Saturday, February 19, 2011

Tips and gotchas from the trenches...

When I taught my first mystery-writing class, I’d had just one mystery novel published. I felt like a fraud “teaching” others at that conference what I’d barely figured out how to do myself. But I’d been a teacher for decades longer than I’d been a writer, and not knowing how to do something had never stopped me before. Besides, I’d long ago discovered that a great way to get better at doing something is to try to teach it to someone else.

Since then, I've published two books on writing and read and reviewed a ton of books, from cozies to thrillers to historicals to psychological suspense to police procedurals. I appreciate the wide range of books that fit into the genre of “crime novel.” And heaven knows my work has gotten its share of stinky reviews as well as glowing praise, so I know quality is a matter of taste.

Still, that hasn't stopped me from having opinions about what works and what doesn't. Here are my deadly dozen: tips and gotchas for mystery writers:

Tip # 1: On making the crime matter to the sleuth
Whether the crime is big and threatens the future of humanity, or small and threatens a person's good reputation, it has to matter personally to the sleuth.

Tip # 2: On coming up with ideas
I used to think that I couldn't write fiction because I wasn't good at making things up. Turns out you don't have to be, because intriguing ideas are all around you. Learn to tune in, and pay attention when your brain says: Oh, that's interesting.

Tip #3: On your sleuth's dark past
When your sleuth has a dark past, it raises the stakes. Each time out, the sleuth not only solves a crime, but also takes a personal journey and gets a chance to get it right this time.

Tip #4: On secrets that fuel your plot
In a mystery novel, everyone has secrets; revealing a secret propels the story forward.

Tip #5: On basing your story on real people and events
A real person or an actual event can make an excellent jumping-off point for a mystery novel. But some real events are too bizarre for fiction.

Tip #6: On moving your character past cliche
Interesting characters surprise the reader. Create a disconnect between your character's physical presence and true capabilities. Then mine the gap. Through plot and action, reveal who your character really is.

Gotcha #1: On head hopping
Jane Austen wrote omniscient, slipping in and out of different characters’ heads throughout a scene. But for the most part, fiction left omniscience behind in the nineteenth century. It's less confusing (and more compelling) to pick a character whose viewpoint you’re going to write from and stay in that head from the beginning to the end of a scene.

Gotcha #2: On profligate adverbs
“Oh, goody,” Mary said enthusiastically as she smiled brightly.
Clunky, clunky, clunky. Get rid of as many of those –ly words and replace them with really good descriptions of what the character does. It’s the old SHOW DON’T TELL.
(Better (sort of): “Oh goody.” Mary rubbed her hands together and beamed me a smile.)

Gotcha #3: On least likely villain
Yes, you want to surprise the reader. But the surprise has to be credible. I hate when the anorexic, teeny-bopper daughter of the murder victim did it.

Gotcha #4: On baroque attribution
Avoid having your characters proclaim, churble, ululate…and virtually every other variation of “said” or “asked.” Put the emotion into the dialogue itself or in your character’s demeanor or action. (See Pet Peeve 2)

Gotcha #5: On coincidence
If some major part of your plot hinges on a coincidence, readers will cry foul. Sure, there are coincidences in real life, but your fictional world is far more demanding. (See Tip #5)

Gotcha #6: On “We get it already!”
Trust your readers. If you show something, you don’t have to hammer the point by going on to explain it. (If you say: “Her face fell,” You don’t need to add, “and she looked so disappointed.”)


  1. Great tips! Picture me applauding here.

  2. Sometimes those who CAN do, teach, too. Do you know I reread Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel every time I start a new book? I probably never told you because I didn't want you to think of me as some geeky fan girl.

    BTW If you're in the NYC area on March 2, Hallie will be leading a fabulous MWANY dinner discussion called What makes us Stop Reading. No need to be an MWA member to attend. Email me offlist if you'd like more info.

  3. Thank you, Hallie! I've already copied, pasted and printed to keep your tips as a constant reminder. I agree, Rosemary. My experience is the best teachers have "done." Besides the opposite statement is an insult to all teachers.

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  5. Me, too--my copy of Hallie's book has its spine irrevocably broken and it now is permanently open to page 76. (Check it out)

  6. Well, darn. I have a character who's just itching to ululate.

  7. Thanks, All - sorry to be chiming in late. I was buying a car. Probably my LEAST favorite thing in the entire world (... scratch that, I can think of worse) but we did it, and fortunately we do it only about once every 8 years.

  8. No kidding, Ro! I am so pleased!!

    And YES everyone come join us in NY March 2. It will be raucous -- me, the incomparable Janet Reid (aka query shark), and the wonderful Katherine Nintzel (editor from HarperCollins).

    And we can talk about all the various ways multiple viewpoint can drive me up a tree.

  9. Great tips, as always, however having the main character/sleuth with a stake in the crime's solution has led to ungodly mayhem for the protag's wife, children, ex-girlfriends and so forth, to the point of plot cliche with the subtlety of a meat ax. This has become such a turnoff for me that I put these books down after reading the back cover. Is this just me or does it smack of lazy plotting?

  10. Yes, indeedy - I call it the General Hospital syndrome (where the main character is required to get brain cancer one season, have his girlfriend/wife/brother diagnosed with some deadly virus the next.... Still, if the crime doesn't MATTER to the sleuth, why on earth would the sleuth do all the crazy things s/he needs to do to investigate?

  11. Love, your tips and gotchas. Now I'm going to check out page 76 in your book. I've read the book, which is on my nightstand for reference, but can't remember what is on that page.

    I can't (physically) make the MWA conference but my critique partners will be there.

  12. Thanks for the great tips, Hallie. Got any more? :)