Learning Mystery from Miss Marple

murder at the vicarageOne of my current reading projects is to explore more mysteries.  Every good story has a bit of mystery in it, after all, and the murder whodunnit is sort of the ultimate, pure unadulterated form of the mystery.  So I started by checking out Agatha Christie, who many tell me is the master, and read Murder at the Vicarage, the first of her Miss Marple novels.  The basic plot is:  dude gets murdered at the vicarage in a small village full of gossips.  Almost everyone had a motive for killing him, and two people even confess to the crime right away.  Miss Marple, an “old maid” and a gossip who’s an exceptionally observant student of human nature, shows up local law enforcement by being a better detective than any of the detectives.

Christie’s title of the Queen of Crime is well-earned, and she’s one of those writers you can learn a lot from reading, just to see how she does what she does.  Here are just a few of the tidbits I learned from my first audience with the Queen:

  • Make it clear lots of people have a motive to commit the crime right away.  For bonus points, do this before the murder even happens.
  • There doesn’t necessarilly need to be lots of “action” (e.g., shoot-outs, fist fights, etc.) to create suspense.  A series of conversations (or interrogations) can create quite a bit of suspense, so long as each conversation builds the tension and adds some new layer of complexity to the story.
  • The villain needs to have a fairly complicated plan for the mystery to be interesting.
  • It is *really* appealing when the crime is solved by a nontraditional hero, such as the “gossipy old maid.”  For bonus points:  Have the “official” authorities look down on the hero even as they bungle everything, up until the very end.

In other news, my writing-cation continues to go well.  Up to 14,000 words or so, and just might hit the 20k mark by Monday, if I can get past a stumbling block or two…

Thoughts on District 9

Saw District 9 the other day and I think I liked it. It’s one of those movies that takes a while to sink in, that requires some marinating before you can really be sure how it tastes.  The clearly-cool thing about it is that it’s totally different from any SF movie ever made.  It has a certain gritty realism to it that makes it compelling and, at times, appropriately horrifying.  I love the central premise of aliens being refugees on earth, facing all the prejudices that humans tend to have, even when it comes to things that are much less alien than, well, aliens. 

The movie combines a gritty documentary realism with a more standard Hollywood narrative – which is understandable, since it is a Hollywood movie after all. But as the movie progressed it shifted more and more toward the Hollywood end of the spectrum, which was less interesting to me and also felt a bit clunky at times. I also generally liked the choice of South Africa as a setting, but the depiction of the Nigerians felt like it strayed into a colonialist view at times.  E.g., do we really need subtitles for Nigerians when they’re speaking English?  Despite those disappointments, overall it’s an engaging movie charting new territory for scifi on the screen.

The novel is progressing very well – I’ve written a total of about 4,700 words since I started the marathon four days ago, which puts me only a few hundred words behind schedule.  I’m skipping around quite a bit, jumping ahead to the parts that are clearer in my mind or that come to me with a burst of enthusiasm.  Which has been working well, because then it’s fairly easy to go back and fill in the gaps.


Wrote another 700 words today, bringing the mini-writing marathon total up to 1,400 on Day 2.  I had to spend a bunch of the day taking care of medical appointments and other errands, which slowed me down quite a bit.  At some point I’ll need to make up a day’s worth of words, but that feels very do-able since so far I’ve only been able to actually do a couple of hours worth of actual writing each day.  But I can feel my momentum gaining. I’ve started to enter that mode where my critical brain is okay with just writing, getting the words down on paper, willing to save the finessing for another day.

Jumping on the Wordcount Wagon

I have two weeks off from work – hoorah! – and for my summer vacation I will be travelling to other planets via my trusty little laptop.  Specifically, the other planets of my young adult scifi novel.  I’m going to try for something really ambitious, like writing 20,000 words of the novel in 15 days.  That’s like 1,350 words a day.  This is pretty ambitious for me… At Clarion and Taos and other times when I was writing full time, I wrote maybe 6,000 words max on a good week, or well under 1,000 words a day.  But that was with lots of time devoted to classes and critiquing other people’s stuff, not to mention the mounds of time I spend re-writing my own stuff.  Right now I’m going to focus mainly on generating new material, just getting it on the page, so I think I should be able to keep up the pace.

Today was Day 1 and I hit 700 words.  Half the daily benchmark, but this was really just a warm-up day.

