HALLIE EPHRON: To kick of What We're Writing Week, I'm thrilled to report that a new edition of WRITING & SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL is coming out from Writers Digest Books in January 2017. The original edition was nominated for Edgar and Anthony awards. I updated it with new insights and advice, supported by fresh examples and exercises.
I'm even more than thrilled to report that the fabulous Sara Paretsky has written the foreword.
Writing the revision, I was reminded how much easier it is to tell people how to do something than to actually do it yourself. The revision went down smooth as silk, while the new novel that I was working on at the same time (YOU'LL NEVER KNOW, DEAR - pub date June 2017) skittered and jolted and juddered along, circling back on itself endlessly before reaching the finish line.
I finished both, but the novel required many more pints of blood.
Here's a little taste from the new introduction.
WRITING & SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL
REVISED & EXPANDED
“In order to become even sort of good at it, you have to be willing to be bad at it for a long time”—David Owen in The New YorkerI came across the above quote as I was getting ready to revise the 2005 edition of this book. The “it” that Mr. Owen is talking about is playing bridge, but he might as well have been talking about writing a crime novel, another game with a steep learning curve. Almost everyone’s first efforts stink.
This discovery was particularly painful for me. I’d always gotten straight As in English, and I’d read a million crime novels, so it was easy to underestimate the task at hand. How hard could it be? After all, I wasn’t trying to write great literature, just a gripping page-turner. I hoped my characters would be nearly as vibrant as Ruth Rendell’s, my dialogue almost as snappy as Elmore Leonard’s, and my plots twisty like Agatha Christie’s. I was not prepared for the reality. The aforementioned stink.
Learning my craft was a long hard slog. It took me about six years to write a mystery novel that I felt was good enough to send to potential agents, and I have two manuscripts and a ton of short stories—all of them unpublished and unpublishable—in the drawer to show for it.
Writing a mystery novel is not for the faint of heart. Juggler, conjurer, and herder of cats—those are all in the job description. Be prepared to keep three or four intertwined plots spinning. Get ready to master the art of misdirection so readers will ogle the red herrings you’ve sprinkled throughout the story while ignoring the clues in plain sight. Don’t be surprised when you find yourself trying to corral characters who refuse to do what you want them to.
And it gets even more complicated. There is no recipe for success. Ask for advice from ten successful writers and they’ll swear by ten different approaches. That’s because, just like you, every one of them has a unique assortment of strengths and weaknesses. Maybe your dialogue sings but your descriptions are pallid. Maybe you have a grand time coming up with plot twists and writing slam-bang action scenes but your characters tend to be flat, without emotional insight. Maybe you write complex, interesting female characters but your men are cardboard cutouts. Your first draft will reflect whatever strengths and weaknesses you bring to the table.
I’m often asked: Can anyone learn to write a saleable mystery novel? My answer is no. A few are so naturally talented that they can turn out a masterpiece while barely breaking a sweat. At the other extreme are writers who, even after decades of striving, still churn out work that’s destined to circle the drain. But most of us fall in between, and no one can tell at the outset who will succeed and who will fail.
Aspiring writers don’t necessarily fail because they lack raw talent. Often they lack the stamina and patience needed to complete a first draft. Or they’re too thin-skinned to hear criticism and haven’t got the resilience to revise, revise, revise. Or they fold after the first few rejections and never reach the finish line.
This book presents a writing process that capitalizes on your strengths and shores up your weaknesses. Throughout, you’ll find a range of strategies that have worked for successful mystery writers, along with invitations to try them and see what works for you.
There is no guarantee of success, so persevering is up to you. Only one thing is certain: If you never finish a first draft, you’ll never know if you can get to “good enough.”
So here’s my first piece of sage advice to anyone about to embark on writing a mystery novel: Just hold your nose and write.
Today's question: What have you gotten better at over the years, and what's your sage advice to up-and-comers trying to learn it?