Sunday, November 28, 2010
Creating and Maintaining a Supporting Cast
Ten years ago I blundered into this mystery business without a whit of foresight or experience. I had published a few short stories, but when Inspector Green first hit the bookstores in 2000, I had no idea I was creating a series.
As a reader, I was never a slave to series. I rarely read them in order, and generally sampled only a few from each writer. I love British detective novels, but there are too many other wonderful books out there for me to read all the Rebus or Dalgleish books, no matter now much I loved them.
So I didn't know a thing about how to set up a series. How to create a memorable and enduring main character, and even more important, how to surround him with a cast of characters that grew and changed as they followed him from book to book. I wrote Inspector Green as a character I would like to meet - creative, iconoclastic, intelligent, passionate and single-minded when he was on the hunt. As a result, he was a tactless superior, an unreliable husband, and a willfully deaf subordinate, but definitely someone you'd want solving your murder.
I gave him a sergeant who made up for all his flaws. Sergeant Brian Sullivan was patient, pragmatic, and fatherly with rookie cops and grieving families alike. I gave him a wife who put up with his short-comings (barely, at times) because she knew, deep down he was a good man. I rounded out the supporting cast with a boss, a few other subordinates, and a baby to make him human.
I recently launched the eighth in the series, BEAUTIFUL LIE THE DEAD. Over eight books, all these characters have grown. So have I! Mike Green is a far more complex and layered character than my initial creation. Each case has touched him and changed him, moving him forward on his quest for balance and maturity. One of the joys of writing a series is this chance to live with a character, to let him grow and to deepen and enrich his life. I think I have been lucky with Mike Green, for readers seem to enjoy this journey as well. They eagerly await the next book, wondering what he will confront this time, whether his wife will throw him out and whether he and his teenage daughter will mend their fractured bond. Readers react passionately to his transgressions, and their reactions help me to understand how he comes across. This is important to a series author. I don't mind if the reader wants to slap him upside the head for forgetting his wife. But I do mind if they want to throw the book against the wall or abandon the series, for that means the Inspector Green in my heart is not coming to life on the page.
Even more surprising to me, however, has been the power that supporting characters play in the success of a series. Again, I blundered into this discovery purely by serendipity, as readers began to voice their opinions. Different readers have their favourites, but there is always some continuing character that captures the hearts and loyalties of readers. Minor continuing characters provide novelty, opportunities for fresh conflict, and an element of unpredictability which keeps tensions high. Everyone knows that Green will live to solve another crime. But will Brian Sullivan? Will Sue Peters recover? Has Superintendent Jules truly crossed the line?
If the author listens too closely, these loyalties can have a paralyzing effect. Once I idly mused that I was thinking of shaking up Green's life with a major personal crisis. One reader immediately wagged a warning finger. "Don't you dare kill off his father!" Given that his father is edging towards ninety and has been in fragile health throughout the series, I have to face that sometime. But now I worry. Killing off Sid Green will be traumatic enough for me and Green. But for my readers too? Will they give up on the series without their favourite character to revisit?
Recently, several readers have told me they were upset about Brian Sullivan's crisis. Others worried that I was going to write Green's teenage daughter out of the series. I never know what I'm going to do ahead of time. In fact, new characters usually come into the series on the spur of the moment, to serve a purpose to that plot, and they stay around because I enjoy them. Little did I know that readers would care about them too. Or that they'd be an integral part of the appeal and success of the series. Authors, agents and publishers devote a lot of effort to creating an appealing and enduring series lead, but little to the supporting cast who make up the back story and emotional depth of the series.
To keep a series fresh, the drama high and the author entertained, new characters have to burst on the scene and old ones have to fade away. Most of us weigh how each new character will complement the existing characters, creating new contrasts, tensions and intrigue. Maybe we need to give equal thought to how to get rid of them, lest our books become populated with dozens of secondary characters with nothing to do. Getting rid of boring, annoying or inconsequential characters is easy, but those much-loved ones are a different story. We authors write them out or kill them off at our peril.
