Adding Mystery to the Story: Guest Post from Rick Ollerman

Rick Ollerman will be one of our authors at our upcoming Noir At The Bar, an event celebrating the magical mixture of author readings and brews. Noir at the Bar takes place at Threadgill’s South and begins at 7 PM, Tuesday September 20th. Ollerman will be joined by Jesse Sublett, John Lawton, and Zoe Sharp. We’ll have giveaways galore for those who attend – come by Threadgill’s South, Tuesday, September 20th, at 7 PM!

 

NOVELS AND SHORT STORIES: Advice and Opinions On Two Forms of Writing

by Rick Ollerman

A friend of mine recently asked me about a problem she’s having writing a novel. She writes mostly short stories and I write mostly novels and while she says she has the ending “set” and a solid beginning, she’s struggling with what comes between. Endings aside, she wanted to know if I ever struggled with the last two thirds of a novel.

The short answer is no, I don’t, but that’s because the process of writing a novel is different than writing a short story. A short story should be something that you can hold in your head in its entirety. You can’t do that with a novel, it’s just too damned big.

When I write a short story I need to know the point I want to make before I begin. I need to know what I’m writing to, what the thing is I want to say. It could be the expression of a mood or an emotion, the consequence of an action, or the classic twist the reader shouldn’t see coming. In the case of a forthcoming anthology based on the music of The Replacements (Waiting To Be Forgotten, 2016?), the point was derived from one of their songs.

This is not so for a novel. When I begin a new book-length project I start with a concept that usually comes from asking “what if” or “how come” sorts of questions. Those answers give me the characters. Put them together and I can write the opening. When people ask the seemingly eternal but silly question about what’s more important, characters or plot, there’s no real answer because both are needed to write a good book. In fact, I’d offer the formula “characters + plot + setting = good book,” assuming of course that the book is well written in the first place.

In my current release, Truth Always Kills, there were a number of questions that got me started. The first one had to do with the crime of stalking and how the FBI tells us it is the only somewhat reliable predictor we have of murder: what if you know this and see your significant other is a target? What if you know all the signs, the little treats and gifts left on her desk at work, the notes on her car, the passing back in forth in front of the house… what would you do? If you go to the police and manage to get a restraining order, that often causes the stalking itself to escalate. And what might be worse, you’re making yourself known to the authorities, you know, just in case something should happen to said stalker….

What kind of character would have the skills and knowledge to handle this horrible situation?

Another question came from something I’ve always wondered: why is it that lawyers are the only players in a court room that aren’t sworn to tell the truth? Sure, they’re supposed to follow ethics but lawyers are human and the strength of those convictions can vary greatly among individuals.

“I know I want the book to be read at a fast pace. I want it tension filled, with suspense, and I want there to be a strong mystery element to it. I want to set the hook in the reader as deep as I can and keep them turning pages, not knowing what is going to happen next, who’s really behind everything, and especially how it ends. If I outline it all first, it feels to me as though I’ve already told the story; in a sense, that I’ve already written it. The energy goes away.”

Those two question told me that my main character was going to be a cop, one who was in trouble. Forced with an impossible choice and already in trouble on the job because he’d called out the defense during a high profile trial, he’s a man who does what he thinks is right even when it works against his own best interests. He has to do what he thinks is right, doesn’t he?

And why, if a search warrant is improperly carried out and evidence is found confirming the guilt of a suspect, do we disallow the discoveries at the risk of letting the offender go free? Why can’t we keep the evidence and also prosecute the cops for breaking the rules? (He knows this isn’t how our system works but he’s upset and vocal and the department wants to shut him down.)

Why is prostitution illegal and pornography not? If you follow legal regulations and the participants are of legal age, etc., a pornographer still has to manufacture or produce a product to sell. This gave me the notion for the main crime that takes place in the story.

In the opening scene the cop gets a phone call from his wife as he’s driving back from a meeting with his union lawyer. She tells him she’s leaving him, at least for a while, and she’s taking his adopted daughter with her. When he tries to tell her she can’t do that, that she should wait and they should talk, she says she’s already gone.

