Author Archives: John P. Murphy

About John P. Murphy

Just this guy, y'know? I'm an engineer and writer living in New England. My research background is in robotics and computer security; my writing is primarily science fiction and mystery.

What Are Your Favorite Short Mysteries?

I’ve been thinking a lot about short mystery structure lately, trying to figure out what works at the 4k-12k word range. Shorter works than that always seem to rely on twists, and feel more like vignettes or rely on a single gotcha like those “Catch A Murderer!” books. Longer works than 12k get closer to traditional mystery plots, I feel, just shorter and with fewer twists and turns. That middle range eludes me, though, which is a shame because 4k-8k is the most publishable size for short SF. It’s too long for a twist or gotcha, but it’s often not long enough for a more traditional plot, especially when speculative elements need to be introduced, too.

So I’ve got a stack to read through over the summer while I think about this. But I’m also curious what your favorite short mysteries are, and what you like about them. Is there anything you think I should read in order to get a better feel for how these kind of stories work?

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Posted by on 18 July, 2014 in Mystery, Reading


The Fault in our Chars

I had reason to recall this morning The Strand’s interview with Rex Stout (which is itself very much worth a read) and noticed an interesting interchange I wanted to comment on:

McALEER: Did Archie hang up the picture of Sherlock Holmes that is found over his desk, or did Wolfe put it there?

STOUT: Did I say that at one point? I was a damn fool to do it. Obviously it is always an artistic fault in any fiction to mention any other character in fiction. It should never be done.

First, that’s one of the most insightful questions I’ve ever seen asked in an interview, and I’m disappointed that he ducked it. Second, Stout’s response: That is quite a strong way to put it!

As it happens, I did it three or four times in Claudius Rex, in several different ways. First and most obviously, there is the Jeeves Series of Artificial Personal Assistants, of which version 5 comes in for some unfair criticism. But there are also references to Sherlock Holmes, and a number of oblique references to Stout’s work. On reflection, I disagree with Mr. Stout, not only out of self-defense. I think he was wrong.

First, I want to take a step back. There are two ways to make mention, in a work of fiction, to other characters in fiction. First is the way I had done (and as Stout had done), which is to recognize them as literary figures. Somewhere in Nero Wolfe’s study you may imagine a leatherbound copy of A Study in Scarlet. At some point after all the hullaballoo, Andy Baldwin hopes to get back to reading Fer-de-Lance. In other words, acknowledge that your world does not deviate so far from the real world as to remove those literary works.

The other way is the cameo, where mention of a fictional character is made in such a way that implies or makes explicit that in this world that character is or was a real person. That portrait of Sherlock Holmes (which I interpret as the bibliophile Wolfe’s homage to a fine body of fiction to which he may have a particular attachment) has spawned a number of theories that Wolfe himself is descended from the Great Detective, for example. For that matter, Holmes is a prime target for this sort of cameo because of the framing device of Watson’s publishing his stories, and Doyle’s occasional in-story mention of them. 

The latter method holds more dangers, I suspect. (I’m setting aside the question of the advisability here, and just looking at the effect.) In general, I would not do it in a long piece, especially of speculative fiction. It’s hard enough work to build a world’s rules and keep them self-consistent. Importing a character from another work, however obliquely, risks importing a few rules as well. For the most part, that’s not a big deal — when Kowal’s Glamourist Histories have subtle Dr. Who cameos, for example, that just adds pleasure for the reader who noticed, it doesn’t damage the story. But if I were to, say, have a brief appearance by a character who is obviously Superman (even if not named) in a story with some kind of public disaster, I run the risk of a reader expecting that Superman character to play a role, and being disappointed or confused when that doesn’t happen. Or, if in a science fiction story I describe a passing ship with a long body, two external nacelles and a saucer mounted on the front, people might chuckle about the obvious Enterprise cameo… but they’ve also been subtly primed to expect, say, transporters. Or even just introducing genre confusion, like by having a cameo from a fantasy series in a science fiction or non-speculative story. Readers are in some ways like infants: clue-gathering machines learning at an astonishing rate how they should expect the world to work.

