Does Your Novel Have Lots of Loose Ends?

How awesome is it when you’re reading a book and something dramatic, shocking or intriguing happens and you’re like: “Wow, I can’t wait to read on and find out what THAT was all about!”?

Stories make you feel this way because they introduce narrative questions which keep the reader engaged and in a state of suspense, waiting to find out what happens.

There’s the main narrative question that drives the plot (for example, in a murder mystery it may be “Whodunit?”) and this question is generally answered in the climax of the story.

Other narrative questions may be dramatic questions that aren’t the main narrative question, such as: “Why did Miles get dismissed from the police force?” Or emotional questions, like: “How will Bianca feel when she finds out Sylvie betrayed her?” (Pen and the Pad describes four types of narrative questions here).

Each time something happens in the story that raises a question in the mind of the reader, that question must be answered at some point in the novel.

Sounds obvious, right?

However, you might be a writer like me. I have a habit of thinking: “Wouldn’t it be cool if …?” and then raising loads of narrative questions by making characters do weird and wonderful things, but forgetting to answer half of them, or failing to elaborate how these actions make the characters feel.

Or, I will write about a character doing something or behaving in a certain way because they need to do something to drive the plot forward, only I haven’t thought about the logistics of what they need to do.

At the end of my first draft, I had a lot of great events happening, many of which remained unexplained. (To be fair, I’m writing a mystery and a lot of these were red herrings and thus, not directly related to the main plot).

For example, in the first scene of my novel, the main character observes a man wearing a blood-stained shirt emerge from the front door of his house, struggling to carry a mysterious bundle. He then proceeds to drag the bundle around the side of the house. This raises several questions, an obvious one being: “What is in the bundle?” This is not the main narrative question of the novel, but the answer ties back into the main plot line and is revealed in the climax of the novel.

Another question is: “Why does he bring the bundle out the front of his house and drag it around the side, instead of taking it out the back of his house where he is less likely to be seen?” The actual answer to this question is – because I needed the main character, who is parked outside the house, to see him with the bundle. I had to come up with a plausible explanation for why the character does that, within the context of the story.

I’m currently undertaking a process of making sure all of the questions I’ve raised in my story get answered at some point before the final pages. This involves reading through my manuscript and writing down each narrative question as it arises under the relevant chapter heading. I then mark off whether the narrative question has been answered later in the story, and where it has been answered (e.g. page number, chapter number).

It’s then easier for me to see which narrative questions haven’t been answered, so I know that I have to devise some mind-blowing plot reveals to explain them. Ha ha, no problem, she says.

Don’t I sound organised? I assure you, I’m not quite there yet. On my list of narrative questions, there’s a lot of: “Why does such-and-such do this?” And I don’t know yet. But having this checklist makes me feel a bit better and for me, is a step in the right direction to ensuring all loose ends are tied up.

How do you make sure you don’t leave your reader hanging with unanswered narrative questions? Please let me know in the comments below.

Mystery of the Month – The Sentence is Death

“When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” – Daniel Hawthorne

Anthony Horowitz is one of my favourite crime fiction authors so I was very excited to read The Sentence is Death, the follow-up novel to 2017’s The Word is Murder, which introduced us to ex-policeman turned private investigator, Daniel Hawthorne.

A notable feature of this series of murder mysteries is that the author himself, Anthony Horowitz (or ‘Tony’, as Hawthorne calls him) is a character in the book, narrating the story and playing the Watson to Hawthorne’s Sherlock. The conversational narration and references to what we know to be true of Horowitz’s life (his work as screenwriter on the tv series Foyle’s War, for example) has the reader wondering how much of the story is truly fiction. There’s even a detailed Acknowledgement section at the back, which mentions and thanks both fictional and non-fictional people.

In The Word is Murder, Hawthorne asked Tony to be his biographer – to follow his investigation into the murder of a woman and turn the story into a novel. The Sentence is Death begins with Hawthorne interrupting Tony on the set of Foyle’s War and inviting him to document his investigation of the murder of Richard Pryce, a divorce lawyer who has been battered to death with a wine bottle in his Hampstead home. Tony reluctantly agrees, lamenting how writing about Hawthorne means he can’t begin chapters with a surprising turn of events because he has to “stick to the facts as they happened”, which is one of many ironies in this metafiction, also because the (real) Horowitz has many surprising events in store.

