What's Happening at Cedar Crest College
One English Student’s Efforts to Pen Her First Novel
Junior English major Rachel Morgandale is doing a unique independent study project this semester in attempting to craft a mystery novel and documenting the process. What’s Happening will be running a series of blog posts in Rachel’s own words throughout the semester chronicling her efforts. Here are her initial thoughts on the project:
With the help of my intrepid advisor, Dr. Pulham, I embark on a unique sort of independent study course. Over the 14 brief weeks of the spring semester I will read and watch classic and innovative books and films in the mystery genre and then attempt to write my own mystery novel. There will be tears, frustration, maybe a few too many hours spent studying the anatomy of the knee, but hopefully there will be a workable manuscript by the end.
Along with producing this manuscript and responding to my readings, I will be keeping a journal of my process, excerpts from which will be posted here. You’re welcome to watch me grow unnaturally attached to my fictional characters and ponder what it means to be a young writer at the very start of what I hope is a long (and I wouldn’t mind wildly successful) career. I’m not sure how it will all turn out, but I’m glad to have this opportunity and know it will be quite a learning experience.
I’ve hit around 41,000 words and I’m so happy. I’ve reached the climax of my story and am tying up a few loose ends and then winding it down in the next 10,000 words or so. My goal of 50,000 words was inspired by NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month). A work has to be at least that many words to be considered a novel; any less is considered a novella.
Many novels like The Great Gatsby and Slaughterhouse Five fall at about that many words and those are two personal favorites. However, most novels are longer. In fact, most of my research tells me that publishers prefer first novels to fall at about 60-65,000 words. Some genres tend to be longer, such as fantasy. The mystery genre tends to average briefer stories—probably due to the emphasis on quick, suspenseful plotting.
The earliest examples of the genre I read by Poe and Doyle were certainly too short to come under the heading of “novel” by word count requirements. Hound of the Baskervilles might just make it, I’m not sure, but Sign of Four is a novella and so are Poe’s Dupin stories.
In a culture of short attention spans, I’m rather surprised that the novella hasn’t risen in popularity. Still, I’m thinking ahead about what I can do with this piece in the future. It will need some major surgical revision, but I like it. It took me a very long time to be able to like my writing, but this piece I like.
I’m proud of the work I’ve done this semester. I think my characters are interesting and that there are thoughts and themes in the narrative that are interesting. In editing I’d like to expand some characters that popped into the story later and without much pre-planning and also fine tune some of the themes that have arisen.
This project has been helping me to learn how to be a professional writer. I can feel when I really can’t write anything more; when I have to be tough on myself and stop procrastinating; what environments I work best in. I can’t write in the morning, but can do decent work late into the night. I never get anything done if I’m in my room.
Although I was certain I could avoid the long summation speech from my character, there is a bit of one. It’s not to the level of the Dupin/Holmes/Poirot two-page monologues, but I’d like to figure out how to minimize it more in edits.
I’m in the home stretch and I’m actually feeling pretty good about this. It’s coming together better than expected. In ten days I’ll be handing in my manuscript, which seems like it will fall at about 170 pages. We will celebrate with an awkward video blog in lieu of my usual written journal.
Sometimes I think writers really do need to be hermits because there are so many distractions. The internet can very easily get in the way, and so can social events. Perhaps that is why many writers retreat to the basement when they need to get work done. It's a strange balance because life and interaction are such necessary pursuits and often prove inspirational, but when it's time to really get cracking on your manuscript they need to be temporarily put aside.
I've decided that I should write about a thousand words a day to complete my story by May 1. I attempted to start that this week and I did make some good progress on Tuesday and Wednesday. Monday was our Easter holiday, so I really should have spent the entire day cloistered and writing, but I didn't. I shot pool with my brother all afternoon. I did bounce some ideas off of him though, because he consumes a lot of media: books, films, music.