Oddly enough, there’s a variant on this that I’ve seen a lot, where the author him- or herself makes the appearance. I don’t see it as often anymore, even in time travel stories, with one exception: HP Lovecraft. With the case of Lovecraft, this is often a specific way to imply that his story rules apply to that universe. Which, if you think of it, makes absolutely no sense. At least, I think it makes no sense. Shouldn’t the opposite be the case, that his presence indicates that in this world his creations are fiction? If George Lucas appeared, you would expect any lightsabers to be props, right? So if you see HP Lovecraft, then you are clearly safe from Cthulhu. (There’s your safety tip for the day)

Anyway, back to the former method. I disagree with Rex Stout that it’s inherently an artistic fault to mention other fictional characters in a work of fiction. Our culture is in large part a product of our fiction, particularly if you’re writing about technical fields. If your character uses a flip phone, you’ve kind of made a Star Trek reference whether you want to or not. The worry about readers confusing what’s real in a world from what’s fictional is genuine, but it’s possible to outright swim in references to other character without once making your readers wonder whether those characters are real in your world (see Michael Underwood’s Geekomancy series). Even without that, references to fictional characters like Yoda or Sam Spade or Iago are just as much a way of grounding the world and characterizing its people as are references to sports teams or city landmarks.

At the same time, I do feel that there is a nebulous danger there, and I’m still probing a bit at why. In Claudius Rex, again, I made explicit references to Rex Stout’s books (and strongly implied that at least one character was familiar with them)… but I shied away from making references to Robert B. Parker’s books, even though they also were an influence on that story. That was a gut reaction that I haven’t entirely dissected yet, but which I think was the right decision. Partly my feeling is that they’re too recent — The Godwulf Manuscript (the first Spenser novel) came out only two years before A Family Affair (the last Wolfe novel) — and that recent fiction somehow has more of a new car smell to it? Maybe recent fiction is like recent politics in how it throws readers out of a story. The more I think of it, though, the more I think that for a novella set in Boston, any reference to a Spenser novel risks spilling over into cameo territory just because in those novels the city of Boston is a strong character. They are about Boston as much as they are about Spenser and Susan and Hawk. I therefore invoke Parker’s characterization of the city at my own risk, lest it clash with mine.

Maybe that gets back to Stout’s original point. Perhaps he was overbroad in his terminology out of embarrassment at having made a mistake, and meant only that it was a fault to refer to Sherlock Holmes in a Wolfe novel. If that was the point, then I can see it: it is an unsubtle way of telling the reader to whom they should compare Nero Wolfe. Sherlock Holmes was one idea of a genius; Nero Wolfe is another — and those ideas clash in ways that Stout didn’t seem interested in exploring. Like everything in fiction, though, there is a tradeoff. If only we knew whether Wolfe or Archie hung that portrait, that would have been a small price to pay…

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Posted by on 6 June, 2014 in Writing



Story Up: Claudius Rex

My novella (half-novel) Claudius Rex is the third story in ALEMBICAL 3, a novella anthology published by Paper Golem Press.

<<Turn left here,>> said my new Jeeves 5 artificial intelligence. I’d have happily done it, too–with a spring in my step, even–except there was a manhole open with a robot working in it, and I didn’t care to dirty my interview clothes.

I crossed the street instead.

<<Confound you, turn left!>>

Now, if I’d been creamed by that car while standing slack-jawed surprised in the street, this would be a very different story. As it was, it was a near thing. I now cherish the memory as only the first time Claudius Rex nearly got me killed.

<<Or keep going and then turn left, I don’t care. Just move.>> I hied over to the curb and set myself to figuring out what the heck was going on. One expects a certain standard of behavior from a program called Jeeves: more “Very good, sir” than “Confound you,” if you take my meaning. On the other hand, I’d been out of things for a year. I thought maybe this was the new fashion in artificial intelligence. A few years before, it’d been Australian accents. Maybe now it was rudeness.

“Jeeves,” I subvocalized, “Confirm that you are operating within normal parameters.”

<<Of course I am. Your destination is north and west of here, approximately six hundred meters. Go there.>>

Like I said, I’d been out of it for a while, so that was good enough for me. Let nobody say that Andy Baldwin is unsophisticated. But I’d like some credit for having been suspicious.

Murderers, thieves, kidnappers, spies, and recalcitrant computers. Claudius Rex is my homage to the Nero Wolfe mysteries and one of my favorite cities, Boston.

ALEMBICAL 3 contains two other very fine science fiction and fantasy novellas, and is available in trade paperback at the following venues (with hardcover editions to come):

Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, Powell’s and Amazon.