Clues are cleverly placed throughout the story leading to the identity of Pryce’s murder and giving the astute reader the opportunity to solve the mystery. The initial list of suspects include a feminist author who publicly threatened Pryce after losing a divorce battle, her ex-husband and Pryce’s boyfriend. When Hawthorne and Tony uncover a link to a fatal caving accident involving Pryce, the scope of suspects widens to include two widows. Meanwhile, Detective Cara Grunshaw is blackmailing Tony for information on the case, desperate to beat Hawthorne in the race to uncover the murderer.

Running parallel to the murder mystery, and just as interesting, is the relationship between Hawthorne and Tony. Tony tells the reader he struggles with the private and abstruse Hawthorne as a main character, finding him unlikeable and unpleasant (he’s homophobic and prone to casual racism), yet he begins to warm to him, describing the man with the perfectly assembled Airfix kits with “the sense of a child playing at being an adult”.

Horowitz doesn’t shy away from the comparisons to Sherlock and Watson (having penned some Holmes novels himself) as Hawthorne is very much like Holmes, noticing those odd little details that others don’t, while Tony plays the bumbling Watson, thinking he’s got it all figured out, when he’s really been thwarted by Hawthorne’s line of seemingly innocuous questions. The novel also pays homage to a few plot points in Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet.

Horowitz relishes the opportunity to poke fun at himself, at literary devices and at crime fiction tropes. Hawthorne describes Tony as “a bit like a travel writer who doesn’t know quite where he is”, characters confuse Horowitz’s best selling spy-kid Alex Rider series, instead calling it Alec Rider and Eric Rider, and possibly my favourite – the playful use of the pathetic fallacy at the very end of the novel. Very clever!

The Sentence is Death is everything I love about crime fiction – a carefully crafted mystery with a flawless solution, and an interesting cast of suspects each with plausible motives for the crime (and some with a few naughty secrets), as well as a sense of fun, loads of witty moments and some lovely descriptions of London.

‘Tony’ is tied to his three-book deal with Hawthorne, so we can expect a third instalment with a similarly clever title coming soon. I’d also love to see a television adaptation – would Anthony Horowitz play himself playing himself?

The Sentence is Death is published in Australia by Penguin.

Standout Simile: –

There was a few seconds’ delay before people realised what happened. Then the crowd recoiled, forming a pattern like an exploding sun.

My Mum’s Favourite Books of 2018

My usual end of year post would be my favourite books of the year. But I thought, what do I know? Mothers always know best, right? (Although as it turns out, I enjoyed all of these books, too).

My Mum, Sheree, is a prolific reader and she has excellent taste in books (and, as you’ll observe, a penchant for historical fiction). So this year, I’m sharing her thoughts about five of her favourite books from 2018 and what she liked most about them.

The Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning

From fleeing the Nazi invasion in Vienna, 1939 and the tragedy and brutality of Kristallmacht to the strange, exotic and wonderful Port of Shanghai, Romy Bernfeld’s story is one of great courage, enduring friendship and survival. The war catches up with Romy and her parents again when the Japanese Army overruns China. As I grew up in Hong Kong and my father was a POW on Hong Kong Island during WWII, this story was particularly poignant to me. Kirsty Manning captures brilliantly the uniqueness, frenetic energy, smells and sounds, and atmosphere of Shanghai and the mannerisms and lifestyles of the local people. The story continues to capture the reader when Romy’s granddaughter, Alexandra, returns to modern day Shanghai to search for information on her mother’s natural parents. I was equally enthralled by Kirsty Manning’s description of modern day Shanghai: vibrant, diverse, fascinating. An amazing story, with genuine characters, that could well be about a real-life heroine.

Click here to purchase a copy of The Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning.

