Mystery 101

This originally appeared on my former blog last year but has some interesting bits of information on the craft of writing not only mysteries but in any genre.

Last Thursday (1/24/08), I attended a brief talk given by Richard Abshire, a local mystery writer and crime reporter for the Dallas Morning News.  Mr. Abshire also teaches creative writing at Northlake College.  The presentation was hosted by the William T. Cozby Public Library as part of their “month of mysteries” series for the month of January. 

Mr. Abshire presented a lot of good advice for writers wanting to break into the commercial writing field.  I don’t write (or at least, I haven’t written) mysteries, but the tips he presented are equally applicable to any genre.  It also helped that Mr. Abshire often tied his advice in with interesting anecdotes from his experiences.  It was a very interesting program.

One of the most important points that he made was that a writer needs to enjoy the process of writing in order to derive the most benefit from it.  First of all, it’s a lonely, thankless profession.  The chances of getting published, let alone making a living from writing, are very slim.  But if you have a love of the craft, of the process, then it will carry you through.  An added bonus is that it throws publishers and agents off their game if you care less about the royalties than from creating a good book. 

He also talked about why people don’t write.  For many, it seems too big a job.  It is a big job…writing is, believe it our not, manual labor.  The secret is to break it down into manageable tasks.  Write one scene at a time.  Focus on some dialog.  Do not sit down to write an entire novel.  By taking a bite at a time, after a while, you’ll have a novel in front of you.

For others, they sit down to write a chapter, read it, and say “this sucks!”  Remember, the first draft always sucks.   But write it.  Write it out.  Do not edit it yet.  Wait until your done.  Then, go back and fix.  Get it out first.  You have to lay out a line of where you are going first before you can bring it all home.

Here are some of my notes based on the tips he presented.  This is what I got out of his talk:

  • Never pay an agent up-front…they get paid if you get paid.  However, you sometimes might have to reimburse an agent for work on your behalf. 
  • When a publisher says that they want something “new”, what they really mean is “we want something new and different that falls within the parameters of what is currently marketable”.
  • Networking is very important…you never know when a new connection can introduce you or your work to the person who also wants to invest in it. (“Suck up to everybody”).
  • You don’t have to be an expert in the field in order to write a good book.  But you do need to get your details right.  Ask experts or workers in the field.  They’ll be more than happy to talk to someone interested in what they do.  Another good source of information for mystery or crime novelists are citizen’s police academy programs. 
  • First and foremost…WRITEBefore you send in a submission package (sample chapters, synopsis), actually have a manuscript ready. 
  • Important actions that drive the plot or develop characters should be played out in scenes.  However, be careful of making everything equally important.  Decide what scenes really matter.  Every scene be should about a question that either gets resolved or opens up the door to more questions. 
  • Narrative should be used to convey information that doesn’t need details, unimportant events, and repetitious action.  It holds the scenes together.  They are descriptive…but do not overdo description (especially flora). 
  • Again…do not overdo description.  Get to the good stuff and move on!  Often people think of 18th, 19th century writers like Dickens with their lines and lines of descriptive narrative text.  Keep in mind that these writers were paid by the word.  Don’t linger too long on description and risk boring your readers.
  • Also, show behavior in characters instead of describing them.  Laying out a scene in which a character displays a facial tic, shaking hands, and an ashtray full of cigarettes is a lot more interesting than saying “Leon was a nervous, chain-smoking, wreck.”
  • Remember verisimilitude…which is a big word meaning keep things realistic…it must “make sense”.  Stay away from too many coincidences. “Believable characters in believable experiences behaving believably”.  Also be careful if you’re basing a scene in your book on actual events…true stories often seem unbelievable when placed in the context of fiction.  You are making a deal with the readers…your setting and your characters should remain consistent. 
  • In dialog, it is important to “sound real”.  Use fragments or contractions.  Stay away from “ping pong”, call-and-response, dialog.  While you want dialog to sound real, it’s actually sounding like we think dialog actually sounds like.  If you record an actual conversation, it would transcribe to very bad dialog. 
  • Read magazines and newspapers to get ideas.  Clip things that are interesting to you, that pique your interest.  Don’t be picky.  After a while, organize the clippings according to types that become apparent to you.  Look at what you have the most of…now you know what you should write about. 
  • Try to be drawn to people or ideas that make you uncomfortable.  This creates inner tension which is important.  This makes it interesting.
  • Beginnings: After you write a few chapters…take your first and second chapters and reverse them.  This usually gives a much more interesting opening that draws in the reader.  The usual first paragraph is very descriptive while the second is more active.  By switching these, you instantly put the reader in to the action.
  • What sells? Title art and blurbs…which you have no control over.  You CAN control how well the first few pages draw the reader in and sell the book.  Remember that fiction is deferred explanation…people have to keep wondering “what’s next”.
  • Endings: Your ending should evoke two reactions; “I’m surprised…” or “Ah..of course!”…never “What in the ???”.
  • Don’t be afraid to raise the stakes on your original idea.  The more ‘dire’ the situation, usually the more interesting it is (and more challenging to write about).
  • Remember that the originality of the plot is less important than the unique way you approach that plot
  • Play with POV (point of view): Things are revealed in different ways according to the character or the POV you use. 

Overall, it was a very enjoyable talk from which I got a lot of good ideas.  Maybe they’ll help you!

About Shedrick

I am a professional librarian and a part-time writer that's working to do that the other way around. I currently live in North Texas in the lovely city of Denton (“The Home of Happiness“) with my lovely wife and the obligatory demon-spawn cats. When not writing, gaming, or watching cheezy kung-fu flicks, I can sometimes be found in a pub (or the American equivalent) enjoying a fine brew.
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