If you happened to be outside my front window right now, this is what you would see. (Please don’t step on my flowers while you are there, you mad stalker! I actually got some bulbs going that the squirrels have so far neglected to eat.)
My birch trees are busting out fine new leaves, perfect little chlorophyll-laden shapes, with edges like serrated knives, and I have been writing Novel Writing III critiques about a meter from the bird feeder, which is exceedingly popular with the local sparrows.
Yesterday tasted of summer. It was bright and sunny and the house got a little bit stuffy. You could walk outside in a dress. No tights, no coat required. Kelly and I strolled out through a cherry blossom-infested U of T campus to Bloor Street, and a matinee of the film adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd. This was a speed version of Thomas Hardy. Look, a girl! Look, a boy! Another boy! A third boy! Unhappiness! Misery! Woe! Boom! Conveniently, we’re now back to one available party representing each of the sexes. Someone read the damned banns already.
To sum up my emotional reaction to this particular costume drama: the horses were pretty and nobody got hanged.
We came home, waited for it to cloud over, and climbed into the hot tub. This enabled me, later, to phone Vancouver, say “Thank you for giving me life!” and proceed to brag about how awesome a day it had been.
Today it is cooler and foggy.
I have a schtick on Facebook whereby I’ll often give the cats (whom we adopted 358 days ago, I’ll have you know) super-sekrit spy names for the day. Moose and Squirrel. Joe Dick and Billy Talent. Laundry Chicken and What’s Going On? Today it was Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap, which has spawned a small conversation about whether anyone could successfully reboot WKRP In Cincinnati and, if so, how? My position is that it would have to start exactly like the Battlestar Galactica reboot: Earth gets nuked, but Cincinatti survives. For obscure reasons (one friend claims this would be Johnny’s paranoia in action) the radio station was shielded against EMP.
Red Wigglers the size of Cadillacs would be roaming the Midwest, which makes it all seem like a mash-up with Dune.
Continuing on with the random, I am pondering a few fine linguistic details within the Stormwrack universe. A few of these came up when I was reviewing the copy-edit of A Daughter of No Nation. I got a query about when I use “in Fleet” as opposed to when I use “the Fleet.” (Answer: ‘in Fleet’ when they mean the city, and the words ‘in Tacoma’ could be used just as correctly. ‘The Fleet’ when we’re talking about the subsection that is a navy: “We’ll be sending the Fleet around to see if you’re in compliance with the Treaty.”) I had been doing this correctly but without conscious thought.
And here’s something that doesn’t happen to literary writers all that often: I had already known that the portions of the Hidden Sea Tales that take place on Stormwrack (as opposed to in San Francisco) were playing out, linguistically, in Fleetspeak. This means that those scenes played out in Fleet and were translated, by me, into present-day English. This is something that’s essentially invisible to everyone but my wacky imagination, but it became something of an entertaining conceit through the copy-edit process.
See, I’m no Tolkien. (I know, you’re shocked.) I don’t actually speak Fleetspeak. And the poor copy-editor really doesn’t speak Fleetspeak. So there was a bit of them going “Here’s a foreign word,” and me going, “No, that’s actually a real English science word. I had to look it up, too.” And them going “Here’s another foreign word ,” and me going, “It’s not foreign in Fleetspeak.”
Them: “Here’s another another foreign word.
Me: “Yes, that one’s Erinthian. Obvs. We can italicize that.”
None of which actually happened face to face, you understand. I’m describing a process of me talking to pencil marks on a 600-page manuscript that is now, blessedly, wrapped, taped, bar-coded and in the hands of Canada Post.
The c/e did a meticulous, thoughtful job and I’m so fucking grateful you can’t even imagine.
Finally, I am groping for a verb I can noun (or a noun I can verb) to describe a particular element of the magical inscription process, whereby a spellscribe takes an existing spell and creates a variation on it. I played with embroidering, but it’s long and unwieldy and not quite right. The embroidered spell? A broidery?
The closest equivalent to the variation/embroidery process would be someone taking a fiddly gourmet recipe and creating an undeniably different–but recognizably similar–food. Going from curried plantains in coconut milk to… maybe something with green mangos?
Why am I not currying plantains tonight? Why am I not currying plantains right now?
There are scenes that form basic building blocks for novels, teleplays, screenplays, and even video games of various genres. One of these crops up most frequently in the mystery and thriller field. It goes like this: a main character who’s engaged in trying to solve a puzzle, understand a mysterious event or literally solve a crime has an encounter with someone who parcels out tiny little morsels of information about what’s going on.
(I titled this essay before realizing that Mysterious Informant is, of course, the name of a related TV trope. What I’m talking about is very much in the same wheelhouse, but it’s less about what it is and more about how to do it. Because sometimes this is well worth doing.)
Anyway, they get together. One wants info; the other has it. Some verbal fencing ensues. The in-the-know character (henceforth, the Source) makes a few frustratingly vague statements and takes off, leaving their interrogator (let’s call them the Seeker) to experience frustration and other related feels before plunging back into their quest for understanding.
