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Re: 7 highly subjective and thought-provoking rules for mystery writing

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  • b_ergang
    ... an author improving his book while keeping it its own flavour and style. They are nuisible when they emasculate it to make it fit commercial standards. The
    Message 1 of 5 , Mar 31, 2003
      --- In GAdetection@yahoogroups.com, "Xavier Lechard"
      <x.lechard@f...> wrote:
      > Barry wrote
      > - About rule 2:
      > >The spanner in the works is that editors assume godlike positions,
      > >too, so if you get too carried away with certain types of
      > >dishonesty, not to mention manipulation and contrivance, you may
      > >find you're writing solely for your own amusement or that you'll
      > >have to self-publish.
      > I am some mitigated about editors. They are useful when they help
      an author improving his book while keeping it its own flavour and
      style. They are nuisible when they emasculate it to make it fit
      commercial standards. The main point of rule 2 was to emphasize on
      author's complete, absolute freedom. Too many authors cage
      themselves in naturalism, which is probably the most limited
      esthetic in the world. As a devoted Carrian, I can't but cringe when
      seeing so many "ripped from the headline" procedurals at my local
      bookstore. Some baroquism, please! ;-)

      I'll buy that.

      > - About Rule 3
      >The implication in this statement is that depth of
      >characterization .is anathema to the mystery genre, which is
      >patently untrue. Solid, believable characterizations *strengthen*
      >the work rather than weaken it. If however, you're saying it's
      >unnecessary to psychoanalyze every major character, I agree.
      > I am all for deep characterization in mysteries, as long as it
      fits in the plot and strengthen it. What I don't like is when
      psychology becomes actual subject of the book, plot being a mere
      pretext for a fastidious study of character. Besides, I'd like to
      stress that, unlike many contemporary authors think, accumulate
      biographical and psychological details is *not* deep
      characterization. A character is well done when he comes across as
      someone real, not when reader is told everything about him.

      Character studies are legitimate subjects for fiction, even
      mysteries. It just depends on what sort of a mystery you want to
      write--or read. That said, I'd agree with you that since a mystery
      story by its nature must contain a tighter plot-line that a
      mainstream work, the character study in a mystery must be integral
      to the plot and well-integrated within it to succeed.

      > - About Rule 4 (romances)
      > >Romance may not be essential to some stories, but barring it
      >as "forbidden territory" is as ridiculous as saying certain
      >subjects aren't fit for poetry--which some people do. Any topic or
      >motif that's suitable for other types of fiction should be
      >perfectly acceptable in a mystery as long as it doesn't override
      >and obscure those elements that make the story a mystery in the
      >first place. Stephen Greenleaf, for instance, is an excellent
      >modern mystery writer who has beautifully integrated topical
      >matters into several of his detective novels.
      > Much as that extreme solution would have appeal for me, I have no
      intention to bar romance as a forbidden territory. My point was just
      that not all mysteries have to include a love story. Almost every
      contemporary mystery has the major character falling in love with
      someone, as though romance was a contractual element of crime
      fiction. OK, that hollywoodian device was frequent back in Golden
      Age - look at Carr - but times have changed, and our moderns claim
      to be more "mature". So they ought to know that a man doesn't fall
      in love or have sex with every woman he meets - and reciprocally.

      I don't? --Uh, I mean, he doesn't? ;-)

      >A good - i.e., interesting and emotive - love story is always a
      plus, but most are dull and fairly predictable, with the handsome
      guy falling for the beautiful girl.

      As I said, a romantic entanglement needn't be a "must" for every
      detective story, but neither should it be barred. You're right,
      though, in pointing out that fresher takes on romances would be
      preferable to the predictable stuff we can all write in our heads
      because we've read or seen it on the screen so often.

      > - About Rule 5 (Inspiration)
      > >Unlike Wyatt, I'm not thrilled about your "art is a machine"
      > >metaphor because it implies a cookie-cutter approach that denies
      > >artistry, which in essence is fluid and flexible.
      > This metaphor is not an invention of mine: I borrowed it from my
      fellow-compatriot Paul Valéry's "L'Introduction à la méthode
      Léonard de Vinci", which was first published in 1895. A great poet
      and a Poe enthusiast (he translated "The Raven") Valery was not
      suspect of having a cookie-cutter approach of art. His actual point
      was that producing an effect is the aim of any work of art, and that
      effect is a matter of technique and efficiency. Artist is kind of a
      creative engineer building a machine aimed to frighten, upset, annoy
      or please his audience, each part of the whole contributing to the
      final effect. That cerebral, 'in cold-blood' approach of art is
      ideally explained in Poe's criticism of 'Twice-Told Tales' by

      In essence, then, Valery's paraphrasing Poe. I can't recall the
      title, but Poe wrote an essay on technique in the short story in
      which he laid out the requirements you cited above.

