Murder With Sprinkles On Top

by Christina Lay

I’ve always loved reading and watching cozy mysteries, but not until recently have I tried my hand at writing them. As with many things, you don’t really understand the complexity of a task until you try to do it yourself.

As well-versed in the ins-and-outs of the genre as any avid fan, I dove in quickly and with relish. But soon, one important and fairly obvious question occurred to me: how, exactly, does one make murder, the most heinous of crimes, cozy? How do you create a world in which murder happens (and maybe regularly, if you’re writing a series) that the reader or viewer nevertheless finds comforting? A place where half the population ends up dead but still seems like a very nice place to visit?

Clearly one of the anchors of the cozy mystery is a cozy setting. A majority of these stories take place in small towns, and not just your run of the mill small town, but one that is quaint, meaning it’s preserved its historic charm. These towns have lovely architecture, lots of twisting alleys, probably a waterfront of some sort, nearby woods for the disposing of bodies, and a VERY PROMINENT CHURCH.  Quaint shops abound, and our sleuth might even be the sole proprietor of one (maybe the bakery, which is a very popular setting for cozy book series, with cute names like Til Death do Us Tart and Survival of the Fritters. Baking fancy cakes and crime solving seem to complement each other. Here’s a link to a list of them http://cozy-mysteries-unlimited.com/bakery-dessert-list.

Any cozy worth its imported sea salt will feature a tea shop and an antique store—bare minimum. Sometimes the town is larger, like Oxford, but within the larger town are cozy communities, like an elite college, in which everyone knows everyone else’s business, which always proves to be a very important element in helping our sleuth solve the crime.

Which brings us to the other most important key to a cozy, the sleuth. Mostly this will be an amateur, but private detectives like Hercule Poirot and rumpled Detective Inspectors like Tom Barnaby also qualify. The more professional the sleuth however, the less cozy the murders tend to become. The sleuth is nearly always an outsider, no matter what their profession. Even a detective inside the police department will be the odd one out, the one who uses brain over brawn, who always doubts the obvious first clues and champions whatever poor soul is arrested first. Often the amateur sleuth/slash pastry chef is conveniently married to, dating, best friends with or otherwise connected to a professional in the biz, like a police detective, coroner or forensic expert, which is quite handy. But in the end, the sleuth relies on their powers of observation, keen intuition and wits to solve the crime. Which they always do.

The likability and relatability of the sleuth are key to creating a memorable and enduring cozy mystery series. They must, like all good protagonists, be flawed, but in a lovable way. And usually, whatever their deep wound is, it helps them understand the criminal mind and have compassion for the underdogs. First and foremost, they must be unusually smart, even if not everyone thinks so.

Other factors to ensure your murder is entertaining rather than disturbing include:

A victim who was a no good so-and-so. Lots of people wanted them dead, and no one is overly sorry to have them gone. Anyone who is, probably did it.  Also, their death, though possibly elaborate, is swift and unseen. Usually, the murder happens before the book even starts, or off-the-page. It might happen after the world famous detective arrives and the murderer foolishly decides to go through with their plan anyway. Or after all the guests are assembled at the manor house, or when the train leaves the station. Isolating the group of suspects is a great trick for upping the tension. There’s a murderer amongst us!

Limit the bloodshed. This is an element that seems to be ignored more and more in the television version of mysteries, usually the result of what I call “the slaughter of the innocents”.  This is when, once the murderer commits the initial crime, they then feel compelled to kill off several innocent bystanders to cover it up, which of course is what usually tips their hand. I have to admit to being disappointed when what is touted as a cozy mystery ends up with a high body count, among them unfortunate girl guides and birdwatching old ladies who were in the wrong place at the worst time. Besides being depressing, these acts of senseless violence are usually stupid, which diminishes the fun of solving the crime. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but NEVER KILL THE DOG.

No sex. Wait, what? Well, I’ve wondered about this, but it appears to be true. While amateur sleuths are often romantically pining over the local detective, or visa versa, the most they will ever do is share a pint at the quaint local pub and match wits.  I believe this is because sex is really just a distraction from what readers of cozies care about most, which is solving a mystery. No one wants to see rumpled whosit and the dowdy baker get down. It’s just not where the appeal lies. Romance, a hint of it, is just fine, as long as it doesn’t pull our heroine/hero away from what they’re there to do. And naturally, the suspects will be fornicating up a storm, only not on the page.

Cats are king.  Throw in a smart cat, or perhaps a reasonably intelligent dog. Readers of cozies love sleuths who love pets. If the cat helps solve the crime, well, that’s a subgenre unto itself. http://cozy-mysteries-unlimited.com/cat-list  If you can combine cooking and cats, all the better.

Provide a wide array of colorful, likable characters to consult, kill or arrest. Sometimes even the murderer is likable. The sleuth will have an extensive network of interesting acquaintances to contact regarding the case. If, for example, a body is washed up near the quaint lighthouse, the sleuth’s uncle will be the local captain of the coast guard. There will always be busybodies, town gossips, town drunks, and loose but large-hearted women who know the town’s secrets and our sleuth will be friends with them, or have some way of convincing these people to talk. Think tea and cookies instead of truth serum and truncheons.