This week I also caught up with some of my mysteries on film. I watched the first season of Sherlock. It's probably one of the best series created for television in recent years and if you're a fan of Doyle you must see it. I'm attracted to the way they present old fashioned (in a sense) methods of detection and story building, but in a modern day context. The writers are also very adept at capturing the wonderful and weird relationship between the two main characters of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. They hit upon some of that quirky humor and banter that I think is so important for the characters, but also serves as a reprieve from relentless deductions. The second season is showing on PBS next month and I'm trying to make sure everyone watches it.
Initially, because all writers steal and because our imaginations are mainly a collage of everything we read, see, everyone we watch, every place we go; I was afraid that my characters were too obviously similar to Holmes and Watson. Their relationship is somewhat inspired by Doyle's famous characters and their dynamic, but as I go along I really keep discovering more about my characters. Little quirks, childhood incidents, conversations they have all come out and make them even clearer. I had imagined them so vividly initially, but now even more so they are almost complete human beings in my mind.
They have, I think, distinguished themselves from their predecessors. I have so many more stories for them inside my head and I'm eager to keep writing them. I've been making notes of my ideas for future stories and I have about five books already outlined. I know. I am insane.
I didn’t make as much headway this week as I wanted to. One day I’d like to sit down to write this journal and say: “Everything went perfectly, I made incredible progress and no doubt have a literary masterpiece on my hands.” Since that doesn’t seem likely, at least not at this point in my writing career, I’ll just stick with this entry.
I’ve been thinking about themes this week. You have your plot and your characters, but what are the underlying ideas? Sometimes when you start a story you know, for lack of a better term, what the moral of the story is. Sometimes you have a story and then you look back and see what starts to emerge from within it. At the beginning I didn’t really have specific themes in mind, but some are definitely developing.
There are some themes about family emerging, such as the legacy that parents pass on to their children and how it affects them. Of course friendship and emotional connection also come into the relationship between Victoria and Jackie. Maybe it explores revenge a little bit, too; what it’s worth, if it really is worth it. Now that I see the seeds that I’ve planted for these things, I’d like to work on cultivating them further (if I can push the bounds of my metaphor a bit).
I’ve been going for long walks and digging around in the garden to clear my mind. I like to get away from the computer and let my mind relax; let ideas incubate before I compose it on the page. Still, I can only spend so much time incubating; sometimes you have to make yourself work through things. I think that to be a professional writer—which is the big dream after all—you can’t only write in those lightning bolt moments of inspiration. Those are nice and those are what get you started and help direct you along the way, but it’s not the best work ethic. It’s about knowing what you’re doing and committing to it.
Maybe writing doesn’t sound like such a romantic adventure when put like that. Reading things like A Moveable Feast gives an unrealistic impression of what it’s really like to be a writer, at least in the 21st century. I still think it’s satisfying, more than anything else I’ve done or considered doing. The fact that it’s hard, sometimes very hard, but that I still what to do it affirms my choice. I am a writer. It’s something I have to do.
This has been one of my busiest weeks this year. I’ve been working stage crew for the dance show, preparing for a math test, writing a paper for my literature class, as well as getting things together for the writing reception in a few weeks, doing my work on the newspaper, apply for study abroad scholarships, and trying to have some semblance of a social life. Well, not so much that last one.
Still, I’ve been able to snatch an hour here and there to add a few more chapters to my story. I’m trying to go back a little now that I’ve crossed the middle point in the story, before I start building toward the climax of the story, I’m taking the time to fill in the story. I think it’s important to know what got this whole debacle started in the first place. Since I have two story lines running at the forefront of this book, it can be a little hard to keep them balanced. I always have to make sure I’m not neglecting one or the other.
I’ve been greatly inspired by Kate Atkinson, the writer of Case Histories from my syllabus. The way she passes between characters and paces out what’s happening in “real time” versus the past are very artful in my opinion. In her third book, which I just finished, her detective character really takes a back seat to many of the other characters. I’m not sure if that’s the right approach for this story, but I am trying to make sure other characters have a chance at the spotlight for a chapter or two. Even my villain gets a little perspective. I think audiences are bored with the mustache twirling cardboard villain. They like to have something more. I think it’s important that all the characters are above all, human. Even though this character is a bit slimy, there is someone in his life that he cares about and I think it’s important to touch on that relationship.