If you’ve already read and enjoyed Claudius Rex, may I recommend these other works:

Caves of Steel, by Isaac Asimov (SF detective novel, one of the first to feature an artificial detective)

Kiss Me Twice, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Hard SF police procedural, a different take on AIs and detectives)

The Rubber Bend, by Gene Wolfe (Humorous SF; Robot Dr. Watson meets Robot Nero Wolfe)

Up Against It, by MJ Locke (Hard SF thriller/mystery with a very different AI problem)

Fer de Lance, by Rex Stout (the first Nero Wolfe novel, of course)

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Posted by on 30 May, 2014 in Writing


Godzilla Is A Cat

I watched the new Godzilla movie with a friend this afternoon. It was perfectly enjoyable, if you like that kind of thing (and I do). But learned something too: I realized that Godzilla is a cat. (There are spoilers here, by the way, if you consider a Godzilla movie spoilable)

Consider: the monster is described as an apex predator. It certainly seems equipped to take down prey animals, and we see it do so, so predator seems reasonable. Except, it doesn’t eat its prey. It just stalks, fights, kills, and moves on. At one point in the movie it tears the head off its prey, leaves it on San Francisco’s doorstep, and takes a nap. Prey that the humans were unable to take down. I put it to you, then, that Godzilla is a mother cat, killing a mouse for its idiot offspring, as if to say “See? This is how you do it.” and then leaving it to us to eat. And it amuses me to think of the protagonists of that movie eating nothing but leftover mothra for a month, so I’ll leave it there.

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Posted by on 26 May, 2014 in Writing


It May LOOK Like I’m Playing Video Games…

OK, I’m actually just playing video games. Kerbal Space Program, to be exact. It’s a remarkable game — essentially a space program simulator. You build rockets from standard-ish parts, put astronauts in them (astronauts have two stats: courage and stupidity) and fly them into orbit, to the Mün, or around the sun. It’s got a gentle self-mocking sense of humor, the little Kerbal astronauts always look like they’re delighted just to be there, and the graphics are occasionally just gorgeous. It is a LOT of fun.

And yet, I’m not just playing video games. One of my back-burner projects (which I just picked up after a few months in the drawer to get some distance) is a novel where microgravity maneuvers play an important role. The action takes place on a space station and a starship, and as such these sorts of things play a big role. One of the things I’m finding in playing KSP is that I’m developing much more of an intuition for how these things work. Intellectually I knew a lot of this (though by no means all) from college physics and from reading up on the subject for my novel, but I didn’t know it until I tried to put it into practice.

So, my hat’s off to the KSP folks. I expect this to be a much better story for the time I’ve spent playing their game. Now I need to go see if my Kerbals who I accidentally put in orbit around the Mün are stuck there or not. (Don’t look at me like that. They seem so happy!)

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Posted by on 25 May, 2014 in Writing


Coming Soon: Claudius Rex, Alembical 3

My novella Claudius Rex will be out soon. Watch this space for details, or contact me via my handy contact form to be put on my email list.

In the meantime, something pretty to look at:


Alembical 3 Front Cover

Cover image Jakub Šram, cover design Lawrence Schoen


Posted by on 1 May, 2014 in Novellas, Writing



Kickstarted Markets and Writers

After a few Twitter conversations over the last few days on the subject of Kickstarted fiction magazines, I’ve refined my thinking a bit.

I’ve backed kind of a lot of Kickstarter campaigns over the years — almost 60, many of them fiction but by no means all — and have opinions on what they ought to be for. So let me set them forth up front in the interests of letting you know where I’m coming from:

First and foremost, I think a Kickstarter is for projects that could not otherwise happen without a large outlay of initial capital. I look for projects where the creator is putting in plenty of their own time, energy, and opportunity; where all that’s lacking is cash.

Second, I look for campaigns that are looking to actually *kickstart* something, not just fund one project. I’d much rather fund someone who’s looking to start a new magazine (and has a plan for using the money raised to do that) than one issue of a magazine.

Third, I don’t care that much about the rewards. I’ll scan through and see if there’s something cool on offer in roughly the range I’m thinking of kicking in anyway (or something that will directly benefit a friend of mine). Sometimes this gets me to pay a little more, but I never kick in an amount of money I’m not willing to lose. I’m taking a risk, not making a pre-order.

