SINC August Meg Gardiner 003Or who let the deus ex machina out, what’s a plot, and is this about cannibalism?

hutto oct. 1 2014 023 (2)By Gale Albright

“Plot is soylent green. It’s made up of people!”
Is Edgar award-winning thriller writer Meg Gardiner talking about cannibalism?

No, she did not advocate turning people into crackers in a malnourished dystopian future. She talked about plotting novels during her August 10 presentation at the Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas chapter monthly meeting.

“Plot or characters are largely the same thing. The story is all about what the characters do. You should know what the ending is. The seeds of the ending must be sown at the beginning of the book.”

She used Jaws as an example. “The first chapter shows what needs to happen at the end of the story. There’s a set up there. The protagonist must defeat the antagonist.” You know from the beginning that somebody has to do something about that shark—pronto! That shark can’t be washed ashore six months later on a beach in South Carolina and die of indigestion. The protagonist and antagonist must engage in hand to hand combat, or hand to fin, as it were.

According to Gardiner, thrillers have a fairly linear, straightforward plot. There’s an “inciting incident” that throws life out of whack for the protagonist, which in turn causes complications. It sets off a chain of events. The essence of plotting is “thwarting desire.”

The protagonist desires something and the job of the antagonist is to throw a monkey wrench into the works. The antagonist is a critical character who keeps the protagonist from getting what she wants.
You need a strong, active protagonist. If everything happens easily for a protagonist, it’s not a story. She doesn’t need to be Sylvester Stallone, but she’s not going to fold when the going gets tough. The protagonist doesn’t go with the flow, she’s willing to put herself out there and take action.SINC August Meg Gardiner 007

Is the heroine an amateur sleuth? Why does she feel compelled to look for answers? Is the villain a murderer? The villain has strong motivations and feels he is the hero of his own story. They must have compelling characteristics. Gardiner likes Moriarty as a villain as he clashes with Sherlock Holmes. Both men are obviously the heroes of their own stories.

Even if you don’t know who the killer is until the end of the novel, you know there is someone out there doing bad things, perhaps a minion of the main villain. In Gardiner’s Dirty Secrets Club, someone is committing murder by forcing the victims to kill themselves. Forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett, one of Gardiner’s serial heroines, has to track down the killer.

The story must build bigger and bigger with plot twists and escalating pressure. There is continual revelation and shock. The characters have to make decisions under pressure.

The key to the plot is action. Figure out what the chase is and cut to it. Start with action, not a lot of back story–no dream sequences. The plot has to be emotionally coherent or the reader will feel cheated and put the book down.

To prevent that “sag in middle,” keep the tension up, develop the story, and build in progressive complications with big scenes, time pressure, and a ticking clock of some kind.

The ending must be surprising, yet inevitable. You need some surprise, otherwise the result might be vaguely dissatisfying. Create a dilemma at the ending, forcing the protagonist to choose the lesser of two evils by making a difficult decision.

Always make sure the protagonist is the one who takes action to resolve the issues. The hero/heroine has to take active steps at the end of the novel. Don’t try to pull a deus ex machina out of the bag at the end.

What is a deus ex machina, you ask? In ancient Greek plays, an actor playing a god was literally cranked out from the wings onto the stage to resolve the ending of the story. He was sitting in a “god machine” made by ancient Greek stage hands, no doubt. This form of achieving a satisfying ending to the story is frowned upon in modern times. The protagonist must defeat the antagonist with her own smarts and heroism.

Meg Gardiner is an Edgar award-winning American crime writer who lives in Austin, Texas. Her best-known books are the Evan Delaney novels. In June 2008, she published the first novel in a new series, featuring forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett. More recently she has published three stand-alone novels: Ransom River (June 2012), The Shadow Tracer (June 2013), and Phantom Instinct (June 2014).SINC August Meg Gardiner 005


The Gardiner Chronicles

SINC August Meg Gardiner 002By Gale Albright

portraits 004 (5)Part One of the Gardiner Chronicles, wherein we learn about Big Dogs and Big Ideas. Meg Gardiner presented the August 10 program for Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas chapter in Austin at Recycled Reads.

In order to complete a 95,000-word novel, Meg Gardiner needed a compelling main character and a big idea to hang her story on. “It only took me decades to learn that,” laughs Gardiner, the Edgar-winning, best-selling thriller author of Phantom Instinct.

Gardiner’s parents were teachers who encouraged her writing in a pragmatic way. “My dad’s car was full of books, the trunk and back seat. I thought everyone lived like this. Dad said go to law school so you can pay bills while you are writing. Pay the rent. So I went to law school.”

Years after law school, when she came up with her first series character, Evan Delaney, Gardiner was married with three children. She could relate to Evan Delaney, a “girl lawyer,” although Evan was “more athletic than the author. My first attempt was horrible, deadly, nothing happened in it.” The book was shelved.

Her next novel got up to “thirty good pages” with a hit and run scene. The scene was long and slow. It turned out there was no reason for the hit and run driver to hit and run over anybody. In short, there was no plot. Project shelved.

Gardiner finally finished a novel with a cast of thousands. Although she called it a murder mystery, a friend pointed out that no one had been murdered. You guessed it—shelved.

When her children were out of diapers, Gardiner was living in London and trying to get an agent with only three chapters written for a new book. She found Giles Gordon, an agent in London.

“With thirty years in the business and lots of professional experience, I learned when he gives advice, it’s wise to listen.” Gordon said her first chapter was not working. She protested that it was funny, shiny, and clever. He said it was a cliché. It took her a long time to start listening, but she finally saw the light. “He didn’t have to come to my house and hit me with a two by four.”

She redid chapters but still got rejections. “I hope you’re feeling tough,” said Gordon on one memorable occasion, when he showed her a publisher’s reply to her submission. The two-page, single-spaced letter said the manuscript was horrible.

Giles said, “Read it, burn it, drink a glass of whiskey, then get back to work.”

Finally, China Lake, the first Evan Delaney novel, was ready for prime time. A British publisher made an offer and China Lake was published in London, translated into other languages, and sold in Europe.

But United States publishers did not want it.

When she wrote Mission Canyon, the sequel to China Lake, the land of her birth didn’t want that one either. It was snapped up by European publishers. This happened five times in a row with the Evan Delaney series. She could find a copy of her books in Singapore, but not in California when she went home for a family visit. She joked that her relatives probably thought she was fibbing about being published.

Then along came good ole Serendipity, AKA Stephen King.

“King’s got a closet full of books people have sent him. In preparation for a long airplane trip, he saw China Lake in his closet and took it with him. Why? It had nice big print, so he figured it was good for an overnight flight.”

And he liked it. He said, “This was good. Do you have any more?”

Gardiner’s British publisher gave copies of all her books to Stephen King, who mentioned her in a column he wrote for Entertainment Weekly and encouraged people to read her thrillers. Almost immediately, she got offers from about fourteen different U.S. publishers.

“Sometimes you need a very big dog with a very big bark to be in your corner.”

Had Gardiner been languishing with a hanky, worrying about not getting U.S. publishers all this time? She had not. Like any serious writer, she was working on new material, a series featuring Jo Beckett, a forensic psychiatrist. She took an offer from Penguin to have the first Jo Beckett novel published, The Dirty Secrets Club. “You must be ready when opportunity knocks.” You never know when Stephen King is going to turn your world upside down.

Gardiner thinks her very early writing attempts were “crap.” But, “If you believe in a book, keep trying to jump over the bar.”

Stay tuned for Part Two of the Gardiner Chronicles, wherein we learn about Writer Work Ethics and Plotting 101. Coming to a blog near you in a few weeks.

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