Some Notes on JJ

I thought I’d tell you a little bit about the writing of my short story ‘JJ’s Note’ and then criticise myself a little – just for fun, you understand.

I’ve always liked mystery stories - Agatha Christie, all that. So I suppose it was natural that, sooner or later, I would try to write a couple of them myself.

In fact, a book I’m busy writing (when I’m not hanging around here) is itself a fairly ambitious mystery story, so I guess I haven’t quit yet.


I’ve never actually read a book about how to write a mystery story but I reckon there’s really no big mystery to it.

For me there’s only one place to start. You need to find a ‘skewed fact’.

(I think I just made that up – ‘Skewed Fact’ – is it any good? I’m quite taken with it myself, although it’s probably in all those ‘How to Write a Mystery’ books that I’ve never read.)

In my (admittedly twisted) mind this ‘Skewed Fact’ is something that, ideally, only you will possess. It is your way of looking at something which differs ever-so-slightly from the way the rest of the world looks at it. When you find one of these, treasure it, it can be the kernel of a mystery story.

Let’s look at the ‘Skewed Fact’ in ‘JJ’s Note’.

Cosmopolitan Magazine announced a shot story competition, oh, it must have been fifteen years ago. I entered it using a fictitious female name, thinking I might have a better chance that way (eat yer heart out JK). I think I called myself ‘Felicity Martine’, which is a ‘feminisation’ of my actual middle names. (100EC for the first comment guessing my middle names, if you’re bothered).

I didn’t enter because I had a yen to write for a Woman’s Magazine – although I’ve done that in my time – I did it because of the subject you had to write about.

The subject of the competition was ‘Reading Between The Lines’.

See?

As soon as I saw that title – I thought of the town of ‘Reading’ instead of the word ‘reading’ and I knew I had a ‘Skewed Fact’ on my hands. I knew that I could build something around my twisted understanding of the writing theme and, at the very least, entertain myself for a little while.

After much plotting and concoction, ‘JJ’s Note’ emerged and I’m pleased to say I got absolutely nowhere in the competition. Never mind, JJ has stayed with me ever since.

It’s fun to watch out for these little acorns upon which vast pulp edifices may be erected. One of my favourites comes from Ed McBain – who I recommend wholeheartedly to anyone who likes their detective fiction tough and sexy and garnished with loads of killer dialogue. Ed wrote a book called ‘Like Love’ which (spoiler alert) based its entire premise on the fact that men frequently misunderstand the order in which women put on underwear and suspenders. It was a very neat ‘Skewed Fact’ and it made for an elegant solution to his book.

So the whole point of this bit is – do you want to write a mystery story? First find your ‘Skewed Fact’ and then build your story from there.


* * * *

Criticism.

It’s good for writers to criticise themselves.

Some of us believe our vision is fatally biased and that we all think everything we write is brilliant. I don’t subscribe to that point of view (lyric alert). I think, late at night, even those fools on ‘X-Factor’ - who pretend they think they can sing - look into their mirror and admit to themselves how crap they really are.

I think if we hold a good hard looking glass up to our own work, we can give and receive some criticism which is more valuable than most.

I mean, come on! You know when something’s good or bad – don’t you?

And the trouble is, people who read your writing are usually desperate to be nice to you, to encourage you with your little hobby ("it keeps him off the streets, doesn’t it?"). One of my plays was performed once before a full house and everyone came out afterward and told me how brilliant it was, how great I was… but it wasn’t, it just bloody wasn’t and I knew it and I hope to God they knew it too but they wouldn’t say it. One person, ,months – years – later smiled at the memory of that night and said to me, “God, that was shite, wasn’t it?”

That person can read my work anytime!

So what do I think of ‘JJ’s Note’?

In one respect I like it, I think it has a reasonably elegant solution and I think the structure I built around that solution is quite solid and convincing. I like the fact that I posited a possible alternate solution in the middle which I then promptly rejected. That ‘glorious twelfth’ piece was another ‘Skewed Thingie’ which could have had its own narrative edifice erected around it, if I saw fit, but I sacrificed it instead to the altar of JJ.

In another respect, I dislike ‘JJ’s Note’ and I’ve alluded to my main reason for this several times in this post already. The story is little more than a technical exercise in deception. It is a heartless edifice built around a flimsy fact and all the heartbreak and pain concocted along the way was created for only one reason – to make the trick work.

It is a bit like the movie ‘The Sixth Sense’ in that respect. If you look at it too hard, it will fall down under the weight of its own subterfuge.

