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Interview with Jamie Ferguson, author of Bundle Up!

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Welcome to fellow author Jamie Ferguson!  Previous interviews with Richard BambergRob ChanskyP.R. AdamsMegan RutterJason Dias, MJ Bell, and Shannon Lawrence are also available.

1. First, tell us about bundles and other beasts.  Briefly, what are they, who should buy them, and where can you get them?  Optional: what’s your favorite format?

Until I started writing Bundle Up, I’d never realized how confusing the terminology can be. 🙂 I finally switched to using terms like “multi-author project” in the book to make it clear the concepts could apply to different types of projects.

Some people use “bundle” to apply to any collection of stories or books that are packaged together for sale. I’ve found that while this makes logical sense, it tends to confuse people, so I use “bundle” to refer specifically to collections of ebooks that are created using a bundling website. These sites handle splitting royalties among the participants, and may offer the option to donate a percentage of the proceeds to charity.

Other beasts include anthologies, which are collections of stories packaged together into a single book; magazines, which are similar to anthologies, but may include additional content, like essays; and boxed sets, which are collections of books in either print or ebook format. And there are even more permutations—for example, you could create a bundle of audiobooks, or a bundle of bundles of ebooks.

The three main sites where you can purchase ebook bundles are BundleRabbit, StoryBundle, and Humble Bundle. Bundles created via BundleRabbit may also be available for sale on sites like Amazon. Anything that doesn’t qualify as an ebook bundle can be sold at any retail channel that sells books.

I don’t have a favorite format—I feel that there are situations where each format works well. That said, for collections of short stories, I prefer the anthology format to the bundle format. A bundle of short stories is an ebook that contains other ebooks, so the formatting can vary quite a bit between the items in the collection. An anthology is a single book, so the formatting is consistent across all stories in the collection.

 

2. I’ve worked with you on a bunch of different projects (and, in fact, I did edits on Bundle Up!), and I know that you’re super organized, to the point where it’s almost a minor superpower.  Please gimme a story about how you came to appreciate that about yourself. I’m always interested in how people find their minor superpowers 🙂

My organizational superpower has always been there, so I can’t really remember a time when it wasn’t present. My mom says I made lists even as a small child. 🙂 What isn’t apparent to most people is that I’m super organized in giant swaths, but will ignore other areas if they’re not as important to me at the moment.

For example, once a month or two I’ll have built up a pile of papers and books and random things that eventually gets so high it starts to block my monitor, or I won’t have any room left to put my tea. At this point I “clean my desk,” which usually involves sorting through some things, and moving the rest to a pile elsewhere in my jam-packed office. But the colorful spreadsheets I use to track the writing and publishing projects I work on are very detailed and structured.

It’s kind of like synesthesia. I associate letters and numbers with colors, and didn’t realize until I was well into adulthood that most people don’t do this type of thing because this seems so normal to me that I rarely even think about it.

 

3. Your book is featured in the Nano Writing Tools Bundle aimed at writers doing a project for the National Novel Writing Month.  How did you get involved with that bundle, and has it been a positive experience?

I’d been planning on writing Bundle Up! for a long time, but kept putting it off partly because I felt I didn’t have enough experience, and partly because the idea of writing a non-fiction book was a little frightening. In the summer of 2018, Mark Leslie Lefebvre interviewed me about bundles, curation, and collaboration on his Stark Reflections podcast. I mentioned writing my book during the interview—I figured that by committing to the project in a public forum I’d put pressure on myself to finally start on the project—and my plan worked! I told Chuck Heintzelman, the founder of BundleRabbit, that I’d finally started working on the manuscript. He mentioned it to Kevin J. Anderson, the curator of the NaNoWriMo Writing Tools bundle, and Kevin contacted me and extended an invitation—with the obvious caveat that my book would have to be done.

I was super excited about this opportunity. Not only had I started writing my book, I also had the opportunity to be part of the annual NaNoWriMo bundle! Having a super firm deadline meant I had to buckle down and focus, which I did. I’d probably still be poking at the manuscript if I hadn’t had this opportunity.

In addition to all that, it’s not only been a really fun experience to be a part of this collection, I’m also a fan of the charity we’re working with. The Challenger Center for Space Science Education, a non-profit education organization founded by the families of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, gets a portion of the proceeds from the NaNoWriMo bundle.

 

4. If a writer wanted to get involved in a bundle, what would be the best way to do that? What would make it worth it for an author to organize a bundle of their own?  

Networking is by far the best way to get involved in a bundle or any other kind of multi-author project. It’s not the only way, of course. You can submit a story in response to an anthology call, put your ebook up in BundleRabbit’s Marketplace, etc. But if you connect with other authors, they’ll be more likely to invite you to participate in a project.

