Thursday, September 23, 2010

What kind of mystery writer are you?

I’ve meaning to write this post for a few days but the semester has started, I’m backing teaching and it’s a crazy time of the year.  A couple of weeks ago Maxine at Petrona, responding to a post by Martin Edwards, discussed ‘what kind of a mystery reader are you?’  Martin had readers divided into two groups: "those who like to try to solve the mystery themselves, before the solution is revealed, and those who simply enjoy the story and make no serious effort to work out what is going on."  I guess I’m in the first group, though I don’t try too hard, and I don’t mind too much if there’s not much of a mystery in the book.  In fact, a few of my favourite books in the last year or so have been more about exploring a particular life or time or idea, rather than being a whodunit – Philip Claudel’s ‘Brodeck’s Report’, Dave Zeltserman’s ‘Killer’, Daniel Woodrell’s ‘Winter’s Bone’ and ‘The Ones You Do’, and Alan Furst’s ‘The Foreign Correspondent’ – all crime novels that have twists and turns, but no real revelatory moment of solution. 

It seems then that crime writers fall into two camps, those that are seeking to create a puzzle that they invite readers to try and solve as they read (or enjoy when it’s revealed), and those that are trying to do something else, such as exploring a particular idea or way of life, etc.  And my sense is that those that set up a puzzle are divided into two groups as well – those that are planners and work out the entire plot and puzzle in advance, and those where it unfolds through the writing.  I’m in the latter camp.  I have no idea how a story is going to unfold and end when I start.  My strategy is largely to keep as many people in the frame for as long as possible and see where the writing takes me.  If the story involves a murder, then who the perpetrator is will often change a few times in the journey until I settle on an outcome I’m happy with.  And the puzzles are with a small 'p' - they are not trying to come out of left field, or involve a massive twist, and I leave some puzzles unsolved (as many crimes are).  It’s the same with writing my academic books – I have no predetermined argument and therefore no idea as to how they’re going to unfold either.  The argument emerges through the writing and often the argument is open-ended.

So, what kind of writer are you – puzzle maker or social commentator or something else?


Maxine Clarke said...

I find this an amazing concept, that someone could set out to write a crime novel (aka a puzzle, of sorts, by definition) and not know from the outset how it is going to turn out. I suppose this is all down to the muse, but I am completely lost in admiration of those who set out on a path without knowing where it is going, yet at the end, finding that it has gone somewhere. How mysterious is that? Fabulous!

Rob Kitchin said...

Maxine, maybe I'm unusual in that it doesn't occur to me that it won't go somewhere. Occasionally I have to back-up a bit and go a new path, but generally my fiction writing unfolds as a single arc. The fun of writing for me is to see where the story goes. If I knew how the whole thing was going to be when finished, the writing would be a chore and a bore. I *have* to write the story to find out what happens. My characters often say and do things that surprise me and take things off in a new direction. And I start every sentence not knowing how its going to end. I write my academic books in a non-linear way, meaning I'm working on all the chapters simultaneously (so I might write a couple of sentences in one chapter, then write a paragraph in another, then swap to another, then cut and paste from one place to another, go back to the first chapter, etc) - the book accretes, with all the chapters finishing at the same point. Mysterious? I guess so, but it seems to work for me - I think through writing, not think then write - and it makes writing a joy.

pattinase (abbott) said...

In my stories, I am exploring a character. I don't have the mindset for puzzles and I am no social commentator--at least not directly. But I do like to know what makes people tick. And as I write my way through a story, I will hopefully find out. Never know at the outset though.

Anonymous said...

Rob - I'm sorry it took me a day or so to catch up with this fascinating question! I am definitely one of those writers who goes for the "intellectual puzzle/challenge" sort of mystery. I admire those who can really develop characters, and of course, I do develop mine, too, but my focus is on creating a mystery for the reader to try to solve.

Dorte H said...

Interesting question.

Well, my Danish manuscript (now gathering dust on some editor´s desk) was a combination of social comment and a puzzle, and I did *not* plan it very well from the beginning. I learnt the hard way (having struggled with the darn story for six years) that I have to plan more carefully.

My new draft is a cosy caper. It is a puzzle, but as cosies go there is much focus on characters and environment. I wrote a rather detailed plan over two days and made a draft in less than three months. It is too early to say how successful this one is, but my writing has been much more focused as I knew all the way where I was headed.

Donna said...

I can't do puzzles, and I also can't plan. I have no idea where something is going when I start. I could probably fit everything I know into 3 sentences. I start with a character, or a piece of dialogue, or an idea. Then I just have to write and see where it goes. Half way though, I don't know how it's going to end. Three quarters of the way through, I don't know how it's going to end. 2 pages from the end, I might have an idea, but it might all change :o)