Saturday, March 24, 2007

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction

So for all you spinsters out there who’ve read a decent thriller and thought, “I could do that too,” I’d recommend you start by taking a look at Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. I haven’t exactly read all her novels, but I loved The Talented Mr. Ripley, and I’ll definitely try to read some of her short stories after this (as for Strangers on a Train, I’ll probably just cheat and watch the movie, which has been on my “Hitchcock to Watch” list for a while, but keeps getting bumped since all I like to do is watch Vertigo and Rear Window and Rope over and over).

Highsmith writes about development, plotting, drafts and revisions, the dreaded snags a writer may encounter, and about what she calls “the germ of an idea.” She talks about the need to have a basic story trajectory, if not necessarily an outline. As she puts it, “Early in development, the writer must ask these crucial questions: ‘Is the hero going to emerge from this victor or vanquished?’” Highsmith uses an instinctive form of plotting, in which she’ll let a story sit, like photographic paper in a chemical bath, until the plot comes into focus. This is a method of writing that may seem to involve long stretches of doing nothing, but as Highsmith says, “Writers are always working … [They] are either developing an idea or they are questing, even if unconsciously, for the germ of an idea.” This agreed with me greatly, mainly because it’s so close to the way I work – you sort of leave yourself open to ideas, you let your fancy and imagination wander and soak up the inspiration all around you – with the only difference being that Pat Highsmith eventually sits down and gets to work instead of daydreaming and making cookies all damn day.

Aside from a few basics, Highsmith’s book is very light on technique and tends more toward frank and commonsense advice, and a good dose of inspiration. She cautions us not to be lazy, not to go with situations and resolutions that are predictable and boring – challenge yourself, she says – and reminds us that the key to good writing is enthusiasm. If it isn’t fun for you, how will it be fun for the reader? Writing for her isn’t some soul-rending task; it’s a well-played game that one takes immense pleasure in playing and observing.

To this end, a good opening is vital, for a strong first sentence, page, and paragraph make the difference between a browser and a reader. One should revise an opening as many times as need until it is just right. In editing, she says, ruthlessness is essential. Equally important is practice – writing is a muscle that atrophies when it isn’t exercised, and a lazy writer will never write sharp prose if she only works at it sporadically. Here’s where the concept of the sacred space comes in – whether it’s a few hours every day after work, or eight hours on a Saturday, a writer must have a time and space without distraction or interruption, where writing comes first, and it must be done regularly and consistently if one hopes to see any results at all.

Highsmith writes about the joy that comes from telling a good story and keeping your audience in suspense – which are always one and the same, regardless of genre, since, after all, every narrative has an element of suspense in it, or should – and it is when she lets herself go a little on the joys of the craft that the book is most inspirational. There are many points during the reading of it that a beginning writer will get the sense that she is definitely on the right track, and all that needs be done is to sit down and write what’s in her head. I think a lot of beginning writers over-prepare, study too much theory and technique, make too many character studies and outlines, as a means of procrastinating. Highsmith’s book will let you know that you simply can’t go wrong if you have even one story-telling instinct in your entire body, because “The writer’s mind has a way of arranging a chain of events in a naturally dramatic, and therefore correct form.”

Monday, March 19, 2007

Wit, whist and whimsy

I've decided something: I need to learn how to play whist. I'm not sure why exactly. Maybe because they always seem to be playing whist in novels. Observe these very literary references*:

* Edgar Allan Poe wrote about whist on his tale The Murders in the Rue
Morgue: "[...] Whist has long been noted for its influence upon what
is termed the calculating power; and men of the highest order of
intellect have been known to take an apparently unaccountable delight
in it, [...]"

* Al Shockley and Jack Torrence play Whist during a flashback scene in
Stephen King's The Shining.

* Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Vernes novel Around the World in
Eighty Days, is a dedicated whist player.

* Edward Gorey made a mention of whist in his illustrated book The
Glorious Nosebleed, the selection reading:
"They played whist distractedly."

And of course, Scarlett O'Hara was always playing whist with carpetbaggers, and I read that book as a kid and it affected me greatly (from then all all my Barbie games were set during the Civil War, which also served to explain the lack of Kens most conveniently).

