Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Painful Truth -- or part of it

So, you want to get published, huh?

Well, I’ve never met Elizabeth Peters.

For that matter, I’ve never even glimpsed Agatha Christie, Rex Stout or a myriad of other authors whose work I enjoy. Do I wish I had? Maybe. Would it have been fun, or disappointing? I don’t know. However, I’m okay with just reading their books.

Pardon the literary equivalent of whip-lash. If you’ve made it this far into my column, you’re undoubtedly wondering if I have a point. Well, of course I do. Here it is: It’s expected these days – meeting people, that is. In person, in social media, in newsletters and especially in large, impersonal quantities. It’s a part of selling books. Does it work? That’s hard to say. Anybody who knows anything about marketing also knows “presence” is required if your “target audience” is to know you exist so they can throw money in your direction.

Does that make you cringe? Yeah, me too. In fact, I don’t know too many authors who are chomping at the bit to go out and self-promote. The “large quantities” are an elusive, daunting goal. Especially for us introverts (read “writers”).
Joyce Yarrow, Jeanne Matthews and me at a recent event.
You should read their books ... and mine. 

Why do we persist in doing this thing that so many of us hate and feel so inadequate in doing? Why force ourselves to think of new, attention-getting activities, and a lot of old ones that publishers used to do to promote their authors? Because we’re trying to reach those people who will smack themselves in the head and declare to their friends and acquaintances, "I've just finished a book that you have to read!”

Word of mouth. It’s the best marketing tool there is, and tapping into it is a bitch. 

Yup. That's THE reason I’ve read all of Elizabeth Peters’ books (including those under her other names), Agatha Christie, Rex Stout et al. It's because someone suggested them to me in the first place, and I took it from there.

That’s what we all try to do, write the best book we can and then pray to the god of mystery readers that people like it – especially that person who will tell their friends. Have you told a friend about a book you’ve read and enjoyed? Go ahead and do it. You’ll be doing the author a favor that costs you nothing, and chances are that initial book you bought cost less than the Thigh Master® sitting in the back of your closet you don’t want anyone to know you have. 

So, those of you who long to publish (indie or otherwise), do you still want to do it?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Clues & Red Herrings -- Part IV

We've arrived, at last, to my final post on Clues and Red Herrings. It's quite a list, and surely not exhaustive -- although if you've been following this from Part I there's a good chance you're exhausted by now. So, without further ado, here's the last four;

The use of “sympathetic traits” to characterize the “bad guy” – the reader will assume innocent motive. You could probably have him confess to the murder and if you play it right, only a fraction of your readers will believe it. But do be careful that the clue that he’s capable is also provided – otherwise your reader will toss your baby across the room.

For example: 

The arrogant womanizer who, although divorced, spends four nights a week of quality time and every Saturday with his eight-year-old daughter, never misses a school function and remembers birthdays and special occasions. He’d never have killed that librarian!

Body language that speaks of a lie, anxiety, or discomfort to a degree that is inappropriate … and then omitting the reason for it until a later time. Reader and characters alike will be suspicious!

**This is a whole course in itself, but it helps to put yourself in the character’s head. What are they trying to hide? It may or may not be related to the crime, but it should show in their body language.

For example:

True story. I watched, on TV and several years ago, the trial of a woman accused of plotting the murder of her daughter. What mother would do that? It couldn’t be true! The woman denied the accusations, swore she had nothing to do with the attack on her daughter. Then the prosecutor asked her directly if she tried to kill her daughter. She said no. And nodded her head repeatedly. 


You try this. Have someone ask you a question, “Did you ___?” Answer it knowing the truth is “yes”, but try to say “no.” If you’ve been raised in a culture where head nodding is “yes” then this will be very hard to do.

Just in case you were wondering, the woman was convicted. Phew.

The “Lie Sandwich” aka The “Truth Sandwich: To make a lie appear more believable, insert it between things known to be true. The same can be said for having a truth dismissed as inconsequential or an outright lie – hide it within other falsehoods, or among things the reader will discover are untrue.

For example: 

A conniving little witch pouts as her husband grows angry over how much money she’s just spent. She interrupts his lecture, saying, “I love you and I think of you every moment of the day. I’m sorry I spent your Christmas bonus on these shoes, but I saw how you couldn’t take your eyes off Mary when she had on those red Jimmy Choos with the three inch heels and I wanted you to look at me like that, too.”

Sorry? Right. One of them is going to end up dead – do you think?

The sub plot: Another case of Know Your Characters and Your Story. Sub plots have their own arcs. This can be especially effective if there is ongoing suspense to divert reader attention from the subplot. that subplot will come across as a “break” for the reader in the tension when it is actually the villain in action.

As examples, I'll use two of my own mysteries. If you've read them, you'll know if they're red herrings or clues. If you haven't, well ... who can blame me for enticing you?

In An Error in Judgment, is the disarray in Sig's private fossil collection that co-protagonist Paul is helping to straighten out related to the murder or is it simply a device to showcase a character’s personality and abilities? 

