Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How to Have Happy Readers

A few weeks ago I asked some of my Facebook friends to send me questions about writing novels. I thought I would also use some of the answers for blog posts about writing. 

One of the questions was about a novel's structure and its author's decisions about content.

I'm writing a mystery and it has a traditional structure. It begins with a "hook" that gets the reader to decide he likes the idea and wants to read on. Hooks consist of dialogue that makes the reader curious or an event (such as murder) that arouses the reader's interest. I do, however, have a hard time picturing readers as fish.

After the audience is "hooked," the first 25% of the book sets up the characters, setting, some complications, and ends with a major event that sends the main character off into disaster. That event might be a murder or a life-changing experience for the main character. No matter what it is, the major event propels that person down the path of brambles and pitfalls. By now the audience likes the main character (in a traditional mystery) and reads on to see how the author will torture her. The more the main character experiences and overcomes, the more the reader will be cheering her on.

The middle of the book--26% to 74%--extends subplots and adds suspense, hoping to trick the reader with events he didn't expect. (Personally I find this to be the most difficult part to write because I have to maintain suspense.) This is where I start asking "what ifs."  In this middle part of the novel, writers try to pull rabbits out of hats. Just when that reader thinks the main character is out in the clear of whatever entanglements she has encountered, the author hits her again with more debris.

Throughout the middle of the novel the author adds subplots and develops them. She hides clues among other innocent items and tries to make them clever enough that the reader won't spot them. She also hides some "red herrings," false clues that seem to be the answer to the riddle--but they aren't. The author may end many of the subplots prior to the climax. This makes for a much cleaner ending.

Toward the end of this middle part, another major event will occur. It could be a murder. Often the very person the reader suspects is the villain ends up getting killed. Then the reader is left scrambling to figure out a new choice for the villain.

After the second major event, the climax begins. Here is where time slows down and several chapters may happen in a single period of time. Everything is speeding toward the end of the plot. The loose ends and subplots must be tied up. A satisfying ending that will make the reader feel the world has been set aright once again makes for a happy reader that might decide to buy the author's next book. 

To add to all of this plot talk, I should mention that each scene also has a structure of its own. The author wants to end some chapters with "cliffhangers" so readers will want to start a new chapter, thereby keeping them up until 3 a.m. so they will curse the author in the morning and swear they will never read another one of her books. But by now they like the main character so much that they will forget their decision by the time the author writes another book. (Isn't that the way it works?)

The other consideration in plot writing is the idea of fair play. The clues must be there, not just for the sleuth but also for the readers. If the author waits to add the most important clues until the last ten pages of the book, her readers will not be happy.  Unhappy readers make for lagging sales. Not a good idea. Give the reader a fair shot to solve the crime along the way.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Many Memories of Mugs

