Writing . . . and Writing

Time flies . . . when you’re having fun, and even when you’re just doing stuff.

I’ve been finishing up Mayfield – Napolitani number five, Cyberstorm. Draft’s done, and my critique friends are almost finished chewing on it. Number four, Fatal Cure, has been done for a while, but I’m still picking at it. For me, at least, I like to set a book aside when it’s mostly finished, let it marinate. Fatal cure should be pretty tender by now . . . almost ready for final editing. I’m hoping to release it next Spring.

And just when I start feeling that Mayfield – Napolitani is getting a little stale, a couple of interesting new challenges come along. 

  • A five-way novel:  We of Midwest Mystery Works—five of us who write mysteries and band together to do some of the other work of an independent author—have decided to write a novel together. The twist is that it will include each of our protagonists. The story will be contemporary, which gives me an opportunity to write Weezy as a young woman. I’m careful never to show exact years in the Mayfield – Napolitani series. The technology is all recognizable extension of today’s tech, but we’re clearly in the near future. (The inexactitude prevents embarrassment of me miscalling technology events.) Of course, there is a timeline in my mind, and 2023/4 is a lucky slow spot. Weezy graduated from MIT in June, 2020 with a masters in Mathematics and Operations Research. (She meets Joe Mayfield over a decade later, when the first book of the series, Fatal Score, is set, and the first Cyber War happens after the MidWest Mystery Works story will take place.) She was snapped up by a Silicon Valley software startup whose youthful CEO had dazzled potential investors with what he called his Big Freakin’ Idea (Theranos, anyone?) and was listed in Forbes’ 30 under 30. Weezy pointed out that the BFI wouldn’t work, Weezy’s “dumb idea” went viral on the internet, and Weezy was fired. So in 2023, she’s back in Boston working as a lab assistant at MIT, and I get to discover her as a young woman and write her into the 5-way story.
  • A short story with conditions: Sisters in Crime, the go-to mystery writers association in the Twin Cities, is planning a book of short stories. The first three such collections, Festival of Crime, The Dark Side of the Loon, and Minnesota Not So Nice, were great successes. I’d like to submit a short to the fourth, probably coming-out fall of 2024. The tentative title: Dark and Stormy Nights. (And of course, one of the conditions is that the story’s first line must be “It was a dark and stormy night.”) I’ve never set a story in Minnesota, so I’ve never had a chance to write about canoeing in the Boundary Waters, one of my formative experiences. I’m looking forward to it. Any ideas about how to write a mystery set in the lakes and trails of the Minnesota forest? Let me know . . . I’m still cogitating.

Too Much Detail?

The mystery writer Allen Eskins spoke to the Minnesota Mystery Night* gathering a couple of days ago. In the question session, Eskins was asked:  When you write, do you think about the reader? Eskins said no, and his answer got me thinking.

I had never really analyzed my own process this way. On introspection, I realized I do not think much about the reader when I draft. I have the story in a rough outline; mainly, I live in the characters’ minds. Since my novels are to some degree techno-thrillers, though, I do think about the reader during rewrite. I need to put in just enough technical detail to convince readers that they can trust that the technology part is believable. After several years of help from fine critique groups, I know not to fulfill my inner temptation to show how astoundingly clever/knowledgeable I am and bore readers to death with detail. Then, of course, I run headlong into the question of how much is enough. Techies will want more detail; readers more interested in character arc will want less.

Two books I’ve read recently crystallized the issue for me. The first, The Rose Code, by Kate Quinn, is literary fiction traveling as a mystery. Marvelous writing, three strong female protagonists who work in various capacities at Bletchley Park, the WWII English code-breaking facility. You’ll want to read it. Quinn has every reason not to tell the reader how the people at Bletchley broke the Enigma cyphers because Bletchley was famously compartmentalized. The three protagonists each knew only part of the process. Yet the brief description Quinn gives of the actual code breaking was too little for me. (Here’s my Goodreads review.)

The second book will remain unnamed. It’s one I reviewed prior to publication. The central idea dealt with biotechnology. At one point, the text discussed “recumbent” DNA technology. (One hopes the author meant “recombinant.”) Of course, “recumbent” is a dictionary word; a dumb spell checker would find it perfectly acceptable. There were other hints that the writer hadn’t had the book copy edited, but even given that it might just be a typo, “recumbent” destroyed the author’s credibility with respect to the mostly unstated biological/pharmacological processes that were central to the plot. For me, at least.

My takeaways: 1) write to abandon in the first draft; consider what’s necessary in the second. 2) Get your work copy edited.

* Minnesota Mystery Night is produced by Midwest Mystery Works, a group of five of us who write mysteries and thrillers. If you’re in the Twin Cities, it’s on the third Monday of each month. You can get advance notice through my newsletter or on the MMW Facebook page.