Jonas Watcher: The Case of a Story
Writing Always Starts with Reading
At least it does with me. In this case I was reading "The Continental Op" By Dashiell Hammett. It is a collection of short stories about a private detective. Not a glamorous one but a "moke" plodding along to solve a case. I don't remember the which story, but there was a sequence within the story that got me thinking; what if? I extrapolated the idea out and played with it in my mind before I actually started writing anything down.
I can build entire stories in my head before I put anything down. I let characters interact with each other, I try different dialog, but I usually do not put "pen to paper" until I have a solid beginning, middle and end. That doesn't mean the entire novel is living there, only the bare bones. I don't recommend this process to others, because many need to outline, draw out character studies, and build back stories before they start writing their novel. In a sense I do that, just in my head. It is easier to toss out what I don't want.
With regards to the idea, I do not plagiarize, but I take ideas and play with them, and a lot of times I dismiss them, but sometimes a gem falls away while I am mining and I grab it up and run with it.
The Dock by the Bay
Once I have an outline, written down or in my head, the latter to be more likely, I break it down by scenes. If I can't see it, I know it won't work. Usually I have decided the time and location of my story at this point. For the Jonas Watcher series this was easy as I am a big fan of Dashiell Hammett and I have seen a lot of movies from this period and I wanted to do a series of novels from the 1930's and being a resident of the SF Bay Area it was a natural for me.
I spent a lot of time on the opening, this is a mystery, a thriller of sorts, a detective story, and I chose to go with a first person narrative. In order to capture the reader quickly I put my narrator in peril and I tie it as quickly as possible to the up coming story. While this is not necessary to all stories it captures the reader's interest and hopefully encourages a greater desire to read more about the story.
A good general rule is to capture the readers interest in the first three pages. This is especially important with mystery thrillers and detective stories while the reader does not need to be on the edge of their seat they need to care about something in the story.
I have the bones of the story in place, but I do not have all the characters or events tied down. This is where I let my imagination start taking over and I just write as I go along for the ride. If things seem to go too far afield I will reign in my imagination and focus on the story.
An Uninvited Guest
Each scene builds the chapter and each chapter builds the book. I not only have an outline of the story, I now have the action my hero must take to get from one scene to another. I have some feel of the other characters who he must encounter in order to get him through the story. On occasion a character will show up and I may not be sure what that character's role is in the story. There are occasional characters who generally stick to the background. They perform the menial task of adding color or rounding out a scene, and for the most part they remain silent.
However, sometimes, there is the uninvited guest that forces himself or herself into a scene and will not be ignored. That usually means I have left something out or put something in I shouldn't have. At that point I acknowledge the character and oft times I will move on to revisit the character in rewrite. By then I have figured out what was wrong and I adjust the story accordingly. In Jonas Watcher: The Case of the Running Bag, such a character was Mr Smith or Spats. He arrived and refused to go. He became a pivotal character and even earned a place in the second book of the series, and may show up in later volumes.
Any mystery must have at least one red herring or smelly fish story that fits within the story line. It can often be difficult to integrate the red herring, it is the one place in the story that the reader is misdirected and when it is revealed the reader must not feel tricked but simply says "Of course." More importantly when the reader reads the story again at a later date the desire is that the reader is now on the inside and knows what is happening, or at least remembers there is something odd here.
The reveal is probably the most difficult element to incorporate into a mystery. Agatha Christie was big on "gather all the suspects into a room and eliminate them one by one". Do it today and it can become trite, unless the story itself will lend a hand in the process which requires creating a group gathering as seamless as possible. Another technique is having the villain engage in a dialog with the hero where all may be revealed. Erle Stanley Gardner perfected the courtroom confession, and Dashiell Hammett explored several techniques that worked within his books. Reading all of these authors and others will provide insight into a satisfying and effective reveal.
