My newest writing project is ready to begin! I have chosen to try my hand at a classic mystery novel, which I will give the working title Alabaster. Welcome to existence, Alabaster! As a mystery requires, I have outlined the novel in its entirety, so I know which clues must go where, and so on. However, in order to temper the heavy-handed planning of my previous project, I have decided to seek out a critique group.
This was made far more simple by the fact that the local library has signed a long-term leased to the large and empty house next door, and has spent many weeks now stocking the spacious rooms with a representative sample of the world of literature, as well as a number of programs aimed at enriching the intellectual lives of the surrounding citizens. Lucky me! What more can a writer ask for than a critique group practically on their own doorstep? I watch their preparations from my writing room window each day.
Power Crystal: Diamond, for clarity and strength.
As planned, I have completed the first draft of chapters 1 and 2 of Alabaster. These, of course, set up the protagonist, Beatrice, the victim, Joseph, and a number of characters to act both as suspects, and, in the case of Robert, a potentially dangerous love interest. I have followed my planning, and used Chapter 1 to show that Joseph will, indeed, end up dead, and sooner rather than later. Thus, Chapter 2 begins the story in the form of an extended flashback, with the thought being that events will catch up later. Too cliché?
As far as my critique group goes, Dear Diary, I am happy to report that it includes four members, plus the facilitator, a woman named Francine. We will each bring a finished chapter or two for the others to read, and then, next meeting, offer our thoughts. Splendid! Though I rarely read other people’s fiction while writing my own, let’s shake this project up, shall we?
Power Crystal: Salt, because I’m feeling sassy!
Alabaster marches onward. I have completed Chapters 3 and 4, which was more difficult than I’d imagined, with the time I’ve dedicated to reading and responding to the writing of my critique partners. But the suspects are becoming not only suitably suspicious, but also quite charming in their own right. I do so hate it that Joseph is fated to die, Dear Diary, and that Polly is fated to not only do the deed, but get caught in the end. Am I too faint of heart for writing murder mysteries?
I have looked forward to the responses I was to receive from my critique partners, and yet I admit to you alone, Dearest Diary, that I felt a bit of trepidation, too. Everyone fears rejection, after all. But the reactions were generally positive. There was one fellow, Franklin, who asked an insightful question about Joseph, and why he hadn’t chosen to simply write the killer’s name in his own blood, given that he’d taken the time to write the coordinates to the stone slab under which he’d buried his fortune in that same substance. It’s a good point. Franklin’s very insightful. But of course Joseph doing that eliminates the book entirely, doesn’t it? Yet, if he doesn’t write those coordinates, Beatrice won’t go to Samuel to use his sailboat. Hmm. What to do?
Power Crystal: Mica, because it does glitter so!
Rather than continue writing ahead on Alabaster, I have taken to heart the reactions of my critique partners, and written a second draft of the first two chapters. Beatrice now goes to Samuel to use his sailboat, but it is because she is trying to overcome her crippling fear of the water. Joseph has now expired writing only a small arrow pointing across the gardens to his gardener’s shed. Beatrice must now ransack this shed in order to find the written coordinates. But since Samuel was originally slated to mention Beatrice’s having strange coordinates to Polly, and thus endanger Beatrice later in the novel, I now think that Beatrice should enlist Polly’s help on her own, early on, perhaps in the new draft of chapter 3.
Meanwhile, I have gotten feedback on the existing Chapters 3 and 4, which I submitted for critique during the last meeting. Though I disregarded much of what Clementine had to say regarding Joseph’s son Rupert, (since Rupert will no longer need to talk to Joseph now that I’ve retooled Chapter 2), I did think one of her observations had merit: the names sound very turn-of-the-last-century, and somewhat British. Was this novel meant to take place then, or perhaps just before the outbreak of World War 1? Though Beatrice was to have used a cell phone in chapter 5, I now saw that Clementine had hit on an elegant solution to modern telecommunications: getting rid of them entirely!
Power Crystal: Pearl, because it’s not really a crystal at all, but an accumulation of sheer willpower.
I have spent this last week’s writing time retooling the entire outline and manuscript of Alabaster. It is now set in 1910, rather than modern times. This eliminates Sean’s being able to slip a flash drive of incriminating images into his sock, and forces him to procure an old fashioned safe-deposit box. His car accident remains, but now the doctor finds the key to the box in his sock instead of a flash drive. Simple! After I complete a second draft of chapters 1 ans 2, I will include details of this arrangement in a second draft of chapter 3, and let the reader make of it what they will. Scintillating!
