Monday, November 7, 2016

Hallie revises her #mysterywriting book

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.



“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 Yorker 
I 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I felt was good enough to send to potential agents, and I have two manuscripts and a ton of short stories—all of them unpublished and unpublishable—in the drawer to show for it.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?


  1. What an amazing piece, Hallie. It certainly made me want to jump right in and read the rest of the book . . . .

    I think your wise advice could pertain to almost any craft: perseverance is the hallmark of learning to do something well. There are probably millions of ripped-out stitches between that first sewing project and the ability to create a cute outfit for your child [or your grandbaby] or dozens of barely-edible dishes between those halting first efforts and an amazing dessert or a perfect loaf of homemade bread. But no matter what the task, I think that perhaps the process is much the same . . . jump in, learn all you can, and keep on keeping on, always giving it the very best of yourself.

  2. HOMEMADE BREAD! Now that is something I would dearly love to get good at making. Edith's our expert... And I never had the patience to get good at knitting.

  3. I'm so glad you've updated this fabulous book, Hallie. I'm a big fan and have recommended it frequently to beginning writers. Congratulations on finishing both your books!

    The biggest thing I've gotten a lot better at is writing mystery novels, and I still have so much to learn. And also pie crust.

    I think the flip side is also true - you can keep doing the same thing and NOT get better at it if you don't strive to do it right and keep learning. I used to be very meticulous about my compost piles - I'd make sure they had the right ratio of green to brown and were big enough to heat up. I'd mix in horse manure to boost the nitrogen. I'd turn them every three days or week, and have weed-free finished compost to add to the garden in a few weeks. Now I don't care so much and don't have the time - or strength sometimes - and the results show. (And I don't care about that, either, LOL!)

  4. Edith, but you CAN turn out a great just choose not to. I'd have no idea where to begin. Lucy's our other resident expert on compostig.

  5. Yes, we still compost, but never the meticulous way Edith is describing!

    What I've learned, really cannot fix words that aren't written...dictation helps me manage my tendinitis...I must get down to character-eye level and figure out what they would be feeling and how they'd react--don't impose the plot on them, but let it evolve from them...

    A million other things too... This is a super introduction Hallie!

  6. Lucy, that's one that took me awhile to learn, too: don't impose the plot on your characters ("but I need her to find the dead body so she's got to go into the haunted house... alone... at night... with a dead cell phone...")

  7. I still pull out my copy of the first version and I can't wait to read the updated one. I've learned so much from you! My advice is study the craft of writing and go to writing classes taught by people whose writing you admire.

  8. THANK YOU, Sherry! See you Crimebake this weekend!

  9. Hallie, I've always maintained that writing is more a craft than an art. Like other crafts, ceramics, for example, you only get better with lots of practice. You might have a brilliant vision of a vase but a new ceramicist cannot manipulate the clay. The same is true for our medium, words. The more we read, the more we write, the better we get. However, I have seen writers who can overwork something that clearly has a major flaw or is simply not exciting or different enough to excite an agent. Learning to learn from the experience is part of the process.

  10. So true, Rhys - though some of us (me for instance) are ever going to make gorgeous ceramics, no mater how hard we practice. It's fortunate when your aspirations coincide with your natural talents.

  11. Sounds like I need to update my edition.

    What have I learned? You can't fix a blank page (see Lucy's comment above). And you might need a character to do something, but you really have to find out WHY he or she might do that. And if you can't, well, you probably need to come up with another way to get to your result.

    I never had the patience to learn knitting either. But my family tells me I make a mean pie crust.

  12. Oh, I love the new cover Hallie. I have a copy of the original on my shelf - yes, we reviewers read these books as well - how else are we going to know when you all get things "right."

  13. I once drew a character diagram for my novel, a target with the MC in the bullseye, enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

    Over the weekend, at the Mad Anthony writer's workshop in Hamilton, Ohio, I heard Hallie discuss her new, improved model, which is in the revised edition of her book. It's a winner.