The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan

Ida is an endearing and admirable character. Despite her own heartbreak she packs away her lost dreams and keepsakes, rolls up her sleeves and gives all she can to her family. Unlike sister Nora and mother Alice, Ida is selfless. I was reminded how much was unspoken in Ida’s times. One was expected to suppress “uncomfortable” emotions and “get on with it”. This was especially true for women whose sole aspirations in life were being wives and mothers. Sadly, for Ida’s family, this results in unnecessary suffering, shattered dreams, resentment and mental illness. I was relieved that Ida’s character was shown kindness and love from Grandmother, the Godfrey-Smiths and her steadfast husband, Len. Musical talent often runs through families and it disrupts then unites the female characters in Ida’s story. Louise Allen writes with clarity and honesty, which I appreciated along with a final unexpected tragedy that resulted in my shedding quite a few tears. There are some lighter moments that are quite funny thanks to nephew, Ben.

Click here to purchase a copy of The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan.

The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester

The Paris Seamstress is easily my favourite Natasha Lester book. The story, set in Paris and New York in the 1940’s, intricately and descriptively weaves its way through the lives of its main characters. Estella, headstrong and impetuous, creative and inventive, with a passion for haute-couture; Alex, a courageous and complicated intelligence operative haunted by memories; Lena, a tragic victim of a childhood over which she had no control and Sam, dedicated, talented and steadfast. Natasha Lester writes so you can feel the buzz and optimism of Manhattan’s Garment District, the cool touch of “that” gold dress as it slips over your skin and the horror of life in Nazi-occupied Paris. Such a momentous contrast to the burgeoning fashion industry in New York where champagne flows freely at lavish fashion events. Natasha Lester continues Estella’s story through her granddaughter, Fabienne, living and working as head fashion curator in today’s Sydney before fulfilling her grandmother’s wish and returning to Stella Designs in New York. I enjoyed reading all the French name places (Champs Élysées, Musee de L’Armie des Invalides, Marches des Enfants Rouges, Carreau du Temple, Place des Vosges, in the Marais district) and the French high fashion houses, Lanvin, Dior, Chanel and the American equivalents, Lord & Taylor, Saks, Best & Co, Gimbels. These names add to the glamour and excitement of a really adroit story!

Click here to purchase a copy of The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester.

The Secrets At Ocean’s Edge by Kali Napier

What I found so absorbing about The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge was Kali Napier’s talent for telling four stories through the eyes of the four main characters, Ernie, Lily, Girlie and Tommy, and keeping it unblurred and so very readable. Flawed and ordinary people keeping secrets and surviving the hardships suffered by so many during the Great Depression. I didn’t have a favourite character but I did feel great sympathy for Tommy, misunderstood, neglected and abandoned. And Girlie, a child floundering in an adult world seeking approval from a selfish and distant mother. The peripheral residents in this small WA coastal town provided a few more secrets of their own. Largely an unhappy story it is still one of endurance and a sense of loyalty which keeps the family together.

Click here to purchase a copy of The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge by Kali Napier.

April in Paris, 1921 by Tessa Lunney

Initially, I felt Kiki seemed too young to have so much life experience, but we know how devastating WWI was and how it changed everyone and everything. The horror of Kiki’s nursing memories contrast wildly with her adopted, frivolous bohemian lifestyle as gossip columnist for “The Star”. Endless parties with the rich, titled and famous, political intrigue and a stolen Picasso soon become the backdrop for blackmail when her old spymaster and nemesis tracks her down. Her mission – to seek out a traitor working for an unknown enemy. With the help of resolute friends like Bertie she completes her mission but there were many anxious times when I really thought Kiki was in “well over her head”. Tessa Lunney paints a very colourful picture of Montmartre and the diverse characters that inhabit this story. And, love the descriptions of the flimsy, whimsical fashions!

Click here to purchase a copy of April in Paris, 1921 by Tessa Lunney.

Mystery of the Month – The Corset

Sixteen-year-old seamstress Ruth Butterham is convinced she has the ability to harm others by stitching evil thoughts into her needlework. She is awaiting trial for the murder of her mistress when wealthy Dorothea Truelove meets her in the Oakgate Women’s prison. Dorothea has a keen interest in phrenology and wants to study Ruth’s ‘crania’, believing it to be “the palace of the soul”. She thinks Ruth may be able to change the shape of her skull if she works to amend her murderess ways.

