Tuesday, December 13, 2016


DEBORAH CROMBIE: There's nothing we like better here at JUNGLE RED WRITERS than a new book from one of our own! And what could be more fun than a book on writing a mystery? I can't wait to dig into this.

Just because I've written a few mysteries doesn't mean that I can't use a refresher course, and this is one of the best how-tos on the market. Here's our Hallie!

HALLIE EPHRON: It’s been more than 10 years since my how-to book on writing a mystery, was published and nominated for Edgar and Anthony awards. Since then, I’ve written eight more mystery and suspense novels, reviewed hundreds of crime novels for the Boston Globe, and given over 100 writing workshops and presentations.
In short, I’ve learned a lot, so I’m thrilled that Writers Digest tapped me to update my book. The new edition, WRITING & SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL: REVISED AND EXPANDED, is packed with new examples, exercises, and most of all insights about writing that I’ve gleaned since it was first published. The new introduction from Sara Paretsky is a special bonus.

Best of all, technology has evolved and now all of the exercises in it are available for download.

Here’s just a few of the things I’ve learned about writing a crime novel that I packed into the new edition (see the Table of Contents if you want to see more): 

  • Suspense is about the potential for something bad happening, and often the writer has to choose between suspense and surprise. When to reveal is as important as what to conceal.
  • Secrets play a key role in in driving suspense. Lies protect the innocent as well as the guilty. The revelation of secrets can beef up a slow second act.
  • It’s not plot or character, it’s plot and character: they have to dance together. The protagonist’s journey is as important as whodunit.
  • Character need to have competing goals (sounds obvious, I know, but it wasn’t to me); creating a character web helps you harness the tension inherent in competing goals
  • Much has changed,but professional quality editing is as important as ever in this brave new world of indie publishing.

The book is laced with quotes that I cherry-picked to reinforce the ideas. Here are some of my favorites:

On doing something hard like writing... 

“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

(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. Which led me to my advice to the aspiring writer: Just hold your nose and write.)
On getting started...
“Anyone who ever waited for the great inspiration to strike is still waiting to write her first book or short story. I start with an idea, of course; something that intrigues me. Then I start asking myself three questions: Suppose, what if, and why?” —Mary Higgins Clark
On playing fair with the reader…
“Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?” —Membership oath of The Detection Club, founded in 1928; past presidents include Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie
On the sleuth…
“A really good detective never gets married.” —Raymond Chandler,
On the villain:
“I do empathise with people who are driven by dreadful impulses. I think to be driven to want to kill must be such a terrible burden. I try, and I think I succeed, in making my readers feel sorry for my psychopaths, because I do.” —Ruth Rendell
On the suspects:
“Everybody has something to conceal.” —Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon
On planning vs pantsing:
“An outline is crucial. It saves so much time. When you write suspense, you have to know where you’re going because you have to drop little hints along the way. With the outline, I always know where the story is going.” —John Grisham

“I do a very minimal synopsis before I start, and I know where I end up, I know sort of stations along the way, but I give myself freedom to kind of just discover things as I go along.” —Louis Bayard

“I just dive in and hope the book comes out at the other end. And as I get to the character, slowly the plot develops like a Polaroid.”—Tana French
The book can be pre-ordered now on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, or ordered now from Writers Digest Books.

Today's questions: Why do you think RC thought a married sleuth was a bad idea? Can you get away with "jiggery-Pokery"? And what else in life do you have to resign yourself to being bad at for a good long time before you get good?

Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: Revised and Expanded

To piece together the puzzle of your mystery novel, you need patience, resilience, a solid understanding of the craft, and a clear blueprint for combining the plot, characters, setting, and more. And while patience and resilience must come from you, the essentials of craft and the plan to execute them are right at your fingertips with Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: Revised and Expanded. This completely revised and expanded edition features solid strategies for drafting, revising, and selling an intriguing novel that grips your readers and refuses to let them go.