Comeuppance will be got. In a cozy, the murderer is always flushed out. They might escape the long arm of the law, but they will lose everything they were willing to kill for. If you can think of an exception in the cozy mystery field, feel free to enlighten me.  One exception might be the Serial Adversary, a Moriarty of sorts, but since those chaps tend to be serial killers, their evil antics don’t qualify as cozy.

To sum up, the key to a cozy murder is the fun of watching a character we love solve a baffling riddle by their wits (and possibly their cat’s) alone. So naturally, you’ll need a riddle worthy of their and the reader’s attention. Anything over the top, like graphic violence, graphic sex, grit, torture, profanity, end of the world scenarios or gratuitous explosions, you can pretty much leave at the door. Raymond Chandler claimed that readers of cozies, especially the English variety, “like their murders scented with magnolia blossoms and do not care to be reminded that murder is an act of infinite cruelty”.  For some, I’m sure that’s true, but I don’t think readers are drawn to mysteries just so they can ignore the murder at the heart of it; rather, they prefer to focus on the solving, rather than the commission, of the crime. And just because a setting is cozy, or the sleuth an old English spinster, doesn’t mean we can relax. As Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple says “One does see so much evil in a village”.

Success Sickness, by Eric Witchey

FNTCVR

Fantasy Silver Medal, 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards

 

Success Sickness

Eric Witchey

Last weekend, I supported a local mini-conference here in Salem, Oregon. The conference made use of the Parallel Play program psychologist Brian Nierstadt helped me create sixteen years ago. Parallel Play has been the subject of other articles and will be again. For now, I want to focus on the fact that the conference was all about production and overcoming obstacles.

Aside: Special thanks to Chris Patchell and Debbie Moller, who did the bulk of the work to create the very successful, sold-out weekend. Special thanks to Willamette Writers: Orit Ofri, Kate Ristau, and Summer Bird. Also, thanks to the other professionals who donated their time to help the local community of writers: Rachel Barton, Erica Bauermeister, Elizabeth Engstrom, Devon Monk, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Waverly Fitzgerald, and Natalie Serber. My deepest apologies if I’ve missed anyone.

Now, it happens that on the Wednesday before the conference one of my novels received recognition from the 2018 Independent Publishers Book Awards (IPPYs). Littlest Death, cover show above and available in print or ebook on Amazon from Shadow Spinners Press (grin),  received the silver medal in the Fantasy category.

Result? I can’t write.

This is not a new experience. I know I’ll get past it, but I thought I’d take a second to write about this particular form of writer’s block because of the inspiring mini-lectures I was honored to listen to over the weekend. However, before I really get going, I want to point out that this is sort of a violation of certain social mores. In our culture, we accept that people can talk about the struggles, problems, obstacles, and especially the solutions encountered while striving to achieve our dreams. The gods know, I have done plenty of that both verbally and in writing over the years. We are much less accepting of people exploring the struggles, problems, obstacles, and solutions that appear because we achieve the things we strive for. Nobody wants to hear about how annoyed you are about the misleading Engine Warning light in your new Rolls Royce, but everybody wants know how you managed to, and by extension how they can, get a Rolls Royce.

So, at the risk of social shunning, I offer these insights into a problem I hope everyone has already overcome or gets the chance to overcome.

First, I’ll point out that there are two types of success sickness. They are “Anticipatory success sickness” and “recent success sickness.” They pretty much work the same way, and the treatment is pretty much the same, too.

Here’s how success sickness, which I sometimes erroneously call award sickness, works.

  1. The writer either anticipates or has received some new success—any new success. It can be as simple as a compliment from a teacher, a friend, or someone in the family.
  2. The writer sits down to write.
  3. The writer starts wondering either what they should write to succeed or what they did when they wrote the material that succeeded.
  4. The writer can’t figure it out, so they scrub the bathroom floor instead of writing.
  5. Repeat 2-5 until suicidal or new floor tile is required in the bathroom.

I first encountered success sickness after selling my first short story in 1987. I didn’t sell another story until 1997.

Well, that sucked.

Then, I won a slot at Writers of the Future and a place in the top ten from New Century Writers. New Century was a big deal then because Ray Bradbury was involved. Now, sadly, both Ray and New Century are gone. About the same time as the above two awards, I sold my first short story to a national slick magazine.

All good, right? I figured I was off to the races—a made man in the fiction family.

Then, number 2, I sat down to write and…NOTHING…3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5…

Well, that sucked.

After about six months of cleaning the bathroom and chatting with my new phone friends from the suicide hot line, I realized that I was in the loop of trying to recreate the success without understanding that the success had been created by not trying to create the success. In short, I had just been practicing my craft when I wrote the stories that won the awards and sold.

Sure, I wanted to sell stories and win awards, but I hadn’t been working on each story with the idea that I would do certain things in order to sell the story or in order to win an award. I had just worked on each story to make it the best story I could make it. I had practiced craft without regard for outcome.

That realization led to the idea that I needed to just work on stories and stop thinking about the successes, which of course is like telling yourself to not think about the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Sigh… Well, that sucked.

Once the tile in the bathroom had been replaced and I had tattooed the suicide hotline number on the inside of my wrist, I decided I needed to figure out how to trick myself into not paying attention to what I may or may not have done to contribute to the success I wanted to repeat.