This is the premise of The Corset, the latest gothic mystery from Laura Purcell, author of the very successful Silent Companions – another haunting tale where the reader questions whether the main character is victim to a supernatural evil or human evil.

The story alternates between Dorothea’s and Ruth’s points of view, with Ruth recounting her upbringing with an alcoholic artist father, and ailing mother, who works tirelessly stitching clothes for the demanding Mrs Metyard. After a violent attack by a fellow schoolgirl, Ruth channels her feelings of anger and resentment into the stitching of a corset. A series of tragic events follow, leading Ruth to believe she is responsible – but is she really cursed or is it all coincidence?

The Corset is inspired by the true story of Sarah and Sally Metyard, a mother and daughter who operated a milliner in London in 1758 and who abused an apprentice so badly that she died, resulting in the pair being hung for murder. Ruth is sold by her mother to the fictional version of Mrs Metyard following the death of her father, where she and four other girls are subject to horrific treatment at the hands of Mrs Metyard and her daughter, Kate. Laura Purcell skilfully describes Ruth’s torment, encouraging a great sympathy for her as a character and causing the reader to question how she could possibly be a vindictive killer. However, Dorothea believes Ruth must be lying because her story doesn’t match up with what Dorothea feels in the shape of Ruth’s skull.

Anthropological studies have shown that the tight lacing of corsets could change the skeleton of the wearer and for some, the position of their organs. The metaphor of the suffocating and restrictive corset rings true for both Dorothea and Ruth. Dorothea feels trapped by her father’s expectations of her – she should not be “spouting on about criminals, or science, or any other topics a young lady should be ignorant upon.” He wants her to marry well, but Dorothea compares being a society wife to “standing in a bog” and instead wants to marry a policeman and live in London. Ruth experiences a similar lack of control over her life, unable to escape the clutches of the Metyard’s for fear that harm will come to her mother and believing herself to be the victim of her own hand.

Purcell’s writing is visceral and several scenes make for uncomfortable reading, particularly a description of Ruth’s mother’s graphic childbirth experience and the girls’ violent treatment at the hands of the Metyards. The plot is as expertly woven as Ruth’s handiwork, with a few shocking twists, including one involving Mrs Metyard’s beastly husband, The Captain. The conclusion is tightly sewn, leading the reader to the true villain of the piece. Another triumph for Laura Purcell, The Corset is chilling, brutal and spellbinding reading that leaves no loose threads.

The Corset by Laura Purcell is published by Bloomsbury Raven.

Standout Simile: –

Evil thoughts float about the house like smuts from a fire. They speckle, they smear, they find a way in.

Decluttering Your Writing

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you’ve got stuff everywhere.

When my husband and I prepared the nursery for our baby, we cleaned out an entire room of “stuff”. We live in a three-bedroom suburban house – one bedroom for sleeping, one as a study and one as a room for “other stuff”, which we turned into the nursery.

Even thought it was a chore deciding what stuff to keep (and where to put it), and what to throw away, it was worth it. Afterwards, when the room was cleared, my mind also felt clearer.

The feeling I get from editing my writing is similar to how I felt when I’d thrown out a bunch of unnecessary clutter from our house – it’s easier to see what I have of value and what needs to go.

It’s natural for a writer to be verbose in early drafts. In a blog post called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up Your Writing for grammarly.com, writer Karen Hertzberg states: “We tend to ramble when we’re writing; it’s our brain’s way of finding just the right words. It’s fine to pour those words out into your first draft, but once the draft is finished, it’s time to start cleaning house.”