So, I get irritated when I see people come back to the well over and over. It means that they DO have long-term goals, but failed to plan for them. I read the “Risks” section of a campaign very carefully (I’d much rather see a long Risks section than a short one!), and the risks I look for include the question of whether they’re going to pull off their long-term goals. In particular, for fiction projects where stories have already been written, I look for a “what will we do if we don’t raise the money” statement (there or elsewhere), and I get testy if the answer is “writers who have already written something and artists who have already contributed work get nothing.”

I also look for whether the campaign takes care of the people doing the work. For a magazine or anthology, that includes the writers of course, but it also includes the editors. KICK YOURSELVES SOME DAMN MONEY, EDITORS. I say this first as a matter of principle, because I think people who do creative work ought to get paid, period, and editing is creative work. Second, because an ongoing project is far more likely to go on if it’s not just a time sink for the creators. Far too often, I think this gets ignored because the people doing these projects wear both the publisher and editor hats. Publishers pushing all their risks onto the public don’t get paid out of the raised money, no, but that doesn’t mean undervaluing the editorial work just because it’s done by the same person.

Earlier in the year I had written off the Fireside Year 3 campaign as yet another return to the well. I had contributed to three of their four previous campaigns because I like what they do, but had had enough. Although they talked about turning this into a long-term thing beyond Kickstarter, they seemed to only be paying lip service to it (and didn’t mention their long-term goals in their Risks section) and so I had decided that they weren’t serious about making this a going concern, and so I was not interested.

Two days ago, though, they laid out their thinking in more detail. And while I might grumble about using Kickstarter instead of a subscription drive, I was persuaded enough, combined with one more factor, that I decided to back the project. It’s not perfect, but I think that they’ve got a sufficient mindset and skillset to make it work, and I’m willing to put some of my own money to make it happen.

Now I want to talk about that “one more factor”, which is specific to Kickstarters involving fiction, and takes some explaining.

So, I mentioned the hats issue before when it comes to editors and publishers. The same holds true for writers. There is an important principle at play here: Yog’s Law – money flows toward the writer. New writers are, for various reasons, prey animals. There are a lot of business practices ranging from innocent to outright scams that take advantage of the too-frequent willingness of writers (especially new ones) to shell out money to advance their careers. The law is not always violated when a person who is a writer shells out cash, however: Apparent violations of this law tend to involve the writer wearing more than one hat, particularly when self-publishing. Shelling out for advertising or cover art, for example, are publisher tasks not writer tasks; when the self-publishing writer does those things, they are acting with their publisher hat on.

Now, the vast majority of writers are also readers and fans. This is a good thing for the health of our community and for the vibrancy of our fiction. We read and we write and it’s all good… except that things get ticklish when it comes to money. Readers pay money to publishers who pay money to writers. And so it is perfectly natural for people who are writers to back Kickstarters for new magazines, when acting as readers.

Problems come up when writers as writers are asked to donate money for a new market. Sometimes there are overt violations of Yog’s Law, of course, or only slightly more subtle issues (discussed admirably by the tireless folks at Writer Beware!) like preferential treatment for backers.

What’s bothering me, though, are the more innocuous rewards and stretch goals that are more obviously aimed at writers. I don’t want to link to anyone because I don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, necessarily, so forgive me for being vague. Consider the stretch goal, “Pay our contributors an additional 1 cent per word” or a backer reward along the lines of, “Our editor will critique your short story or novel excerpt.” Both of these are laudable. The former is great for contributing writers, and the latter is a way to make use of donated expertise without additional cost of printing books or bookmarks or whatever.

But I have problems with both of those, because they encourage writers to think about making an outlay of money with their writer hat on. They’re not backing as readers (which is laudable), but as writers (which is problematic). The former goal in particular encourages writers to think of themselves as potential contributors, and hints — just hints — at this campaign as an investment in their writing careers rather than purely as a benefit to them as readers.

Now, there is clearly a gray area here, since (as others have correctly pointed out) writers tend to write in the same niches in which they read, and have a vested interest in the general health of that market niche. And nothing on this earth will stop a writer from backing an anthology or magazine in which they picture themselves being published. Even if you forbid backers from submitting, they’ll just use sock puppet accounts. That’s just the way writers are.

I do think, though, that there is a line to be drawn between accepting that writers will inevitably make financial decisions with their writer hats on, and encouraging them to. And that’s what made up my mind in favor of Fireside: the goals may have been generally writer-friendly (they do pay very well), but the stretch goals and rewards — the direct results of me as a potential backer choosing to right now donate a specific amount — were all aimed at getting me to think about Fireside with my reader hat on. And that, I think, is important to the ultimate success of the project as well: if it is pitched at readers and resonates with readers enough to fund, then I think it is a little more likely to be healthy and successful down the road.

