without editing, to get a feel for how the reader will receive it.

I loved to read, as a girl and a young adult. I still do, but I often wish I could read the same way I did back then. Once you’ve been a writer, editor, or proofreader (and I’ve been all of those), it becomes nearly impossible to just read, without editing or analyzing or noticing parts of speech. I can barely make it through almost anyone else’s writing anymore without wanting to stop and edit, or at least correct a typo here and there, or think about some aspect of it besides the story being told, the information or advice being relayed. Plot structure, characterization. Wondering why the author did that, or admiring a description rather than staying in the story.

It’s even worse with my own writing. No matter how many times I’ve been through it, no matter how good anyone else thinks it is, I find it impossible to just read what I’ve written. I’ve heard that near the end of his life Ernest Hemmingway could barely compose a single sentence, he’d become such a perfectionist about his writing. But, I wonder, how was he at reading? That’s the thing that kills me.

It’s a mad dance with myself, trying to read this book. But I hope that as I read through this draft, if I can distance myself enough from it, I’ll see it more the way other readers will. I also hope to come to a final decision about a title for this book. Finally I hope to see the big picture of the story, and notice any gaping flaws or errors in logic, rather than the little nit-picky things I’ll focus on the final time through.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 12:55 pm PST, 09/29/06

April 28, 2006

Plagiarized or packaged to death?

Or both?

Far be it from me to judge what exactly happened with Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. I haven’t read it, and I don’t intend to—wouldn’t intend to even if the publisher hadn’t turned around and pulled it off bookstore shelves. But when I read all the off-shoot accounts of the state of book packaging today, I find myself sympathizing at least a tiny bit, as Rachel Pine seems to, with the young author. Not enough to defend her, perhaps, or to excuse what happened, but honestly—what a confusing business this has become.

I recall an old episode of The Avengers on TV, in which a publisher created a computer to crank out formula novels, then passed them off as having been written by a human being. I thought for sure that was pure fantasy until I began reading about this plagiarism case. Kaavya Viswanathan’s name is on the book’s copyright page, but according to what I’ve read so is Alloy Entertainment’s. So who is to blame? How did this happen? (more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 4:41 pm PST, 04/28/06

April 23, 2006

Which words count?

I’ve decided there are three kinds of writers when it comes to word count. Those who wind up with too few words, and those who wind up with too many. Then there are those fortunate souls who write just the right amount.

I’m in the second category. I’m a wordy writer, and it frustrates me to see how many extra words I write. If I’d been able to keep my words in check, the story surely wouldn’t have taken so long to come together. Or would it? Why this need to expand so much on what can be said with so many less words? (more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 4:05 pm PST, 04/23/06

February 19, 2006

Dialog

There are times when dialog seems to come by means of mental torture and pretzel twisting, and to be the most difficult writing I do. I continue to learn. In reading through my second draft, a few weeks ago, I checked for those places where the story dragged or faltered, and I found those were often the same places where dialog stumbled or rambled on too long. Nothing much seemed to be happening, even though something was, because I’d buried it inside too many words.

I got lost in the accompanying narrative, the setting, the characters’ activities, movements, body language, or overwrought cleverness. Sometimes I bogged down in the minutiae of sighing, nodding and eye gazing. Writers can get so caught up visualizing each detail of character interaction they rob readers of their mental interplay, their own visualizations based on common human experience. We presume readers don’t know how a character might deliver a line in a given situation. The stream of dialog reads as dammed up where it should flow. It loses its surface tension, its sparkle, and its undercurrent. It becomes stagnant.
(more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 10:39 am PST, 02/19/06

February 5, 2006

While I wasn’t blogging

Linking the past days together— It’s Super Bowl Sunday, and I didn’t know. Isn’t that usually in January? I don’t pay attention to professional sports, and some years my only clue about when that event occurs is the date they tell you the winner of the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes will be announced, which doesn’t apply to me, since I don’t enter. If Ed McMahon shows up at my door it’s more likely to be about Neighborhood Watch, or because he just spoke to Johnny Carson and he’s heard I have an interest in contact with the other side. (more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 3:30 pm PST, 02/05/06

October 9, 2005

Breaking the rules

Writers discuss breaking the rules of writing all the time, whether it’s the rules of grammar, of writing in general, or the rules of a particular genre. One rule of thumb is to learn the rules and understand the reasons for them, to understand whether they’re widely accepted and respected rules, or merely arbitrary. Once you know them, when you choose to break a rule you at least understand the possible consequences. Some say breaking the rules of genre is necessary to reach the bestseller list. Others warn it can prevent a writer from being published at all. I suppose that depends on which rules, and how one goes about breaking them.

But rules of writing aren’t the rules I’m concerned with breaking, at the moment.

What I’m puzzling over is how many rules a sleuth can get away with breaking within the confines of a mystery. (more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 4:27 pm PST, 10/09/05


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