There are a lot of things to take into consideration if you’re interested in organizing a collection. Most people just decide to do it and jump right in, which is exactly how I ended up curating my first collection a few years ago. 🙂 But I know several authors who organized one collection and then swore they’d never do it again, and there are several main reasons why. There’s a lot of cat herding involved—as the curator, you need to make sure the authors sign the contract, get their stories/ebooks in on time, give you biographies, and so on. You also need to plan on doing a fair amount of promotion, and/or rely on the authors to help out—but not all authors understand how to do this. One of the most common complaints I hear from curators is that they expected the authors to pitch in more on the marketing side.

 

5. If you had one tip for authors on how to make the impact of the bundles (and anthologies) they’re in more effective, what would it be?  

I’m going to cheat and give two tips, since I consider them both important. 🙂

The first is to figure out what you can do—and are willing to do—to promote the collection, and do it! Ideally, think this through ahead of time so that you can schedule time to write promotional posts, put together marketing images, and so on.

The second is to collaborate on promotion. I’ve found collaboration with other authors to be a huge benefit of multi-author collections. Not only can this help promote the collection, by working on marketing with other authors, you’re also promoting each other.

 

and last but not least, the bonus question:

6. Is there any note that you’d like to leave your readers on?  (Hint: the additional promo question.)

Be creative! 🙂

One of the sections in my book is called Think Outside the Boxed Set. It contains examples of less common ways to use story/book collections, like creating a collective of authors who share tasks related to a series of collections. (Examples of this particular approach include the Uncollected Anthology, which I joined in 2018, and Boundary Shock Quarterly, a speculative fiction magazine created by Blaze Ward.) There are always more ways of doing things! Don’t allow yourself to be constrained by what you’ve seen others do—give yourself the freedom to think of new ideas, and try them out!

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 16: Structure, Part 4

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Scenes vs. Summaries

Beginning writers are told to show, not tell.

But intermediate writers start to learn that show and tell are both necessary, and in fact aren’t exactly opposites.  The two techniques can, and often must, coexist if you’re going to get a story told.

I find it a lot more useful to ask not whether to show or tell, but whether something should be a scene (with a beginning, middle, and ending structure and acted out more or less in real time) or a summary (which is not acted out in real time, but summed up to condense the story).

In general, events should be spelled out when the content is used to increase the tension of the story.  Events should be summarized when the content is used to anchor the world of the story (this includes the characters’ backstories or explanations of the situation in general, not just the literal world of the story).

Scenes increase tension in fiction.

Summaries provide context.

Let’s use a hypothetical section of backstory as example.  You’re writing a story in which you need to reveal to the reader an important event that occurred in the past–in this case, let’s say the main character’s father drowned in a boating accident.

In most cases, the backstory will simply serve to provide context to the main character’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, and should be summarized.

In some cases, however, the backstory will increase the tension of the scene.  Let’s say that you want to provide clues to the reader that the father wasn’t just drowned but that he was murdered, but that the main character hasn’t really put the pieces together yet.

You would write out the backstory as a scene so you can a) set up the clues, and b) increase tension.  The reader might not pick up consciously on the clues, but they will still feel the increase in tension, and associate it with that scene–they will know, at least subconsciously, that there was something important about that scene.

If you write out every event in a story as a scene, every event will serve to increase tension, no matter how minor.  There’s a famous film director who tends to do that; it’s Michael Bay.*  So unless you’re writing over-the-top thrillers, you may want to include some summary in your work.

We’ve already talked about how to write scenes; let’s take a moment to talk about how to write summaries.

Writing Summaries

The key to writing a good summary is focus on the style of how it’s told–not the content.  There, I said it!  Sometimes in writing, you have to value style over substance, and this is one of those instances.

The tension in a scene, where a character tries and fails to do something, is what drives a scene forward.  It is what, in general, drives a story’s plot forward.  So without an increase level of tension, what’s left to hold the reader’s attention? What makes a series of events inherently interesting to read, if the reader already knows that the conflict being described has already been resolved?

First, let’s look at a famous summary:

All right, all right, let’s see, she was inna water, the eel is comin’ after her, she was frightened, the eel started to charge her, and then–

I’m back to The Princess Bride, of course.  This is the scene when Buttercup is in the water as the Shrieking Eel is about to eat her, after the Grandson has interrupted the Grandpa and made him lose his place.  He’s skimming through the text, summarizing out loud.

The funny part isn’t that the eel is or is not about to eat Buttercup; it’s that the quick summary is told in the Grandpa’s voice, briefly breaking the immersion of the story.

Another one:

THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled–but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

This one is the opening paragraph of “The Cask of Amontillado,” of which I have also made frequent mention.

A lot of openings of scenes are, themselves, summary.  Before the main action of the scene starts, there is often either a) a description of the setting and/or characters, or b) a description of the situation/problem…presented in the form of summary.

The beginning of a scene should not, by itself, increase tension.  That’s the task of the middle of the scene.  Summary and/or description are used to set the scene and give context.

So what goes into a summary, if it has no inherent drama?

  • The deep perspective of the POV character or narrator.
  • Some information that adds context to the rest of the story.

