When Tony first e-mailed me [Donald Jacob Uitvlugt] about taking part in The Writer’s Arena, I was extremely flattered. He and Albert haven’t seen that much of my work besides what I’ve submitted to the Human Echoes Podcast contests. I took their confidence that I could contribute something worthwhile to TWA within the time requirement to be quite a compliment.
Of course I accepted. I looked at it as a chance to have an adventure, as well as a way of paying something back to a couple of guys who have given me literally hours of enjoyment.
What I hadn’t expected was how helpful entering the Arena would be in figuring out more about my own creative process.
I wanted to put some of those thoughts down on paper, with the hope that you’ll find something interesting here, and maybe even helpful. Consider this a “TWA extra,” along the lines of a director’s commentary on a DVD. (I’m trying to write these blogs without any spoilers, but I can’t promise to have succeeded. Go read the story first.)
I approached TWA like I would any call for submissions one might find online. (Two of my favorite sources for calls are www.Ralan.com and www.horrortree.com — Horror Tree is where I first found out about the HEP contests.) A lot of writing books have exercises; I use anthology calls for my exercises. Why not try to get paid for your writing practice?
I didn’t know what form the story prompt would take, so I did my best to keep an open mind. I didn’t know if the prompt would fit into a story world I’d already created, or if I would need to come up with a completely different world. I just know that I need to get into a receptive frame of mind to write my best, so I tried to do that.
Wednesday I got the e-mail with the contest prompt.
My first thought was “Oh crap.” While I enjoy reading murder mysteries (my current favorite is Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro series), I’ve never written a straightforward mystery. I enjoy finding out “Whodunit?” but my own stories usually strive for a “What the hell is going on?” effect. I had to figure out a way to make the prompt my own. Time to brainstorm.
My brainstorming process tends to start out very analytically. My first stop for research is usually Wikipedia. I’m not looking for one hundred percent accuracy. I just want an overview of a selected topic. I find Wikipedia’s book creator a helpful resource, combining anything that may be relevant into a single .pdf file I can consult at my leisure.
Not that I’ll necessarily use any of that information. But even the process of gathering it starts the creative juices flowing. I spent the first couple of days jotting notes down on paper and trying to figure out genre and structure questions.
While it was tempting to try to write a scifi or fantasy mystery, I didn’t think I had the time to do the necessary worldbuilding in the allotted week. But I still wanted to do a speculative fiction story rather than a “straight” mystery. So…horror — which seems to be my go-to genre anyway looking at my own success rate at selling stories. A horror story can take place in a world like our own. Worldbuilding problem made easier; the hard work has already been done for me by a much better artist.
The premise followed pretty close on choosing horror as a genre. I tend to work “high concept,” so this was an important part of the process. I’ve read some on serial killers; I love procedural mysteries like NCIS and Criminal Minds. I’d also been re-listening to past episodes of HEP — know your audience. I’m not the guy to write the “Megashark did it at 30,000 feet with the regurgitated plane” mystery. So I latched onto a different phrase. One of the guys (I think it was Albert) raised the fascinating question: if a serial killer had acted during World War II, how would you know? That wasn’t the idea I wound up following in the story. But it raised the concept I did follow — a serial killer successful through misdirection.
And the concept, given how I wanted to reveal the criminal, immediately suggested a structure to the story. And I was immediately attracted to the structure because it fit into my writing habits. Most days I don’t have a single connected block in which to write. It’s usually a bit of time before work, my lunch break, and other moments snatched from the rest of my day. One of my solutions to the time issue is to break my story into more manageable sections. If I can write a whole section in one or two snatches, I keep narrative flow and I feel I wind up with a stronger draft.
I’ve always liked mystery shows where you see at least some of the events from the criminal’s point of view (eg, Columbo). And the idea of alternating viewpoints creating a “Rashomon effect” is an important tool in what I call haiku fiction. I knew that writing a horror story, I wanted to start from the viewpoint of the killer. I have my world, my premise and my structure. I had enough to start putting words on paper.
Or so I thought… More on that part of the process when I talk about the “zeroeth” draft on Thursday.