Thursday, February 14, 2013

Writing Murder

S.M. Harding (Guest Blogger)

S. M. Harding is the author of twenty-four published short stories, a photographer, and editor of Writing Murder, a collection of essays by Midwest crime and mystery authors. The handy primer on the art of crime fiction is based on a successful lecture program held at Jim Huang’s The Mystery Company and was compiled to benefit the Writers’ Center of Indiana.

Imagine, if you will, a 135-year-old cabin nestled at 8400 feet in the foothills of the San Juan Mountains of northern New Mexico.
For those of you who read James D. Doss, the cabin is about twenty-five miles south of Caňon del Espiritu as the raven flies. The season is winter, snow falls on alternate days with bright sunshine, and the road across the mountains to Taos is closed more often than it’s open. Snow and silence punctuated by the flap of raven wings.

I’ve read every mystery novel I own at least twice. Though I have an Internet connection, Amazon doesn’t yet exist. What to do to fill the hours between chores, cross-country skiing, and feeding piňón to the wood stove? The only logical choice: write my own mystery.

I did – and had a great time as the story unfolded. That first draft rests in a bottom file drawer, unattended now for many years. Since that winter, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve discovered four basic principles as a way of self-editing – I’ve got them taped to my computer and use them as a checklist.

The first is agency. This is a reminder that my writing should be active, not passive. It applies from using active voice in verb choice to a protagonist who keeps moving toward her goal regardless of obstacles.

Tension is crucial to plot, but also to characters’ internal and/or external choices, or in the way the setting represents the progression of the plot.

While a plot must be believable, so must the culture, place, and character motivations. Why would a character do that? Understand why, don’t explain it, but show why.

Superflux, a word which comes from superfluous, and means too much: too much back story, too much meaningless dialogue, too much technical explanation. I believe mystery readers are some of the smartest readers around – honor their intelligence by leaving out explanations. They’ll get it. Honest.

Writing is weaving a web: each filament – setting, character, plot, dialogue, voice – is separate, yet they combine and interact to make the whole strong.

If you’ve ever said, “I have this idea for a mystery novel . . .,” then I’d encourage you to begin writing. And I hope you enjoy it as much as I did that blessed winter in New Mexico.


Sheila Connolly said...

Excellent comments, all. I'm not sure I love the term Superflux, but the principle is bang on. We tend to fall in love with our words and it's painful to cut any of them, but we need to leave readers some space to fill in the blanks for themselves, with us providing a few nudges (not shoves) along the way.

And great use of your time!

Sandra Parshall said...

Thanks for visiting with us today. Your four principles would serve all writers well, not just mystery authors. Now I must get a copy of Writing Murder.

Steven M. Moore said...

Like Sheila, I'm not sure I like the term superflux--I prefer lean. In other words, the Goldilocks rule: never too much, never too little. As Sandra said, I think this applies to all fiction writing.
Unfortunately, readers have diverse tastes. What is too much for one is not enough for another. The author has to analyze his or her potential readers and strike a happy medium, I guess.
In an MS an agent sat on for about six months, she came back and said I had too much narrative. For thrillers and mysteries, that might be a corollary to the "lean rule," but this was sci-fi and I was world-building, which is largely narrative. I didn't take it personally except to note that she might as well have said she didn't like world-building, or sci-fi. I did take it personally that she sat on the MS for six months!
All the best,

Anonymous said...

Superflux also caught my attention. Though I certainly agree it's important, especially considering my own compulsion to use far too many prepositional phrases, however, it should not be applied at the expense of the others.

All of the items on her list are important and should be equally applied. The over arching principle is that the story will determine the agency, tension, believability and superfux as a recipe determines the measure and proportion of the ingredients.

I enjoyed Harding's blog. It's good to invite quality writers to share their knowledge and experiences. Thank you.

Shari Held said...

You are so right. Tension - or conflict - is absolutely critical to good writing. It is one of the most difficult things for me. When you care about a character, I think it is difficult for most of us to merrily place obstacles in their way or give them a past that comes to bite them in the butt just when the going gets good.

Thanks much for reminding us of the basics we need to have in place to make our mystery work.

Barbara Shoup said...

What I love about this is that these rules apply to all good fiction, not only mysteries.