Kaitlyn: Kaitlyn Dunnett here, starting a new group topic.
Writers often compare writing a novel to something non-writers can more easily understand. The analogy I used to use when talking to school children was baking a cake. You mix together basic ingredients. In the case of a cake these are flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, shortening, milk, vanilla, and eggs. With a mystery novel you have plot, setting, a crime, a protagonist (sleuth), a villain, secondary characters (suspects and sidekicks), conflict (which includes suspense), and a subplot. After you put all these things together, you put them in a pan and bake them. When the timer dings, you take a look and see what you’ve got. If the cake fell, you may have to start over. Even if it looks okay, it still has to pass the taste test. And even if it tastes okay, you still need to ice the cake to make it special. That’s the revision process, during which you expand, find perfect details to add, and so on.
I’ve also compared writing a mystery novel to doing a jigsaw puzzle. I start with finding the edge pieces. Once I have the framework, then I pick one particular section and finish that before moving on to the next. Chapter by chapter? Of course, other people sort pieces by color, or work their way into the middle from the outside. I try to avoid puzzles that have huge blocks of sky or snow. There are no clues on these pieces, other than their shapes. It becomes a “try one, discard” process—boring! Having written this, I’m not sure the comparison to writing holds up all that well, at least not the way I do it.
Another one that only works up to a point is that writing a crime novel is like trying to find your way out of a maze. I have to confess that mazes scare me. I literally had to back out of the one at Hampton Court before I had a panic attack.
So now I’m tossing the question out to my fellow Maine Crime Writers? To what do you compare writing a crime novel?
Lea Wait: One of your analogies is also mine, Kaitlyn : the enormous picture puzzle. In my case I say the author has to make up all the pieces: the characters, the time, the place, even the weather, the year, the costumes, the clues … and that sometimes, even though a whole group of puzzle pieces fit together just right … they don’t fit with the other pieces, so the author has to be brutal, and push the whole group off the table and let the dog (or the baby sister) chew on them, and start again. I think that’s especially important with historicals, since so much research goes into the planning stages, but even in contemporary mysteries, backstories, forensics, time of year, current events — all have to fit together to have the puzzle (= novel) work. Since I’m the sort of writer who plans 80% of her mystery ahead of time, that all makes sense. I suspect those writers who don’t plan further than a chapter ahead would have very different analogies in explaining how they write!
Kate Flora: I have to confess that I have never tried to explain the process in the ways that you ladies have. When readers ask me how I plot, I tell them how the book often begins with a character in a situation, and having to face the challenge of understanding who they are and why they are in that particular situation.Then I go on to talk about the prewriting phase of the book, what I call the “cooking” phase, where I carry the story around in my head, working it the way you’d knead dough, until I understand the major pieces of my plot: who was killed, where they were killed, how they were killed, why they were killed, who did it, who might have done it or might have wanted to do it, who will be the holders/divulgers of essential information, and how my protagonist is the right person to solve that crime.
When I’m writing about my cops solving a crime, I very often use the analogy of putting together the puzzle–finding all the pieces, building the frame, and finally finding a way to put all of those pieces together. I also use the image of the old paint-by-number set. (I don’t know if they have those anymore.) The detective will fill in dabs of this color and that, and gradually, a picture of what really happens will emerge. This one is good because it ties into something quite essential about detective work–that it requires the detective to use his or her imagination, along with the gathered facts and knowledge of the parties, to come to an understanding of what probably happened.
And then I could add the flippant answer: Writing a crime novel is like having a whole year of detention. You have to stay there and you can’t leave until all your homework is done. Maybe it’s also like The Breakfast Club, too, where you find that your assumptions are wrong, and things are more rich and complex than you first imagined.
Barb Ross: I use E. L. Doctorow’s quote all the time, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Because that’s how writing feels to ME.
When I’m trying to describe it to other people, I used to go with the whole pottery metaphor. First you make the clay (first draft) and then you make the pot. But lately, watching my sister-in-law who works in a high-end knitting store, I’ve gone much more with the first draft being like spinning the yarn and the rest being like knitting. I remember as a child watching my mother knitting argyle socks, with all the little spools of color. Somehow, it has to come out with both a patten AND a shape. And, sometimes you have to rip out rows and rows to get back to the mistake and knit that part over. That’s the way writing is feeling to me today.
Kate Flora: Barb…I often use a different knitting analogy which also brings in my legal background–that writing a mystery, like writing a brief, is like knitting a complex pattern with several colors of yarn, and having to carry one strand in the back while you work on a different part of the pattern, then bringing it forward again. I’m awful at knitting. Was reasonably good at writing briefs, and am grateful that the ripping out and rewrite doesn’t involve actual stitches. Of course, as I write this, I am about to return to the task of cutting 40,000 words out of a book, asking…now at the single phrase level…do I need it, does it add anything, would the book be any different without it. Argh!
Paul Doiron: Writing a crime novel is like playing a piece of music written for the cello. So says Yo-Yo Ma anyway. I know absolutely nothing about classical music and cannot even carry a tune, but I’m reading a book called Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer, and I was taken by his chapter on Yo-Yo Ma’s creative process. “Perfection is not very communicative,” says Ma. “If you are only worried about not making a mistake, then you will communicate nothing. You will have missed the point of making music, which is to make people feel something.”
Ma then describes how the search for emotion shapes his performance. “I always look at a piece of music like a detective novel,” he says. “Maybe the novel is about a murder. Well, who committed the murder? Why did he do it? My job is to retrace the story so that the audience feels the suspense. So that when the climax comes, they’re right there with me, listening to my beautiful detective story. It’s all about making people care what happens next.”
Of course, all of us on the members of this blog actually write detective stories, but it’s intriguing to think of ourselves in the reverse way. Aren’t we all musicians, too? When we write, aren’t we’re on stage, performing, trying to connect? We want our audience to feel something. I love Ma’s line about not worrying making a mistake. I, too, try to cultivate a certain recklessness in my work because I want my readers to feel emotions when they immerse themselves in my novels. I’d rather take big chances and fail than write neat little books that are safely structured, carefully conceived from beginning to end—and instantly forgotten as soon as the reader finishes the last page.
Vicki Doudera: I love that quote from Yo-Yo Ma, and it’s interesting to think of writing in that way.
For me, a lifelong jock, I think of writing in terms of sports, especially running. I’ve been a runner since grade school, and wondered for many years if a marathon was in my future. Then I wrote my first mystery. Sitting in a chair for months on end to complete A House to Die For was a feat requiring strength, endurance, and stamina, along with proper nutrition (popcorn) and hydration (tea and wine.) When you think about it, slogging one’s way through 26 miles isn’t that different. Discipline, diet, blisters, and hitting the dreaded “wall” — writing’s got it all. Who needs to run a marathon when there are books to write?