‘JJ’s Note’ was written before I learned the lesson that I try to inject into everything I write these day. That lesson states, ‘There had to be a little truth in it’. Just that. There has to be a little truth to elevate it above the technical and the gratuitous. Just a little truth…

But, interestingly, some people seemed to be moved by my little technical story. Were they like the audience in the theatre that night – just trying to say something nice – or is there a chance, a little chance that, when I wasn’t looking, a little truth accidentally slipped into my story?

There’s always something else to learn, isn’t there?

17 comments:

Yolander said...

Felmart?

Kevin Felmart Armstrong...yes...that's right.

Yolander said...

Oh and regarding my enjoyment of your story, I am never just trying to be nice. I got attached to the characters and cared about the Grandmother, JJ and Grandfather. I'm a simple girl though and I am shite at literary criticism.

Kate said...

Are your middle names Felix Martin?

I'm a big fan of mystery stories too. I've tried to write them, but the result always seems too obvious and I'm never sure if that is because as the writer there are no surprises,or because they just aren't very good. Probably the latter. Anyhow, I tend to stick to horror which doesn't keep the reading guessing quite so much, or at least not in the same way.

Ken Armstrong said...

Felmart! I'm off to the registry office right now to change it, excellent. :)

Regarding your enjoyment of the story, thanks for additional comment - I believe you and I appreciate. I honestly wasn't fishing for more compliments, just trying to gauge my own reaction to the story as best I could.

Well done Kate, you've got my name in full now, use it carefully, knowledge is power. :) 100EC sent with pleasure.

ê¿ê said...

Ah DAMN time zones! I missed out on the guessing game --- rats!

As for your little tale, well -- good bad or indifferent, it had me suckered into it, so there must be a gem of truth in there somewhere. Actually, if you think about it, there are probably several grains -- the railroad lines and cities DO exist and the love lost certainly exists in real life.

No, I don't think you can criticise yourself for a lack of a kernel of truth in a tale. There may be no relevance to your own life, but I suspect there might be.

It's written cleverly enough to draw the reader into the emotions surrounding the characters although I did have a hard time with Grandpa -- it's difficult for me to swallow a senile wordsmith but I confess to not hanging out with anyone more senile than myself lately.

Lidian said...

I always prefer people to give my writing (& me, by inference) constructive criticism.

I used to exchange writing with someone back in grad school and they liked to give severe yet unfocused criticism, i.e. "I hated this story, it's no good. I don't know why, but I do!"

Which is as bad as the "I like it" school.

I am doing a total rewrite of a mystery novel for NaNoWriMo and expect to spend the last half of October revisiting the terrible first draft. This will be all new though (one is NOT supposed to carry on with an old MSS you know). Do you ever NaNo?

Felicity Martine sounds just like a Cosmo writer, by the way.

Rachel Fox said...

Well, if you remember...I was unsure about this story and slow to comment. It is a good story - neat, clever - but it doesn't read like others of yours that I have read so far and that may well be the lack of truth, the lack of humour, the lack of you. There are plenty of writers who are happy to abandon their characters to years of undeserved misery (Hardy, anyone?) and that is fine, that's their thing...but I don't think it is yours.

And I believe I also said once not long ago that 'The Sixth Sense' is...bosh.

hope said...

Okay, here we go, she said with an impish smile, having been also defeated by time zones in the name game.

One of the reasons this story drew us in was because it was in two parts: you left us hanging and most of us are "rest of the story" kind of people. We needed a conclusion.

Points for a conclusion I didn't see coming. Sure, I wanted Grandma to have found JJ, but old cuckolded Grandpa got the last laugh. Okay, so I wanted the granddaughter to strangle Grandpa...maybe stuff the note in his mouth and whack him over the head with a crossword puzzle book. :) Even though I don't live there, at least I recognized the city and was able to have an, "Ah ha!" moment which didn't make me feel stupid for not seeing it coming.

Now for the technical part of mystery writing where there's a fine line...do you give the readers enough clues to figure it out for themselves or do you come out of left field and make them scratch their heads while muttering,"What the..?" While I don't think this was a mystery I could've solved due to my personal geographical ignorance of location, you DID make me back up and start looking for things I might've missed. THAT'S the mark of a clever mystery.

I think what made it fun was that it was short...it didn't go on for days and make me feel like I needed a road map. So 2 thumbs up...and I think your next character should be named Felmart. ;)

Matthew S. Urdan said...

Actually, as I was reading it, I didn't have anything invested in the characters or their circumstances, I was just trying to solve the mystery.

That doesn't mean the writing is shit. It also doesn't mean it's brilliant.

One of my creative writing teachers years ago told me that when you write you have to be thick-skinned enough to take criticism and allow your work to be interpreted. You can't control how your readers are going to perceive it or what they will read into it because when readers read, they bring their own memories, experiences, and emotional states and histories.