A few mistakes that beginning writers tend to make with Mysterious Informant scenes are:
- The actual exchange of information is insignificant.
- The Source has no agenda, and in particular no adequate reason for withholding the information except that if he or she spilled, the Seeker could proceed directly to cracking the case.
- There’s no subtext. The characters speak honestly, without recourse to half-truths, double entendres and outright lies.
- Sometimes, there’s no reason for the encounter to have taken place at all.
- The Source appears more than once, in scenes with a similar construction, emotional tone, and outcome.
Let’s look at a scene that works. Take that first encounter between Buffy and Angel in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer pilot, “Welcome to the Hellmouth.” At first glance, Angel seems to be doing exactly what I am complaining about: mouthing off, being mysterious for the sheer joy of it, and offering up nothing of use. (If you run a web search for this episode title and “transcript”, you can find the whole script, or a reasonable facsimile, online.)
In point of fact, a tremendous amount of information is exchanged between the two characters. It is Angel who reveals to Buffy that Sunnydale is on a Hellmouth, a hint that she and Giles research in greater depth later on. He tells her to get ready for the Harvest, a big upcoming vampire attack on a town that should really just put all the major evil holidays in a calendar on the City Hall website.
By offering up a few tidbits, Angel ensures that Buffy makes real progress on her problem, and thereby lets her know that like it or not, he might have his uses.
What else happens? Angel gives Buffy a cross. Blessed Bling, useful for fighting the undead! It is a dual declaration. It says “I like you” and also “I want to fight on Team Good!” Unspoken but significant is his fulfillment of a cherished personal agenda, which is basically to get a look at the Slayer up close after stalking her for… was it months?
Note, too, that in keeping with best Mysterious Informant protocols, Angel engages in a little wordplay, telling Buffy he doesn’t bite. His intention is for her to understand that he knows she’s a Slayer, while simultaneously having her take him for something other than the vampire he is. What he says is literally true, but at the same time it’s a conflict-avoiding obfuscation. This becomes even more of a complication when it turns out they’re strongly attracted to each other. They are, after all, each other’s natural prey. As becomes obvious later, they most emphatically should not date.
Two other things that make this encounter with Angel work, where less carefully crafted scenes might fail:
- It is exceedingly short. (Shorter even, I fear, than this analysis of it.) The two characters dance around each other for less than a minute, and he’s gone.
- There’s no history between them. It is harder to pull off a mysterious in-the-know visitor, I think, when the person withholding information is someone the other character knows well.
Still. Aside from the fact that it’d be boring for us viewers, why doesn’t Angel show up and say “Hey, here’s a flyer about living on a Hellmouth, and while you’re at it the Harvest will be starting at the Bronze at exactly midnight, and I’ve made up a handy infographic about the local vampire government and its plans. I’m older than you and stuff, but you wanna date?”
His motivation for being reticent is, in large part, shame. He doesn’t want to admit to having been Angelus. Who would? Angel wants to help out, to fight on the side of good, but without having to say how he knows what the local vampires are up to. He doesn’t want to tell Buffy he’s one of them.
So, how do you construct one of these scenes – which can be immensely suspenseful and effective – without leaving the reader feeling as if the Source is jerking the Seeker around for no good reason?
First, figure out how the informant got into the scene. If they entered the exchange willingly, then it follows that there is at least some small piece of information they want to divulge. This ties into the question of their agenda.
What if they didn’t seek out your protagonist? Sometimes it does turn out that the Seeker is a nice active kind of detective, the sort who digs up witnesses on their own initiative. In that case and assuming the informant can’t simply run away, clutching his precious knowledge to his chest, the Seeker is probably going to offer up the absolute minimum information required to get them out of what is effectively an unwanted interrogation.
In either case, the Seeker wants more! They want all the info, with drawings and annotations. This is where some of the conflict comes from.
Second, it is necessary to have a legitimate and defensible reason as to why the informant doesn’t say: “Here’s everything I know, so please eff off now.” Why are they giving partial information? It can be out of fear for their own safety. to protect another individual, because of national security, or because, like Angel, they have some reason to be ashamed. (I suppose that sometimes they might just be a serious dick, but I promise that is harder to pull off.)
Your guideline here is that as long as it is a believable reason, great! If it’s just to drag out the plot, readers are going to feel justifiably jerked around.
Third, ask yourself: can the minimal revelations of the Source be exploited by your Seeker? If not, everyone’s time has been wasted and I shall be obliged to despair.
Fourth, figure out what else has happened in the exchange. The revelation moves the plot forward, and that’s lovely, but what is the effect on the relationship between informant and interrogator? What did they communicate beyond their lines of dialog?
Fifth: It’s worth it to remember that each time the mysterious informant appears, they’re probably going to get less mysterious.
Six: Like all relationships, the Seeker/Source connection evolves. When you’re trying to solve a problem and a person who knows a lot about it gives you partial information, it is only natural to take the crumb trail as far as you can and then try to return to the source. So remember that, with a scene like this, you can’t give it to us the same way twice. The next time these characters encounter each other, you need to hit different emotional beats.