That information can be as simple as “Time passed in traveling from one place to another” or as involved as Stephen King explaining what’s been going on with Edgar Freemantle at the beginning of Duma Key.

Sometimes the information in a summary is provided after it’s relevant.  Normally this is a mistake.  Readers get upset about finding things out after they need to know.  One sentence too late is still a screwup; nobody liked being made to feel ignorant and stupid.

However, if there are two ways something can be interpreted, then it’s usually better to set up the simpler, more obvious explanation before the event, and the deeper, more complex explanation afterwards.

For example, in The Princess Bride, we learn that Westley is killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts before we meet the Man in Black, and that Westley replaced him, after.  The information that Westley is the Dread Pirate Roberts cannot be revealed until after the reader has a chance to look at the actor and go, “Wait…that dude sure looks like the farm boy.”  You have to give the reader a chance to guess; and, if they don’t, a chance to be surprised.

What does that have to do with summary?

Summary is for context, right?  We don’t need a whole scene of the Dread Pirate Roberts on the high seas.  Instead we get the following:

Westley didn’t reach his destination.  His ship was attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never left captives alive. When Buttercup got the news that Westley was murdered–

“Murdered by pirates is good,” the Grandson interrupted.

–she went into her room and shut the door.  For days she neither slept nor ate.

“I will never love again,” said she.

We won’t find out the truth until Westley is rolling down the hill and he shouts, “As…you…wish…” And we don’t find out about it as a summary, but as part of a scene.

The information before the Westley reveal is given in summary; the information afterward, in scene.  I would say that that’s a good way to do it–but it will depend on your story.  If you were working on a mystery or suspense story, you might provide the initial information in a scene, then let the detective sum up the truth at the end of the story.

Sometimes you want a plot twist that shouts; other times, you want a plot twist that whispers, for greater impact:

Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!

That’s the end of “The Cask of Amontillado.”  The line For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them is pure summary–and redefines everything that went before it from the possibility of just being a cruel joke to the definition of revenge itself.

Scene vs. Summary Redux

I like to think of scene and summary as inhalation and exhalation, wax on and wax off, rise and set.  One of the techniques increases tension; the other doesn’t release the tension but provides a moment of calm that interrupts and defines it.

Some stories are going to need more summary than others; a thriller should have less summary, scattered lightly; an epic fantasy is probably going to have more summary, laid on with a trowel.  How much context do you need?  Do the characters live in the moment, or do they constantly consider the past and how they got where they are today?

A story with too little summary can feel like an onslaught of events with no meaning; a story with too much summary can feel like it moves at a crawl–because tension is not increasing on a regular basis, merely being maintained at a status quo.

One of the best ways to get a feel for this is (surprise surprise) to type in the work of an author that “feels” about right for pacing, and finding how much summary is actually included in the work, and where it’s tucked in.  Is it in big chunks at the start of a scene?  Is it scattered throughout?  When a character mentions something that POV character already knows but the reader doesn’t, does the POV character make an aside to the reader?  Is backstory spelled out in scenes?  Are the clues of a mystery located in scene or summary?

I can’t answer those questions for you: each writer handles them differently, and has different techniques.  I suggest taking a closer look at your favorite writers and how they handle their choices of scene vs. summary.

You have a lot more options than “show, don’t tell.”

Next time, let’s talk about what order to tell things in, and why.  Why Pulp Fiction?  Why Memento?  Should the reader know more about what’s going on than the character does?  And how can you set that up?

 

*Check out this video and its second half to see an interesting essay about Michael Bay’s style, both good and bad.

Free book and other curiosities here.

How to Study Fiction, Part 15: Structure, Part 3

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Structure: Headhopping & Tenses

Since these are two relatively minor elements, I’m going to cover them both here.

Note: Please keep in mind that my structure posts are going to be relatively tentative, because this is some fairly high-level stuff that I’ve only been getting into over the last few years. 

Headhopping

“Headhopping” is a pejorative term for shifting POVs while still in the same scene.  You’re an intermediate writer now; you’re allowed.  Master writers shift POVs a fair amount, I’ve discovered, and do it so smoothly that most readers (and yours truly) won’t notice it on a first read.

How is it done?  You have to understand POV as being from a specific character’s perspective in order to do so, and it’s for third-person POVs only (as far as I know):

  • You’re writing from character A’s point of view.
  • You need to get something from character B’s point of view, either information or an opinion.
  • You make character A’s point of view as “objective” as possible.
  • You swap over to character B’s point of view and make it as “objective” as possible.
  • You get whatever you need out of character B, going deeper into the opinions and attitudes of the character as necessary.
  • If you need to go back to character A, make character B’s point of view as “objective” as possible.
  • Swap over to character A, with their point of view as “objective” as possible.

I have “objective” in quotes because the shift doesn’t have to be truly objective, just not anchored directly, obviously, and solely in one character’s point of view.

Here’s an example.  The POV of this scene is a character named Dodger who is walking through Victorian London with his dog, Onan (who smells bad).