So if the writing is too rigid that nothing can be left to the imagination, it may not be such great writing but more of an exercise. If the writing is too loose that it can't hold together and anything can be interpreted, it may not be such great writing but more of an exercise. But if the writing is such where it accomplishes a few things:
1. The telling of a story clearly.
2. It engages the reader and allows for personal identification.
3. A reader's interpretation is supported in the language, the imagery, or a metahor.

THEN the writing is not only good, but it may be brilliant because the writing can accomplish multiple goals on multiple levels and be fluid enough where my interpretation may be just as valid as the next person's.

In other words, Ken, when you write. If you write well--and you do--you have to be open to the possibility that what you write could mean and be interpreted to mean something completely different than what you intend it to mean and have written it to mean when someone with different life experiences and memories and a way of thinking reads your work and interprets it in a different way that is still consistent with the words on the page.

So you just can't dismiss a work as "shit". It might not have achieved what you intended it to achieve, but it may have intended something else entirely that when looked at with different eyes is clear.

Does all that make sense?

That being said, I was interested enough to try and solve the mystery, although I had no interest whatsoever in the characters. And on that basic level, this piece of writing was a success.

Cheers!

Martin Miller-Yianni said...

It's all about planning your story. Without that it is doomed to fail, that what success is based on.

jena isle said...

Is it Felix? lol...

Well, Ken, you know that I'm always sincere when I say something - the good and the bad; but of course you know the method in which I say each of them.

It won't hurt to be diplomatic even when you don't want an article, but it won't also hurt (in fact it will brighten someone's day) when you say a nice word to someone who deserves it and for an article that has sustained your interest.

I like JJ's story, just like your other stories. It has something different in it that makes the reader curious and interested to read on; so there you are - the stark naked truth. Happy blogging!

Ken Armstrong said...

Thank you all - there's some great and valuable stuff in these comments for me and I appreciate you taking the time to get 'stuck in'.

I will reply in more detail tomorrow - I've had a 'Big Beckett' day and I will report on that too. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

It's a question, isn't it, Ken? I read something online only a few days ago about a son who on realising that his father had not long to live decided it was time to say those things he knew he would kick himself for if he didn't say them. He began with, "You've been a good father," to which the man, a writer if memory serves me right, inquired, "Oh, in what way?" I have this problem with Carrie all the time. I'll hand her a poem, she'll read it and hand it back to me without any comment; that means it'll do, it doesn't have any typos or spelling mistakes, the layout doesn't detract from the piece, the title is appropriate and she gets it. I know all of that to be the case because if there was anything she says. And that should be sufficient, shouldn't it? But I usually press her. I want to know what about it she liked – precisely. I want her to tell me what it's about so I know she got it.

Ken Armstrong said...

Hi ê¿ê :) Sorry about the time zone thing - I should time myself more considerately really...

HI Lidian, you're right, unfocused criticism is just as bad as 'niceness'. 'Felicity Martine' may sound like a Cosmo writer but she wasn't. :)

It's a very astute comment Rachel - one of the other weaknesses I perceive in myself is a reluctance to harm my own characters. I always have to work hard on that.

Now about the job application form...

... you *know* I'm kidding, right? :)

Hope: you scared me when you said "here we go", I hid behind the couch for a while. But then you were very kind as always, thanks.

Thanks Matt for thoughtful comment, "you have to be open to the possibility that what you write could mean and be interpreted to mean something completely different than what you intend it to mean". I have to bear that in mind.

Hi Martin, planning your story works for me, I didn't go into it on the post but there was 'lots' of planning before I was done. Interestingly there are writers (a few of them around here) who take a more organic approach to writing and there's no denying that can work well for some people. For me the thing that assists quality most is simply re-writing. Nothing is great the first time around... in writing that is.

If *is* Felix, Jena 'Kenneth Felix Martin Armstrong' :) Felix is Latin for 'happy'... go figure.

Hi Jim, I can relate to that scene, "Yes, thanks very much, but what precisely, is good about it?"

:)

jakill said...

I'd say your "little bit of truth" was in the reaction of the husband, and his unstated feelings for his wife - could have been love, or could have been dog-in-the-manger. Who knows? And the tiny action that affected lives for so mnay years afterwards. Amd so on....

Poetikat said...

Great story Ken! I fell for your red herring right away - that date of the 12th niggled at me immediately. (Ever seen the Mike Leigh film, Four Days in July)?

I never would have guessed the changing of the one letter from Uppercase. I should have known the cryptics were a factor.

Bring on some more, I say!

Kat

CelloBella said...

Damn I wanted to prove how clever I was too...

Felicitations in the meanwhile...