This is why we so often see cops going back to their sources, only to find them beaten up, shot, gasping their last, fleeing town, terrified into silence, dead, or otherwise deprived of their ability to continue offering even inadequate aid to your fictional heroes.
Seven: What makes your scene a little different? Here, for further analysis, is a scene from Sherlock where the exchange is almost all subtextual and emotional rather than truly informative:
I’d have started it earlier, and I do recommend finding the whole scene if you can. Then watch it and ask yourself: what do these guys want from each other? Which one is seeking? Ultimately, what do these men tell each other? How much of it do they actually say aloud?
Check out your current work in progress and see if any of this resonates. And feel free to mention or share your own favourite mysterious informant scenes!
*My Writing102 tag is a 2015 addition to this site – it’s meant to indicate essays for writers who aren’t entirely inexperienced. The Internet has a wealth of information for people just starting out, and less for those looking to develop next-level skills. In these essays, I’m trying to explore questions that might challenge people who can write coherent, readable prose and have some idea how a story may be structured–people trying to get to the next level. It’s a work-in-progress–in fact, this is the first attempt I’ve actually so labelled!–and I welcome your feedback as well as other suggestions for similar articles.
(This post ends with a Gotham spoiler.)
I walked into Portland Variety this morning and my order was already sitting out waiting for me; coffee freshly poured, almond financier plated, two baristas, one representing each of the majority genders, grinning with that genial “Ha ha gotcha!” face that you just have to love.
Then I headed into the back and an adorable young man whom I’d swear I’d never seen before looked up from his MacAir. He said, in purest dulcet tones: “I know this is your table, but I’m leaving in just a minute. If you want me to clear out now I can totally do that.”
To which, obviously, I said “Oh honey, that’s insane, I can work anywhere.”
It kinda made me feel like Don Falcone. Only cooler, with less tendency to speak in a weird mash-up of upspeak and a monotone, and vastly less likely to go strangling people for reminding me of my mother.
Yeah, boss, we gotcha table forya. You want we should take this guy out in the alley and teach ‘im a lesson?
Clearly I am terrifying.
Yesterday I threw together a quick post about how things have been filled with what we around here, semi-ironically, call virtue: writing, teaching, flossing, hard work, tax accounting, healthy food, yoga, and sincere attempts to get 7-8 hours of sleep a night. I wanted to let you all know I hadn’t died or forgotten how to blog, more than anything.
Now I want to just as quickly throw together a note about a few attempts, made recently, to tarnish up that hardworkin’ halo. Because what that kind of behavior gets you, eventually, is burned the fuck out. I know it, you know it. (The cats, they don’t know it. This is because they get halo points from activities like stealing lettuce, one leaf at a time, out of the salad bowl and licking it to death in various corners of the apartment.)
Fun things! I bought us tickets to see Second City’s How to Kill a Comedian. We went on the Thursday before the long weekend; it was like a sketch comedy version of all the political things that sift up in my Facebook feed. Laughs were had. Also bellinis.
Kelly and I also went to a very convivial gathering of writers and book lovers on Good Friday,in a part of town we hadn’t seen.
Marine disasters! I am reading Eric Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania aloud to Kelly in some of our downtime. The kittens join us on the bed and roll around looking adorable while we learn about people getting torpedoed, sunk, and drowned.
Lakefront birding! Part of my necessary mental process for writing requires a certain amount of walking around outside, staring blankly at things like the lake. To that end, I finally made it to Humber Bay Park East a couple weekends ago, and shot many icicles as well as this red-necked grebe and some other birds.
It turns out this is the park I’ve been looking for since I got here: big, easy to get to, bird-infested, open seven days a week, and with deliciously varied terrain. Barb and I used to go to Jericho Beach every couple of months to chase bunnies, raptors, warblers and hummingbirds. This has a very different look, of course, but there’s a similar feeling and I am excited about exploring it more.
Marital Disasters! A Masterpiece adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is on. It has Damian Lewis as Henry VIII. If this is news to you, I totally understand if you need to go hyperventilate into a brown paper bag now. OMG, OMG, OMG.
Yes, I’ve been very quiet lately, here in Blogland and also on places like the Book of Face. I want to write you all, I do. And there’s nothing particular keeping me silent except a mountain of busy. And “Hey, all, I’m working on stuff,” seems rather a dull thing to say.
A good chunk of the mountain has been wrangling The Nature of a Pirate, the third book in the Hidden Sea Tales. It’s moving along, and I’m happy with the process, but it’s not easy.
This year UCLA changed its classroom software, which has been a good and amazing thing, but which also means that I am recoding my classes as I simultaneously teach other classes. And the class last quarter and the one coming up are doozies: lots of thinking, lots of critiquing, lots of brain.
I’m also critiquing a whole novel for a one-on-one student. Again, lots of thinking.
I got our taxes off to the accountant this week! Go me!
I hope to be interesting for you all again soon.