The one thing you could say about this dirty old city, Dodger thought as he headed out of the attic, strutting along in his new suit with Onan at his heels, was that no matter how careful you were, somebody would see anything. The streets were so crowded that you were rubbing shoulders with people until you had no shoulders left; and the place to do a bit of rubbing now would be the Baron of Beef, or the Goat and Sixpence, or any of the less salubrious drinking establishments around the docks where you could get drunk for sixpence, dead drunk for a shilling, and possibly just dead for being so stupid as to step inside in the first place.

In those kinds of places you found the toshers and the mudlarks, hanging out with the girls, and that was really hanging out because half of them would have worn the arse of of their trousers by now. Those places were where you spent your time and your money so that you could forget about the rats and the mud that stuck to everything, and the smells.  Although eventually you got used to them, corpses that had been in the river for a while tended to have a fragrance of their very own, and you never forgot the smell of corruption, because it clung, heavy and solid, and you never wanted to smell it again, even though you knew it would.

Oddly enough, the smell of death was a smell with a strange life of its own, and it would find its way in anywhere and it was damn hard to get rid of—rather, in some respects, like the smell of Onan, who was faithfully walking just behind him, his passage indicated by people in the throng looking around to see wherever the dreadful smell was coming from and hoping it wasn’t from them.

(Terry Pratchett, Dodger.)

In the first paragraph, the character is thinking to himself; we’re inside his head.  But the POV slides over to a vague sort of “you,” a generic “you” that doesn’t sound like an objective third-person POV, but it really is–it’s not clearly coming from Dodger himself, but kind of vaguely from “you.”

You probably didn’t notice that by the end of the third paragraph, you’re in the POV of the people behind Dodger and Onan, looking around to see where the smell is coming from.  It’s not Dodger’s perspective; he can’t even see them.

A good POV jump shouldn’t be obvious, and it should only drift as far from the main POV of the chapter as necessary to accomplish the point.  The technique isn’t supposed to be clear cut; if it were, it wouldn’t be effective.

Tenses

Your two basic tenses are present and past tense.  Because this is English, however, you can use all sorts of other tenses!  One of the strengths of English is in how freaking specific it can get about time:

The experiences he had had had been bad.

The time travel machine would have existed, except that it hadn’t.

We will have been there for an hour by then.

At this level, however, your main question is probably “Should I use present or past tense in my writing?”

Currently, fiction written in past tense is more common, and readers will tend to disappear into it more, because they have more familiarity with it.  Writing in present tense is less common, and you’ll have to work harder with sense and opinion details to keep readers buried in the character–but it also gives the tale a more modern/YA feel.

What tense you use should be more influenced by whether you like writing in it and whether your readers like reading in it than anything else–which is another reason to keep up with reading current work in your genre, so you know whether present- or past-tense books are more popular.

Anybody who says you must/must not write in a certain tense is talking to beginners!

Next time:  Scenes vs. Summaries:  When to show…when to tell!

Free book and other curiosities here.

 

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 14: Structure, Part 2

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

POV & Structure

Note: Please keep in mind that my structure posts are going to be relatively tentative, because this is some fairly high-level stuff that I’ve only been getting into over the last few years. 

At the beginner level, what we learn about POV is that it is a “point of view” and that there are three of them:

  • First person (I)
  • Second person (you)
  • Third person (they)

You may also learn that there is an omniscient third point of view (written from outside the character’s perspective) and a tight third point of view (written from inside a character’s perspective, but from the third person, not the first).

You will also probably get the message that you should not head hop, which is that you should not jump from inside one person’s point of view to another (generally in third person).  And you’ll probably hear that you’re not supposed to use second person POV at all.*

Okay, great.  Those are things that tend to trip up beginning writers.  But you’re not a beginning writer now; you’re intermediate, so it’s time to pick apart POV on another level.

What is POV

A point of view is the filter through which all the events of the story are viewed.  The point of view should have such a strong filter on it that it changes how the events of the story are told to the reader.  If you swapped POVs or omniscient narrators, it would be a completely different book.

In cases where the narrator is hidden or there’s a little head-hopping going on, the POV should still be strong.  A POV isn’t just literally how someone sees things, but also their attitude toward life.  If your POV is an omniscient narrator, this filter can secretly come from one of the existing characters, no matter how minor, in the story, or it can be pulled out of thin air.  Or it can just be you 🙂

Let’s go back to the movie version of The Princess Bride.  (Although I think this is relevant for the book version, too.)  The entire story, even the parts that aren’t being directly intruded on by Grandpa, carries a filter that comes from him.  Even though he is cynical, he still carries an immense well of love in him: both attitudes come through in the telling.

Removing the Grandpa/Grandson sections of the story would obviously change the story as a whole.  But removing Grandpa’s attitudes from the story and replacing them with, say, Humperdink’s, would totally change the story.  Buttercup would be beautiful, but she would be an idiot.  Wesley would not be a dashing pirate, he would be a murderer.  And so on.