My solution was to practice craft in a way that made it impossible to write a story that would sell. If I knew it couldn’t sell, then I couldn’t expect anything from it other than experience and words through the fingers.

Clever monkey.

So, I went back to the basic concept of practicing craft. I went back to my personal simplest form of practicing craft. I picked random topics to bind together into silly stories. That way, it would be impossible to believe I was creating saleable, award-winning material. Then, I picked a craft concept to practice. I called what I was doing my morning warmup, and I sat down every morning to a speed writing session in which I attempted to execute the craft concept I had selected while also incorporating the stupid random topics.

No pressure. No bathroom. No hot line. Just silliness and practice.

We are talking seriously random, here: My orange coffee mug; Mrs. McPharon’s black gravel driveway; The stinging fur on a caterpillar I found on Hogue’s barn. These are things from my desk and my childhood—totally unrelated. The concept to practice was, conversely, serious. It might be any of a thousand things, but it is always specific—something like “deliver implied intentions through indirect dialog.”

Five to fifteen minutes of speed writing attempting the concept and including the random topics was all I had to do. I started with one minute based on the belief that I can always sit down to do one minute. In a week or so, it became five. Later, and to this day twenty years later, it is fifteen.

Way back then, it took about six months before I stopped second-guessing every word and my writing became about the story on the table again. And, oddly, once I forgot to worry about how I had done what I had done, I did it again.

Well, that didn’t suck.

Except, then, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and…

And begin again. New tile. Reacquainted with the hot line people. And back to five minutes and random topics at speed.

About six weeks passed, and I forgot to worry about how I did what I did, so I did it again.

… and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, …

You get the idea.

Fast forward to 2018 Silver Medal in Fantasy IPPY award, and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3,4,5, and…

And back to five minutes of speed writing at the mini-conference. I did manage to put in several hours of productivity at the conference, but my stupid brain kept returning to what I had done to make Littlest Death an award-winning story.

Well, that sucks.

I’m hoping it will only take me a week or so to get to the point where I forget to worry about how I did what I did so I that can do it again. However, since I’m hoping that will happen, it will probably take longer since I now also have to forget to hope that I’ll forget to worry about how I did what I did before I can do it again.

Silly monkey.

The moral to this whole convoluted story is that sitting down to write something silly for one minute will lead to five will lead to fifteen will lead to an inevitable focus on the story at hand instead of what it might do once it’s finished because of what other stories have done in the past.

I will point out at this point that many of the stories I have sold were born during my warmup and became the story at hand. It turns out that choosing random topics to make it impossible to write a story is nearly impossible because the brain can, if given the freedom to do so, make a story out of pretty much anything. Sadly, that adds a whole new layer to this insanity of not thinking about what you did while you are doing what you are doing now so that you can repeat what you did. I think that’s another article.

Success sickness is the mind attaching itself to what was and what will be instead of resting in what is. Playful experimentation will bring the mind back to the here and now in which all successes are born.

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

-End-

Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir

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Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir, by Eric Witchey

Something new for my blog this time. Instead of waxing dreary on some topic of my own choosing, I’m answering a question from a person who took a class from me at the Write on the Sound Conference in Edmonds, Washington. The last time I was there, I taught a class that included a brief discussion of a concept I first presented in an article for The Writer Magazine in October of 2011. The concept is the Irreconcilable Self (I.S.).

The writer, a memoirist, dropped me a line last week. The question has two parts. The first part is whether the I.S. the writer is working with is precise enough. The second question is more of a presupposition about whether the I.S. tool can be used in memoire. Also, note that the writer used Wallace Stegner’s book, Angle of Repose, as a reference point. It has been a long time since I read it, so my examples from memory may or may not fit the experience of people who have read it more recently. I did not go back and check the book to verify my memory, which is a swiss cheese muddle of too many stories that often blend together.

The Question:

I’m presuming that the I.S. can apply to a memoir ‘character’ since I’m treating myself as the character? Good. So then, my opposing conflicts of ideals are — ideal notions of country/”smaller” living and (true) community not a neighborhood VERSUS ‘freedom’ of city life and anonymity.

My questions — is that SPECIFIC enough?? Or is it too linked to place and time? Do I need more soul-searching to really get at stronger conflicting notions here? I am conflicted in the idolization of country living vs the reality and want to expose that a little more via my experience, but also have notions and real experiences of longing for that country living.

The Answer:

Hi, again, Writer X:

First, I’ll be teaching an 8 hour seminar on this subject in Eugene, OR in May. I have a couple of memoirists already signed up. You don’t have to sign up for all six classes. You can just take this one alone, but I would recommend this one and the one in June for a full sense of how I.S. works in conjunction with other story elements. The people at WordCrafters can help with accommodations. The classes are set up so people can drive or fly in on Saturday and drive or fly out on Sunday. Anyway, here’s the link.

https://wordcraftersineugene.org/fiction-fluency-2018/ff-seminars/

Second, I always welcome “one-off” emails, but I can’t always answer them. Also, I’ll only answer one or two before I send you a contract to set up a formal relationship as a sort of piano teacher of words. Too many people think of me as a private encyclopedia of writing techniques if I let them, and I do have to fulfill my own obligations in life.

So, no worries. I’m especially happy to hear from people who have read my stories and taken one or more of my classes.

