Monday, July 26, 2021

The Back Plot Thickens

 Tell me the plot of "The Hound of the Baskervilles." 

Easy enough, you say. A country doctor comes to Sherlock Holmes and Watson for help. The local lord has died of heart failure. But there were a giant hound's tracks near his body, and there's this family legend about....

But is that the only plot? 

Not really. Long before old Sir Charles is frightened to death by a hound, there is a man in South America, a distant relative of Sir Charles, who decides he will be the new lord of Baskerville Hall so he changes his name, makes his wife pretend to be his sister, and....

Some mystery writers call this second storyline the back plot. It is the story behind the story. The detective's plot is the discovery of the back plot. Holmes must reconstruct the murderer's back plot through the clues left behind. He must understand what happened before.

This twining together of two plots is the glory of the mystery and the agony of the mystery writer for she must not only have one plot which is logical and interesting. She must also create a second which intersects it backwards in time.

No, that's not crazy. Think about it. A murder occurs, and the detective investigates. He finds clues, and these clues point toward the past of the victim and the murderer. The detective must decipher these clues to discover the who, what, when, where, and why of the murder. He must travel back in time to the murderer and his motives. 

Holmes studies the crime scene, the stories of the butterfly collector, the sounds of the moor, and the ancestor's portrait, as well as other clues, to find that distant Baskerville relative who has designs on the family fortune.

How does a writer create these two plot lines? The answer to that is as diverse as the authors questioned. 

Some create the back story, pick the relevant clues to pepper the novel with, then set their detective to work.

Other writers are as surprised as their detective at the murder scene and never guess the killer until the last chapter. Somehow the clues through the miracle of the writer's subconscious have pointed to the murderer all along.

Still other writers mix a little of both methods. Cold calculations about clues and the killer's identity are leavened by the spontaneous generosity of the writer's muse. The writer is as surprised as the reader to discover why the killer hums but never sings and how that fits so perfectly into the puzzle.

No one can tell you what method to use to create a perfect blend of detective's plot and back plot. Each writer must discover what works best for her. But the wise writer takes the time after the book is written and before the rewriting to ask herself, "What is the plot? Does it make sense? Is it complete?"

Then the even wiser writer asks the same questions about the back plot. The wisest writer also remembers that in the back plot the killer is the major protagonist, and it here where the true heart of the novel lies.

Now tell me the plot of "The Hound of the Baskervilles."

Monday, July 19, 2021

When to Copyright Your Novel

QUESTION:  When should I copyright my novel?

According to US copyright law, your book was copyrighted the moment you put something on the page.  

If, however, you want to file an official copyright with the US Copyright Office, the answer is different for your publishing choices.  

If you want to be published by a traditional publisher, aka the conglomerates mainly in NYC, you shouldn’t do an official copyright because it makes you look like an amateur.  And, if they buy it, it will most likely will be copyrighted again because it will have been changed drastically in rewrites.  In most cases, the publisher will do the copyright for you.  Check your contract on this question and make dang sure the copyright is in YOUR name. 

Some small publishers expect their authors to file their own copyright.  Do this as soon as you have the published version of your novel. It can be done before the book reaches the shelves.

If you are self-publishing, copyright it as soon as you have the final version of your book.  An official copyright is a good thing because you won’t be able to sue someone for plagiarism or downright theft in an American court without that official copyright notice.

Here’s a link to the Copyright Registration form.


Monday, July 12, 2021

Making the Victim Matter

Mystery, romantic suspense, and urban fantasy novels often start with a dead body, and the main character’s goal is to find out the who, what, when, where, and why of his death so she can solve the crime.  

The first hook for the reader is curiosity about the victim and the crime as well as the main detective/character’s personality, etc.  

Most readers will allow the writer time to set up the situation and to gather the first clues, but a certain point, the reader’s patience and interest will wear thin unless the writer gives the reader a reason to care about the victim.  Simply getting justice for the victim isn’t enough to keep most readers reading the whole novel.  

The simplest way to make the reader care is to make the victim someone the reader would care about instantly -- a child, an innocent, a good person, or a person with a job that matters like being a school teacher, doctor, social worker, or an honest cop.  

Even someone who was a jerk or bad person will matter if he died doing something decent, or he had survivors who care.  A weeping mother or wife who begs for justice is a strong motivator for the detective and the reader because they create an emotional stake in the person’s death.  If the detective must prove it was murder, not suicide, so the young widow with little kids will get death benefits, the solution will matter.

If nothing about the victim will give the detective or the reader any reason to care that he was murdered, then the detective must have another reason to solve the crime.  Perhaps, he will lose his job because his failure rate at solving crimes is so high, or he’s caught in a political situation where only solving this crime will save his career.  The victim could be one of a string of serial killings, but the killer has made several sloppy mistakes in this killing which could be his downfall so the detective is trying to stop other murders as well as solving this one.  

A method used in TV shows like CSI or BONES is to make the good guys and their scientific methods as important as the crime’s solution.  We care about them more than the rotting corpse of the abusive pimp at the crime scene, and their lives are the soap opera that drives the emotional plot while the science drives the mystery plot.  

Having the killer go after the detective or people he cares about is also a tried and true method to make the solution matter.

Whatever method you use, just remember that the main character’s goal in solving the crime must be a strong and worthy one, and the emotional reasons for the solution must matter to both the reader and the detective.  


Monday, July 5, 2021

Creating Suspense

QUESTION:  How do I create suspense?

The simplest answer is that a suspense scene involves possible danger, either physical or emotional, to the main characters. 

A successful suspense scene must also draw the reader in by using the senses. The words must be vivid, the reader should experience what the character is experiencing and be in the head of the character who has the most to lose in the scene if multiple viewpoints are used. 

Suspense is more complex than that, though, in novel-length stories.

First, the writer must keep offering questions to the reader who keeps reading to find out the answers, and, as the reader finds the answers, the author offers more questions to keep the reader reading.

A question can be a simple what happens next or why is this character doing this.  All the questions and their answers are the clues the reader gets to understand the novel and the characters.

Think of these questions and answers as bread crumbs leading the reader bird through each scene and through the novel. Part of the suspense in each scene comes in finding out the answer to some of the questions the author poses.

Suspense won't work if the reader doesn't care about the person in danger so part of creating suspense is making the reader care about that character. In my romantic suspense, GUARDIAN ANGEL, if my hero had been a jerk instead of a charming, decent man, most readers wouldn't care if he survived to the end of the novel, and they certainly wouldn't think him worthy of Desta, the brave and kind heroine.

The character must also have a worthwhile goal so that the reader wants the character to succeed.

If the main character wants to find the treasure so he can live a lavish lifestyle, the reader may root for him if the search for the treasure is interesting enough, but, if he wants the treasure to ransom his beloved wife and children before they face torture and death, the reader will be as anxious as the character that he succeed. Each suspenseful scene will be a hurdle or threat to his reaching his final goal, and failure is unthinkable.

If the reader cares for both the character and his goal, your story has even stronger suspense than just an exciting plot would create.