WIR #31: You Can Write a Mystery

You Can Write a MysteryI finished this last night.

I like Roberts's constant devotion to giving specific examples to back up her instruction. For example, many writing books tell you to carry a pen and a small notebook, to write down ideas, observations, etc. Very rarely do these authors tell you what they write down. I don't understand why this is. It's not as if national security would be jeopardized. Prior to reading Roberts's book, the only specific example I recall being given was to write down "snippets of overheard dialogue," but the author didn't explain what they meant by that. And my memory isn't that bad! To contrast this with examples from Roberts's book:

Clues and cues to note
Note scraps of real-life dialogue that affect you. You'll probably become aware that you are struck by a gesture or words or dress because its meaning is greater than itself. Make note of what specific appearance cues caused you to react emotionally and make immediate value judgments. Don't write the abstract/judgment at which you arrived. Instead of writing sloppy, be specific: "hem unraveling," "stain that looks rubbed at but not removed on lapel," "hair in back matted."

Roberts's advice is more specific. Write down what affects you! In other words, don't be a secretary dictating what others say. Pay attention to your reaction to what's said. Note only those things that stand out, unique turns of phrase, juicy tidbits that capture your attention and imagination. Those sorts of things and more.

Many neophyte writers often make the mistake of basing story people on people they know. Professional writers caution against this for a variety of reasons (including avoidance of potential litigation). Roberts adds to her caution something I've never read before:

Beware of basing characters on people you know. Whether you adore or despise the original, you run the danger of writing an unbelievable character. (...) As a fiction writer, you must think of real life—the one that isn't on the page—as no more than a starting point.

Human beings are too complicated and unfocused for writers to replicate, so what you aim for is your interpretation of a person. Know that your vision is skewed. Don't presume to be omniscient; presume to be a fiction writer. Don't duplicate or try to report; create something new.

Generally, what intrigues you about the person you want to use as a model is his personality or emotional core. Keep that, therefore, and systematically and drastically alter the externals. Change hair or size or gender or the setting in which he must act. Take part of one person and part of another. Does she really have to be a mother even if yours was the model for this rotten person? Could she be a despicable teacher or minister? Does the character have to be a female as long as the unreliablity and coldness is there?

I find it fascinating that Roberts says that basing a fictional character on a real person runs the risk of creating an unbelievable character. I've never heard it put this way before, but when she explains herself—human beings are too complicated and unfocused for writers to replicate—it makes perfect sense. And then she nails it: what you aim for is your interpretation of a person. The rest is stock advice, found in any writing book, with the exception of her clarification: what intrigues you about the person you want to use as a model is his personality or emotional core.

Roberts advises: your next job is to wrap believable life around that starting point. That's where the imaginative work of the writer begins.

One reviewer at Amazon didn't like Roberts's focus on "rules." Rules? Sure, Roberts has provided rules, or principles, if you like, but far more importantly, she's provided pragmatic, down-to-freakin'-earth examples of what she means. She presumes that you don't know what she's talking about, and she's right in doing so. If you did know what she's talking about, you'd be a published writer, and probably not reading her book.

Roberts doesn't provide a silver bullet to ensured publication (one doesn't exist), but her advice and her examples will damned sure improve your writing if you follow her advice and will also improve your chances for publication. You don't need to be a published writer to see that.

This is a library book, but it's about to become a resident in my personal library. I'm ordering myself a copy of this from Amazon!

2 comment(s):

gypsyharper said...
December 03, 2009 3:05 PM

This sounds like a good one. I find her comments on character to be very interesting. We talk about similar principles in my acting classes. Creating a character for the stage also requires that you aim for an interpretation of a person - trying to do everything a real person would do in that situation often makes it messy and unclear for the audience. To create a more realistic portrayal, you have to choose a few specific things that clearly delineate your character and his/her objective within the play.

It's interesting to me how much all of these art forms have in common.

g d townshende said...
December 03, 2009 3:14 PM

It's very good, Leslie. :D I think it's true that many art forms share a lot, but that they also have their differences, too (obviously). In fiction, you focus on a few things, and you also exaggerate, too. Exaggeration is necessary to get a trait firmly in the reader's mind, to make it seem real. That's how Jack M. Bickham puts it.

Oh, I finally finished that book on online research, too, and have posted my review of it. Hopefully, you've seen it and have read it, or are reading it (you could still be reading it, since it's about as long as a bloody novel LOL).

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