Interesting that you mention The Angle of Repose. Not many writers who contact me have read it. Stegner is brilliant. Before I talk about that, I’ll talk a bit about Irreconcilable Self.

When I teach I.S., especially in a short form venue like a conference (60 to 90 minutes, total), I teach it as a binary form to get the idea across. It can be more complex. The form I teach has two parts and relies on “I believe” statements in juxtaposition—something like this:

“I believe Romantic idealism is the only truth in this world.” Vs. “I believe deeply in personal honor and family honor and pride.”

This would be Romeo.

Notice that I have already put in more than one thing in the second “I believe” statement. The juxtaposition of these deeply held, untested beliefs is what’s important. The beliefs are deep and often, but not always, unconscious. They are, however, untested. The only way the character is able to believe both things at the same time is that the beliefs have not been tested in his or her life.

That’s the short version of I.S.

Now, Stegner. Keep in mind that Stegner is telling several stories. Lyman is narrating. He’s telling both his story and the story of Susan. Susan’s story includes the story of Oliver and Frank. Each of these major characters has an I.S. that generally functions beneath their consciousness and either drives or allows them to act in the ways they do. Each character has their beliefs tested. Lyman’s is tested by the telling of the story and the revelations that come because of that. His I.S. is something like, “I believe I am a good man from good stock” vs. “I believe the world and my family owe me for their betrayals.” His I.S. is tested by revelations and experience. He abandons the second belief, modifies the first one, and reconciles his experience into, “My choices create the love around me.”

Okay, I’m making this up on the fly, so don’t expect “correct” summary descriptions of a novel I read a long time ago. I’m just trying to give an example that might be useful for you.

Frank can’t reconcile his beliefs. He kills himself. That’s, more-or-less, the definition of tragedy. I’d say his belief was something like, “I believe I’m a good and loyal friend” vs. “I believe I love Susan beyond life itself.” Yeah, that doesn’t work out for him. If memory serves, he kills himself.

Oliver is something like, “I believe I’m an honorable, educated, man worthy of love and loyalty” vs. “I believe one more shovel full of dirt and I’ll strike it rich and save everyone around me.” Or, maybe, “I believe I’m a good husband and hard worker” vs. “I believe my worth is determined by the success of my next project.” I’d have to go back and reread it to do better.

Now, Susan, who is probably the most interesting character in the whole nested story mess, appears to be dragged through events, but she really isn’t. She’s just more subtle. Her I.S. is something like, “I believe in the trendy, romantic idealization of love and the West” vs. “I believe in family values and am a good wife and mother.”

The end position for a character who has resolved their I.S. (transformed) is one of the following:

  1. Experiences force the character to reject both beliefs and die (Frank). I might also argue that Oliver ends up in this position, but he dies emotionally and spiritually.
  2. Experiences force the character to reject both beliefs, but they find a new belief on which to base life choices and actions (Lyman).
  3. Experiences force the character to reject one belief and embrace the other (Susan).
  4. Experiences force the character to find a way to reconcile the two beliefs and live on in harmony with both (Nobody in that story).

Okay, on to memoir.

The chief problem I see when memoirists approach the use of fiction techniques in telling their stories is that they have difficulty stepping back to examine themselves for the underlying psychological, philosophical, and sociological understanding that fiction writers apply when working with made up characters. Finding your own I.S. is like trying to grab your shoelaces and lift yourself up so you can reach a book on the highest shelf. Even if you succeed in violating the laws of physics, you can’t let go of your shoelaces to reach for the book.

The various successful memoirists I have worked with have had to do extensive work in separating themselves from the character who represents them in the story. It’s much harder than making someone up from scratch, but the techniques are the same. For Memoirists, the trick is to do a lot of work figuring out what the core significance of the experience was both for the writer and for the reader. Sometimes, a very clear statement of the experiencing character’s main transformation will allow you to work backward into the land of unconsidered beliefs. Sometimes, deciding to assign an I.S. and then attempting to cause the story to conform to that I.S. will result in either success or failures that provide insights into what was really going on deeper down during the experience.

Regardless, one of the tasks the memoirist must always remember is that no matter what they think the experience meant to them, the end result is only useful if the reading experience means something to the reader. Those two positions are not in any way connected except through craft. Sometimes, they are two completely different meaning results.

I haven’t read your story, and I don’t know enough about it to name the I.S. for you. Frankly, that’s probably a bad idea anyway. However, I can say that once you know it, it is only one of three core control structures I teach. The other two are “arc” and “premise.”

That said, here’s how you described your I.S.: “opposing conflicts of ideals are — ideal notions of country/”smaller” living and (true) community not a neighborhood VERSUS ‘freedom’ of city life and anonymity

The description you provided could be translated into I.S. form like this:

I.S.: “I believe I will only be whole if I am a known, respected member of a small, rural community.” Vs. “I believe only the anonymity of city life will let me fully express who I am.”

Do keep in mind that at story open the character rarely knows they believe both things. Given the above I.S., I can certainly see how a story that demonstrates this conflict of values and transformation of a person could be told. I can’t, however, really speak to how your character and your character context will manifest these belief systems on the dialectic, tactical, conflict set, scene, sequence, or movement dramatic levels. I think that’s where you’re getting stuck. You have an I.S., but the translation of it into increments of stress and change caused by experience isn’t taking your story “from-to” in a way that feels both true and satisfying to you on the I.S. level. For that kind of analysis, I’d also need the premise, arc, and a synoptic outline that captures emotional change resulting from the conflict for each dramatic scene.