Ultimately it is our series and our story to tell, but it helps to consider the supporting characters that stir such a passionate following. To ponder what about them is so compelling and what they contribute to the power of the series. The gaping hole will have to be filled somehow, not by a similar character, but perhaps by a character who provides the same emotional context or fills the same need.
I'd love to hear people's experience with this. Any authors who've wrestled with dispatching popular characters? Readers who've been horrified to find their favourite dead at the end of a book?
Barbara Fradkin is a psychologist with a fascination for how we turn bad. Her gritty, psychological detective series featuring Ottawa Police Inspector Michael Green has won two Arthur Ellis Best Novel Awards for Fifth Son and Honour Among Men. The eighth in the series, Beautiful Lie the Dead,, has just been released by Napoleon & Company.
Monday, November 22, 2010
You know she’s from Saskatchewan – three days of snowstorms, -20°C weather and icy roads were no match for Canada’s mystery darling Gail Bowen. Gail’s warm and exuberant personality captivated Mystery Writer’s Ink November meeting as she shared her insights on writing and on being a writer.
• The biggest problem with writing is that opportunities to use the basic elements of fiction are missed. Consider: theme, character, secondary characters, point of view, setting, symbolism, structure. There is interplay between all these elements which gives your characters depth and your work meaning.
• Mystery writing falls flat when plot is the primary tool used to advance the novel and the other elements of fiction are neglected.
So how do you create a robust and captivating story? Remember to:
o Give depth to your protagonist. Ask: What does she want more than anything in the world? What does she fear more than anything in the world?
o Create a secondary line of characters who’ll add depth to your protagonist, theme and plot.
Look at a book you admire – if it goes off rail, then the author has failed to use these basic elements. Understand why it didn’t work.
Good mysteries are more than just a who-dun-it and catch the criminal. Every good mystery also explores a theme. What is the larger issue behind the book? Who is your audience? What are you trying to say? For example, in Gail’s latest book of the Joanne Kilbourn series, The Nesting Dolls, the larger question or theme is one of nature versus nurture. A theme adds depth not only to primary and secondary characters, but also embellishes the other elements of fiction such as symbolism and setting. Theme can be carried along by the secondary characters which helps avoid a strictly plot driven novel.
Ask yourself what you hope to accomplish with this piece of writing. Is the genre you’re working in taking you where you want to be? If not, go somewhere else. For example, is mystery the best vehicle to explore your theme or observations on humanity? Is it romance, fantasy or a literary novel?
With a series, there are a lot of pages to develop a character – it is akin to living a human life. The character grows, changes and is affected by the world around them (especially by those secondary characters).
On being a writer:
• No manuscript is ever finished – have faith in what you’re doing and send it off.
• Consider your manuscript a university essay – after doing the best you can, hand it in and wait for the grade.
• High school is the hardest thing we’ve all done and we survived it. We’ve all been rejected in high school so what’s a rejection by an editor?
• For anyone to write anything is a miracle so never be critical of effort. It takes a lot of courage to write, to send it off and be rejected. But, it’s worse to never have taken the chance.
• Gail doesn’t read in her genre and there are many authors who don’t. Why? She doesn’t want to pick up echoes of someone else’s work in her own. As she so eloquently put it, “You always run your own race and that’s hard to do if you’re always watching the other guy.”
Find your passion and the genre to express it. Think about your themes and characters while never forgetting about the basic elements of fiction. But always remember, what writers do is special and takes a lot of courage. So, keep your courage up and run your own race. Happy writing!
For more information about Gail and her work, visit Gail's website
Summarized by Ann Cooney for Mystery Writers Ink
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Please note the change of time for Mystery Writers Ink Meeting on
Thursday, November 18. We will be meeting at 5:30 instead of our usual time of 7:30.
We are pleased to welcome Gail Bowen, author of the Joanne Kilbourn Mysteries, for a presentation on The Craft of Character Driven Mystery. Gail will be available before the meeting to sign copies of her books.
About Gail Bowen
Gail Bowen is the current writer in residence at the Calgary Public Library. Her latest novel, The Nesting Dolls, was released August 17, 2010. The first six books in the Joanne Kilbourn series were made into television movies. A Colder Kind of Death, released in 1994, was the winner of the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award. In 2008, Reader's Digest named Gail as Canada's Best Mystery Novelist.
