Want to write a mystery novel? Consider these points:
1) Before you start you need to understand that every plot scenario has already been used thousands of times over in variations of the themes of greed, lust, jealousy and revenge. Although the names and descriptions of your characters are different from other characters in other books, it is the author’s voice that must be unique and not so much the plot line. Improbable plots line devised to show how original you are often frustrate the reader, who has already agreed at the start of chapter one to suspend disbelief, so don’t make him change his mind. Whatever you do, don’t get stuck trying to devise a new, extravagant way to kill someone by setting his hot air balloon on fire by shooting flaming arrows at it when simply pushing him out a window will do the job. Avoid silly contrivances. The mystery writer, or the writer of any fiction must revive the shopworn plots by creating a sympathetic protagonist. It comes down to building your characters into relatable or likable human beings that your audience will want to know more about, will care about, and will want to hang out with. Build from the inside out. Give the fellow an interior life, not just the face the world sees. The best stories are often the simplest, but the people in those stories have rich interior lives that influence their actions. You need to be a psychological profiler, in a way. Draw your characters as real people. That is to say, give them a life, a history, color them with virtues and faults that make them human. Use these virtues and faults to drive the action. If the nature of a man will not permit him to do something, you cannot make him do it. Be true to the character you’ve created. That means, you must love the hero as well as the villain or your depiction will be tainted. Do not write from your villain’s point of view, even if great writers like Dean Koontz have.
2) You will have a free-flowing pipeline for inspiration if you just let your imagination guide you. Stop working so hard to find a great story. Be aware of the world around you. Something will click. A news bite, a line spoken in a movie, an incident occurring on the street as you’re walking along, even a television commercial can spark an idea. Relax, but listen, watch for it. And then let it roll around in your mind. If something strikes you, take a walk, sit quietly. If you’ve a creative bent your mind will begin to create the world and the people within that world. But struggling to find a story will shut down your imagination.
3) Read, read, read mysteries! Read the classics! Study and define what is great about the heavy-hitters of literature.
4) Know what you are talking about. If you know nothing about forensics, don’t make your detective the chief medical examiner. If your plot revolves around a particular profession, beware! You had better know all about that job or someone will call you out. I don’t think you have to write within your comfort zone, but if you venture out into an area of which you know nothing about, become well informed and do extensive research before you proceed.
5) Get an editor! Not just a copy editor, but someone who can detect inconsistencies in your story and can tell you when too much is too much and where you are lacking. No matter how scrupulous you think you are in keeping track of clues and timelines, you will miss something important. Friends, family, are often the worst editors. (Sorry if there are typos in this posting. Can’t find the spell check icon on WordPress anymore!)
6) Listen to criticism from people who have your best interests at heart, but beware the glowing reviews from parents and people who love you. Give your mystery manuscript to people you know who actually read mysteries. Are you secure enough to stand by a work that may be lacking in the essentials of quality writing? Do you understand the elements of style (not just the handbook), and understand what makes a fiction novel truly good? Steer clear of agents who charge you a fee to read and evaluate your book. Don’t fall in love with every single sentence you write. If it’s for effect or makes you appear clever or intelligent, scrap it. If it drives the plot and is not a contrivance, it may remain. Otherwise, as they say in publishing, “murder your darlings.” Write simply and forget the poetry, rein in your tendency toward hyperbole and restrict the metaphors when you start out. Be direct and write what you see happening in the scene playing out through your mind’s eye.
7) Don’t copy other writers, their styles, their approaches. Just respect them and what they do. You have your own voice.
8) Agents who want you to describe your work in a query, likening it to a popular author’s style are people to run from. Check out Predators & Editors, an on-line site to see what other writers think of individual agents and publishing houses. These days it’s all right to self-publish, but keep away from those vanity press companies. For a big fee they will do all the work—cover art, printing—because they want to sell you 500 copies of your book that you will never be able to sell on your own. Instead, hire a good compositor and graphic artist to design your cover and set the type, like my guy, Eric Conover, and a good copy-editor to find those typos, a professional, like my gal, Shelley, and give him/her your best and cleanest manuscript. Always produce a paper version of your book as a POD (print on demand) option at the same time you release your ebook.
9) Beware writers’ groups! Why depend on other aspiring writers to tell you if your work is good or bad? Believe me, these people are only interested in what they are writing. They don’t give a hoot about your progress. Unless you have a great instructor who dares tell you the truth and can zone-in on your problems with composition in order to set you on a track for success, it’s a waste of time. Best to read the thoughts of established authors for guidance, take classes in composition at a local college and classes in literature.
10) Carefully consider the narrative’s point of view. Should the book be written in the first person or the third? This decision sets the tone of your book. Never refer to the reader by the use of “you” when using the first person—i.e: “you how it is when things go wrong.” It breaks down the fourth wall. When your character is talking to himself it is all right. Only one writer I know has ever gotten away with that approach. Jack Finney. But his stories were so original and compelling that he was forgiven. You have to learn the rules in order to break the rules.
11) Practice! I don’t remember which famous writer said, “You have to write a thousand pages of crap before you can become a writer.” Take that to heart.
12) If you’re not enjoying the challenge, play golf, collect stamps. Not everybody has the talent or the stamina to become an author. Don’t expect to make a fortune. It shouldn’t be about money. It should be an artistic endeavor.
Best of luck, and with a sincere wish you will see your literary dreams come true!
Until next time,