November 01, 2009

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The Mystery of the Plot or the Plot of a Mystery--Take Your Pick posted by Leann Sweeney With pressure from my editor to turn in a new book much sooner than I ever have before, I have been plotting in the last week as I await the latest verdict on my rewritten manuscript. I have been distracted by my cat Agatha's battle with illness, but now that we have reasons for her failure to bounce back from infection--she has heart disease--I am saddened but a little more focused. I once had the feeling that no one came up with a story the way that I did, that other writers are better organized or smarter or just good at it. But as I began to attend writer's conferences in the '90s, I learned of the great debate among writers: to outline or not to outline. And I believe that every time I have spoken for groups or on panels, that question comes up. Do you have an outline? For me, the answer is yes. But that wasn't the case with my first book. I always call that the book that wrote itself. It seemed so easy back then. If I thought about a plot, I honestly have to say, I could come up with maybe two sentences at most. That's usually my "What if...?" question. For example, with the first cat book, that question was "What if a cat was allergic to a person and not vice versa?" But I draw a blank if I try to think much past the first mystery questions. There's nothing there. But I have found that if I begin to write, that suddenly the ideas begin to flow. This isn't the type of outline that you learn in grade school with Roman numerals. It's a narration of a story that comes from ... well, I have no idea. Okay, I have one idea. Human beings are storytellers. I just happen to be able to tell a story better if I write it down rather than if I just spit it out. When I took a class from Elizabeth George in the late '90s, I was amazed when she talked about her plotting method, which as it turns out, is exactly like mine. I write a very long narrative synopsis that often has events out of order and doesn't make much sense to anyone but me, and then I begin to write the book itself. After about fifty pages I return to that synopsis and begin to revise it according to what I have learned about the characters and the story in those first fifty or hundred pages. It works for me and apparently it works for E. George. And I'm willing to bet this is how plenty of writers work. The best part about this method is that I have a road map. When I get in trouble, I always go back to my original synopsis and re-read it. The answers are always there. The original ideas are so sound that it truly amazes me. Characters--especially new ones--do want to take a writer to places they shouldn't go. There's some fun in that, and it probably does help me develop that particular character better, but for the most part, it's a waste of time. When that happens, I always end up writing myself into a corner. Plotting isn't difficult for me, but what always comes up in the plotting is that piece of the story that I know absolutely nothing about. I usually research when I get to that part of the manuscript, but this, too, is time consuming. So for my new idea that will require a quick turnaround, the book I am plotting now, I am doing the research upfront. Or trying to. That doesn't mean I won't come to a screeching halt during the writing and say, "Expletive deleted! I don't know squat about that! Yikes!" But I am hoping that this particular mystery plot will be much better detailed ahead of time than any I have done before. I do not have the luxury of thinking through plot points before I go to sleep or when I'm in the shower or as I am driving to appointments--all the things I take a lot of time doing. Nope. This book requires speed writing, something I am not familiar with. Ah, another challenge. It is about the journey, isn't it?
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IN THE EVIDENCE OF THE TEETH Posted by Sheila Connolly (who hopes all you mystery writers recognize that clever Dorothy Sayers reference!) I'm having a tooth pulled today. No, I won't share with you with the gory details–in fact, I expect to do my best to forget them ASAP. But this is just the latest adventure in my troubled relationship with my teeth. I have lousy teeth–soft, fragile, and far from pearly white. In part this is hereditary, because both of my parents had rather yellow teeth, so I guess I was doomed from the start. I'm afraid to consider bleaching, either professional or the handy home version, because that would probably just further weaken whatever feeble enamel I've got. Or I'd manage to turn the teeth into an approximation of military camouflage pattern. I'll settle for dingy. I really thought I could hang on to all my teeth. My mother did, and so did her mother, to the age of 94. My grandmother grew up in the early years of the 20th century, in a family that wasn't affluent, so I can't say what kind of dental care she received early in her life. Maybe she just had good tooth genes, but whatever the circumstances, her teeth stayed with her. Clearly she didn't share her genes with me. In appearance I inherited my father's teeth, including the gap between the front two, which miraculously closed without benefit of orthodontia when my wisdom teeth came in, all at once, in my senior year in college. Yes, I still have all four wisdom teeth in place–with a few fillings. My mother always made sure I had good dental care. I still remember my first dentist: Doctor Manuel Album, Jenkintown, PA. He had won awards for pediatric dentistry, and I started going to him when I was five. I was not his favorite patient: I didn't mind the drilling so much, but I was consistently terrified when surrounded by adults looming over me with large hypodermic needles. And they never let me prepare myself–I guess they thought moving in fast was better. I disagreed. And I got through the drilling part by thinking, what would [favorite cowboy of the moment] do? Cowboys are brave and stoic–"It's just a scratch"–which is a handy role model when you're sitting in a dentist's chair. (Note: the saving virtue of Dr. Album's office was that it was right around the corner from the Peter Pan Diner, to which my mother and I would adjourn after my appointment for an ice-cream soda.) Obviously the pattern was set early. I have teeth that are woefully susceptible to cavities. I always brushed them regularly, and I had fluoride applications back when that was exceptional. I had regular check-ups. None of it mattered. My teeth kept betraying me. Memorable occasions of my life have been marked by tooth failures. The day of my first date with my husband, I was eating an egg for breakfast and wham, a molar fell apart. I went on the date anyway (stoic, remember?), and the rest is history. On my way to my first writers conference, a filling came loose, and finally gave up the ghost while I was eating a piece of chocolate cake. In Australia we were visiting a distant relative in Sydney; I bit into a piece of cheese, and another tooth crumbled. Do you see a pattern here? So help me, I don't crunch ice or open bottles with my teeth. I don't chew gum or even think about eating caramels. All of these incidents have taken place while I was chewing on something soft. I think my teeth hate me. To be fair, I've known that the soon-to-be late lamented tooth was gearing up for a showdown for quite a while. First the twinges, then the pressure sensitivity. My dentist filed down a few things and said, maybe that will work. It did, for a while. then the twinges came back. He took x-rays: no abscess, nothing visible. Just another tooth giving up on me. Given my track record, I fully expected it to explode at Bouchercon, but it kindly held off until I got back. At which time I decided I was tired of both the constant dull ache and the worry about exactly when it would betray me, and went to an endodontist. He was very nice, and had lots of really cool high-tech instruments, but the bottom line is, the tooth is beyond salvage. Cracked through and through. Time to say goodbye. I feel like I've failed, even though I've done everything right. But into every life some rain must fall, and apparently it's raining on my poor tooth. At least my daughter grew up as part of the fluoride generation, and will never share my dental horror stories. Lucky girl. Ave atque vale, Tooth #15. You will be missed. (But at least I hope I won't end up looking like the lovely lady below!)

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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