Of the campaigns that do offer rewards and stretch goals aimed at writers, I don’t think any of them (short of overt payola) are doing wrong — quite the contrary, their hearts are very much in the right places! They’re offering what they can according to their own best judgments, and I’m not going to presume to tell them what’s right or wrong for their business because there are financial realities at play here (not to mention considerable emotional investment) that may outweigh what could be considered propriety theatre. I will probably be contributing to some of them! But even so, I think from now on I’m going to be a) avoiding writer-centric rewards, b) not contributing to already-funded campaigns whose stretch goals are aimed at writers, and c) trying to aim a little additional money and attention toward the more reader-oriented campaigns.


ETA: After an enlightening discussion on Twitter, Bart Leib persuaded me that I overstated things in discussing stretch goals above. (Some people might say I was wrong, but those people are wrong, and you wouldn’t want to listen to wrong people would you??) The higher per-word goal can be shown to directly result in more submissions and a better-quality product. Depending on how it’s presented in the pitch, that would be aimed more firmly at readers than I gave it credit for.

(Edited to clarify the “additional payment” as a higher per word goal)

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Posted by on 31 March, 2014 in Writing


A Useful Four-Act Murder Mystery Structure

I’ve talked about this before, here and elsewhere, and never really laid it out. I decided it would be useful to have it here as a reference, so here goes.

There are many variants on murder mystery plot structures, many of them super-effective both as mysteries and as carrier plots for larger ideas. The five-act structure is one of my favorites for long mysteries, but P.D. James has a particularly good four-act structure (which I call the “Two Body Plot”) from which she has rarely varied much over the last few decades, and it really works very well. She has successfully used these plots as a canvas on which to paint her thoughts on class, medicine, aging, religion, and all aspects of human life and death. It’s simple and it works, and if you’re thinking of writing a murder mystery but don’t know how, it’s a great place to start.

The four-act structure is useful in general because it lends itself to relatively tight plotting, even for those of us for whom long-form plotting is not a strong point: there are three tentpole events that are always in sight, and it’s hard to get too far from any of them. (I used it without realizing in CLAUDIUS REX, and am currently using a variant of it in THE WRONG CLIENT) The Two Body Plot variant on the four-act structure is easiest to identify because of the appearance at a predictable point of a second corpse. James of course used this repeatedly to great effect. Rex Stout used a version of this a lot (my favorite was PRISONER’S BASE), and I’ve seen it in novels by Agatha Christie and others as well.

I don’t really have names for the various acts in the Two Body Plot. I’ve seen names for three-act and five-act structures, but I haven’t really seen any I like for four-act structures. For one thing, some of the most successful TBPs are P.D. James’s, and they don’t match up all that well to the terminologies I’ve seen, partly because they don’t tend to either open or close with a bang. Rex Stout, in stories that seem to me to follow this structure uses character interactions to substitute for an inciting incident, and then a super-short fourth act. I’m going to go into the James version of the TBP, because it’s the one I most often want to refer to.

I’ve been talking about acts, but the important pieces are actually three events that I referred to as tentpoles above:

  • First Corpse
  • Second Corpse
  • Reveal (In a James novel, the Third Corpse. No, it’s not the Three Body Plot. Bear with me.)

Each event is discrete, and usually embodied in a single scene — if it’s not “onstage”, or directly described (the first two often aren’t) then the discovery of the fact takes its place. The characters are jerked around, have visceral reactions, and usually require a scene or two to regain their bearings.

These events determine what comes before and after. In some ways, it’s scene-sequel writ large. One of the ways that these plots differ from others is the sense of anticipation: first of the First Corpse (because we know that this is going to be a murder mystery and so someone’s going to die) and then of the Reveal — everything after First Corpse is moving toward that. The reader knows it has to be there, and expects it.

The events occur at the Act boundaries and while they dominate the impact of the story, they are generally only a small portion of the text. So let’s go through the Acts.