A point of view is about an individual character’s or narrator’s view of the world, more than it is about first or third person.

How to Use POV

When people ask me how I decide what “person” to use in POV (first, second, third, etc.), I always say, “It depends on how much I want to lie.”  First person narrators make excellent unreliable narrators.  LolitaAmerican Psycho, and Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd are all first-person narrators.  People accept that when someone is telling you a story, personally, there might be some lies, distortions, half-truths, braggadocio, etc., involved.  But if you hear a story about someone else, you expect that your narrator will tell you the truth about that person, as they know it.  It’s like gossip, so be careful about writing an unreliable third-person narration–the distrust can blow back on the author, not just the narrator.

But the bigger question is, “How do I decide which point of view to use for this story?”  Which character is the right POV?  And how should that person best tell the story?  And how on earth do you decide whether to use multiple POVs?

As far as I can tell:

  • The right character is the one who “speaks” to you.  If you can hear that voice in your head, then that is the right voice to use.
  • The right character is the one who knows less, but can find out more.  Readers move from ignorant to informed during the course of a book; having a narrator who does the same is awfully convenient from a writing perspective.
  • The right character is the one who tries to see the events objectively, but cannot truly do so.  A narrator who both tries to see the events with the distance of wisdom and who can yet be overwhelmed by emotion is a powerful thing.  (This especially applies to omniscient-type narrators, I think, as in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)
  • The right character is the one that the reader can understand and relate to.  Nobody can truly understand Sherlock Holmes; that’s why he tends not to narrate his own stories.

Multiple POVs are a special case.  Obviously, if you’re writing a romance where the POVs alternate between “he said” and “she said,” then you have your POVs selected for you.  And if you’re writing a thriller, then a dramatic prologue showing a murder almost has to be told from the POV of the victim, witness, or villain.  Some things are solidly established as reader expectations, and it’s rarely a virtue to try to completely flip them.

But what about other types of POV shift?

If you are typing things in, you will run into areas where professional writers are breaking POV “rules” right and left.  There is a lot of head-hopping among that crowd.  If you are outlining, you will see professional writers shift through more POVs than you might have noticed, too, with some POVs only showing up once or twice.

The rule of thumb is:

  • Have a main character.  (ONE.)
  • Spend most of your time with that main character.

Please note that this is only a rule of thumb; some writers will break that sort of basic rule.  George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire has some pretty sophisticated, unusual POV choices, and outlining his novels is pretty interesting in and of itself.

The arrangement of POV chapters should also reflect the plot of your story.  Let’s say that you have a story where there’s a good guy and a bad one, but it’s not initially clear which one is which.  Initially, each character might get an equal number of chapters, but as it becomes clear that evil has overtaken one of the characters, that character can have fewer chapters as the other character becomes the clear good guy.  Most authors will do this kind of thing subconsciously. However, if you’re interested in how it works, I’d definitely take a look at outlining the George R.R. Martin books.

First, Second, or Third?

Finally, let’s cycle back around to that old question: what POV should I use, first, second, or third?

  • First-person POV is for when you want the person telling the story to be in the reader’s living room with them, as it were.
  • Second-person POV is for when you want to address the reader directly, as in this blog article.  OR for when you want to sound hypnotic.  “You’re sinking deeper into sleep…” OR for when you want to completely alienate the reader from the narrator; I’ve done this on a couple of psychopath stories.  People naturally hold a second-person narrator at arm’s length.  See Caroline Kepnes’s You for a brilliant example.
  • Third-person POV is for when you want someone else to tell the story to the reader.  This is the most believable of POVs.  It sounds like someone repeating gossip, for one thing, and it’s easier to forget that you’re “hearing” someone tell the story, especially if you leave out a narrator and only report things from the third-person’s point of view.

A constraint about first-person narration:  All first-person narrators must be able to tell their own tales at some point, logically speaking.  If you kill off a first-person narrator at the end of a book without them having written or recorded their thoughts as they go, you’re going to have a very annoyed audience.

Next time, I’ll probably post on how to headhop and what using different tenses means.  But only probably.

 

 

*Which was exactly what I was doing in that sentence.  Talking to you.  In second person POV.  Writer “rules” are weird sometimes.

Free book and other curiosities here.

How to Write a Mystery: Let Me Sum Up

Someone was trying to explain to me how complex mysteries were to write; she claimed “she wasn’t smart enough.”

I, of course, knew that she was, and that she’s be good at it…but of course couldn’t find a way to say that succinctly in person at the time.

There’s a French phrase, l’esprit d’escalier, that means “the spirit of the stairs.”  It’s when you think of the perfect thing to say…too late.

So here’s my response:  How to Write Mysteries, The Extremely Short Version.