New York Times best-selling author Hallie Ephron shows you how to:

  • Create a compelling sleuth and a worthy villain
  • Construct a plot rich in twists, red herrings, and misdirection
  • Bring the story to a satisfying conclusion
  • Sharpen characters and optimize pace during revision
  • Seek publication through both traditional and indie paths

Filled with helpful worksheets and exercises for every step of the process, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel Revised and Expanded reveals the secrets of writing a memorable story that will have fans of mystery, suspense, and crime clamoring for more.

"The best how-to guide I have ever seen—I just wish I could have read it twenty years ago." -Lee Child, New York Times best-selling mystery author
DEBS: The only one I would disagree with is the stricture against married sleuths, since I've done it... READERS, what do you think?

And Hallie, did revising this book help you with your novel-in-progress?

PS: A fun side note--I met Hallie when we were both teaching at workshop given every year at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California. Hallie is a regular instructor, and I can tell you that if you ever get a chance to attend one of Hallie's classes or talks, take it. She is fabulous!


  1. This sounds like such an amazing book . . . .
    Perhaps Raymond Chandler thought being married would be too big a distraction for the detective??? Since I’ve read books with married detectives, and found them to be wonderfully enjoyable, I believe I shall disagree with that bit of advice.
    However, I find “Jiggery-Pokery” to be generally annoying, so I guess I understand why writers shouldn’t place reliance on it.

  2. I preordered when the book first became available, so I'm in a track stance waiting for delivery. Hallie's book taught me the mystery writing game, and my copy is so dog eared now that it's a mercy to replace it.

    Married sleuths--yes and no, Nick and Nora shared time with Raymond Chandler wonder what he thought of them. That said, I have noticed that few series survive sleuth marriage. It changes the dynamic too much. Authors often seem to feel the need to draw the spouse into the detecting business few, Margaret Maron springs to mind, allow the couple to continue as a separate, but united team. Deborah's husband, cop though he is, does not interject himself in her mysteries, instead, they continue to complement each other so the marriage works for readers and the books.

    Books that form around already married sleuths work or don't work on their own merits. The reader meets both, knows the situation, and the dynamic is set. Easier situation, I think, and often enjoyable.

    Jiggery-Pokery is annoying and has been known to cause dents in my walls.

    Congratulations, Hallie!

  3. Congratulations on the new edition, Hallie! And what a brilliant idea to make the exercises downloadable.

    Married sleuths? Rhys is pulling it off pretty well with Molly. If it's a good story, the author can make married sleuths work.

    Whenever I'm writing a suspenseful scene, I think of your Grub Street workshop I took many years ago. It was only one evening, but I still remember the things you said (and more importantly, showed) about writing suspense. Thank you.

    After I moved to New England 35 years ago, I was bad at cross-country skiing for some years (I'd never done any kind of skiing). But I loved it so much I kept going out on sunny quiet days to glide through the woods, golf courses, and fields. Now I don't fall any more and still love it.

  4. Jiggery-Pokery, indeed!

    Chiming in with a hearty second on Debs's recommendation for Hallie as a teacher. I have recent experience of her expertise, since I took an all-day class with her last month, and learned a lot.

    Personally, I am suspicious of sleuths that avoid marriage, or relationships. Reacher springs to mind. He makes me very uncomfortable.

  5. Jiggery-pokery and marriage can both work! A good writer just has to make it work.
    Congratulations Hallie, my copy of your first edition is so used it is falling apart… So happy to have a new one!

  6. Sometimes you need a little jiggery-pokery in a marriage LOL. My theory on why someone would assume marriage doesn't work in a mystery is that being settled in a happy relationship drains away a source of tension.

    I need this book right away--for the chapter on suspense, for starters.

    and ps yes, if you get the chance to attend one of Hallie's writing workshops, don't miss it!

  7. I suspect that Raymond Chandler was concerned that a married detective wouldn't take the risks necessary once they had found true love. But he was writing in another age and we have seen that it can and does work, but the compelling reason for putting one's self in harms way has had to evolve as well.