Act 1: This is a setting of the stage, and has multiple functions: introducing the main players and the setting and building some tension. In a James novel this is usually a series of character sketches and conflicts in which the victim-to-be plays a major role. (In her novels, it’s often pretty easy to identify the victim halfway through Act 1) Her detectives may or may not make an appearance. The murderer should at least be mentioned. In a Stout novel that follows the TBP, this is usually a different case entirely — a theft, maybe, or blackmail. The reader gets lots of information about the crime-to-be but doesn’t have a basis yet for fitting anything in.

This is where the mystery writer CAN get a pass that other genre writers don’t: anticipation of the First Corpse gives the story inherent tension that must be built in other stories. A James or Christie or Parker reader knows they’ve been promised a corpse and can enjoy they ride until then. If you’re writing in multiple genres, you don’t get that pass because not all of your readers know what to expect. But even if you do get the pass, that doesn’t mean you have to use it. Stout’s books still frequently frequently kicked off with some Goodwin/Wolfe/Cramer personality conflict to catch the reader’s interest (and also distract them from the presentation of clues).

First Corpse: As expected, someone turns up dead and sets an investigation in motion. They may have been dead for some time, or they may have been preceded in death by another victim, but this is the discovery and the focus.

Act 2: The investigation of the murder gets underway. The story unfolds according to the logic of the investigation, centering primarily on the detectives, and the characters who appeared in Act 1 are seen in a new light. The reader has seen them before, even if the detective hasn’t, and watches for changes. The suspects are often formally (re)introduced, even though we’ve met them all already; this way the introductions actually stick — a neat trick that Patrick O’Brian uses too.

This part of the story is primarily reactive. Procedures are followed more than insight. The detective is identifying the hurdles that need to be crossed, but not actually crossing very many of them. Witnesses hold things back, and the reader generally knows it. The reader is more generous with fumbling at this stage. Sometimes the detective is right on the verge of a major discovery at the end of the second act, but…

Second Corpse: Someone else turns up dead, very often a prime suspect. It is this body that makes the plot a Two Body Plot, not just because of cardinality but because it represents a major failure. The detective has been slow and the villain quick. Often the second corpse had critical information that the detective failed to ask for in time, or which they failed to provide for some reason (they didn’t think it important, they wanted to exert some control over the villain, etc). The second corpse may have predeceased the first corpse, but being found second they play a different role in the story.

Act 3: This is the main part of the investigation, in which the detective starts driving the investigation through insight rather than procedure. They’re reeling after the second corpse, and probably rethinking a lot of things, but all the villain did was buy themselves time. The detective is regaining control, and the villain is in reaction mode.

In a TBP, the same person usually is responsible for both corpses; often some paragraph or two is spent explaining why this has to be the case, but sometimes the Two Murderer Theory is explored. But the reader is less patient with the detective at this stage (some readers will have guessed the solution!) and any blind alleys followed need to pay off sooner rather than later. Events are set in motion by both the killer and the detective, and the detective’s success (or trickery) raise the pressure on the off-stage villain. The detective forms and discards theories, but at the end of the third act must know the identity of the killer but typically not how to prove it. This paves the way for the…

Reveal (or Third Corpse): The detective and the killer finally, briefly, clash. In a James novel, very often the killer strikes again, and the reader has a moment of believing they’ve succeeded (hence “Third Corpse”), but they’re thwarted by the detective at the last minute — sometimes the detective is the intended third corpse, but usually not. In a Stout TBP novel, this is usually a trick played by Wolfe (often with Archie in the dark, and always with the reader in the dark) and nearly always a confrontation including multiple people and often the police.

A word about the reveal: it has been said, and I agree, that the optimal time for the reader to guess the identity of the killer is three paragraphs to a page ahead of the detective announcing the solution. Just enough time for the reader to be excited and proud of themselves, and not enough time to get bored waiting for the detective to catch up. That means that while the scene in which the reveal takes place might luxuriate in description or a gloating retelling of events, the reveal itself often needs to be expressed in a very short length of text.

Act 4: Although I called the previous event “the reveal”, it often is parsimonious in its explanations, keeping strictly to the identity of the killer and other sources of immediate tension. People may still have done suspicious things, and the detective may have acted mysteriously — these explanations come in Act 4. The characters we met in Act 1 get on with their lives. This is often a short act, but an important one in a James novel, where we’ve spent a great deal of time getting invested in the personal lives of some of the suspects. If this is part of a series, then there’s usually some long-term arc progression or wrap-up going on here, too (Dalgliesh’s romance and eventual marriage, for example).

