An Afternoon of Conviviality

Question: With an investigative reporter’s flair, Peggy opened the discussion by asking, “Was ‘Beware the Sleeping Dog’ about you?”
Answer: I tap-danced around that a little. I said writing fiction is much like acting on a stage. In order to capture responses and emotions, I become each of the characters. And the characters become me. Fiction is a combination of what the author has heard, experienced, read, and imagined. To take it one step further, I think many authors write their debut novel because they are driven to do so by some life event. They write the next book simply for the love of writing.

I was the guest author for a local reading group Friday. Sara, the hostess, prepared a sumptuous luncheon and setting, but I was too nervous to really eat. I can write so much better (or at least more comfortably) than discuss the art of writing. Carol, Peggy, Sara, Susan and Sylvia were kind and generous, though, and the conversation flowed easily. So easily, in fact, that I neglected to take notes!

Reader hypothesis: After discussing pacing criteria, Sylvia remarked that Agatha Christie started writing at a very young age. She doubted Ms. Christie worried whether or not the pacing of her plot fit an established pattern. It seemed more likely that for Agatha Christie the story development and plot pacing resulted from her innate writing ability rather than a defined expectation.
My response: Certainly this is most likely true for Agatha Christie and other highly acclaimed authors. However for me, the writing process was a learning experience. After discovering Larry Brook’s “Story Structure”, which defines three turning points and two pinch points rhythmically occurring at specific percentages into the novel, I reworked my manuscript to fit that rhythm. Now I watch for that pattern when I read a book and conclude that most authors I enjoy adhere pretty closely to it.

Note: My son also expressed skepticism about a standard pattern. Would it not stilt my creativity?

Additional note: If you’re a Christie fan, you might enjoy reading Chief Inspector Gamache novels by Louise Penny. Penny is cited as a modern-day Agatha Christie.

Question: Susan–or was it Peggy or Carol–asked, “Why did you choose to write mysteries?”
Answer: I’m almost embarrassed to answer that. I struggled between the mystery and suspense genres. Honestly, mystery won because its expected word count is considerably less than that for suspense. Perhaps I can attribute that to my natural Down Easter taciturnity.

Conversation point: Carol remarked upon some changes in writing structure and expectations that have occurred in recent times. Perhaps the creation of a young adult genre (generally specified for 13- to 19-year-olds) limits the reading challenges for that group. Additionally, the elimination of quotation marks when writing conversation often impedes the reading process.

On a positive note, the practice of writing in the past simple tense of verbs, rather than past perfect, lends immediacy to a past event and helps to maintain the plot flow and reader interest as well. I.e. “A garbage can lid rattled and a cat yowled” rather than “A garbage can lid had rattled and a cat had yowled.”

A discussion of suspense: Thank you, Sara, for deducing that yours truly achieved a heightened sense of suspense in “Beware the Sleeping Dog” as evidenced by the lively conversation about red herrings. I was surprised by some of the suspects! And I was delighted with the energy around this topic.

A collective concern: “How could Mavis dare to walk on isolated trails?” That generated a debate about whether she was foolish or brave. Demonstrating her perspicacity, Susan observed that Mavis Walker was the product of a different life-style. Mavis grew up in rural Maine and the gathered readers were all city dwellers.

Noted faux pas: Carol and Susan gently mentioned several of these and I have gratefully noted them for the next version of my novel.

Also I sensed willing readers from this group who would provide honest feedback for my current manuscript prior to its submittal. I’m forever indebted to Sara for doing this with my debut novel.

Thank you, ladies, for your time and insight and an afternoon of conviviality.

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