In Shooting to Kill, is Andrea's wealth related to Don's death? What about Thea's secret? 

Not every subplot has to be related to the crime -- nor should they be. It's fun for the reader to figure out if there's a connection.

How'd You Do?

To find out if you've succeeded, get beta readers lined up and ask their opinions. Specifically, at what point did they figure out who committed the crime. And while they're at it, have them point out the clues and red herrings they notice along the way. 

I hope you've enjoyed this rather lengthy series of posts and gained some tools to add to your writing (and reading!) arsenal. Did I miss something? Add your thoughts in the comment section!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Clues & Red Herrings -- Part III

When I first started writing, a dear friend (and author of many books) gave me a piece of excellent advice. He said, “When things are going smoothly, put your protagonist in a tree and throw rocks at him.” In addition to torturing your protagonist in the usual confrontational manner, a mystery writer has the ability to frustrate the living daylights out of their characters with clues that make no sense and red herrings to lead them on unproductive goose chases and push them to the edge of defeat. To that end, we shall continue;

The contradiction: He said/she said. This is any information, subtle or obvious, and imparted by at least two different characters that gives lie to an event. Who’s lying? Who knows! Put them together in a room for a fight, put them in separate scenes to confuse the sleuth.

For example:

A witness might declare, “It was exactly three o’clock when I saw him go into the bank. I know this because I had an appointment with my doctor two doors down at three and I was running late.”
The man in question might say, “I left the bank at two fifty-five to catch the bus at the stop on the next block.”

If this is critical information in solving the crime, you can have fun driving your sleuth nuts with it.
The omission: A character doesn’t mention something when they should – well at least when the reader expects them to because it’s consistent with their character to say something.
For example:

A catty woman tells her co-worker, “I saw your husband last night at Smitty’s Diner with a red head.”
The co-worker, a woman we know needs to believe in her husband’s fidelity, shuffles some papers and says, “He loves their hash browns.”

Uh oh. Trouble is brewing. Is the wife planning it … or will she be the victim? 

The misinterpretation: In real life, people can be given the same information and, for various reasons, interpret that information differently. This goes for your characters, as well. You can use all things/people/situations both familiar and unfamiliar (and therefore dismissed as commonplace or given too much importance), but misinterpreted to the writer's advantage. When specifics are missing, the possibilities are your oyster.

For example:

What does it mean if someone says to you; “You have to do more if you expect to get ahead here”?

“More” is hardly specific, and delightfully common. We think we know what it means; Work longer hours, work harder. But to someone else it could it mean; Arrange an unfortunate accident for your supervisor. Sabotage the competition. Have an affair with the boss.

See what I mean?

The outright lie: Good standby. But watch who uses it (someone who normally tells the truth or is a habitual liar?) Again, know your characters.

Do you really need an example? Thought not.

The tantalizing hint: the partial, intriguing  bit of information that leaves out the most important stuff.  These things happen all the time in real life. In your novel, it’s the equivalent of an end-of-chapter cliff hanger, but in a bite-sized form. Keep in mind you don’t have to spill all the information you possess. Putting off the moment you let your reader in on the rest of the tidbit will keep them turning the page and give you multiple opportunities to torture your sleuth.

For example, your friend’s FaceBook post:

I knew I shouldn’t have opened the letter I got today.

Not only do you NOT know what happened because of it (although it seems it wasn’t good), but you don’t know who the letter was from or what it said (Frankly if your friend does too much of this nonsense you’d be justified in unfriending them. It’s annoying).

Here’s another famous example from comedian Louis Black: “If it weren’t for my horse I wouldn’t have spent that year in college.” As the man says, there is no conceivable logic to that statement and if you think too hard about it your mind will explode.

The common thread is; Only additional explanation will satisfy the reader. 


You might think that this is it – the final list … but … like the ad says, there’s more! Digest this and we’ll move along to the next bit in a couple of days. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Clues & Red Herrings -- Part II

Ready for Part II of Clues and Red Herrings?

Great! Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Remember, don’t lose sight of your story or your characters as we discuss places to hide clues and showcase red herrings. The places are the same, as are the techniques. It’s a matter of (see Part I) character and story that will aide in these.

The lists: Pay attention to the weight of the items in the list. A good clue will seem inconsequential or at least blend in with the other items. Should there be a clue or a red herring in the list? Yes! Otherwise you need a different, excellent, reason for including a list in your discourse. Your reader isn’t on a trip to the grocery store.

Here’s a passage I made up (that isn’t in a story);

If you didn’t know you were in a small town, our weekly paper would tip you off. The pitiful lack of pulse pounding events had most stories sharing the first page. Today, Pamela’s murder shared the above-fold space with the city council meeting’s debate over the wetlands, while a suspected arson fire and a lengthy report on a successful neighborhood garage sale rubbed shoulders below.

Which is a clue or a red herring? I don’t know, but there should be one or the other.

Proximity: Something happens, an object discovered, or something is said that is then overshadowed by unrelated emotions or circumstances. The reader’s attention is then diverted from the clue to something “more important”. A crisis in a sub plot works well here.