I don’t have time or space to do a full exposition of these ideas here, but I can say that by using the control concepts of arc, premise, and I.S., it is possible to analyze the story along the conceptual boundaries readers use to internalize emotions while reading. Subconsciously, readers look for moments of emotional change. In fact, physiologically, they respond to those moments before they have time to think about them. The speed of emotional response overriding the speed of cognitive response is one of the things that keeps readers in the story. Being able to name the I.S., being able to see how each moment of the story either stresses the character’s belief system or confirms it (which is another kind of stress since things will get worse because of confirmations), being able to incrementally move the stress levels toward a personal, emotional/psychological crisis in which the character experiences one of the reconciliation results described above, and being able to deliver the emotional power of that moment of transformation to the reader in a context that allows the reader to FEEL its value to them is, at core, what all story telling is about.

I’m sorry I can’t provide more insight than this. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep and…

Best of luck and skill to you.

Eric

 

The Essential Ingredient of Story

by Christina Lay

Story:

An invented prose narrative shorter than a novel usually dealing with a few characters and aiming at unity of effect and often concentrating on the creation of mood rather than plot. – Merriam-Webster

A plot or storyline. Or an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment. – Oxford Dictionary

A narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale. A lie or fabrication. – Dictionary.com

Story is the full sequence of events in a work of fiction as we imagine them to have taken place, in the order in which they would have occurred in life (as opposed to plot). -The Balance

A description of how something happened – Idoceonline.com

What makes a story a story? I’m sure we all have a fairly good idea of what ingredients are needed to turn a collection of words into a story. I know I do, and when I was recently given the opportunity to judge a flash fiction short story contest, I didn’t hesitate to cull about half the submissions on the grounds of “this isn’t a story”, which then got me to thinking about why.

No doubt, it’s much harder to craft a complete story in 400 words or less than in say, 3,000, but it is possible. It’s even possible to craft a story in six words. This classic example is often attributed to Hemmingway:

For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never worn.

Why is this a story? This string of words has action (something being advertised for sale), a character or possibly more (infant and mother, maybe parents), and a conflict/problem (never worn implies a miscarriage or early death).

Clearly, much is left to the reader’s imagination and certain ingredients that you might consider essential to story are left out. Some definitions of story include setting as a required element. There’s none here. Some also describe a story as requiring a plot. Not so much.

So really, when you boil story down to its bare essentials, what do you really need? Jerry Oltion, a successful and prolific writer of science fiction stories, came up with the concept of the “foot stool” story, in which he boils down story to “a character in a situation with a problem”. The challenge is to weed out all the unnecessary elements and write a straight forward story using only those three “legs”, or ingredients.

Going back to those flash fiction pieces that didn’t meet the basic requirements, what was really missing? Certainly they all had a situation, or setting. Most had a character or two. Few had “a problem”. Most of them described a series of events. But in the end, what really kept them from being a story in my opinion was that, although some things happened, there was no indication that anything had changed. Suzy might have walked to the market and bought a tomato, but her state of mind never altered. She wanted a tomato, she got it. The End. No obstacles stood in the way of her getting a tomato and her lack of a tomato caused no particular hardship. She didn’t lose her wallet on the way. She didn’t live in Alaska and find herself taxed with making a Caprese Salad for her exacting in-laws only to find there were no decent vegetables to be had. Nope. Just a nice walk to the market to buy a nice tomato with ample funds for no apparent reason.

This, I believe, is the crux of story. Not only does a thing, or a bunch of things happen, but someone or something changes. The essential ingredient is change; an emotional shift, in both the character and the reader.

Many of the rejected flash fiction pieces struck me as prose poems. Not that a prose poem can’t also be a story, but in this case, the intention (or unintended result) of the writer’s efforts was more of a mood piece, a description of a place or a time. Partially due to the nature of the contest, the pieces tended to invoke one emotion –nostalgia—and that one emotion didn’t change, develop, or grow. Some of the pieces were quite lovely, but static, like a pastoral landscape. This does not make for compelling fiction.

The six word story example is dramatic. The reader goes from a neutral situation, For Sale, to maybe warm fuzzies or fondness or even revulsion (it happens) at the idea of Baby. Then, with Never Worn, there is a shift, an emotional impact. We know nothing of this baby and its parents, but chances are, empathy is invoked.

One of the most important things I ask myself now as I embark on telling any story is how will my character change? What affect will this event or series of events have on them or possibly the people around them? Why? These crucial questions then can lead to many more story-building leads, like why is this happening now? Is it inevitable? What choices and obstacles will my character face as they resist or embrace the change?

If I can’t answer the first basic question –how will my character change—I then have a question for myself. Why am I writing this? Is this a story, or a poem, or something else entirely?

 

The Because-Because of Character Desire, by Eric Witchey

Tennis PlayerThe Because-Because of Character Desire, by Eric Witchey

The four-day 2017 Willamette Writers Conference was last weekend.

