Having finished the first draft of Night Into Day (NaNo 2004) for real on Monday, I didn’t write a word yesterday. Rather, I went and dug up the draft of Bladderwater, NaNo 2005. I am currently some way behind, but I expect that to change when I get into writing Bladderwater. But first a little about the novels, and about their differences.
Three years ago, I decided to stop waiting for inspiration to hit me and to write a novel. Now I’ve been working on a Big Novel, a good-size literary novel in the Lamming–Lovelace–Morrison tradition, for some time now, off and on — more off than on, but it’s something that’s not easy to do in your so-called spare time, and when you do, do it it’s not guaranteed to get you more than critical recognition, if you’re lucky. So I thought, let me take this idea that’s been rolling around in my head for a year or two and make it happen. The idea? Something that came to me when I was reading Anne Perry’s Victorian mysteries (more Monk than Pitt). I don’t know about other people, but I read those books more for the atmosphere than for the mysteries. In most cases I can’t remember the mysteries at all, especially the Pitt ones (except for the first, The Cater Street Hangman, because Perry broke a couple of taboos in it; Monk does better, because when you first meet him he’s amnesiac and the rest of the series involve his recovering bits and pieces of his memory as well as falling in love and getting married). What I do remember are the characters, the places, the politics and the other peculiarities of the time. Sometimes Perry goes overboard, like when she’s describing pickled(?) eels; it sounds like she’s just come from the library. But on the whole the formula works.
And I thought it would work well for a mystery series set in The Bahamas. People don’t tend to think real people live there or that bad things happen there; most people tend to buy wholesale the images we have put out there and they have no idea that there are cities behind the beaches. They don’t know we have a very high murder rate per capita, or that we have a major immigrant problem, or that racism is an integral part of our past, or that tourism itself creates demands among the population that are usually unrealistic. So a murder mystery series featuring characters who are grappling with these realities, I thought, would work.
In 2003 Jazz Stephenson was born, fully formed, savagely depressed, and half-blind. Trim Romer wasn’t in my first imaginings, but he was around before I started writing the book, and he has kept growing on me. I wrote the first one, the first full draft, before I ever thought about participating in NaNoWriMo, finished it in a year, and spent a lot of the next year rewriting and polishing. By November 2004, I had the first five novels of the series outlined in brief and I had already begun the second in the series. But I wanted to hit that 50,000 word limit so much that I decided to take part in NaNo, writing from scratch the fourth mystery in the series, the one that ends up being Night Into Day.
Last year, going backwards, I worked on the third mystery in the series. This was because I had already begun the second, and again I wanted to hit the 50,000 word limit and to do it within the rules so I could officially “win” NaNo. The difference between Year 1 and Year 2 was that I decided to try and write Bladderwater organically. The first book, Fire in a Dead Man’s Eye, was very closely outlined — a first for me. The main reason was that when you’re a writer (and a reader) of literary novels plot is something that comes from the characters and their conflicts, not something that trammels your characters. But a mystery story is different. You need a problem, and you need to solve it, and you need your characters to be shown solving it, and sometimes you need some action as well, unless you’re writing a Christie-style cozy. Nassau, Bahamas is not an appropriate town for a cozy. Though everybody knows everybody’s business, we don’t tend to resolve our differences in such a way that the solution can be kept under wraps, and we do tend to become physical, even violent, when solving things. So I needed to study novel form and plot arcs and Fire followed the rules. At the very least I wanted to know who the victim was and who killed him, and my killer was very carefully worked out.
Night Into Day was less tightly outlined, but it still followed the three-act novel structure, with high points and climax and resolution. (Okay, so the climax is currently lame, and the resolution is akin to the popping of a balloon, deflating while you blink at the noise, but hey, it’s NaNoWriMo, and I can fix that later.) I knw who the killer was all along, and it was (and still is) a matter of writing it so that the reader can figure it out along with Jazz and Trim.
Bladderwater is a completely different matter. Last year I took Chris Baty’s No Plot No Problem mantra totally to heart, with the rsult that I still don’t know for sure who the murderer is — and I’ve just reached the first-act climax. This is the way I like to write, but it has its difficulties; there are days when you’re stumped, not knowing where to go now, because you find yourself surrounded by characters who all are making demands, but you have to find your way out of the crowd and into the clear somehow.
Now, because I spent the first half of November writing the end of Night, I have not thought much about where Bladderwater is going. So here I am, after a day’s rest, about to start writing Bladderwater again. A new body is turning up, thank heaven, and that’ll be good for a thousand words or so, but after that? who knows.
You can join the journey on TUF, if you’re a member (chances are, if you’re reading this, you are). Backstory will go here in a day or so. It’s a different password from Night, so if you want it, let me know.
There it is, folks. Hope you’re not bored to tears by all this. But of course, if you were, you could always have navigated away from this blogsphere, couldn’t you?