Friday, September 16, 2011

Who? What? When? Where? Why?

When I took my first journalism class in college, the professor pointed out the key to every good news story. Each, he said, must answer five basic questions: who, what, when, where, and why, and do so as concisely as possible.

I always loved the story of the fledgling reporter who was assigned to cover the death of a local socialite who had committed suicide after attending a party. He submitted his story, which his editor rejected as too long, citing the five keys. He re-did it, cutting it considerably. The editor rejected it as too long. Three more attempts were also rejected. Finally, in frustration, the writer submitted the following. "Socialite John Smith, 48, attended a party Thursday evening. He took his hat, his coat, his leave, a taxi to his home, a gun from his drawer, and his life." I think he was fired.

I think that's why I never went into newspaper journalism, and why I don't even write short stories anymore: brevity may be the soul of wit, but when it comes to writing, I find it next to impossible to be brief.

A novel must answer the same five key questions as a news story, but has the luxury of allowing the writer to take as much time as he ("No, no!" Political Correctness admonishes sternly, "He or she!" To which I reply, "Screw Political Correctness.") needs to do so. Also, whereas in a news story, the five keys are most usually given in the set order of who/what/when/where/why, a novel can shuffle them to suit the writer's whim. As a general rule, of the five questions, the "who/what/why" are probably more important than the "when/where"--and this is especially true in mysteries.

Probably because each of my fiction books is part of a series (two, actually) the "who/what/why" are the primary questions--the "when/where" are more or less constant from book to book. And on closer analysis, it is really the "who" which is the most important. All my books are primarily character driven, and it is they who bind each of the series together.

I love writing series because by having the same characters return, book after book, set in the same surroundings, the readers can--and I'm delighted to say, do--get to feel they know them personally. As I've said before, with the Dick Hardesty series (book #14 of which, The Peripheral Son, is scheduled for release next month) I now consider each book to be simply another chapter in the continuing story of the characters' lives.

But writing a series presents certain challenges as well. It's very important that someone who has never read any other book in the series not feel as though they have no idea of who these people are. So each book has to include a subtle reintroduction of the secondary characters. However, each book can be read alone, in any order, without overly confusing the reader as to what's happened in previous books.

I'm considerably frustrated by the fact that many people understandably want to read a series in the order written, to get an idea of the development of the characters from book to book. The unfortunate death of the publisher of the first ten books of the Dick Hardesty series, and the dissolution of the company, means that as the first ten books run out stock, they will in effect be out of print until they can be reissued by my current publisher. The first of the reissues, The Bar Watcher, has just been released. It is book #3 of the series, though the rest will be reissued in the order written. But spacing out the reissue of ten books is going to take some time, and I am not noted for my patience. I realize this is also a huge inconvenience for readers who want to read the series in order, which only adds to my frustration.

A writer's life, regardless of which form he specializes in, is not an easy one. No one's is.

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2 comments:

C. Zampa said...

Interesting post, Dorien!
I, for one, love a series. When I fall for characters, I want to read more of them. And it's delicious knowing there IS more to come.

And I'm particularly looking forward to Dick Hardesty!

Dorien/Roger said...

Thanks, Carol. "The Peripheral Son," book #14 of the series, should be out next month. I hope you enjoy it.