Don’t worry. This isn’t a conference recap essay. It’s a craft essay.

Still, I experienced a lot of things in a very short period of time, so it influences my thinking on craft today. Two things I experienced are worthy of note in this little essay. First is my time with the Young Willamette Writers. Larry Brooks and I spent a lunch with the up-and-coming kids nurtured by Teresa Klepinger and the Young Willamette Writers’ crew of kind mentors. The kids’ ages ranged from 9 to 15 or so, and they are pure hearts made of equal parts imagination and sponge. Second is the sad death of the dolphin Rinaldo that was part of the discoveries we made during the Write a Story Now group brainstorm and story development class I taught on Sunday.

Yes, these things are related.

Here’s how. In both situations I found myself on the verge of describing a little considered but terribly important aspect of story craft—characterization in particular. I call it the because-because technique. In both cases, time ran out. I walked away from the sessions feeling like I cheated my clients.

Many fiction writers, and certainly most selling writers, know that every character on stage at a given moment has an agenda they are trying to execute. How they execute their agenda “shows” the reader who they are. This is at the heart and soul of the vague and nearly useless writer instruction to “show, don’t tell.” God, I wish I had a dime for every emotionally empty adjective and concrete detail an aspiring writer put on the page and made me read.

Example:

She sat on the hot, beige vinyl of her twenty-year old, silver Toyota Camry. Squirming to keep her cheek sweat from staining her white tennis shorts and sticking her to the seat, she slipped the key into the ignition and twisted. The starter clicked twice then pretended it hadn’t noticed her effort to start the car.

The old adage (show, don’t tell) biases the aspirant in favor of describing the perspirant, her seats, her shorts, her car, etc. She does have an agenda. Here, she wants to start the car. That’s her scene agenda, and that’s what I’m writing about in this essay.

In both the class and the meeting with the kids, we talked about agendas. We talked about how they bring character to life by creating opportunity for the character to demonstrate who they are by taking action on their own behalf. We talked about how opposition of environment (the heat and the starter) can force the character to demonstrate resourcefulness, experience, and a level of desire. Opposition by another character does the same and adds another agenda and personality to the mix. Opposition by internal moral and psychological forces also places the character in a position where they must demonstrate who they are. In the Story Now class, we even talked a little bit about how changes in tactics can allow the reader to feel and internalize character personality.

What we didn’t talk about is how every character on stage has a because-because.

Example:

She wants to start her car because she wants to get away from the tennis pro because she loves her husband and doesn’t want any rumors even though she hasn’t done anything wrong.

The purpose of the because-because is expanding the frame of reference for personal agenda two levels in order to allow for more complex and plausible execution of agenda in scene. It also allows the writer to connect character to risks, stakes, and consequences in the mind of the reader by making behavior specific in ways that imply psychological underpinning motivations that may or may not be explicitly stated.

And every character has a because-because. Even the ball boy has a because-because.

Example:

The tennis pro wants to bed the first character because he is running a blackmail/web porn site because he wants a new tattoo that will mark him as a captain in the Russian mafia on American soil.

The groundskeeper wants to reorganize his shed because he believes that having everything in order helps him care for his golf course because he believes a true groundskeeper’s soul is connected to the land he cares for.

The club manager wants to get a reporter off his property because he wants to keep the respect of his corrupt, high-end clients because he is skimming a percentage of dues into offshore accounts he’ll use to be rid of those assholes once and for all when he disappears at the end of the year.

The reporter wants to interview the club manager for a puff piece in the Sunday Supplement because she wants to investigate the club members for corruption because she wants a breakthrough story that will place her name prominently in the history of journalism.

You get the idea, I hope.

Now, a byproduct of because-because agendas is that the writer can tweak them around to make them increasingly about the psychology and sociology of the character. Here’s a rewrite in that direction for The Ball Boy:

The ball boy wants to give her a new can of club logo complimentary balls because he wants his boss’s respect and a raise because he wants to shake off the stigma of his family history by looking worthy to be on a date with the first character’s teenage daughter.

The more the because-because is grounded in character psyche, the more powerful the interactions between the characters becomes. Here’s a rewrite of our first character’s because-because:

She wants to start her car because she wants to escape the tawdry advances of the tennis pro because she loves her husband and protects his reputation from rumors because she wants him to have a model wife for his developing political career.

Now, she has three becauses and is getting more interesting because we want her to escape because we want her to develop a spine and aspire to be more than a mere political symbol.

Each because, if it is connected to character psychology, also connects to reader interest.

Given all these becauses, the “showing” of the first paragraph and subsequent paragraphs change radically because behavior becomes more important and adjectives and concrete details only have value relative to character behavior and motivations.

Squirming on the Camry’s hot vinyl to keep her cheek sweat from staining her white tennis shorts or sticking her to the seat, she ducked low to hide under the dash, slipped the key into the ignition, and twisted. The starter clicked twice then pretended it hadn’t noticed the key. She let go of the key and pumped the accelerator with her hand.

A metallic tap on her window startled her. She ducked lower and twisted again. Two clicks.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Trapped, she sat up and reflexively composed herself by checking her melting makeup in the rear-view before powering down her window. Of course, the window works. She sighed and turned to face her captor while already planning to use the broken car and calls to mechanics to keep him at bay.