  1. First, think crime, don’t think mystery.  Not every writer needs to be Agatha Christie.  A huge puzzle does not a mystery make.  Crime is British term that covers what in the U.S. would be crime, mystery, caper, thriller, and suspense.  You have a ton of options that don’t require intricate plots.
  2. Start with a crime OR a wrong done OR some kind of coincidence, trick, mischief or practical joke.  Something that is not quite right.
  3. Agatha Christie starts with one assumption that readers will normally make, and overturns it.  For example, “They couldn’t all have done it.” You don’t have to do it that way, but that’s how she did it.
  4. Have someone try to hide that one crime or trick, or try hide who did it.  It doesn’t have to be the same person, the hider and the do-er.
  5. Then have someone notice the incident and try to find out what happened. It can take a while for the person to notice.  Hundreds of years in some cases.  It can even take most of the story before they do.
  6. You can tell the reader more of the truth or less.  The less you tell the reader, the more it’s about the puzzle (as in a mystery).  The more you tell the reader, the more it’s about the people involved and their motivations (as in suspense).
  7. In most fiction, you don’t just tell the reader what happened, but how to think about what happened.  (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”) In a crime story, tell the reader pretty much everything as you would otherwise, but when that thing would give the solution to a puzzle away, don’t tell the reader how to interpret what you just said.  Fair clues are always in plain sight.  They just aren’t explained to the reader.

Here’s an example of a clue without context:

I went home for Christmas.  The news announcer on the radio said, “Watch out for slippery roads, and anyone out on Highway 34 near Turner’s Corner should remember not to pick up any hitchhikers!  The infamous Jodie Turner died tonight in 1995, hit by a semi driver who had drifted off to sleep, as she was trying to hitch her way home from college in Minnesota.  Five vehicles have run off the road near Turner’s Corner since…all on this night, the twenty-second!”

And here’s what is really going on:

The narrator went home for Christmas.  The radio announcer said that stuff, but the narrator wasn’t listening to it, because the narrator was hitchhiking.  And dead.  Because the twist of the story is that the narrator will turn out to be the ghost.

(I haven’t written that story or anything; it’s just a cheesy example for the sake of this post.)

And that’s pretty much it.  End with some kind of resolution to the crime or whatever it was initially that caused the events of the story.  Justice done, not done, or injustice repeated in an ongoing loop (as in “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson).  All have their place.

You can, of course, get really complicated about a mystery story (or any story in which you hold back information from the reader).  But the essence is simply that you’re being completely open with the reader…you’re just explaining what you’re being open about!

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Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 31

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  Parents

PROSPERITY GOSPEL

Where was it said, where was it written, that one had to send one’s children away?  To schools, to colleges, to lives and jobs of their own?  It was an uncomfortable situation altogether.  Their children would insist upon making fools of themselves.  They took up basket-weaving and learning about, well, not very nice people, as if that were something that one could make a living at.  They were impressionable.  They could not think for themselves, a condition which they had demonstrated time and time again, and their parents should know; they had raised them.  Had they not taught their children to respect themselves?  They had.  So why these grand yet disgusting gestures of independence?  It was just being stubborn.  They could not stand to be proven to be wrong.

Could they not be trusted to select friends for themselves?  Could they not date someone nice?  Could they not get married, have children, buy a house within walking distance, keep up a yard?  Why were all the good things that they had been taught cast aside?

To be fair, well, there was nothing to be fair about.  They did not come home for Thanksgiving or Christmas.  Their phone calls became increasingly separated by time and distance.  One could see them, mucking about on social media, having lives that they had no business living, pretending to enjoy themselves, not listening.

They were sharp and rude and didn’t understand that their parents were only trying to help; or they were soft and gelatinous, hard to pin down; or they simply pretended to ignore half the things one said, things that had been said to them when they were younger didn’t they understand that they had to grow up? What was all this about tattoos?  Why not stop drinking expensive coffees out of those foolish porcelain travel mugs?  Why not use the machine that they had bought for them, the one that takes the little plastic coffee packets, you can make anything that way? And no one didn’t need to know about their…their significant whatevers, that filth, in our day we wouldn’t have come within fifty feet of those pieces of trash,

Baby murderers! Burn the illegals! Burn the gays! Burn them all!

And then their parents left the house, they were seen in RVs, in restaurants, in cars with someone else’s badly-raised children in the streets in front of them, a foot on the accelerator and a bump under the tires, in wheelchairs, in nursing homes, in badly-upkept or luxurious retirement apartments (depending on whether they’d lived virtuous lives earlier on; of course everyone gets what they deserve), finally having grown up enough to leave their children behind and live lives of their own.

…And that’s about as much normal as anyone should have to take.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 30

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  When company shows up

THE GHOST IN THE ROOM

They had all gathered for an event called Friendsgiving.  A Thanksgiving without family, and almost entirely without friends; for the most part, they were friends of friends, or rather strangers, only the most tentative of connections between them:  work, church, a hobbyist group.    Bearing food, they arrived.  Cranberry sauce, scalloped potatoes, dinner rolls, stuffing, green beans, and so on.  The turkey was in the oven, provided by their host.