  14. Hallie, I'm a (relative) newbie and just discovered the old version of your book and requested it from the library. After reading the others' comments here, I'm sure I'll want to order my own copy of the new version!

    My experience thus far has been belonging to a few writers' critique sites online and taking a few classes at Grub Street over the past couple of years. I got laid off from my job with the state and figured this would be a good time to try to tackle a book.

    What have I learned so far? A book is SO much harder than writing shorter pieces, even though an instructor told me that I might be more comfortable with the book medium. (Probably because I have trouble writing short ANYTHING! LOL.) I've been reading and writing in some form or other for most of my life and can't believe how difficult it is. It's a good thing there are so many writers like the JRW, who so generously give of their time and advice!

  15. This is so fabulous! My original copy is battered and annotated, and I cannot wait to do it again with this one.
    What I have gotten better at, airplane travel! I am a pro now, and usually even enjoy it… I know, crazy.
    As for writing, I have gotten better at being more careful. I ask myself: is this the very best word, the most specific word, the most active word, the most evocative word? . Sometimes I write quickly, too quickly, and have learned to recognize that every single word choice is important.
    Rushing to the airport :-)… Off to Denver and Laura DiSilverio! Please come see us tonight at the tattered cover in Aspen Grove!

  16. Nobody tells you that characters have minds of their own. It's ridiculously difficult to stay out of their way.

    Hallie, I wish I'd brought my copy of Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel for you to sign. Guess I'll just have to get the next one!

  17. Karen, next time!
    Thank you, Hank! I love it when anyone brings me a dog-eared copy with post-its all over it to sign.

  18. MaryC you'll be able to write in(!) your own copy AND the exercises can be downloaded from the Internet.

  19. Hey Margaret T - viva la WEB of character!

  20. Kristopher, THANK YOU!

    Mary I'm really good at pie crust, too, maybe because the best ones are done FAST an mess doesn't matter.

  21. Hi Hallie, I am so excited. I used your book to write my first (sold) mystery. I'd written the book during NaNo. Deconstructed it and reconstructed it according to your book and it's still on the top of my writing books as a go to when I get stuck.

    What have I gotten better at? Self-editing during the first draft, especially crutch words (I save them to use them in blog comments--LOL)

  22. About once a year, I pick up a writing book for inspiration and to open my perspective on ways I can improve my craft. Looking forward to picking this one up, Hallie. (Can't believe I missed it years ago before the first novel came out.)

    Something I've learned over the years? How to be objective and cut the shite out of my first drafts. :-) Also, how to parse feedback and analyze what really needs revising (if anything).

  23. So happy to see this. Hallie's "Wizard of Oz" analogy when it comes to plot pacing is the best I have ever heard. This book is great.

  24. Great introduction! Adding your book to my list for 2017 publications and my wish list, Hallie. I have your original on my Kindle. Since I worked with elementary and high school students on writing, I'm always interested in how the craft is approached and managed by published authors. One of the aspects of writing that I tried to instill in students is the rewriting to make a piece better. I would point out that authors of books they read did lots of revision before publication. Sometimes the students listened and took note of that and sometimes they didn't. There was usually a resistance to doing something more than once, but I tried to at least make each student revise up to what I thought they could. And, as a reviewer, I struggle with catching the interest of a potential reader of a book, hoping to push those readers to the books I love.

  25. Lisa - ah, "crutch words" - we all have to get rid of them but first you've got to recognize them.

    Thanks, Denise! The Wizard of Oz is so useful because everyone knows it.

    Kathy - rewriting always seemed like a chore when I was in school - now it's a pleasure because first draft is such a bitch.

  26. Wow.. what a tantalizing title this morning...tempting me to move step by cautious step towards making something 'real' thanks.. I have brain + heart. now for courage.

  27. Thank you!

    Jacqueline Winspear gave us wonderful advice about writing when we took her classes at the Book Passage Mystery Writing Conference about two years ago.