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’.
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.
* * * *
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?