      > >But to *demand* that an author not allow a
      > >character or characters to "take over" and "run" with a story can
      > >have a stultifying effect on the story and the writing. Sometimes-
      >-not always!--giving the characters freedom to create their own
      > >dramas can result in a better story than the one the author
      > >initially envisioned. And yes, I say this can happen when one is
      > >writing a mystery (or crime, or suspense) as well as a mainstream
      > >story.
      > If you regard plot as a fundamental element of mystery fiction,
      leaving characters going wild risks to damage its structure. Not
      surprisingly, authors using that technique are often weak plotters -
      Joe Gores or John D. MacDonald claimed to let their characters rule.
      So 'freedom' for characters has to be limited, or author has to be
      able to make sense out of chaos.

      I've only read one book by Gores--HAMMETT--but I've read lots of
      John D. MacDonald. I wouldn't call the latter a weak plotter by any
      means. As for the risk of structural damage, it's a matter of the
      author knowing when to rein in his characters if plot is more
      important to him. Personally, I'd rather err on the side of too much
      characterization over too little. I much prefer characters who come
      alive and get up off the page and walk around over cardboard figures
      who exist strictly to fulfill the requirement that a story
      contain "people." If you're *only* interested in a puzzle, you might
      as well read "minute mysteries."

      > However, I have never been able to understand how fictional
      characters, that don't and can't exist, can have a life of their
      own. I am puzzled each time a writer tells about it. But maybe it is
      because I am a materialist when it comes to art (the only domain
      where I am materialist, by the way). To me, what is
      called 'inspiration' is just expression of an inconscious process.
      The book was written from the start, but the author didn't know

      Here we're getting into psychological and even metaphysical areas
      I'm not qualified to debate. All I can say is, you'd have to
      experience the process to understand it.

      > - About rule 6 (presence of a plot)
      > >Mysteries obviously demand plots--no argument. Most mainstream
      > >novels outside of those that fall into the "Three E" category--
      > >experimental, ethereal, and ephemeral--do, too.
      > I agree, but plot doesn't mean the same in mysteries and
      mainstream novels. "Story" would be a better word to describe the
      succession of events in a book like, let's say, "Silas Marner".

      Ugh! Xavier, did you have to mention the accursed SILAS MARNER? It
      was required reading when I was in high school, and it remains the
      only book this anti-censorship person would cite as a candidate for
      burning. :-) My recollection is that it would've been a good
      story in fifty pages, but was padded out to make a novel.

      >Mystery, at least in its classic form, doesn't function that way.
      Events are first messed around, then re-order to make them making
      sense. To be brief, I would say that structure is what makes the
      genre's identity. Turn it over, it's mainstream.

      That's arguable, too. There are mainstream novels out there that
      play with structure and time, too. Faulkner's THE SOUND AND THE
      FURY, mentioned previously, is a prime example.

      > - About rule 7 (understatement and place of the reader)
      > >An excellent point, because good writing is a kind of dialogue
      > >between author and reader, but one that doesn't always contain
      > >explicit information. However, matters of personal taste and
      > >approach come into play on both sides. Some writers and readers
      > >like the tell-all method one finds in someone like Thomas Wolfe
      > >who, as William Faulkner once said, "tried to cram all of life on
      > >the head of a pin." Faulkner did, too. I've never been able to
      > >get through a Wolfe novel, but I've read and tremendously enjoyed
      > >lots of Faulkner. (THE SOUND AND THE FURY is one of the greatest
      > >novels of the 20th Century.) Others prefer the lean, stripped-
      > >down prose and indirect approaches of writers like Ernest
      > >Hemingway and Raymond Carver. Some of us enjoy both methods,
      > >depending on the writer and how well he or she puts across the
      > >one he or she prefers.
      > I can do with both methods too, although I prefer the indirect
      one. However, it seems that modern authors (and directors) have
      forgotten what words 'suggestion' and 'understatement' mean. Unless
      you have a really good reason to do so, there is no need to tell us
      how a skull explodes when a bullet gets in, or what the hero and his
      pal do in their bed when the bedroom's door is closed. Suggestion
      works better, as evidenced by thousands classic books and films, and
      it makes reader's imagination working. For imagination, to me, is
      the main thing and people today lack it tragically.

      I think a lot of the better authors who fall into the "tell all"
      category tend nonetheless to be indirect when it comes to some of
      the matters you touched on.

      > >Now to add Point 8: there aren't any rules in the creative arts,
      > >only conventions. Don't be afraid to fly in the face of any or
      > >all of them if doing so will strengthen the work. (The operative
      > >word is "strengthen.") Yes, this applies to the mystery as well
      > >as to any other genre, and to any type of story that falls under
      > >the loosely defined heading of "mystery."

      > Good one. Only two others and we have ten. ;-)

      Yeah, a minyan. :-)
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