Monday, November 8, 2010
instead of the usual 7-9 pm.
Sunday, November 7, 2010
Every good writing group has members who help each other by giving advice on craft and genre. Most importantly, we need to be with like-minded people - those who understand the writing life with its successes or the struggles and crazy times. These are the people who celebrate with us when the first draft is complete. They share our angst as we rewrite and perfect the manuscript. They commiserate with us through the rejections. Then, they party with us when the manuscript becomes a published book.
Monday, November 1, 2010
Getting the Most out of your Critique Group
By Vicki Delany
Whenever I'm asked by aspiring or beginning writers for some advice on getting published, I always say the most important thing is to be sure that you have someone else read and critique your work before you consider it finished. Not only do you want to make sure your manuscript is as free of spelling and grammar and punctuation errors as possible (and this is very important) you need another set of eyes to spot potential problems.
It's simply not possible to edit your own work. By the time you've revised it for the tenth time, you're no longer seeing what's on the page, but what you THINK is on the page. The author is a poor judge of use of motivation - YOU the author know why your character is acting in such a way, but have you explained it to the reader? Same for backstory. YOU know the backstory, but have you sufficiently explained what led up to these events, or alternately have you so flooded the book with unnecessary detail it's slowing down the plot?
One of the best and most reliable ways to get good, productive, useful criticism on your work is to join a critique group.
Be careful when setting up or joining a critique group. You don't want anyone who's nasty or mean or jealous of better writers. All criticism should be offered with the intent of making the work BETTER not running it and the author down.
I'd advise against joining an online critique group. If you don't know them personally, how can you trust their advice? Bad critiquing is potentially very dangerous.
Here are some general guidelines for what works as I see it:
The group members should be on the same level more or less. If you're a serious writer with the intent of seriously producing a book (or short stories) and sending it out for publication, then you want to be joined with others of like mind.
Each member of your group should have some understanding of the basic concepts of creative writing (unless you are all rank amateurs starting out together, and then you might need an instructor). Your time's important: you don't want to have to explain how to use tense properly or what it means to show not tell.
Do not join a group with writers whose work you don't respect. If you think that so-and-so can't write a word worth a darn do you want her giving you advice on your writing?
Don't defend your work to the group. It's all right to explain "that will come later", but if you have to defend the story, it isn't standing up on its own. You won't be able to discuss what you really meant with your readers. I know of groups in which it's a rule that the person being critiqued isn't allowed to speak.
Don't waste everyone's time on work that you haven't done to the best of your ability. If you're experimenting, trying to find out if something works, that's fine. Perhaps explain right up that you're not sure about this and looking for input.
Your job is not to rewrite anyone else's work. First of all it's patronizing, but do you really want parts of your book to have been written by someone else? Make suggestions, yes. Suggest a change of words, or rephrasing. But rewriting? No.
A critique group is about give and take. You need to be committed to your group to the best of your time and ability. Are you yourself able to give constructive criticism? Do you know why something works in a book or doesn't? Can you explain your thoughts?
Every member of your group must be prepared to critique every other member's work. If you end up with someone who sends chapters to every meeting, but doesn't seem to have the time to read anyone else's, ask her or him to leave. (Having said that, of course, cut them a bit of slack once in a while.)
If you write faster than your group can read, select what you think needs work. Don't let your ego take over and find yourself giving what you think is the best of your work to your group. They are there to criticise, not to praise.
When you're looking for a group, or thinking of forming one, think about what suits your style best. There are many, many different types of groups, the only rule is: join one!
With a nod and thanks to the members of my critique group: Dorothy McIntosh, Jane Burfield, Madeleine Harris-Callway, Donna Carrick, Cheryl Freedman.
Vicki's newest book, NEGATIVE IMAGE, was published by Poisoned Pen Press in November 2010. If you'd like to read the first two chapters, please go to: www.vickidelany.com. Most of Vicki's books are available in Kindle and other electronic formats as well as hardcover and trade paperback, large print and audio. Vicki blogs about the writing life at One Woman Crime Wave