I found that a great way to ‘start cleaning house’ on my novel was changing the point of view from third person to first person. It was an exercise that made me realise how much redundant/ filler language I was using. For example:

  • A character nodding while also saying ‘Yeah’. By nodding, the ‘yeah’ is assumed.
  • The point of view character “watching” and “seeing” someone else perform an action rather than simply stating the action that is happening. (“I watched her pour the glass of water.” “Minnie poured the glass of water.”)
  • Lots of characters “looking at” each other when they speak to each other. Presumably they are looking at each other when they speak to each other, unless they are trying to avoid eye contact (in which case, this may be important to the story and should be mentioned).
  • Similarly, “he grinned at me”. When only two characters are in the scene, it’s enough to say “he grinned”.
  • Over-describing, such as “he sat down on the couch” instead of “he sat on the couch” or “he shrugged his shoulders” when “he shrugged” would suffice (as you can’t shrug any other body parts).
  • Using dialogue tags and then having the speaking character perform an action instead of closing the dialogue without a tag and then having the speaking character immediately perform the action.
  • I have a habit of overusing “began to” and “started to”, for example: “He started to unpack a box…” and “a rash began to appear…” rather than: “He unpacked a box” and “a rash appeared”.
  • I also overuse the word “was”, for example “who was holding …” as opposed to “who held…”
  • Goodbye to over-usage of “that” and “just” – both words that aren’t usually necessary.

Scene by scene, I’ve been cutting and pasting my work into the Hemingway Editor. This app tells you if you’re using too many adverbs when a better word would have more impact, when you’re using overly complicated words when a simpler word would suffice, and which sentences are hard to read or very hard to read. I found this a great way to see my writing from another point of view (even thought it’s the point of view of a machine – so you don’t have to take all of the suggestions on board!)

Removing excess “stuff” from the spare room made it easier to see the floor. Removing excess “stuff” from my manuscript, made it easier to see the story and where I may need to make more drastic cuts. This may include entire scenes, characters or subplots. Don’t despair that they’ll be gone forever. Just like you may store your winter clothes away under the bed for the summer, you can save these scenes and pieces of writing in a separate folder and refer back to them if and when you need them again.

But for now, I’m off to find somewhere to fit all the new stuff we’ve bought for the baby into the nursery…

Mystery of the Month – The Psychology of Time Travel

“She asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I told her: solve mysteries.” – Odette

Me too, Odette. As a big fan of murder mystery novels, I was immediately attracted to the concept of a time travel murder mystery. The Psychology of Time Travel, the debut novel by Kate Mascarenhas, is exactly that, and much more.

In 2018, archaeology student Odette finds a dead body in the basement of a toy museum. The elderly woman is riddled with bullets, but no one knows who she is. The door was locked from the inside and there’s no weapon. Odette becomes obsessed with solving the mystery – who is the victim? And who is the murderer?

In 1967, four female scientists invent time travel. Margaret, Grace, Lucille and Barbara invite the BBC to witness their achievement but the interview goes horribly wrong when Barbara has a mental health breakdown as a result of excessive time travel. Soon everyone is talking about ‘the time traveller who went mad’ and Margaret encourages the other scientists to permanently shut Barbara out or risk jeopardising their operation.

In 2017, Barbara (Granny Bee) and her psychologist granddaughter, Ruby, receive a newspaper clipping foretelling the death of an elderly woman five months into the future. Who sent the letter? Worse still, does the letter predict the death of Granny Bee?

In The Psychology of Time Travel, Kate Mascarenhas has created a detailed alternate version of reality. Time travel is controlled by an organisation called the Conclave, headed by power-hungry elitist Margaret. Time travellers wear a tracker watch that counts heartbeats to determine what year they’d be in if they’d lived their life in chronological order. Multiple selves co-exist in the same timeline including several versions of oneself attending their own funeral. There’s also a time-travel generated bacteria called macromonas which can be fatal.

The novel cleverly explores the consequences of time travel, including its impact on mental health and attitudes towards death. As time travellers can visit loved ones and versions of themselves after they have passed away, the Conclave introduces compulsory initiation rituals for new time travellers to neutralise their responses to death. The impact of these rites is that time travellers become alienated from ordinary people, as one character muses: “I like watching people have emotions I don’t feel anymore.”

In an interview with publisher Head of Zeus, chartered psychologist Mascarenhas has said she was influenced by psychological screening tests conducted by NASA and her thorough world-building is demonstrated by an appendix at the end of the book containing a detailed psychometric test for time travellers.

The Psychology of Time Travel is noteworthy for its large cast of entirely female viewpoint characters, all of whom are diverse and representational. The story is strengthened by the core relationships between these characters including familial (mother/daughter, grandmother/granddaughter) and romantic, particularly the relationship between present-day Ruby and past Grace which is described by a beautifully written allegory – ‘my life is a ring of a very strange shape’.

