Friday, May 14, 2010

To Fool and be Fooled

Have you ever been asked: “Where do you get your ideas from?”

Of course you have. If you have ever written, then you have been asked this annoying question. A question which is impossible to answer. Like: “How long is a piece of string?”

I used to tell people that I kept a black lacquer box on my desk in my study. A box inlaid with mother of pearl and lined with red velvet. It’s where I kept my ideas, and when I needed one I just opened the box and took one out.

My favorite response to the query, however, came from a Scottish author with a penchant for colorful language, James Kelman. He described how he waited for a dark, moonless night, and snuck out into the unlit backstreets of the city of Glasgow. There he would find a darkened doorway where he would wait, unseen, until some unsuspecting reveler took a shortcut on his way home. Kelman would leap out, grab the hapless individual by the lapels, and scream in his face: “Gimme your f***ing ideas, NOW!”

I loooved the idea of mugging someone for their ideas. If only it was that easy.

Ideas, of course, come from nowhere and everywhere. They are amorphous seeds that lodge in our brains, where we water and feed them with imagination and research until they begin to take form.

And that’s when the REALLY hard bit begins. The plotting.

I never usually have problems with characters. They generally speak to me, and I write down what they say (and, yes, I have consulted my therapist about this). But plotting is altogether different. The problem is, when writing a mystery, that you KNOW whodunnit. But you really don’t want the readers to figure it out until you want them to.

At the same time you don’t want to spring it as a complete surprise that they could never have guessed. You want them to look back and say: Of course! How could I have missed that? So you have to plant the clues. And that’s the really tricky bit. Because how can you ever know if you have done enough, or too much? You can’t. It can only be a matter of judgment - your judgment. And you will never know whether or not you got it right until someone else reads it. But that can be entirely dependent on who that someone is. A husband or wife might be easier to fool than your editor. But the hardest people of all to misdirect are the diehard mystery readers.

A few years ago I was reading the New York Times No. 1 Bestseller (and later film), “Presumed Innocent”, by Scott Turow. I was hugely disappointed to figure out who the killer was on page forty-six. Turow had very carefully worked through his plot, and planted the clues that would later satisfy the reader when all was revealed. The trouble is, that as a writer, I always find myself questioning everything I read. Why am I being given this piece of information (regardless of how well buried it might be)? What is the point of this bit of history, or this list of items lying on the bed?

And I guess mystery readers approach a book in the same way. They are hard-bitten, cynical readers who have seen it all, heard it all, and read it all before. And in the end, they are the ones you have to both fool and please at the same time.

Which you will never know if you have really done until the book is out there.

By which time is it too damned late!

Oh, the joys of the genre.


Vicki Delany said...

I'm in exactly that place right now with Molly Smith #5. I know who did it and why and all the things that lead up to it happening, including the secrets of the victim's life. So how do I slowly reveal those secrets so that the reader doesn't shout on page ten: he died because of X. X sticks out to me like a beacon, is that because it is so obvious to anyone, or only to me because I have to reveal all about X.

Rick Blechta said...

I know what you're saying, Peter, about figuring it all out far too early. I'm sure that happens to most writers for the reasons you state. Consciously or unconsciously we put ourselves in the "how would I handle this plot point?" and go on from there. Too often that leads to an early solving of the puzzle. On the flip side, it's wonderful to be blown away when someone completely fools us.

One thing that always bugs me is watching a movie (usually a thriller) and you can solve who the bad guy is by simply watching the opening credits and checking for the usual type casting. Mark Strong currently falls into that category.

But here again, when you're fooled it's just so terrific.

peter_may said...

Good luck with it, Vicki. It's always a crucial stage in the planning.

You're right, Rick, there's always a sense of admiration for the writer when he/she manages to pull it off, and you realize you have been had. But there are, I know, some readers who just love to figure it out ahead of the revelation, then pride themselves on having done it. So maybe you can please all of the people all of the time by failing to fool all of the people all for the time.

DJ Kirkby said...

I left a comment here on Friday. It may even have been clever and amusing...if it was I can't remember :) My characters speak to me too and I hate plotting though I find I can't avoid it. I would love to be able to write mysteries but know there's no hope so I've resigned myself to just enjoying reading them instead.

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