Friday, October 24, 2008

I Can Has Mystery?

This is it, then. I've decided to write a mystery for NaNoWriMo.

The closest I've ever come to a mystery is playing around with a whodunnit sort of thing with a murder in the first half of my first book. Lots of experience with mystery, let me tell you. So what did I do to educate myself? Ran over and asked the good peeps of AbsoluteWrite, that's what!

Got some pretty good info, too. Clair Dickenson brought Thundering Clich├ęs to my attention (which is hilarious), and Ruv Draba posted a pretty good summary of what constitutes a Mystery novel as upposed to other genres. Both are excellent reading.

Then, on a general NaNo tangent, I came across a free book by Lazette Gifford. It's called... NaNo For The New And The Insane.

I love that book. Love. It.


Because of pages 38-48.

Here, I shall quote part of it for you (because it is, after all, free, and I have given credit where it's due!):

A few years ago I started a new type of outlining I've called the Phase System. It helped me write Kat among the Pigeons -- 102,610 words -- in ten days. Because of the amount of detail in the phase-outline, I wrote 10,000 words a day without ever having to pause or fret over does this work or what comes next problems.

The phase-outline for that particular novel ran over 10,000 words. I can see many of you wincing. An outline that long? Isn't that a waste of time and energy? It depends on what you get out of it in the end. Every one of those 10,000 gained me about eleven words in the novel's first draft. The two weeks I spent writing out the phase outline cut the time I wrote the novel from about fifty-five days (at an average of two thousand words a day -- about where I write under normal circumstances) to eleven days. Even adding the fourteen days it took to write the outline, that's still forty days less than it would have taken me normally.


Okay, so what exactly is this method?

Phases are written out as key phrases that will bring the action into focus. A phase can be clues to dialogue, if that's what the section's focus is centered around, or it might be a little bit of description, or a set of actions... anything that will make the story move another few hundred words.

Usually a 'phase' will only run from twenty to fifty words in the outline. For instance, this is an example from Gathering (Book 7 of the Dark Staff series -- and this is first draft with only a little touch up).

Phase Outline section:

1. Tristan in the room aboard the ship, resting, thinking about going home, feeling the world changing. It feels like traveling between realities, without any of the work. (28 words)

These few words translated to this:

Going somewhere else...

Tristan rested on the soft bed, feeling out the ship around him and the power beyond it. The metal shell moved through the same space where he and Abby had traveled so often before. Each time they had slipped from one reality to another, leaving friends behind.

Their quest had come at such a cost to them that sometimes he wondered if the Goddess really understood the needs of flesh and blood, whether human or elf. He wondered what she expected, in the end. Did she understand what she asked of her son, and what he paid that she could never give back?

Or could she? They were going... home this time.

He pushed that thought away as quickly as it came.

He could feel the magic brushing against the craft, whispering through the walls and calling to him with a seductive offer of power that he knew, from experience, he could not wholly control. Dangerous power, a dangerous passage... he had never fully understood this place that stood between realities.

The one thing he did know, however, was that this was far less work. He could rest this time, he and Abby both, before they...

He shivered a little.


Abby, somewhere else on the ship, had felt his worry surge up through the crowns. I'm all right.
(222 words)


I look at what I think the novel's length should be and try to work within those parameters. For instance, a young adult mystery might only run 60,000 words. If I have 300 phases written out, then I only need 200 words per phase.

On the other hand, if I'm writing a space opera, I know that I'll likely need the final word count to be at least 125,000 words. If I've only written out 300 phases, that would mean about 417 words per phase. In a case like that, I would likely go back through the phase outline and start looking for areas to expand. If I can add another 100 phases, then I only need 312 or so words per phase. If I can get the number of phases up to 500, then I only need 250 words per phase. This can be a real help during NaNo, where you can look at writing short pieces and making headway on the story. Obviously for NaNo most of you will want to reach 50,000 words. Here is how this might break out for you:

• 60 Phases in the outline -- 834 words per phase -- 2 phase sections per day
• 120 Phases in the outline -- 417 words per phase -- 4 phase sections per day
• 150 Phases in the outline -- 334 words per phase -- 5 phase sections per day
• 300 Phases in the outline -- 167 words per phase -- 10 phase sections per day

Phases rarely ever come out at the exact word count assigned to them. If you assign a lower word count than you expect to do, you're more likely to go over what you need, and that's good from a morale point of view. It will help you move on to the next phase. I've had 200 word phases go to over 1000 words, and I've had some come in at less than 100 words. Don't make your story line fit to the phase word count, though it if is short you might consider adding some details.