On another topic entirely, Dead Diary, having a library next door also allows one to find books on all manner of other interests, and I have taken up knitting as a result. The time spent practicing this new skill is also valuable thinking time, and so Alabaster continues to take shape, even if only hypothetically. The group was pleased to see I’d taken their suggestions to heart, and gave the new Chapters 1 and 2 a hearty vote or approval, save for one small issue, brought to my attention by critiquer-extrordinaire Susan: the coordinates Beatrice has would be difficult for a sailboat in 1910 to pinpoint, as they don’t have modern GPS. So that clue is somewhat wonky. Darn it to heck, Susan is right!
Power Crystal: Wool yarn, because it’s what you have, rather than what you want or need.
All right, the third drafts of chapters 1 and 2 are complete, and it’s only my early writing time yet! No more modern coordinates for Beatrice, oh no! Now she is given a set of hazy photographs, which will allow Beatrice and Samuel to know when they are in the correct spot in the lake. As Samuel is now a pearl diver, it is his job in the story to find the sunken car. This will bring suspicion onto Clyde, for who else could get a car to the center of a lake? The scene where he is questioned by Beatrice will now be able to serve double-duty: Introduce not only Clyde, but his barge company as well. Funny how my first draft didn’t have a barge at all!
Update! After my critique group meeting this afternoon, I have decided that I am indeed on the right track with Alabaster. But beyond a bit of confusion over how nautical the manuscript is becoming, they all loved the changes, especially now that Polly is more of a main character, as everyone likes Polly. Oh, the betrayal to come!
Power Crystal: Ruby, because it is cold, and hard, and blood, blood red.
The finishing touches on the third drafts of chapters 3 and 4 are finished and in the can, as they say. Given the mixed response to how central the lake and boats had become, I’ve used this new draft to knock them back a bit in the story. This makes Robert more of the character he was meant to be: intense, brooding, and intimately central to the Beatrice’s viewpoint. Samuel was becoming far too bright a presence.
Later: I’ve threaded that needle very neatly, if I do say so myself! And that’s not even a knitting pun! No, Dear Diary, I mean to say that the new and improved Chapters 3 and 4 were a smash success. The new setting has focused the story wonderfully. But a consistent theme among my critique partners was how the inequities of the time period were brought forth in the narrative. Intriguing and insightful! I hadn’t realized.
Power Crystal: The flaming surface of the sun, baby!
I don’t consider it a setback that I’ve spent the week on a fourth draft of Alabaster’s first three chapters. Beatrice is now not a well-to-do vacationer, but rather a personal assistant to Joseph, who is now a steel magnate.
This now renders the waterfront far too industrial for the bucolic sailboat scenes I’d had in drafts 2 and 3, as the steel mills line the waterfront, casting clouds of choking smog into the air, while nameless effluvia flow unchecked into the bay. Samuel is now a driver, and Beatrice’s clue (which is found in a file cabinet in Joseph’s office) leads her to an abandoned metal-stamping factory.
Polly, to the delight of my critique partners, has stayed largely the same, with the exception that she now helps in the organized labor movement, and with women’s suffrage. How delicious the irony that her lofty goals will drive her to murder in chapter 5! But one of my astute critiquers – a man named Howard – voiced speculation as to whether Joseph was actually dead in Chapter 1, or if it was some elaborate ruse. My other partners agreed that was possible, since Polly and Joseph mentioned coming from the same small town, and Polly does seem connected to Joseph in some way yet to be explained. Could Joseph be Polly’s father, he wondered?
I laughed at these idle musings, but I now wonder, Dear Diary: might my critique partners not have hit upon the perfect solution to the issues I’ve been putting off till Chapter 10, regarding Polly’s motives?
Power Crystal: Peridot, because it is misunderstood, but secretly wonderful.
The fifth draft of Alabaster’s opening chapters is complete! Beatrice and Polly are now partners, law clerks in an office of progressives seeking to ensure greater safety standards among the workers in the local tin mines. Joseph is now openly their estranged father, and his death in Chapter 1 is quick and painless, as I believe Polly would have arranged it to be. After all, being dropped into liquid steel has simply got to be a quick death, right Dear Diary? Polly certainly hoped so, though the readers won’t know that until the great reveal in Chapter 31! Oh, I can hardly wait!
My insightful critique partners were very supportive of these alterations, especially the stately Dominique, who observed that the voice of Beatrice was very believable. Almost too believable? Dominique’s speculation that Beatrice might not be as reliable a narrator as I’s presented was interesting, though I said nothing of it at the time.