Jonas Watcher: The Case of the Running Bag has the added encumbrance of being an origin story. The first book in a series isn't required to be an origin story, but that was my choice. It meant introducing characters that will appear in subsequent novels and including a touch of their story while moving the main story forward. While side stories can be interesting, they should not take over leaving the reader confused or frustrated. Once I have established where the story is going, it is a balancing act of color, back story, genre, and of course moving the main character in search of the solution to the mystery. I add the element of peril to the main character and the story is not only worth reading, it is worth writing.
I always have more information than is needed about the story, the mystery, the characters, and the back drop. I make sure that when the story ends that all the threads have been cleanly wrapped up.
Working on a Sub Plot
After Enlightenment, You Keep Working
Once written, read by a third party, rewritten and reread the real work begins, getting the book published, distributed and an audience built. This is especially important for a series because repeat business is what will sell later books in the series.
I should explain that although I have written all my life in the course of my employment, I am considered a new author. The fact that I have written a couple dozen technical white papers, a half dozen technical manuals, and numerous business newsletters I am considered a newbie author since I have not gone through the traditional publishing process.
My first decision was whether to go the route of a traditional publishing house or publish independently. Going with a traditional publishing house meant doing research on houses that would accept a new author. Additionally I needed to find an agent that would also accept a new author as few traditional publishing houses will accept unsolicited manuscripts directly from new authors. I have reached retirement age and I do not have the time to submit and deal with the whims of third parties who often have other agendas to fulfill and I may not fit within their paradigm, so I decided to go the independent publishing route.
I did a fair amount of research before making this decision, and one resource convinced me I was going in the right direction. J. A. Konrath is a mystery writer who published a mystery, “Whiskey Sour”, through a traditional publishing house in 2004. He also started a blog and from 2005 to date he has chronicled writing, publishing, and distributing his novels. This blog provides incredible insight into the experiences of an author and his relationship with the publishing world and how it has changed over the years. He went from being a newbie to a successful author and it demonstrates what an author must be prepared to do to become successful. He is a talented mystery writer, but that is not always enough. Anyone looking to get published should read his blog. Enter his name on any search engine and you will find the blog. You can even misspell it and get there.
What It's Like To Play The Palace
Once I decided to go the independent route, I needed to find a way to get my book published. Again I found myself doing research on the internet. I found a number of Print On Demand (POD) publishers, sites to create eBooks, and sites who for a fee were willing to help me out. I am currently living on a pension, I decided inexpensive was the best route for me to go and I found three sites which had the most endearing quality, “FREE”. You get what you pay for, but the basics were available for free and that was fine with me. The sites are www.lulu.com, www.smashwords.com, and www.createspace.com. There are others, and I suggest anyone interested search the internet, after all the publishing world is in a state of flux.
I passed on LuLu, because I found CreateSpace and SmashWords fullfilled my needs to get my book out to the major sites on the internet. CreateSpace provided me with POD at the best price I could find and was a subsidiary of Amazon and had a direct setup to be on kindle. Smashwords provided the other eBook formats and access to a number of websites selling eBooks.
Once the possibilities of distribution had been resolved, now I could devote myself to audience building. The Internet is a big place, and while CreateSpace can and will provide paperback books at a reasonable cost, even at low volume printings, if no one is asking or ordering your book is not going to get in front of people. Even as a new author for a traditional publishing house I would have had this problem. The traditional publisher will do some marketing on a new author's behalf, but the house's star writers get more attention, it's just good business.
Research on the internet is again at hand. I returned to JA Konrath's blog, I looked into what CreateSpace had on the subject, and SmashWords also has a lot information available. I have been reading, making notes and planning and putting that plan into action. I can offer this advice, be prepared to leave your comfort zone. Join groups on the Internet and elsewhere that relate to your book. Be prepared to stand up before one person and many people and sound your horn. And the best advice that pertains to me, because this is a book series, get started on the next book, NOW!
© 2014 Gene Poschman