    Laura Lippman faced a similar dilemma when she had Tess have a child. Even more than marriage, I think parenthood - especially for Mothers - is going to make the idea of risk-taking a less appealing option. After all, someone is *really* depending on you now. But even Laura was able to find a plot that would make Tess going to those extremes believable.

    I really don't think anything is off the table in crime fiction. But it has to ring true for the character - like Hallie says "Character AND Plot." Make those two line up in harmony and readers will follow you for any tale.

  8. Congratulations, Hallie, on the new edition!

    One sub-genre that still has a lot of single (unattached) protagonists is the PI novel so Raymond Chandler's issue about marriage could apply there. It was true for his time period and his lone wolf sleuth.

    And how many current day authors follow the Detection Club's oath to play fair with readers? Most do, but some memorable books have certainly tossed that rule out the window!

  9. Deb, you are so right, Hallie is a fabulous teacher. I've taken several master classes with her at Crime Bake and always come away with a notebook full of insight.

    Hallie, I love the first edition of this book--it is one of my Bibles--and am glad there is a update. Can't have too much of a good thing.

    Thanks for including the Detection Club membership oath, Hallie. I love that so much. No mumbo-jumbo or jiggery-pokery for me!

  10. Joan, I think that's exactly why he thought a married detective was a bad idea... but then, he was a man. Seriously, it's taken awhile for the world of crime fiction to appreciate the potential for suspense and nefarious goings-on in domesticity.

  11. Kait, I agree, Deborah's Duncan Kincaid and Jemma James are a great example of a couple that really work... married. Hank's Jane Ryland and Jake Brogan are a great example of a pair that work unmarried.

  12. Edith, as with cross-country skiing so with writing! And thanks on remembering the workshop. I love teaching suspense. It's all about subtext, something which I didn't know whatchacallit until I'd written and taught for quite a few years.

  13. Hi, Karen - waving to you in Ohio! It is such a pleasure when someone I've gotten to know here shows up in the flesh.

    Can you even imagine Jack Reacher getting married? No way. THAT'S the kind of detective Chandler was talking about.

  14. Hank, EXACTLY! Do anything well and you can get away with it.

    Yes, Lucy, I think you're right about losing a source of tension when they tie the knot... or actually when they "do it".

  15. Kristopher -- Seriously, the truth about writing, even crime novels, is that for the writer it's always at its best when the stories grow out of some personal wellspring. I think it's no coincidence that Laura Lippman had her first child and then wrote a child into her series.

  16. Grace, you've put your finger on a major trend: the unreliable narrator. But remember, Agatha Christie started it with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

  17. Thanks, Brenda!

    And of course the Detection Club oath didn't anticipate mysteries with detectives with psychic powers, vampires, zombies...

  18. IMHO, it does not matter to me if there are married sleuths or single sleuths. It matters to me more if the sleuths have substance.

    I am sorry to say that there has been times when I stopped reading a new mystery because the characters were boring. Or all of the characters were not likable.

    Sometimes the stories are either not interesting or too hard for me to follow.

    On a happier note, I love Agatha Christie. When I first read her books, they were challenging! Challenging is different from difficulties in following. It is hard to explain why a book is difficult to follow. I think it has to do with the logic.

    I have my personal favorites.

    Great post! Hallie, I put your new book on my TBR list!

    Debs, great posts about cookies yesterday and the day before!


  19. Congrats, Hallie! Can't wait to read it! When starting a new book, I always return to the guides that have helped in the past, and I look forward to diving into "Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel."

    My PI, Fina Ludlow, is happily single, although she does have a couple of friends with benefits. For the time being she's going to stay that way. Not because I don't think marriage and sleuthing can coexist, but because I like to show a female protagonist who doesn't need to have a husband and children to be complete. Sometimes people ask me "Will Fina ever get married?" and I think, do you ask the same question about Jack Reacher? Is he an incomplete person because marriage and children aren't in his future? Food for thought...