In about a month’s time, I’ll have to have this pretty much wrapped up. I’d like around 20,000 more words in that time, which I think is doable. I’ve none National Novel Writing sprints of 50,000 words in a month. My plot outline has been indispensible for keeping me on track and knowing where I’m going. So I guess I need to buckle down and push through the rest of this.
I don’t have writer’s block. I have writer’s fatigue. Too long in the trenches and now I need a little break. My head’s been killing me, and I’m afraid my eye glass prescription is changing. I was away until Tuesday this week at the College Media Conference, so I didn’t have much writing time over those few days. I did, however, find some inspiration regarding elements to bring to the urban setting to maybe make the sense of place stronger. The location of my story isn’t specifically New York, but it is a northern urban city. Perhaps more like Philadelphia.
I also realized that I jumped a week ahead and skipped straight to my modern novels. Now I’m backtracking and picking up the film element I added to my syllabus. I added some films ranging from the 40s to 2011 to add more material to draw from without too much extra work for myself. So this week I went back and watched North by Northwest. It’s a good example of the “wrong man” style of mystery; the story of a man accused of a crime and taking it upon himself to clear his name. In this Hitchcock film Carey Grant is that man, mistaken for a spy and framed for murder. It has one of the most iconic scenes in cinema, in which Grant is almost mowed down by a crop duster.
Fear is an interesting thing to play with. Of course Hitchcock is often recognized as the “master of suspense.” He uses visuals and music to build tension in his scenes, but perhaps the same basic methods can be tapped into for a novel. Finding the everyday and making it sinister (see carousels on Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and birds in, well, The Birds) is often so much more frightening than taking something that we normally relate to danger or fear.
Primal fears that we like to think we’ve outgrown also retain the ability to terrify us as adults. Doctor Who is actually excellent at doing this, especially in the Steve Moffat episodes “Silence in the Library/The Forest of the Dead” and “Blink,” in which shadows and statues are absolutely horrific things.
I’m not sure if there are any frightening moments in my story, not yet anyway. I’d like to harness these examples and maybe build, if not fear exactly, concern or tension for my characters. So this coming week I’m going to be attempting to catch up on word count and move on into the second half of my story. At this point I need to tie myself to the computer and force myself to make time and focus.
Anyone looking at my Google history will probably think I’m a psychopath. Post-mortem bruising, blood spatter patterns, recipes for GHB; out of context all these searches would be very worrying. Maybe they still are in fact. I think there is a balance when it comes to research about forensics and such. A little accurate detail helps a reader immerse themselves, and glaring errors would be distracting. However, to the lay-reader, too many details can be annoying, distracting, or confusing.
There are so many police procedural dramas on television that depend heavily on forensics that the public has a vague idea of that sort of investigation. With one of my main characters Jackie as a coroner, certain aspects of forensics will definitely come into it, but I want it to be more about the people than the science. I want it to be a good novel, not just a good mystery.
At some moments I find the investigation taking a backseat to characterization within the drafting process. I’m not sure if that’s going to get me where I want to be, but I want the characters, especially my lead character, Victoria, to be just as intriguing as the cases they work. Maybe she’s even a bit of a mystery herself. As much as I long to simply insert a chapter that describes her incredibly elaborate back story, I’m occasionally slipping in details throughout the book.
This week I’m reading Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. She is definitely a contemporary mystery novelist I wish to emulate. Her detective, Jackson Brodie, is a very interesting and complex character. She is excellent at the slow stream of details in this novel as we gradually find out about a traumatic event from Brodie’s childhood which sets his life on its current path. Yet it’s never too theatrical.
Her novel is in a sense, a throwback to the classic detective novel. She also has elements of parody subtly thrown in. Instead of being like the Mike Hammer sort of detective that gets in all these fights and beats up two or three guys at once, Jackson Brodie frequently ends up going to the hospital with broken ribs and such. And if a beautiful woman comes on to him and it seems too good to be true, it is too good to be true. There is something off about her.