Young Adult Reading List

Having dallied long enough in the wondrous Land of Short Fiction, I am finally giving in to peer pressure and embarking for Novel-landia.  More precisely, Young Adult Novel-landia.  If short stories are the gateway drug of writing, then YA novels are undoubtedly its crack/cocaine.  Not that I am encouraging young people to do drugs.  Or to mix metaphors, for that matter.

As part of my “research” (aka fun things made to sound like work), I’ve been reading a whole bunch of young adult novels.  Here are some of the ones I’ve read recently (in no particular order):

  1. Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series (the stuff of awesome; one of the few times I actually went out and picked up a sequel immediately after finishing book 1 of a series)
  2. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
  3. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  4. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  5. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
  6. Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan
  7. Changeling by Delia Sherman
  8. Working my way through the Harry Potter series
  9. A whole bunch of classic Heinlein science fiction YA, including Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and Double Star
  10. Black Juice by Margo Lanagan (yes, technically this is a short story collection, but so good I had to include it, plus I wanted the list to make it well into the teens)
  11. Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link (see the note for Lanagan above, a typical Kelly Link rock-out)
  12. Thirsty by M.T. Anderson
  13. Tithe by Holly Black
  14. The Phanthom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Mmmm, there are probaby some others but those are the ones that come to mind after glancing at my shelf.  Most of these were very good to excellent, and I have a feeling I’ve been managing to read the cream of the crop.

Up on deck are the ubiquitous Book Thief, Alex Sanchez’s gay-themed YA books, Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials series, Julia Alvarez’s YA-oriented stuff, some Garth Nix stuff (any specific recs?), and some stuff by Justine Larbalestier, which I have heard tell is very good.  I’m also thinking about going back and re-reading some of the books I loved when I was a wee Y. myself, like Madeleine L’engle, Narnia, Lloyd Alexander, and The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. I also feel the need to read more of the trashy stuff to truly immerse myself.  I don’t know, maybe I’ll read a Gossip Girls book or some-such.

Questions?  Disagreements? Recommendations? Anything I simply must read in order to comprehend the essence of the YA genre?

Clarion Nostalgia Reading and Two Types of Writers

storyteller coverJust finished reading Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, by Kate Wilhelm, half-writing-tips-book and half-autobiography-of-a-writing-workshop.  A lot of the writing advice is familiar, the stuff that was drilled into us at Clarion (e.g., “No deus ex machina!”), which made for a nice refresher as well as a nice trip down nostalgia lane.  Other parts were less familiar, which made for some thought-provoking reading.

One of the most interesting things that was new to me was the idea that there are two types of writers: visualizers and constructionists.  Visualizers often start with a strong visual image, then work backward to figure out the world and characters where the image came from – sort of inductive writing.  Constructionists are more deductive – they need to know where it’s taking place, what the historical background is, the characters’ birthdays and favorite colors, etc., and then all of that leads naturally to images , scenes, dialogue.  Oddly enough, I lean slightly more toward the visualizer camp, even though my stories aren’t very cinematic. Though lately, I’ve been learning to do a bit more of the constructionist approach and have been enjoying it.

Definitely worth a read for any writer, especially Clarion grads or would-be Clarionites.

Whiny Narrators

High FidelityA couple days ago I started reading High Fidelity by Nick Hornby and I got through about 300 pages in like 48 hours, even with the craziness of my Busy Backson lifestyle. Hornby is one of those writers who’s just so friggin’ readable.  The amazing thing is that his first-person narrator spends most of the 300+ pages whining, and yet for some reason I can’t stop, I just want more and more of that whiny narration. How does Hornby manage to pull that off, damn it? I think it works because even when Rob (our slacker hero) is rambling on and on, there’s still always something that’s left unsaid.  The opening is a fab example, with Rob listing his top 5 worst break-ups and telling his recently-exed girlfriend that she didn’t even come close to making the list – but the more he whines about the trauma of his middle school break-ups, the more we wise readers can be sure that this latest break up has torn him up far worse than any of the others.

All of this has been very helpful, since recently I’ve been trying to finish my own whiny narrator story.  I may have a new record on this one – three years of working on it on and off, well over a dozen drafts (including one at Clarion) – but I think I’m close to getting it right, thanks in part to the lessons I’ve gotten from Mr. Hornby.