Whatever the cause, this inexplicable desire has remained in the foggier parts of my consciousness for some time, but today I learned something that set the urge ablaze once more, namely that there is a version of the game called "Three-Handed Widow's Whist" – and immediately I had to have it.

In Widow's Whist, you deal out one extra hand, which sits at the left of the dealer. Three other hands are dealt, one for each player (it's a 3-player version) and the player to the left of the dealer has the option of keeping their own hand or trading it for the "widow" hand.

All of this is marvellous for many reasons, not the least of which is that I can finally start my own Whist Society.

Can't you just picture a society of genteel ladies, faded Southern belles perhaps, sipping whiskey and playing a rousing yet decorous game of cards? I can see it now. And as such I have officially decided to found the Widow's Whist Society and Temperance League, Queens Chapter.

For the edification of potential applicants to the league, rules are as follows:

1) Temperance is suspended while cards are in play
2) Bourbon is to be served at all games. In the absence of servants,
use children from the neighborhood. I suggest using orphans.
3) Appropriate attire is encouraged. This includes, but is not
limited to: hats, gloves, stockings with garters or with that seam up
the back, dresses. If you can't afford stockings, use eyeliner to
draw a seam up the back of your leg.
4) Men are welcome if they adhere to the rules of appropriate attire.
5) If at any point the lights go off and when they come back on again
we find there's been a murder, the game will be considered a draw.

Light refreshments will be provided.

* Literary references stolen from Wikipedia :)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

I reckon these here recipes are as much fun as solving mysteries

I just finished another delightful and hilarious installment of Joan Hess’s Maggody series, “Mortal Remains In Maggody,” in which a porn crew comes to town and recruits blissfully ignorant townspeople as extras (who all think they’re going to star in a big Hollywood movie). More and more townspeople are recruited, especially when principal cast member start turnin’ up dead. I won’t spoil the rest for you all.

Speaking of Maggody, I can’t believe I didn’t direct all my gentle readers to this website in my last review, but here it is now: For the gal who’s hooked on Maggody and bored at work, this website has everything. I’m a big fan of the “Recipe of the Month” column, brought to you courtesy of Ruby Bee and various members of the Maggody/Farberville community. From Leigh Ann Warren Kennedy’s Biscuits to Wanda Nell’s Fried Chicken, there’s something for everyone. There’s also a map of Maggody, short stories, musical Maggody featuring lyrics from songs with great titles like “You’re Just a Detour on The Highway to Heaven,” Arkansas trivia, also brought to you by Ruby Bee, a map of Maggody (maps are helpful when solving crime), and ever so many other delightful links and things.

The most amazing thing I learned was that Joan Hess is the vice president of something called “The Whimsey Foundation,” which is technically devoted to honoring “significant achievement in comedic mystery fiction” but which I like to imagine is an entity entirely dedicated to whimsy in all its forms. In fact, Ms. Hess belongs to a number of society’s I wouldn’t mind joining, but unfortunately I’m neither a mystery writer, nor am I from Arkansas. Yet. (It is my ambition to one day be from Arkansas.)

But wait – it gets better. There’s also an organization called “Sisters In Crime,” who’s purpose is to "To combat discrimination against women in the mystery field, educate publishers and the general public as to inequities in the treatment of female authors, raise the level of awareness of their contributions to the field, and promote the professional advancement of women who write mysteries." How fantastic is that? So I trawled around on that website too and realized that they have a NEW YORK CHAPTER and they meet monthly! At the library! In my excitement I filled out their online application for membership, and I’m so excited I think I’ll grind all my other membership cards into a fine powder. Excecpt for the Posh Spice fan club. I'll hang on to that.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Greetings, Spinsters.

I recently got the most heartening email from a reader, who complained that I hadn’t posted in over two weeks. I love that someone is actually reading this, and I love that this reader/friend keeps me on my toes.
Now that I’ve had a taste of power, I’m hungry for more. By that I mean that I want more people to email me. Possibly people who read this blog. As such, I have set up an email account, strictly for spinster-related purposes:

Incidentally, it seems that more than one gal fancies herself a spinster aunt, seeing as how the name was already taken in Gmail. I ought to email her and have a chat.