I’m trying to keep a certain pace and rhythm to the story as I continue to slog away. The middle may be slowing down more than I’d like it to. There’s so much that needs to happen that I’m tempted to skip over some of the steps and let them happen “offstage,” but I’m trying to include everything in this draft for my own sake. I’m trying to follow the logical progression of the story.
Certain things can be trimmed back and explained later in the edits. It’s hard to keep from editing along the way. I think it’s probably best to have more than you need in the first draft so that in edits, instead of adding more to it (though that may happen to certain scenes and characters), I’m trimming it down to the most important and interesting bits.
My method this week has been to try and have a little fun. Since so much is happening and unfolding, I don’t want it to become dry or overwhelming. I keep attempting to inject good character moments or little bits of humor. I like to think that if I’m enjoying writing something, others will enjoy reading it. Maybe that’s optimistic of me.
So my 20,000 word count goal for spring break wasn’t actually as hard to achieve as I feared: I actually passed 22,000 words. I had a lot to catch up on, but more time to dedicate to my writing. I’ll pass the halfway point next week, I hope. Now that I’m getting in to the investigative part of my plot I’m playing with what kind of deductive leaps my character can make. Apparently Arthur Conan Doyle, reluctant and disappointed father of Sherlock Holmes, hated writing those clever little passages and wrote less and less of them in his later stories.
It’s sort of fun to imagine what you might find to be a clue or a major lead; to put yourself in that mindset. If you were incredibly clever, with a remarkable working knowledge of the world and the people in it and your mind could sort and reason at a high level, what you could see would be remarkable. My main character is smarter than I am, which has its delights, but also its challenges.
My sidekick character, if you will, has gotten herself stuck in a geographic location for the first third of the book and it’s very limiting. Fortunately, I’ve gotten her unstuck now. Now it’s a matter of what to do with her and where to put her next. Geography is hard to write in a way. I feel like this city my story is set in is too small: everything’s just a few minutes away. That’s something I can always further develop in rewrites.
I’ve also been developing a new character and it kills me that I can’t insert him into this story. He is alluded to, but I would love to have him interacting with Victoria, my protagonist. He might be a sort of romantic interest, but in an unusual sort of way. I’ll have to save him for the sequel. I might just die of impatience along the way. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s hard to stay focused when you have ideas for other future stories that are very exciting. I just have to scribble down details, scenarios, and bits of dialogue that come to me into my notebook and bide my time.
I’m reading In the Last Analysis by Amanda Cross this week. It’s from the late sixties and is both an academic and psychiatric mystery, two fairly common modern forms of the mystery. One thing I have noticed is that each novel that presents a private investigator of some sort as its protagonist has a degree of distaste for the police force. This is a sliding scale ranging from mild, but friendly annoyance to downright malice. This novel occasionally tips toward malice. Kate Fansler, narrator and protagonist, makes some very ungenerous remarks about the “lower middle-class” police force and how they can’t possibly understand the kind of lives she (a professor) and her accused friend (a psychiatrist) live. I may have winced.
There is always the question of why your character is acting independently that must be tackled. In some cases it can be corruption or incompetence in the police force. Sometimes that can be uncomfortable for the reader and ungenerous to the real police force. For my main character, Victoria, it’s a matter of personality. She’s not disciplined enough to live that way, far too erratic for paperwork, and being outside the police allows her to investigate where the force might not be able to legally.
Oh, and somehow an adorable animal has been introduced into my story. A dog, specifically. I can’t help myself sometimes. I like to make little jokes that people versed in the genre may appreciate. Overall, my story has a fairly dark tone, so I’m hoping a few humorous touches and moments that are half parody will help even it out. I’m not sure how it will mesh with whole novel, I’ll have to explore that more in edits.
There are definitely some common tropes and clichés I’m trying to avoid. On the very first page I break the ‘main characters never get hurt’ rule. And to satisfy some strange part of myself, one of my females will get punched in the face by the end. So many female heroes are improbably unscathed by their adventures (sometimes males too). If they are injured, it’s usually in less visible ways or ends in a male hero saving them or with the gaining of a sexy scar. That just makes me want to give Victoria an incredibly unsexy bloody nose. I’m not sure what that says about me. Maybe that although most fictional stories are a little bit improbable, I want to inject some realism into the scenario. I want a human element.