The face at her window confused her. The hard angles and piercing gray eyes she expected had been replaced by the full, youthful cheeks and soft green eyes of the ball boy, Dennis.

She searched the parking lot for Valentine, her lascivious tennis instructor. The only other people in the lot were Staniss Cavendish, the club manager, and a pert, bouncy redhead millennial who seemed to be in his face about something. Stan with a girl half his age didn’t surprise her. It should have, but it didn’t.

“For you, Ma’am.” Dennis held up a clear plastic can of tennis balls.

Confused, she focused on his earnest, freckled face and dimples. He was such a cute boy. Hard working and cute. If she had been twenty years younger…

Well, that was not a thought to finish. He was what? Seventeen, maybe. A year older than Laurel? That was just the kind of thing she was trying to avoid. She smiled and said, “…”

I suppose I could write the scene for you, but I’d really rather you write the scene in order to test the concept. All the players are available. Four are on stage. They all have their agendas. They all have at least a because-because.

If I’m not mistaken, you are already visualizing the scene that will play out. If you do write the scene, drop me a line and let me know how the exercise goes.

Hopefully, I have now made up for having failed my students at the conference.

Here’s one last thought about the nature of because-because. It doesn’t stay the same. It just gives depth to the scene. Once the scene climaxes, new becauses may or may not come into being. To get the full power of because-because thinking, the writer will need to connect the becauses to the stress the scene causes on the character’s Irreconcilable Self. Sadly, that’s another essay.

I’ll be teaching this technique and many others in a four-week Saturday novel seminar in September. The class is offered by WordCrafters in Eugene. Here’s the link to registration.

http://wordcraftersineugene.org/classes/fiction-fluency-seminars-with-eric-witchey/

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

Warning: Any product advertisements that appear with this post were NOT authorized or endorsed by me in any way.

Musings on Breathing Life into a Heartless Villain, by Pamela Jean Herber

 

What makes for a memorable antagonist?

I’ve been having trouble with the antagonist in my current novel-in-progress. She’s boring. I have a decent handle on how she operates in her world, and the role she plays in the story, but she feels more like a mathematical formula than a human being. What to do?… Go out in search of a villain I’m excited about who has similar traits to my antagonist.

An intriguing historical villain

In my travels through books, the Internet, and my own memory, I found a deliciously evil woman from the early 1800s who grew up in Bauzelles, France. Her name was Thérèse Humbert.

As a girl, Thérèse was betrayed by her own father. He had raised her to believe she and her family were wealthy aristocrats. When the truth came out upon her father’s death that she was not of nobility, and wouldn’t be inheriting great wealth, Thérèse was robbed of a station in society she believed she was entitled to. Without legitimate means to claim her place, she resorted to her father’s game. Fraud.

She continued to tell the tale of her family’s aristocratic standing. She was able to obtain credit based on soon-to-be received wealth, piling up huge debt buying a lifestyle that gave the appearance of wealth. Along the way, Thérèse’s husband, and her father-in-law covered her debts as best they could, perhaps to protect their own reputations. She convinced bankers to allow debts to go unpaid for long after they were due by weaving story after story of an impending inheritance and a favorable marriage by her sister.

Eventually, Thérèse was arrested, tried, and imprisoned, but not until after she had wreaked havoc on the hopes, reputations, and livelihoods of numerous family members, friends, and business associates. These unsustainable ways lead Thérèse to betray her younger sister in the very way her father had betrayed her.

With only a brief sketch of Thérèse’s life, I’m hooked.

What makes Thérèse Humbert such an interesting character?

  • The fact that Thérèse’s father betrayed her makes her need for money and status believable and heartbreaking. Her actions were still unconscionable, but I sympathize with how she became capable of them.
  • She betrayed her sister in the same way she was betrayed. Wow. Just wow. This makes me worry for not just the family, but for all the descendants, and especially the sister. Will it be possible for her to break the cycle?
  • The younger sister could not have been deceived without the support of family members who knew the truth. Thérèse could not have successfully defrauded so many people without the support of her very victims: family, friends, and business associates.

In light of what I’ve found, what can I try out on my antagonist?

  • Provide a single and traumatic event that drives her need for money and status.
  • Show that her daughter is at risk of falling into the same patterns of behavior.
  • Populate the story with a network of people that support the antagonist.

The villain in the story doesn’t breathe on their own. The person the villain was before the damage, and the people in the villains’s life who have retained their compassion, they are the ones who bring the villain to life.

Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

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Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Human survival depends on how we manage our relationship with four, fundamental variables. The variables aren’t really in dispute, but the amount of time we have in which to change our relationship to them is. Simply put, the four variables are as follows:

  1. We live in a fragile, closed system, a little blue marble called Earth.
  2. Earth has finite resources: biodiversity, air, water, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.
  3. We have unchecked population growth.
  4. We rely on growth-based economies.

Yes, yes… I know. Solar radiation enters the system. There’s some hope there. However, we aren’t making new materials. We aren’t adding iron ore to our planet. We aren’t increasing the amount of natural gas and oil in the ground. We aren’t somehow magically manufacturing more water to add to the poisoned water and water ecosystems in a way that will fundamentally change the direction of the deterioration arrow.

The four variables stand, but we argue endlessly about what we should do to lengthen the time we have before those four variables result in an extinction level crash.