Surreal and tense after the first introductions, did any of them have anything in common?  They sat at the table and poured each other wine.  Those who did not drink alcohol had sparkling grape juice.  The candles were lit, the host raised his glass to toast: to absent friends, and to new ones.  The toast was repeated.

But not quite everyone who repeated it had good intentions.

One member of the party disliked another.  The second guest had no strong opinion on the first.  The first not only had reason to dislike the second, but had suffered a personal insult at the second guest’s hands.

The disliking guest had taken a glance at the invitation list, noticed the other’s name, and had delayed answering the RSVP almost until the last moment.  Come or don’t come?  Tell the host this other member of the party had done—which was, in that circle, just across the boundary of being unforgivable—and feel the satisfaction of knowing that they had exiled this other person, as it were, from the host’s pleasant society? And yet it would spoil the evening.  Or say nothing, keep the peace, and know that the pleasantry of the evening had been purchased at the price of silence, even complicity?

The first guest, who knew the host well, finally arrived at a solution.

“So I have a question for you all,” the first guest said, after the meal was well underway.  “Who is the ghost in the room?”

The ghost in the room, the ghost in the room.  A puzzled whisper went around the table.

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, it’s just a game.  One of the people in the room is a ghost; the rest of us have to figure out who it is.”

“It’s you!” said one person.

The host announced, “I’ve shaken hands with everyone in the room.”

“Everyone’s been drinking wine and eating, so it’s none of us!  Ghosts can’t eat!”

“No, no, I get it,” said the second guest, jovially, who was a teetotaler.  “The ghost will seem perfectly normal right now, but later on, we’ll look back and realize who it was.  Like ‘Afterward’ by Edith Wharton.  The main character sees a ghost but doesn’t realize that it was a ghost until much later.”

“Yes, like that,” the first person said, grateful that they hadn’t needed to mention the story themselves, but annoyed that, once again, the second guest hadn’t the slightest awareness of the first guest’s antipathy or reason for same, although it had given the first guest an ulcer and repeated nightmares.

“What are the rules?” someone else asked.

The first person said, “That’s the fun of the game, deciding what the rules actually are in the first place.”

“Does it have to be someone actually present?” said the host.  “Or could it be an invisible presence?”

That was voted down.  It had to be someone present.

“Can ghosts eat and drink?  Can they shake hands?” asked the host.  He seemed to be particularly adamant on establishing this point, which was understandable, given that he had shaken everyone’s hand.

“They seem to eat and drink, but it’s only an illusion,” said someone, which suggestion was taken up.  Later on, it was decided, the food would reappear on the ghost’s plate, the wine or juice in their glass.

“Can spirits drink spirits?” was a question received only by eyerolls and laughter.  Ghosts could drink spirits, although they would tend to avoid the appearance of doing so—joked one of the guests—because it would be cannibalism.

“What about handshakes?” the host repeated.

“You can feel a chill when ghosts are present,” said one of the guests, who had always been a bit on the superstitious side.  The motion was carried, however; a ghost might shake a hand, but a ghost’s hands would be inevitably chilled.

Everyone felt their neighbors’ hands.  The host’s hands were warm; likewise those of the guest who had wronged the other.  The superstitious guest’s hands were chilled, and so were those of the guest who had started the game in the first place, the one who had been wronged.  The others were of a moderate temperature.

“We’re down to two candidates,” declared the second guest, and gave their names.

The superstitious guest stated, “Everyone knows that I have a talent for mediumship, that is, contacting the spirits.  It’s the presence of the ghost in the room that makes my hands cold.”

That, too was accepted.

The first guest, the one who had suggested the game, was teased for finally being chosen.  “You didn’t think that we would choose you!  And it was your suggestion!”

The first guest smiled, pulled something out from under their chair, and dropped it on the table.  “Feel this!”

It was felt:  “Oh, it’s cold!” “It’s an ice pack!”  “You’re not the ghost at all! You’re only pretending to be a ghost!” “If it’s not either of you, who is it, then?”

The host and the second guest were searched for heating packs, but nothing was found.  The evening finally devolved into other pursuits. Someone took out a guitar and began singing Christmas carols.  The dishes were done.  People began to excuse themselves—“I have to get up early for Black Friday!” “That only proves you’re not a ghost. Ghosts never go shopping at five a.m.!”

Finally only the host, a clean kitchen, and a glass of wine remained.  “What was that all about, I wonder?” he asked himself.  “And planned it out, too, with the ice pack in their pocket.”

Then he distinctly remembered pouring the second guest’s glass of juice, into which he had emptied his last bottle, and which the second guest had apparently drunk to the dregs.

And yet, at the second guest’s place–the host had picked up the wine glasses from the table himself–there had been a full glass of slightly flat grape juice.

