Solve for X

Sometimes you have to rewind and rethink.

I’m currently working on The Obituarist III: Delete Your Account, the final instalment in the novella series. (Well, what eventually became a series.) While I write by the seat of my pants, I try to stuff the arse-pockets with ideas first, and I had a pretty decent idea of what I wanted this book to be – how the story would start, how it might end, the themes it presented and the characters that would carry them.

And when I sat down to write it, it was like peeing out a kidney stone. I had everything in my head, but nothing engaged me or made me interested in putting things down to find the next bit of story. I wrote some chapters and scenes, but it was slow and unenjoyable going and I started to wonder if this project was doomed, if I’d lost the ability to write, and whether it was time to just give it up and devote my life to mastering PS4 games.

But last week I had a sudden epiphany about why I was struggling. I’ve been writing the wrong story – worse, the wrong kind of story.

I meant to write a mystery, but instead I’ve been setting out a thriller.

What’s the difference?

Other people have opined about the difference between these two related genres, and I don’t want to retread well-trampled ground, but let me give it a quick try.

A mystery is about solving puzzles and answering questions – the who, the why, the how. Classical whodunits are all about the puzzle, and giving enough info to the reader that they can solve it before being fed the answers – as are stories like mine, that pretend to be honest whodunits for a bit and then cheat like crazy.

Meanwhile, thrillers are about defeating challenges. Almost all the problems and obstacles in a thriller story are defined or at least hinted at before the action starts; the protagonist doesn’t have to seek out information about their existence or what they did in the past (although he/she may need to discover what they’re planning in order to dickpunch them).

Mysteries are about finding solutions; thrillers are about overcoming obstacles. Both may have elements of the other, but the point of the mystery is not the frantic chase, and the point of the thriller is not piecing together the clues.

Alternatively, the short version: Mysteries are games. Thrillers are sports.

Why is that a problem?

Because I like games but I’m not much for sports, other than pro wrestling (the sport of kings, the king of sports).

In other words, I think mysteries are more fun (for me at least) to write than thrillers are. Mysteries are a puzzle from this side as well, with lots of questions to solve – what clue fits here? How can I misdirect the reader? Where is this story going? Oh damn, who am I going to pick as the murderer, and how can I backtrack to justify that? Answering those questions as I go is awesome – it’s the sort of thing that leaves me awake at night, or turning over ideas in the shower, building up a head of steam that drives me to the computer to write.

Thrillers aren’t bad or anything – I like reading ’em just fine – but they’re more straightforward stories to read and to write, at least for me. There’s an inevitability to their direction, and while there are questions that need answering as you write, they’re more about details and processes than swerves, tricks and fake-outs. Again, at least for me.

What needs changing?

When I conceived this book, I thought I wanted to do something more straightforward, to break the pattern of the previous stories. But you know what? I was wrong. It needs to be a mystery, or at least to have some mysteries in it. To have questions that Kendall Barber, king of bullshit schemes and getting punched in the dick, needs to answer.

So the obvious solution was to add a murder. Because – as previously discussed – everyone loves murder.

But I couldn’t just start a murder in the middle of…. okay, like five-six chapters into the book. That’d be weird. So I came up with a whole new first chapter, kicking off the book with an early morning funeral rather than a bout of self-pity, and gave myself a new plotline to chase through the book. The existing chapters needed some modification, but less than you might think – I tend to compartmentalise the A/B plots until they cross-pollinate later in the book, so A just had to add some contextual markers, tweak the pacing and break the story up with investigation scenes.

And I still have the original plotline to play with – someone is trying to kill Kendall, his whole life is falling apart, his business and relationship are failing, he feels useless and the local cafe makes really shit coffee.

So, you know, there’s stuff going on.

Has it helped?

Oh yeah. I went from totally blocked to banging out the new start in like two hours, and I’m still riding that momentum into exploring the new parts of the book. And more – the energy I’m getting from activating my puzzle-posing, puzzle-solving neural circuits is carrying over into the fast/furious/fiery explosions chapters, so I’m having more fun writing them too.

Having fun while writing. What a concept.

I mean, it’s not like I’m going to bang this book out immediately – it’s only a novella, but I have a day job and many social commitments, and I can’t manage more than a couple of pages a day.

(I have a friend halfway writing her third novel just for this fucking year AH GOD I HATE HER SO MUCH but I don’t think she needs sleep or feels pity or remorse… wait, that’s the Terminator, never mind.)

But a couple of pages a day is a lot better than I’ve been doing. So I’ll take it.

The moral of the story

Eat your vegetables.

Cheats never prosper.

Write the genre you want to write, not the genre you think you should be writing.

…I dunno, it’s one of those three.

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