You can use this technique with a red herring also, but you’ll want to bring up the event/object/something-said later on to give it some weight as a red herring. Otherwise, you’re just building word count – no one is impressed with that (even your characters).

The physical item: The fact that it is noticed or mentioned is powerful. You don't have to do things to it, it doesn't have to be out of place, but those are options.

Here’s an interesting point; the more you (or your characters) mention the object, the less intriguing or powerful it becomes (unless you’re meaning it as a joke, then that’s a whole other blog subject). However, if you mention it on page eleven and don’t bother to do so again until page three-hundred and twenty, your reader will probably have forgotten about it. Learn to strike a balance. 

The Setting: The actual place the story occurs can provide significant cles and red herring opportunities. Time of day, day of the week, weather, time of year -- all can contribute. The added bonus is they make your setting more alive, more vital to the story and, some say, a "character." If you have a strong setting consider incorporating some elements of it into your clues or red herrings. 

For example, if the weather is particularly hot of cold and the body is found outdoors, time of death may be difficult to determine. 

If a character typically gets a day off on Wednesdays and that's when the crime occurs, who's going to believe he actually sneaked into his office to finish up reports in the morning? 

Authors like Nevada Barr, who sets her series in different National Parks, uses setting as a major character. Laurie King's Sherlock Holmes mysteries are set in a number of different locations -- the moors, a gypsy camp, the Middle East -- and all contribute important clues to solving they mystery. 

Remember, if your point of view character is new to the setting they will likely notice things that could misdirect or direct. If the setting is their usual haunt, then your reader may notice things that make useful red herrings. 


Is there more? You bet there is! Part III is coming soon. There's many more ways to be nefarious (as a writer, of course!). You'll want to go through your draft and see if any of the above mentioned techniques can work to your advantage. Remember -- don't force. Weave!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Clues & Red Herrings -- Part I

Everyone knows what clues and red herrings are, right? A clue is anything that leads to the truth. A red herring deceives and misleads. If everyone knows what they are, then why do I keep hearing variations of these questions?

How do you build them into your mystery?
How do you hide the bad guy?
How do you plant clues a reader may miss?
How do you construct red herrings to misdirect?
Where should the clues of means, motive and opportunity as well as the red herrings be planted?
How many should there be?

Over the course of six books, I’ve learned one or two things that will help answer these questions. One is that clues and red herrings don’t just spring into being. You have to be as deliberate in hiding and misguiding as you are to adhering to the slavish demands of the creative process.

The other is, no matter how clever you are, not every reader will miss the clues you plant, and not every red herring you plant will be swallowed. On the flip side, some readers will see clues and red herrings where there aren’t any. You have no control over this. You can work on what you do have control over; your story, your characters and how you put them together. This is the basis of well hidden clues and believable red herrings.

A mystery is a distillation of many stories – the protagonist’s, the antagonist’s, the villain’s, the secondary characters’, the victim’s. Understanding all your characters’ stories well will help you weave in clues and red herrings.

While it is possible, and some say preferable, to know what kinds of clues and red herrings you’re going to include in your story before you type the first word of the first draft, it’s probably in subsequent editing passes where you’ll insert, or rearrange those items – or find opportunities you didn’t realize would be there. To be successful clues and red herrings should be part of the weave of the story.

So, what do you do first?

A little analysis helps give a starting point. Knowing how your protagonist is going to proceed will help you decide where the clues and red herrings should be placed. Whether you’ve finished your first draft or are ready to start plotting, figuring out what kind of a mystery you are working with will help you sprinkle in clues to motive, means and opportunity in the right places.

Know your story

Here are the three basic types of set-ups for the mystery story;

Fair play: There is more than one suspect – often times a lot more. Each character has motives the sleuth investigates and dismisses one after another until the bad guy is caught.

Quest: As the sleuth uncovers one clue it will inevitably lead to another. The red herrings lead to dead ends.

Puzzle: the sleuth uncovers pieces which are in no particular order until the whole picture fits together. It will also be at that time that the red herrings will become evident


Know your characters

You will have gotten to know the players in your drama either by walking with them through the story’s first draft of by constructing a dossier before hand – or through a combination. However you’ve done it (and character building is a volume in and of itself) you should be able to answer these questions for all of your main characters and probably several of your secondary ones as well. 

What do they want? Goals, needs, desires.
What do they notice in the story & how important is it to them?
What kinds of things will divert them from seeing the truth?
What are their limits, strengths, weaknesses – and what do they believe them to be?
How do they react to conflict?

Remember, although you write your story from your point-of-view character's goals, actions and reactions, the other characters have them, too, and will influence the obstacles your sleuth must overcome.

Yeah, it’s work. And in all likelihood, you’ve got some heavy thinking to do. The laying in of clues and red herrings is not a small topic, so it’s going to take me several blog posts to cover the specific techniques, and all of the techniques are based on story type and character. So … do your homework and hang on to what you find out.

Next time: The tools to conceal and mislead.