When you write out a phase in the outline, get key words and actions into the line. Then let your mind flow to where the character/story would go next. Write it out. If it doesn't work, erase it and try again. Drop in descriptions and clues to dialogue.


You might -- as I have from time to time -- find that some phases need to be cut, or others need to be added in. Do it. Don't worry about it. What looks clear-cut during the outlining phases sometimes shows a few holes later. Adding and subtracting is fine in limitation. Just don't rewrite the entire outline.

During NaNo I divide the phases up by days to give myself a set number to do. I list everything out in a Microsoft Excel worksheet. Ten phases of 200 words each is 2000 words. A story can move forward very quickly that way.

Oh my God. You can write a novel ahead of time and not cheat! This is an outline for those who don't like outlining... after all, you're still alowing your creative juices to flow, and going back to rewrite 20 words into 200 words is sort of like revising anyway, so there's room to play. It somehow seems more freeing than a traditional sort of outline.

With that in mind, I've got my first little "phase" ready to go (which is kind of long, but you know, I'm working on it):

-- Nikki Swank sits at her desk. David Jones makes his entrance. Nikki puts down her 40oz and makes a smoke ring with her cigar. What do you want? I need your help locating an object. What are you paying me? Lots. We have a deal. Can I get your number? No.

51 Words. I can easily turn that into 500, or even 1000. This is such an easy method, and I can make major mistakes here without having to go back and fix 20k worth of story. I'd maybe have to go back and fix 10 little "phases." This is so full of win I can't hardly stand it.

Now, wait, hold on. I can see some of you trying to slice the air with that eyebrow of yours. Nikki Swank? David "Davey" Jones? Oh yes. These are my characters. I haven't told you about them, have I? [insert wicked grin here]

Nikki Swank is a pr0n name. I'm going to admit that up front for all to see. It was the name I got when I entered my real name into a pr0n name generator, and I liked it so well that I figured, what the hell, I'm going to use it in my NaNo. Davey Jones I just figured was a ridiculously appropriate name match to Nikki Swank. The Pirate and the Prostitute kind of thing. It makes me giggle every time I think about it. I think I might even give him a pirate tattoo and a ruggedly dark appearance.

What? Don't look at me like that. It's awesome and you know it.

So anyway, with some mystery tropes in mind from the earlier list I linked you, I decided that she must 1) have an office, 2) smoke cigars, 3) have a stash of bourbon or whiskey or some such other drink in her desk, 4) have a hot, possibly shirtless man (thanks DA for the suggestion, lol) walk into her office to ask for help, 5) have an entire area of her house dedicated to collections of rare and expensive cigars and alcohol, 6) play jazz music in her office to attract affluent clients, and 7) have a six shooter that somehow never runs out of bullets.

She's also about 30 years old, lives in modern times with a cell phone et al, couldn't tell you anything about the cigars or alcohol she collects (she does it because it helps her image), isn't at all familiar with jazz...

And she dies.

Now, hold on, don't have a hissy fit. I did not just give away the ending.

But I'm not going to tell you what I mean, either. Muahahaha! (You're free to guess, though, and I'd actually like to see you try!)

Anyway, I gotta cut this short. I am still at work, after all. I just wanted to share because, like I said, it makes me giggle.

Quote of the Day:

(Pirates of the Caribbean)
Barbossa: You're supposed to be dead!
Jack Sparrow: Am I not?



Mary B said...

Hooray and welcome to the world of mysteries. FTW: Do you know who actually made the LOL on your post? mscelina's husband, Smackin' Hippies who is also an AW member.

And I loooooooove phase outlining. I do my own version and it totally works for me.

I've averaged 60,000 words each of the last few years of NaNo using this method.

Rafael said...

I am revving up to do it this year. BTW, I tried to add you to my buddy list Sassee, but no go. You can add me to your under the name Ralfast.

clwhite said...

OOK -- good idea with the phase outlining. I'll have to give it a try for NaNo.

Good luck with your mystery!