          It is early morning (5 a.m.), and I hope I never have to give up coffee as I age. I suppose coffee is like so many other sins I have had to relinquish because they affect my blood pressure, breathing, and weight. (I am still savoring the thought of the death-by-chocolate piece of cake I had at the IATE conference this past weekend, an indulgence that will cost me another fifteen minutes on the treadmill for at least a week.)
          As I considered which coffee mug to use this morning, I noticed that my possible choices reflected various periods and interests in my life. In fact, I realized that my life is laid out in coffee mugs. Check your cupboard and I'll bet you will find the same evidence.
          Take this mug. It simply breathes optimism. When each of my three children turned fifteen, we went out on harrowing expeditions to give them practice driving our car. Usually we went to the cemetery where we couldn't kill anyone...again. Then, when my freshman sons had 6 a.m. basketball practice in high school, I trained them to flip on the coffee, fill this mug, and have it--and the car keys--ready at the back door as my alarm went off. I threw on sweat pants and shirt to ferry them, coffee mug in hand and eyes half-opened, to the school. Do I miss those silent, 5:30 a.m. drives to the gym? Let me think about that one and get back to you.
          One of my favorite mugs, used over decades, is this one that reflects how I feel about the 44-year profession I chose. Though I recently retired, I still miss working with high school or college students, doing what I always wanted to do with great passion: teach. I have no idea how people get up in the morning, day after day, and go to a job they hate. Teaching didn't make my bank account rich, but it sure filled my life with treasure.
          A wonderful mug from Mary represents another wealth in my life: loyal friends. When I broke several bones in my wrist and elbow a year ago, my friends of many decades (and even acquaintances in our small town) came to my rescue with food and help until I could manage on my own again. This particular mug is very lightweight so I used it a great deal since my right wrist was broken. Every time I fill it with coffee today I count my blessings. Thanks, Mary, and everyone who helped. 
          These mugs represent a reminder to support independent book stores. The white one came from a book store in Champaign, Illinois, called "Pages for All Ages." A marvelous store, Pages was in the small town of Savoy and I spent many an hour reading on its premises and buying books, particularly when I was a grad student at the age of fifty. Alas, it has gone out of business like so many other small book stores. The other mug is from The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona, a mystery/thriller store I often visit to buy books and to listen to authors speak about writing. Supporting independent stores is so important in any economy. 
          I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Warren County Public Library [see previous blog post on 4.20.2012.] We are so fortunate to have one of the oldest libraries in the state of Illinois in our midst. Anything I need I can find at this library and--if I need something rare--the librarians can always find and request my item. I have done a great deal of research for my books at this institution and the librarians have allowed me to sell my first book through the library and speak about writing on several occasions to local audiences. My children grew up loving to read at this library and taking part in its summer reading programs. Now my grandchildren always make a stop here when they are back to visit from Arizona.
          And when I visit them, I always take a drive to the Queen Creek Olive Mill. It is also a favorite destination of visiting friends. The only olive grower in Arizona, it has expanded more than once to accommodate traffic. The mill also supports local businesses that produce products such as wine and baked goods. The story of its founding and expansion is an entrepreneur's dream. I may set a future murder mystery here. I could see some poor, unsuspecting victim dying in the olive press. But even so, it remains a pleasant place to go with tours of the facilities and explanations of how they grow and process olives and olive oil.
          Banned Books Week just ended for this year [see previous blog post], and I would be remiss if I didn't show this mug which reminds me that every day of our lives we must be vigilant to ensure the freedom to read. Reading is so powerful that it is one of the first freedoms taken away when dictatorial governments rise to power. Think Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I love this mug which lists only a small percentage of books that have been banned in various times and places. It is reassuring to know that people from all walks of life join librarians and teachers in defending this right.
          And finally, here are two of the latest mugs to grace my cabinet. I never would have guessed that I'd have nine grandchildren. My own mother didn't get to live to see her grandchildren, so these mugs represent a celebration of her memory and a reminder of the many hours she read to me and my brothers. Today I love to read Dr. Seuss to my little people. One of their favorites is The Lorax and one of mine is And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street. Next year I will once again make the trek to Arizona to spend time with the nine little munchkins. These mugs remind me of them throughout the rest of the year.
         There. Now go check your kitchen cabinet and see how much someone could learn about the history of the people in your house. It's an education in mugs.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read

Banned Books Week occurs this year from September 30 to October 6.  As a former English teacher of thirty-four years, I have often taught challenged or banned books in a public high school. Some of my favorite banned books are The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Native Son. If you are not sure you know the titles of banned books, check out this website. And this is only one list of classics that American public school grads often read. The list sometimes includes the Kurt Vonnegut book, Breakfast of Champions. I won't ever forget Vonnegut's novel because it allowed me to experience a parental book challenge.

This challenge lasted six weeks and the flames were fueled by the local media. The parents of a high school junior in my American Literature class wanted the book taken out of the library because it was "pornography and trash" and not suitable for children. They also wanted to form a committee of parents to go into all the district libraries and throw out books they deemed "trash." 

Without ever talking to me, the parents launched a media blitz giving newspapers information about the situation and even arranging an on-air interview at a television station an hour north of us. They contacted the principal, superintendent, and the school board, but not me. Their viewpoint was that they were taxpaying citizens who should be able to decide what books were healthy for their own child as well as everyone else's children. 

Fortunately, our school library had a policy for selecting books and our district had a policy of steps for those wanting to challenge materials. These steps included the school librarian checking with numerous book review sources, as well as the ALA, to see if this book was considered suitable reading for high school students. She decided it was. The National Council of Teachers of English chimed in as well as the Illinois Association of Teachers of English. All viewed the Vonnegut book as suitable.

Halfway through the storm one of the college students who worked at the local newspaper decided to call Kurt Vonnegut, author of Breakfast of Champions, and get his view on the issue. Needless to say, the conversation was hilarious and Vonnegut was shocked they were not going after Slaughterhouse-5. This emboldened me to write a letter to the author and I added some of the more inflammatory newspaper clippings.

The end of the challenge came when the school board voted neither to ban the book from the library nor to allow parents to go into the school libraries and take out books. 

A week later I received a wonderful gift. Kurt Vonnegut had received my letter and clippings and wrote me the funniest letter in return, commenting on his view of book censorship.

The entire story of the book challenge, including excerpts from the media, Vonnegut's letter, and details about the whole book incident, can be found in the longest chapter of my book, The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks), available from Amazon or In addition, on October 31, 2012, Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield, will become available. Vonnegut's correspondence includes numerous letters--many of them humorous--regarding his feelings about censorship.