Note that I say extinction level crash and not the end of the world. As my astute Physicist brother once told me, “Human beings aren’t going to end the world. We will only end ourselves. The planet was here long before we were, and it will be here long after we are gone.”

And now you’re wondering how the four variables relate to writing.

Well, it’s like this. Telling stories is an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to the beginnings of language use. We erect monkeys have always told stories. We tell them to ourselves to justify stealing bananas from one another. We tell them to our friends and family to create bonding in social systems. We tell them to one another to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated and to ensure that our tribe thrives. One of the most common themes in the stories we have told throughout time is the theme of our village being better than their village. Every hero has a nemesis.

Want to see that theme playing out in a modern social context in America? Go to any Friday or Saturday night high school football game in the country. Observe the cheering, the colors, and the parking lot fights.

Harmless, right? Maybe. The value of team sports debate isn’t what this little blog is about. The point is that the “us vs. them” story is there to see. You can even observe the symbolic battle over land resources playing out on the field.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I love a good game. That’s really not the point. The purpose and value of story is the point.

Story telling is the easiest thing we do. It is also the most complex thing we do as human beings. Putting together a solid narrative, especially on paper, has more in common with interacting wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean than it does with the linear, deceptive advice given to creative writing students. We put the little black squiggles in a row, and that creates an illusion of linear activity; however, the squiggles are just the medium of transfer for the story. The story in one mind is transferred through the little black squiggles into the mind of another person. Minds, unfortunately, are not so linear. They are messy places. They are endless impulses layered and ever changing, arranging, and rearranging into patterns that somehow magically become mind—thought, personality, memory, dreams, hopes, beliefs, learning, and maybe even soul.

Okay, I’m not all that sure about the last one. I have some opinions on what soul is, but I won’t go there in this blog entry. Maybe another time.

Story is, however, the human mind generating a dream-like experience based on sensory input. No two people read the same story quite the same way. No two people write a story quite the same way. Let’s just set aside the fact that no two people have the same life experiences. That, by itself, is enough to prove the last point. However, the endless shifts in levels of neurotransmitters, the organization of dendritic networks, the infinitesimal distances between axons and dendrites, the hormonal and electrical potentials, and the endless layering of all of these things and many more means that it is impossible for each of us to experience what any other person is experiencing when we hear or read a story.

Yes, we all tell stories. We all know that stories are essential to our survival. We all know that we are alive today because someone, somewhere way back in the dim past figured out how to tell a story that included the idea that a sharp stick held at the dull end can keep you alive a little longer than no stick at all.

We told stories to keep our families alive. We told stories to keep our tribes alive. We told stories to make sure everyone in our tribe knew how to behave to ensure that we would thrive. We told stories to explain things that made us uncomfortable because worrying too much about the bright lights in the sky meant we weren’t planting and reaping and breeding. We told stories to make sure that members of our tribe didn’t kill other members of our tribe, but it was totally okay to kill members of any other tribe trying to kill our mammoths.

These stories are part of who we are. They must change if we want to survive.

Every person on Earth lives in a closed system with finite resources, unchecked population growth, and growth-based economies. Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one or more of those four variables is a tacit agreement to genocide.

Sadly, we still tell ourselves stories that reinforce tribal behaviors like breeding means healthy tribes, acquisition of resources means more for us, control of territory means we are strong, and us vs. them.

Yet, as there has always been, there is some hope because of story tellers, shamans of the written word, wizards of the wave form and the mind.

If a corporation, government, or individual is telling a story that supports the use of growth-based economy in an ever-shrinking world, they are telling a story that asks millions of people to sacrifice their futures for short-term profit. If any organization tells a tale of policy that will increase population growth without providing compensating increases in resources for the new human beings, they are telling a tale of death for others. If we see a story on the news or on our feeds and it talks of the terrible crimes of protestors attempting to stop pollution, then we are seeing mercenary story-tellers attempt to shorten the time of humanity on this little rock.

For those of us who tell stories for entertainment and edification, fiction writers, we have an obligation to create stories that become viral in a way that suggests new modes of survival.

Heroism has at times been described as the successful search for the grail, and the grail has always been associated with healing and abundance. The stories of today, no less than the stick-holding stories of ten thousand years ago, are about creating visions for survival of the tribe. The only real difference is that the tribe is larger and more complex than it has ever been. We are one tribe that spans the entire Earth.

Story telling and story receiving are more complex than the interaction of wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. However, human beings have always been built to do this amazing thing—to share tales that will help us all survive. Those of us who tell the tales must step up and tell the stories that lead the imaginations of the members of our tribe to an understanding that holding the blunt end of the new pointy stick means having the ability to embrace people who don’t, and physiologically should never be expected to, think the way we do. We must tell the tales that show that every drop of water on this planet is sacred, that every hole we dig hurts us, that every child we force into the world must be fed, and that taking in order to have more means hurting people who will, by direct causal effect, have less.

Look carefully at every story produced and presented. Find the four variables in each tale. Does that story help slow population growth? Does that story reduce our dependence on the market growth that drives economies? Does that story slow the rate of use of nonrenewable resources? Does that story open the world to distant horizons so that our system, and the minds within it, are no longer closed?

-End-