  20. Ingrid, I very much like your stance on "marriage and children don't have to define a woman." You're right, there are single male sleuths out there and no one is pushing to have them walk down the aisle.

    Hallie, congrats on the new, updated edition! The first WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL was great, so i can't wait to see what this book has in store.

    BTW, Hallie already knows this, but her writing book is one that I always encourage my students to read when I'm leading a seminar or workshop.

  21. Oh, and thinking of "Jiggery-pokery", has everyone here read that famous S.S, Van Dine list of DON'TS from the 1920s? You know, no twins, no "Chinamen", only one detective, etc. Didn't someone once write a story that broke all the rules?

  22. Julia, I've always wanted to do a collectio of short stories in which EACH story broke one of the "rules" - I still think it's a good idea.

    And thx for the thumbs-up, Julia - BTW the example I use of BRILLIANT opening pages comes from Julia's debut novel IN THE DEEP MIDWINTER which introduced us to Russ Van Alstyne and the cold cold winter and a baby left on church steps. Got the story rolling, hooked us on the protagonist, AND gave just a smidgen of his back story without a back story dump. Read my book to see the dangers of the back story dump.

  23. Hallie, I had never come across the earlier version so I will definitely be picking up the new one! Sounds great.

    I think more important than married or not is that whatever changes occur in the protagonist's life feel organic. A pet peeve of mine is when a character seems to be moving toward a happy equilibrium in a relationship and then it feels like the author breaks them up capriciously. A few times I have strongly suspected that the author just didn't know how to write for a person in relationship and broke them up for their own convenience, not because it grew out of the characters. And as others have said, Deborah Crombie and Margaret Maron are two shining examples of writers who have used married detectives and gotten it right!

  24. Ingrid, happily now your Fina Ludlow single female sleuth with "friends" isn't alone out there. No one give Janet Evanovich a hard time about Stephanie Plum. And P. D. James's Cordelia Gray (An Unsuitable Job for a Woman) didn't need a man.

    AND there are lots of books now with male married protagonists ... Robert Dugoni's David Sloane, just for example, springs to mind. Didn't surprise me when he went on to write a terrific series with female protagonist Tracy Crosswhite. He's a guy who writes about relationships.

  25. Susan, I hate it, too, when for no apparent reason the two characters blow up at each other, obviously just to advance the plot. (or when cell phones run out of juice conveniently, cars get flat tires...)

    Also the reason I outright reject the adage to writers: If your plot is flagging, have a man come in with a gun. Poo. To use the technical term.

  26. Congratulations on the new edition, Hallie--I was lucky enough to win a copy of the first edition and it's on my bedside table. Great ideas, thought-provoking even if you don't write mysteries!

    Married, single? Human relationships are so tangled sometimes, that in the hands of a thoughtful writer, any kind of relationship can work. I liked Russ being married and Clare part of the clergy--certainly added a great deal of tension and turmoil to the books as they progressed. I liked that Gemma and Duncan did 'it' fairly early on in the books, without using that as an obvious source of tension and I liked that Gemma came with a child.

    And as for rules? I remember what an art teacher once told a student who was too impatient with their early exercises--who wanted to create 'ART'--you can't break the rules until you understand them. So, go ahead, break any rule you want--in the hands of a truly creative writer, it just may work!

  27. Congratulations, Sensei! In celebration, here's a graphic. (Apologies, in case I flub the HTML 5 syntax).

    <img src="Dear Ms. Christie.jpg" title="Scully" alt="Scully asking about Jiggery Pokery"=

  28. Faye Kellerman's books take (unequal) turns focusing on her married-to-each-other sleuths. One is an actual detective, but his Orthodox Jewish wife gets to delve into investigations, as well. The tension comes from outside their marriage, as well as inside it.

    Hallie, I've been rereading your original version, and look forward to seeing all the new stuff you've added in the new edition.