The host wasn’t the only one to have noticed. The rumors went ’round.  And the second guest was never invited to Friendsgiving again.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 29

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  Pulling into the driveway after a long trip

DUTIES AND OBLIGATIONS

How many times had she pulled up into the driveway after the trip, arms and legs tingling, tired, the backs of her thighs sweaty and stuck to her jeans, turned off the engine, and listened to the fan blow a few last gulpfuls of air onto the hot engine?  How many times had she offered herself up like this?

She kept the paperwork in the glovebox, in a separate envelope from her registration and insurance so she didn’t accidentally hand it to the cops if she were pulled over: the deal, the bargain, her inheritance.  It was written in words that she couldn’t read but everyone else involved took for granted, liquid words that moved on the page.  The phrase duties and obligations had swum up to her once, and a priori given in perpetuity to.

Home was a word that she had not yet begun to reclaim; according to the contract—although she couldn’t read it, everyone behaved as if this were true—the word didn’t apply to this place in front of her now, the people who lived there, the memories and attachments she had formed with them, the love.

Don’t be so melodramatic! It’s nothing like that.  What are you even talking about? We should get together more.  

None of that mattered.  All that mattered was the car, the road, the ritual, and passing the boundaries–ah yes, to the place where nobody was allowed to have any boundaries–across the dimensions to a place that didn’t really exist.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 28

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  Lazy Sunday afternoons

NIGHTS AND HOLIDAYS

Both chapped hands pressed up against the lazy Sunday afternoon like a kid outside a toy shop window, face pressed up against the glass, looking at a big shiny gift box labeled boredom and knowing it will always, always be out of reach.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 27

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  Finding money I forgot about

THE COIN

She was vacuuming, and because the cat hair had built up so much around the edge of the room, she pulled out that little tool on the back of the vacuum cleaner, the wand, and stuck the edger attachment on it.  Vrrrup! went the cat hair, which was a gray haze around the edges of the room, even though the cat itself was black.

She looked at the couch and thought, I should do the couch too.

There was a fabric attachment for the vacuum wand, but she didn’t use it, it seemed like it would be breaking the spell that was allowing her to clean, suddenly she would turn into a pumpkin and go back to her normal work-from-home self, only worse, with no deadlines, no money in her savings account, and no health insurance.  Cleaning was better than worrying.  The small attachment seemed to take forever to vacuum the arms, the back, the ruffles along the bottom, the tops of the cushions.

She shoved the cushions onto the floor and flipped them over to vacuum the bottoms.  The tops were getting a bit worn; she should just put the cushions back upside-down. Then she decided to vacuum the crevices, the hidden places of the couch, which they hadn’t bothered to upholster in nice fabric, only a thin cotton sheet that sagged on the bottoms.

A coin lay there.  She picked it up, carried it over to the kitchen counter, and put it down with a clunk.  The coin was dull gray, very heavy, heavier than the genuine silver dollar she still had in her flat under-the-bed box of mementos.  It was more like putting down a paperweight than it was like putting down a coin.

The vacuum cleaner was still running.  She walked over to it, picked up the wand, and began to run the tip over the sheer under-couch fabric.

There was another coin, right where the first had been.  It must have slid down.

She picked it up, carried it over to the counter, and laid it beside the first.  Where the first should have been, that was.  There was no other coin.

Where had it gone?

She picked it up, turned it on its edge, and tapped it against the counter.  The vacuum cleaner was still running.  She looked over to the couch, still holding the coin. There was no coin on the fabric; she must be getting paranoid.

She put the coin in her pocket and picked up the wand.  She ran the tip over the fabric.  A few seconds later, a coin slid out of the crevice along the back of the couch and came to a stop where the first coin had been.

She reached into her pocket, which still felt heavy.  But the coin was gone. Aha.

The vacuum cleaner was still running.

She picked up the coin again.  It wasn’t a quarter, it wasn’t a half-dollar, it wasn’t a silver dollar.  She wasn’t even sure it was made of metal.  The flat gray surface didn’t look like, not quite like, silver or nickel or even pot metal, like the cheap dangly earrings she used to buy as a teenager.  The face on the front wasn’t recognizable.  It was a woman’s face.  The letters themselves were familiar, but the language wasn’t; she couldn’t read a word of it, front or back.  The obverse held a picture of a monument, or a temple, at which some other people came to worship.

She held the coin in her left hand while she reached for the wand with her right.  She watched the coin, not the wand.  She really kept her eye on it.  As she vacuumed, the coin turned hot in her hand, so hot that she dropped it.

Before it could hit the floor, it vanished.  And reappeared, sliding out of the back of the couch crevice, sliding neatly into place.

What if she just left it there?  The thought rankled.  She might be able to look it up and sell it on Ebay, no matter where it was from, make a few extra bucks until she got her next client.  But, on the other hand, she could just leave the coin there, turn off the vacuum, and be done with it.  She imagined herself suddenly trapped in a loop: the vacuum running continuously, the coin appearing and disappearing, and each time the woman’s expressionless face looking off to her left, as though she were watching something just around the corner, something terrible, just out of sight.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

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