Power Crystal: Mercury, because it is not a crystal, shows you like a mirror, seeps into your tissues, and slowly drives you mad.
Beatrice’s voice has dictated to me in no uncertain terms a sixth, 1st person draft of Alabaster’s opening 3 chapters. She is more manipulative, more coy and sarcastic, though never openly so. The first chapter, wherein we see the reactions of Polly and Clyde to the death of Joseph, now slowly rolled flat on the conveyors of the factory floor, is not straightforward. Are we to believe that Polly was so reserved? And did she indeed signal to Beatrice that the handsome police Constable, James, was on the take?
The reaction within my critique group was electric! Surprise at the rapidly-evolving style was manifest, as was similar surprise at the slow pace of actually advancing the manuscript. But the six drafts of these chapters has given my new insight, and I believe I know my characters foibles far better than I did when I began this project!
Still, the group facilitator, Francine, mentioned the previous incarnations wistfully, and there was a brief period, just before we went our separate ways, when they reminisced over the details included in Alabaster’s very first draft. Ah, the innocence of that draft! I shall have to peruse it later, if only to shake my head at how misguided its beginnings were.
Power Crystal: Fake diamonds, because they, too, seemed like good ideas, once.
Shock! Double shock!
The library next door is to be closed! As the critique group was meeting in what once had been a breakfast nook, books were being wheeled out in boxes. It seems that the library had not leased this building at all, but rather another, far larger building, in the center of town. So it was decided that this error was to be corrected at once, and so it has gone all week. I shall miss you, wondrous municipal building!
Francine and the others have said that they would like to continue the critique group, though it is not nearly as convenient for me, now that it is to be in the center of town, rather than closer to me here on the outskirts. I’m not certain I shall continue, though I will hold the memories of it close in my heart!
The first draft of Alabaster, however, was, in its own way, as great a shock to me. For it was not nearly so erroneous a setup as I’d remembered, and my original outline made me quite keen to continue.
Power Crystal: Molecular Oxygen, because it is required to produce the light of bio-luminescent fish glowing in the furthest, darkest depths. I learned that at the library! Yay for libraries!
I have finished a complete first draft of Alabaster! Yes, really! All 33 chapters of it, just as my outline proscribed. Once I had returned my knitting books, and the others I’d taken out on kite-building and the history of Luxembourg, I have found the most remarkable chunks of time. Why, my morning knit was, not so very long ago, an early writing time, which I confirmed by referring back to you, my Dear Diary!
I look often at the empty house next door, remembering the good times we had there, as a group. I have contacted Francine, to see if Clementine, Howard, Susan, or the stately Dominique would like to give the manuscript a read-through. I wonder what insights they might have, and look forward to their report, whether of breathless suspense or something a little more breathful. Oh, Dear Diary, I’m no longer used to feedback!
Power Crystal: Fool’s gold, because sometimes it’s as good as the real thing.
Not bad at all! I have a few suggestions –
The mountain vs Mohammed. You have the library rent a house next-door to your narrator. It would make far more sense if the narrator were to pass by the actual library in the centre of town while going – for example – to buy his daily espresso. He sees a sign on the library door looking people to join a critique group and is intrigued.
Use the Space. Why not expand on this? I’m picturing a town somewhere in the Midwest, maybe in late Autumn: a small green, a white bandstand stark against the trees (which are naturally a fiery gold). Maybe – whenever the group take a break – the mc buys a coffee and sits in the bandstand with another member of the group, possibly an attractive young lady?
Love is in the Air? Maybe they get talking? Your mc’s obsession with murder mysteries is reflective of a generally suspicious disposition, largely due to living alone. The young lady is of the manic pixie dream girl variety – ie, his polar opposite – but each learns valuable life lessons from the other and over time their relationship turns into something deeper.
A different mc. On consideration, maybe this is a bit hackneyed – at least, if told from your mc’s pov (Casey Affleck would be an obvious choice if it were ever to be a film). So maybe tell the story from the girl’s pov. Maybe she works in the local coffee shop, talks to your guy regularly while serving him his daily espresso but has never had the courage to take things any further. Then she sees him read the notice and decides to join the critique society, even though she’s never written anything in her life, or indeed even read much. As a result she’s forced to bluff. Cue a lot of harmless deceptions, misunderstandings, etc – all naturally resolved by the end of the story (the girl finds out she’s a real writer!). I’m thinking romantic comedy?