Sunday, January 30, 2011

Drood: What Is Good Mystery Writing?

Photo: Charles Dickens

See below for the 5th and last part of my short story, "Shadows."  I hope everyone's liked it.  I have been away for a few days; an immediate family member has been diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer--in five different areas.  This is bad enough, but there's also a major deadline at work: tons of things due this coming week.  Of course.

So what does one do when faced with all this?  He escapes!  He reads!  I finished Dan Simmons' Drood--all 771 pages of it.  It's taught me a few things about mystery writing, and maybe writing in general (I warn that there may be some spoilers below):

1.  It starts with a quick introduction by the narrator (Wilkie Collins) and the main mystery of the whole 771 pages.  Why did Dickens perform a "murder" of one of his characters that so engaged--and horrified--his pre-Victorian audience?  This was apparently opposite his normal character.

2.  Did Dickens murder someone?  The method is explained in one sentence.  Very specific detail.

3.  Did Dickens become obsessed with a person/thing named Drood?  (Avid readers will know that Dickens was in the middle of a masterwork when he died, titled The Mystery of Edwin Drood.)

4.  The main settings are described in very specific detail--good writing, never boring--by the end of page 2.

5.  The style, tone and mood of the narrator are established by then as well.

6.  The famous Staplehurst train wreck that Dickens was a part of about 5 years before he died is used as a springboard for the whole novel, and is very well-written and well-used.  This starts on page 3 and ends on page 11.

In short, this bestselling novel does what mysteries should do, what agents want mystery manuscripts to do: it poses the mysteries immediately.  It advances very interesting questions that readers would want answered: Did Dickens kill someone?  What was that Drood business?  It sets Dickens up as the focus of the novel, despite Collins being the narrator--which astute readers will realize as another point.  Collins should be the main character of Collins' narration/memoir; he is, perhaps, but Dickens is definitely the focus.  This establishes another huge theme: Dickens overshadowing Collins in life, as in this "memoir."  Again, this is established immediately and solidly by page 11.

Main characters; main themes; main settings; main mysteries; main questions--in short, everything, established in the first few pages, and then springboarded tremendously well using the train accident Dickens was in--with his young mistress and her mother, by the way, and not with his wife.  By page 11, the reader wonders a ton of interesting things and has no choice but to read on.

Agents have mentioned this time and time again.  Do this, and do this well, and they will represent the work and it will get published.  Dan Simmons had 771 pages to work with--and an already-impressive bestselling status--so he could have done whatever he wanted, at whatever pace he wanted.  He still did all of this by the first 11-15 pages.

It isn't selling out.  It's good writing.

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