A thought-provoking and deeply original novel that will leave you believing anything is possible.

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas is published in Australia by Harper Collins.

Standout Simile: –

They heard Ruby’s approaching footfall and then she was there, yawning with her hair tangled like the wool shepherds save from hedgerows.

The Lure of Secrets in Fiction

I have a confession to make. I’m guilty of flipping to the last pages of a book to find out the secrets at the end.

I’m better than I used to be. When I was in primary school, I was a big fan of the mystery series, The Nancy Drew Files, and used to cheat by reading the ending more often than not. These days, I appreciate the pay-off from exercising patience (I simply read faster to get to the big reveal).

In her popular blog, Helping Writers Become Authors, K.M. Weiland states there is only one reason that readers read, and that’s curiosity. A clever author will “milk that secret for everything it’s worth” if they want the reader to continue reading their book (or you could just do what I did, and skip to the end).

I realised that I’ve always preferred to read (and write) stories based around a key secret and the consequences of that secret being revealed. I even noticed that ‘Secrets’ is one of the most popular words in the titles of books I’ve recently read and enjoyed:

    The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge by Kali Napier
    The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
    Little Secrets by Anna Snoekstra
    The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham
    Her Mother’s Secret by Natasha Lester
    The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders
    The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

I’m not the only person who can’t resist a story with a shocking secret.

At this year’s Brisbane Writer’s Festival (BWF2018), I attended a session with crime fiction writers Aoife Clifford, author of All These Perfect Strangers and Second Sight, and the prolific Denise Mina, currently promoting her true crime novel, The Long Drop. The panel was chaired by Brisbane author, Ben Hobson (To Become A Whale) who asked both authors about secrets in fiction (predominantly crime fiction). Aoife noted that at the heart of a crime novel is a secret, especially in a country town or a place where you think you know everybody, but you don’t. Denise agreed that almost all crime fiction is based on getting the reader to “wonder something”.

As demonstrated by my list of ‘secret’ books above above, crime fiction isn’t the only genre using secrets to lure readers. There’s crime fiction on that list, but also historical fiction, and another popular genre for secrets – domestic noir. In his blog post, The Secret to Secrets in Novels on This Business of Writing, author C. Patrick Schulze notes that almost every type of novel can use the power of secrets by creating suspense, and to enhance the climax by revealing a shocking plot twist. A secret also provides an excellent source of conflict between characters. As Aoife Clifford stated at BWF2018, secrets are great because there’s so many things that can go wrong. They affect the relationships of characters who wonder, ‘what else are you keeping from me?’

The secret may not always be the answer to a whodunit but could be a family secret kept private, or as in some popular classics, a hidden wife locked in an upstairs chamber or the identity of a mysterious benefactor. One of the most popular novels (and now television adaptations) of late is Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. The three main characters are all keeping a raft of secrets, each with their own potentially devastating consequences.

A writer with the ability to craft a well-timed secret is a bit of a secret in itself. At BWF2018, Ben asked Aoife and Denise about writing scenes where secrets are revealed. Aoife said this was the hardest thing of all. She stated that structure is really important and suggested delivering the message in small amounts by cutting away and then coming back, and telling the story of one important event from six different perspectives. Denise agreed with the idea of “parcelling information out” and asking yourself if you want the reader knowing before the protagonist. In her post, K.M. Weiland recommends writers reveal the answer at the latest possible moment in the story and at a time when it will be most devastating to the characters. Sometimes that may be halfway through the novel as in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Secrets in fiction play on the reader’s desire to know the truth. A clever author will get the reader involved by reaching out to them, allowing them to become an active participant in the story. Finding out the answers can become a bit of an addiction. In the words of Aoife Clifford: “Secrets are delicious, we can’t get enough of secrets.”

What is the best book you’ve read with a secret? Let me know in the comments section below.

Buy Second Sight by Aoife Clifford here.

Buy The Long Drop by Denise Mina here.

Buy To Become A Whale by Ben Hobson here.