This has been a really tough week. It’s mid-semester so assignments are starting to pile up and I’m starting to machete my way through the middle of my story as well. I’ve spent this week finishing up applications for summer programs too, so my writing and my reading of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote took a back seat. I did manage to write another chapter, fortunately.
I added In Cold Blood to the syllabus as the next chronological stepping stone, but also to inject the sub-genre of true crime into my studies. I believe Capote referred to it as a “non-fiction novel.” It is structured as a novel, telling the story of the lives of the people in this small Kansas town, especially of the family that would be murdered one night. All the little details, the minutiae of their lives gather poignancy cast in the light that is the last days of their lives. Sometimes the very meticulous dissections can be a little dry.
In an odd way, I think it’s a book that Victoria, my main character, would enjoy. I’ve found myself thinking about these things a lot; what sort of music, books, films, my characters would choose. It helps me think of them as real people. When they become real they start to steer the stories for me. They tell me who they would talk to next and what they would or wouldn’t say. Some days when my mind is full of other things they aren’t as talkative, so the story comes more slowly.
I’ve often heard people describe writers as sorts of demi-gods, creators of worlds with ultimate control. I can’t say I’ve ever felt that way. Maybe it’s more like being a parent, you give birth to the characters but then they take control for the most part, especially in the initial draft. In editing you can more carefully sculpt the world, but the rudimentary carving has little to do with me.
I think this might be something though, when I do start the fine scalpel work. Maybe it won’t be David, but it might be a minor masterpiece for me anyway. I’ll be able to catch up over spring break with my readings and my manuscript work. Hopefully it will be a productive week. Oh, and I finally have a provisional title, The Edge of a Threat. Very mid-century pulp, isn’t it? I’m not sure how it might change, but I do think it’s intriguing and reflects some of the themes I’m trying to play with. I won’t really know what it’s called until it’s finished, but I like having something to call it for now.
So this week I’m reading I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane to insert a little mid-century hard-boiled crime into my studies. When I read, like most people I hear narration in my mind. However, it’s not always my own voice; I adjust to fit the piece. For this piece the voice has been James Cagney. I think it fits that he would be narrating as the character of Mike Hammer. Though the stylistic elements are a bit different than what I’m using in my story, some of the pacing is actually similar to how I’m attempting to pace my story.
This book was also incredibly hard to track down. It’s no longer available in new print copies, but only in e-reader format. I don’t have an e-reader because I’m too attached to the tactile feel of books, so I had to hunt down a used copy. The cover has a picture of what I believe is a Colt .45 pistol along with two full metal jacket bullets and an inset picture of a naked woman holding a towel over her breasts. Sex and violence; sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.
I wrote the ending of my novel this week. Though the novel is far from finished, I think it’s nice to know where I’m heading and how it will turn out. Now there’s just all that fuss in the middle to work out. Since I have the skeleton of my plot outline, I’m working on adding some skin this week. I’ve been thinking about the different characters and trying to re-imagine some of the ways they interact, especially finding ways into characters I haven’t really thought about interacting with each other before.
Middles are so hard. I know I whine a lot, but it really is difficult to sculpt a story that is believable and compelling. It’s been a very busy, very stressful week, so I haven’t been able to spend as much time with my story as I like. My work on the ending was done over two hours at the back of my favorite coffee shop. Sometimes I find it hard to work at home when there are so many other things I need to do and so many little distractions. There are a few things I know I’m going to need to change when I go into edits, but I’m going to forge ahead and get into the middle now.
Ah, plot outline week. I have a fairly clear knowledge of the major events in my book, an obsessively detailed knowledge of my main characters, and plenty of hot tea within reach, so you’d think this would be a simple task. It’s not. It’s made me realize there are little holes here and there that will niggle me until patched. I also have a fear of not having enough plot. I only just began working in longer forms in the past year; everything has been short stories with me before that, flash fiction for the most part actually, telling a story in about two pages.