And then he gets called in to deal with a body found on the beach….

I don’t outline when I write. Unlike a short story, I never know where it’s going when I start. As I go, I certainly figure out things that I know are going to need to happen as well as other characters I’m going to need to be able to set things up. I know I want the book to be read at a fast pace. I want it tension filled, with suspense, and I want there to be a strong mystery element to it. I want to set the hook in the reader as deep as I can and keep them turning pages, not knowing what is going to happen next, who’s really behind everything, and especially how it ends. If I outline it all first, it feels to me as though I’ve already told the story; in a sense, that I’ve already written it. The energy goes away.

Building layers and increasing tension, adding to the mystery of the story, this is the part where my friend seems to be having her trouble. In my next book, Mad Dog Barked (due in September, 2016), at some point I noticed there were a number of betrayals that had taken place in the story. These stood out as a theme and among other things it allowed me to change a good character to a bad character, and do it in a way that should come as a major shock to the reader.

“A novel, as opposed to a short story, is big enough that you can write more freely. If something’s not working or if you think of something that would work better, you can always change or rewrite it.”

If I did try to outline the book ahead of the actual writing, I would have had to be able to anticipate that theme (and many other things) before creating the elements that actually led to their inspiration. A novel, as opposed to a short story, is big enough that you can write more freely. If something’s not working or if you think of something that would work better, you can always change or rewrite it. An outliner can do the same thing, of course, but the difference I think is in how a writer’s creativity comes out of him or her. In any case, outlining versus “seat of the pants” writing is another topic altogether….

What I ended up suggesting to my friend is that she seems to be approaching her novel like a short story: she knows the end, or the point she wants to make, and she’s written what she wants for the opening. Essentially, she’s boxed herself in.

What if she changed her approach and did the mental equivalent of sealing her ending in an envelope and forgetting about it for a while? What if, instead of thinking she had to come up with what happens after the beginning and before the ending that she already has, she focuses on building on what happens after her beginning?

Her already-known ending is the cork that’s stopping up her process. Get rid of it I told her, and write away from the beginning instead of writing to the set ending. If you finish in a place where you use the exact same ending you foresaw before you started, then great. My bet, though, is that she’ll come out with something different, something better, more involved. If she builds her story organically from the beginning, the rest of it won’t be some kind of filler designed solely to get to the climax.

Endings are hard. I think for most writers they’re the single toughest part of producing a good book and I like to think I get better at it with each one. In fact, I tell new readers to start with my latest book first (I don’t write a series) and go backward from there. If my new stuff isn’t my best stuff, I’m probably not doing my job. The last thing I want to do is be repetitive or predictable—that can only lead to dull reading.

As for my friend, I hope I was able to help her. She’s a wonderful short story writer and if she can find a way to adjust to the longer form of a novel, she’s going to come out with some good stuff. If anything I told her (there were a few things) are helping her, then hey, that’s what friends are for, right?

Unless they sell more books than me….

You can find Rick Ollerman’s latest for sale at Noir at the Bar, on our shelves, or via bookpeople.com. Come by Threadgill’s South this upcoming Tuesday, September 20th, at 7 PM, for readings from Rick Ollerman, Zoe Sharp, John Lawton, and Jesse Sublett, with music from Jesse and tons of giveaways for those who attend. 

Rick Ollerman is the author of four novels, Turnabout, Shallow Secrets, Truth Always Kills and Mad Dog Barked. He has worked as both a freelance editor and as an editor for a small press, and edited and contributed to the reference book Paperback Confidential, a collection of short essays on paperback original era authors. He has also written more than a dozen essays that have been used as introductions for other books that are being gathered into book form. Currently he is editing an anthology of short fiction in honor of a former MWA Raven Award winner independent bookstore owner, writing a true crime book alongside the victim, and editing a collection of letters between John D. MacDonald and his wife written during World War II. Four short stories will also appear in different collections in 2016. He can be reached through his website at www.ollerman.com.

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