And that’s it! It’s very simple, but you see it over and over because it’s such a useful starting point when planning a new murder mystery. (As James D. Macdonald says, “The oldest engines carry the heaviest freight.”) There’s a lot to play around with there, and filling in details about those seven parts will help you get at what you want out of your mystery.

If you’re still stuck, and this structure appeals to you as a starting point, I suggest focusing on First Corpse and Reveal first. Those are the two parts that get at the heart of the two relationships at the very heart of the story: The villain and the victim, and the villain and the detective. For the first relationship: Is the killing a vicious one? A desperate one? Is it clearing away the obstinate old order, or is Saturn devouring his children? For the second relationship: is this coming down to a physical confrontation? An elaborate trap? An elaborate trap that goes wrong? Is the villain tricked into confessing, or are they caught in the act of trying to silence that last witness?

Once you’ve got answers that make you happy (for now), think about how those will play out and what those decisions say about the characters involved. Other aspects and characters will flow from that. All through this process, keep a word processor window or a notebook open with the main parts and acts written on it, and jot notes as they occur to you. You may start thinking in terms of prerequisites: before this can happen, the stage must be arranged thusly, and I need a character in this position… It’s a bit like playing chess backward. Or you may start thinking in terms of themes and how variations on them can play out.

And of course, this is all a starting point: you’ll probably start itching to make changes to that structure as your story takes shape, and so you should. But if you don’t, and your first draft or final draft ends up exactly as above, don’t worry too much about it. Just: Tell a good story. Devise a good mystery. Start on your next one.


Posted by on 16 March, 2014 in Writing


Writing Advice from P.G. Wodehouse

I recommend the Paris Review’s “The Art of Fiction” series to anyone interested in writing (and many people who aren’t). Interviews with talented writers are not always everything they’re cracked up to be, and often the advice is inapplicable or just plain wrong — even the most talented people don’t always have a good sense of what their actual process is, or which parts of their process work — but I almost always find them interesting, and I frequently find them useful.

I’ve been reading their interview with P.G. Wodehouse, now about 40 years old, and it really is fascinating. In particular, this bit struck me:


If you were asked to give advice to somebody who wanted to write humorous fiction, what would you tell him?


I’d give him practical advice, and that is always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start. I think the success of every novel—if it’s a novel of action—depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, “Which are my big scenes?” and then get every drop of juice out of them. The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play. I say to myself, if a big name were playing this part, and if he found that after a strong first act he had practically nothing to do in the second act, he would walk out. Now, then, can I twist the story so as to give him plenty to do all the way through? I believe the only way a writer can keep himself up to the mark is by examining each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and asking himself if it is all right as a story. I mean, once you go saying to yourself, “This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but I’m such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it okay,” you’re sunk. If they aren’t in interesting situations, characters can’t be major characters, not even if you have the rest of the troop talk their heads off about them.

There are a couple pieces of advice in there. The first bit, about the dialogue, is interesting to me. Wodehouse’s first-person narratives are charmingly written and often just a joy to read. But the dialogue is what pushes the plot, particularly when the narrator is already comfortable and disinclined to be budged.

The second part, I think is true of many stories. For me, this is most frequently a problem with my villains. Once the protagonist gets going, I have a tendency to have my villains hunker down and wait to be thwarted. No serious actor would stand for that, of course.

The third part… well, that doesn’t apply to me yet, of course ;) But I’ve been leaning harder on my first person narrations, and it’s good to remember that the story underneath has to work even when I’m at my most entertaining. I suppose that’s why I like having a mystery plot as a canvas: it forces the plot forward when I’m otherwise inclined to get into the weeds.

The rest of the interview is by turns interesting and entertaining. Wodehouse seems have lived a rather unexamined life, to be honest, and his comments about his life during World War II are worth thinking about. There’s also this exchange later, which I think any Wodehouse fan will find unsurprising:


How about the Beats? Someone like Jack Kerouac, for instance, who died a few years ago?


Jack Kerouac died! Did he?




Oh . . . Gosh, they do die off, don’t they?

And then, well, I’ll just leave this here before I go, apropos of nothing:


I don’t think writers get along very well with one another.


No, I don’t think they do, really.

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Posted by on 21 February, 2014 in Writing


Sale: Ransomware

To Daily Science Fiction, a pro market that sends its stories out free by email. I expect to see it out in the next few months.


Posted by on 20 February, 2014 in Writing


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