Moving on.

I’d love to tell you all that I’ve been terribly busy these past few weeks, but we all know that lies make baby Jesus cry, therefore I am forced to admit that I’ve been up to nothing much at all and there is absolutely no reason for me not to have written more in the past few weeks, not an internet crisis, not Christmas, not plumb forgetting I even have a blog, nothing. No excuse. Just laziness. Well, that and I was reading a very un-spinstery book, which was magnificent but I felt no desire to blog about it (the book is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and it made me cry in front of people because it was so great – don’t finish it in a public place if you’re a sensitive spinster like I). I have since recovered and am back to reading good old-fashioned mystery novels, specifically, Mortal Remains In Maggody (hilarious so far, of course).

But what I’d really like to tell you about today is a great movie from 1980 starring Goldie Hawn and the United States Army, a movie in which she decides spinsterhood is preferable to marrying a rich French doctor who lives in a castle: Private Benjamin.

I Netflixed this movie at the behest of my roommate, who says the final scene made a lasting impression on her when she saw it as a child. It made quite an impression on me too, and got the old mind whirling. In a semi-buzzed haze (red wine is always a pleasant accompaniment to movies) I started making all kinds of weird semiotic connections based on that last shot, mainly based on the fact that Goldie looks a bit like the Lady of Shallot in that scene.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. First, the film. I liked it quite a bit, and thought Goldie did a great job proving her comic chops. The general consensus seems to be that it isn’t as funny as Stripes but that it’s pretty good and Goldie is terrific. A lot of folks seem to think it’s dated, and some find the third act really boring and strange, like a different movie. I have to admit that there was a feeling of disconnect when we swung into act three (and confusion, since Goldie’s voice over says she’s in Belgium just as we’re looking at a shot of Paris, but whatever), but I kind of like that: it’s abrupt, but it’s such a departure from the structural formula that I thought it was kind of fun. And if you found the third act boring I think you missed a lot of the point of that film – and it’s not like it was super subtle, so there’s really no excuse here.
I personally liked the film quite a bit, as is to be expected, because I’m such a big ole feminist. Girl wants to leave philandering jerk and have a real career, that’s fine by me. And no, that’s not dated. That’s never dated. Not marrying jerks is always fresh. A Hollywood clichĂ©, yes, but always a good idea in real life.

Okay, now that Lady of Shallot thing.

In the final shot of the film, Goldie tosses her veil and strides confidently out into the French countryside to meet her fate. Looking at her in her white dress with all that “bright hair streaming down” made me think of the Waterhouse painting of the Lady of Shallot. Observe:


The Lady of Shallot

Alright, so big deal. So she looks like some painting. But it’s kind of interesting given that the Lady of Shallot was stuck in some tower, broke the rules and died, and Judy Benjamin was stuck in a symbolic tower, broke the rules but instead of dying, she triumphs.
And what about all that “crazy” talk that her parents give her, telling people she’s in a mental home, telling her she doesn’t know her own mind, she can’t make her own decisions? And her jerk of a fiancĂ© trying to gaslight her, telling her she’s being crazy to imagine him sleeping with the maid (which he later confesses to, using the exact phrase, “OK I slept with her one night when you were acting CRAZY”)??? Everyone around her is telling her she’s crazy, she’s got this insane-looking hair and the same crazed look in her eyes she had at the beginning of the film, she looks like a raving Victorian madwoman! And then all of a sudden she begins to see clearly, she stops looking at life through a mirror (if you will) and faces it straight on. Only instead of boating to her death downriver to Camelot, she marches gracefully along on her way, never looking back.

Call me nuts, but it’s always bugged me how the patriarchy will tell a perfectly normal woman that she’s acting insane just because she doesn’t want to conform to their damn standards. All that was subtextually expressed in this film, from the more overt lines of dialogue (OK, I guess the subtext was text there) to the imagery of the lady in white in the final shot.

And all the army stuff was funny as hell, too.