Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Knowing that you don't know

** I'm excited to hand over my blog this week to Lori Rader Day, author of The Black Hour, (available for pre-order now, and on sale July 8th). I've read it, and loved it. I know you will too. ** Clare

By Lori Rader-Day

When I started The Black Hour, I definitely knew who had committed the crime at the heart of the story. So will you, if you read more than a chapter or two. A student who Chicago sociology professor Amelia Emmet had never met did the shooting, and then he shot himself. He dies; she lives. The question in The Black Hour isn’t so much a whodunit as a “whydunit.”

But when I started writing it, I didn’t know why, either. 

Not knowing, for me, is part of the fun. For a little while, early on in a draft when everything is tenuous and I’m not sure a story has staying power, I think it takes some pressure off. If I don’t know, then you know who else doesn’t know? The readers.

That’s not fair for long, though, or a good idea. If the story’s going to hang together someday, I have to engage in a little story design. I also need to make sure the first, breezy section of the book gives readers what they’re looking for. In mystery novels, they’re looking for many things—but their eyes are wide open for clues, and I haven’t been dropping any. But that’s what revision is for.

After some brainstorming in a notebook away from the Word document (such a blank, white page), I knew why and who and everything there was to know. Drafting the second half of the book became a balancing act of doling out information at the right time.

Misdirection is a mystery writer’s friend here. Mystery writers are never writing one story—they’re writing as many stories as there are suspects. As P.M. Carlson wrote in Writing Mysteries: A Handbook from the Mystery Writers of America: “Who else might want this person murdered, and why? Several more stories have to be outlined about people who have good reasons to desire the victim dead and who have the means and opportunity to kill the victim. At this point I often start grumbling that a mystery writer’s lot is not a happy one, and why didn’t I decide to write the kind of novels where one plot is enough?”

Why don’t we write linear, simple stories? Because that’s not what we like to read, is it? We like complexity. Luckily, so do a great many readers.

You might be surprised or even relieved to hear that I did more planning and plotting before I started writing the project I’m finishing now. But you know what? I miss not knowing. Not knowing is part of the magic of a new project. It leaves all the doors wide open until you can catch the fleeting tail of that one image, that one idea that will take your story to a place you couldn’t have imagined even a few pages ago.

I don’t yet know what my next next project will be—but I might leave the doors open for as long as possible. The blank, white page used to scare me. Now it feels like a chance to go for an adventure I couldn’t have planned myself.


Meredith Cole said...

Thanks for being our guest at Criminal Minds, Lori! So interesting to hear how your process is changing and evolving from book to book.

Susan C Shea said...

Welcome to Criminal Minds, Lori - good to see you here! It's such a balance, as you point out, this business of the writer knowing not enough or knowing almost too much to keep the story alive and electric. Good luck with the newest project!

Lori Rader-Day said...

Hi, Meredith and Susan! Thanks for having me!

Robin Spano said...

Hey Lori, welcome to Criminal Minds. Writing a "whydunit" sounds very rewarding.

Catriona McPherson said...

Hi Lori - seriously? You didn't know why? I find that much more surprising/impressive than not knowing who - especially having read The BHand knowing how gloriously twisted it is.