I’ve already drafted the first about 10,000 words and I’d like to think I hit the ground running. Another fear of mine is being boring and pedantic. This probably stems from a very unkind criticism I received once in a playwriting class; basically that my play was the theatre equivalent of a coma, so I’ve been a phobic about that ever since. I know there were positive and constructive comments from that class as well, but of course that remark is the only one that rings clear in my mind, even several years later.
Of course, since I do leap into the plot, in medias res (Aristotle would surely approve) I am now trying to pace myself, filling in important back story and drawing out characterization. I think one of my challenges is trying to make the characters clear. They start the novel in an unusual and extreme situation, and I’m trying to imply that there are differences in their behavior in this context than in other situations.
I know, I’m thinking about things that really shouldn’t be a major concern until editing. My job right now is to pour it on the page with plenty of sloppiness and even flesh out things that I might cut back later. I always think a first draft is a chance to let loose all of your ideas: even if a subplot has to be limited or a bit of dialogue cut, it can help you figure out where you’re going later in the next draft, or even be saved for another story.
I have a notebook full of ideas and scenarios involving these characters that I can see stretching to three or four books. That is reassuring for me as a young writer to know that I could conceivably have enough ideas to make a career. I hope one book is just the start. Even beyond these characters and this genre, I feel like I have books full of stories and ideas that I would love to research and turn into novels.
Sometimes it’s hard keeping focused on one story at a time, actually. I don’t mean to whine, but writing a novel is hard. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that “everyone has a novel in them” and I’m not sure that’s true. Maybe they do have a story, but that doesn’t mean it ever can or will be a novel. It’s a lot of work that most people won’t have the time or drive for.
This week I’m reading Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. This book changed titles several times between printings. It’s apt that I’m reading it in a week where I am occupied with what the title of my book should be. Next week my plot synopsis is due and I’m already a few chapters into the drafting process, so I have a fairly clear idea of where I’m going with this story and what elements it will contain. It makes sense that I should call it something other than “the mystery I’m writing,” or as it’s saved on my computer, “adventures.”
I’m very bad at naming things. I’ve read several schools of thought on the subject. One says you can’t name a book until it’s finished and you see what it’s become; another says that you should come up with the title quite early on, perhaps even before starting to draft it, so that you know what you want it to be about and where you’re heading. Out of necessity I adhere to the former. Maybe I’m too spontaneous to know what short phrase will describe a whole, yet-to-be-finished novel before I know what that whole is.
Every writer has quirks, and I suppose mine is my need for music or soft background noise in general. When inspiration hits and I’m scribbling down ideas in my notebook it doesn’t matter as much, but when I’m scheduling myself time to write, sitting down to work through what happens next, I need to have music playing.
I make playlists for certain sections of the story as well as some of the character to help me find the right state of mind. I think it also helps me work on creating atmosphere and engages another part of my brain which somehow frees up the part I need to write. When I’m shooting pool I do better when I’m listening to music or having a conversation for that same reason; it somehow frees up the part of my brain that needs to focus by giving the rest of it something relaxing to work on. I really can’t explain it. I also like to have a bottle of water or a coffee close by, but I think that’s just physical convenience. Sometimes changing up a routine, writing at a different time or place can free me up when I’m stuck.
As far as my thoughts on Christie’s novel? And Then There Were None is very much a series of character sketches more than anything. The plot is fairly predictable after the initial set-up. As the reader you play the detective; there is no real detective character. From what you learn about these people, their personalities and their pasts, you try to guess who the killer is.
It’s a bit unfair the way Christie toys with us, though. The character I initially thought was a good candidate for the role of mastermind vigilante was killed about halfway through and as everyone else inexplicably expired, it seemed to make an extra, unknown character the only option. She has to use a bit of sleight of hand to make the actual solution plausible. Now I love a good red herring, but a total and complete misdirection is a little annoying. It’s very sly, but completely removes the audience’s chance of working toward the solution. It causes disorientation, which may have been her intention.