  29. Oops. Sorry. :( The HTML must've said, "The pen of your aunt is in Poughkeepsie." :( Or Blogger wisely won't let us rabble out here in Comment Land post images. :)

    Anyhoo ...

    I'm stoked to hunt up this new edition of your craft book. Congratulations!!

  30. FCHURCH, exactly what you said about art... know what you're doing before you start coloring outside the lines.

  31. Rhonda, indeed it would be Scully, a role model for a cool female detective (who never gets married), to ask about jiggery pokery.

  32. Married, single - others have covered it. Do it well, and it'll work. I agree that Chandler might have been thinking about the loss of tension or the loss of "risk tolerance" with a married detective.

    Jiggery-pokery? Be careful. My father just sent me a message about a novelist he enjoyed for book 1, but book 2 dropped a unforeseen fact on page 175 of a 200 page book that affected the solution and he was seriously annoyed. I think Agatha Christie did jiggery-pokery well (and why is Roger Ackroyd the only unreliable narrator I can deal with?).

    Another book for the reference shelf. (Every time I want to buy some craft books the money goes elsewhere, so by the time I actually can buy them I'm going to totally qualify for Amazon's free shipping.)

  33. Go Hallie! The person who has taught me more about mystery writing than anyone else. I'll be reading the updated version as soon as it's out. The original is curled and tattered now. It was where I went whenever I doubted I knew what I was doing, which is more often than I care to admit.

  34. Hallie, tell us about the new features, like the downloadable exercises. Those sound great! And when will the book be available from sites other than Writer's Digest? (I just went to order it!)

    And will it be available in an e-version?

    Thanks all for the nice comments on Duncan and Gemma. I think KEEPING them from getting married would have become very irritating:-) Julia's Russ and Clare are another great example.

  35. Yes! Duncan and Gemma, and Russ and Clare, too.

  36. Molly Murphy is now married and a mother. Having to juggle priorities and make agonizing choices makes her more real as a person. I've never been a fan of the loner sleuth. My sleuths live in a world where friends and family constantly intrude, distract and cause worry. Just like my world.

    And Hallie, I've recommended your book whenever I teach a workshop. So happy I'll have the updated, new improved with added brighteners edition to recommend now.

  37. Mary, I'm with your dad. I'm usually grateful though when the disillusionment come before page 100.

    Hey, Michele! I still remember the first writing of yours that I saw... about pink slippers. I remember it because it was really good! Such fun to work with writers who already pack talent.

  38. Deb, pub date (when it will be available for shipping on Amazon etc.) is Friday the 13th in January. A good luck day for a book about crime fiction writing.

    There's a ton of new stuff on publishing, since publishing is transformed since the first edition. Indie is now a viable path for many, not a shortcut. And lots of new material on developing character and plot. Also there's new material on narrative voice (as opposed to point of view). And massive changes in the examples so they're from more recent works. And trends like the UNLIKEABLE UNRELIABLE narrator.

  39. Thanks, Rhys! One that's not changed in the new edition is a quote from you about writing: “Having a set of rules to follow as guidelines for writing a mystery makes sense for beginners, just as beginning artists learn the rules for color and perspective. Rules are fine until you get a feel for your own style and are skilled enough to stretch the limits of your writing. Certain rules, like playing fair with the
    reader, will always make sense.”

  40. Hallie, great and handy "check list." Looking forward to this in January. After the holidays is when I start new projects, and I do need this book! Hallie, I love your books so much, I look forward to your points on writing. Your description of the marsh in one book really brought me right into the place where it was set. xo

    Debs, I almost wrote you a note yesterday about a beautiful scene with Gemma and her mother and thought how much I like the way you move with your characters in the mystery portion and through their personal lives. You touch on the concept, now and then through the characters' dialog, even, which impressed me that it worked so well. I'm specifically thinking of the scene where Gemma's mother asks about her work, just briefly touched, and gave Gemma the opportunity to move the talk back to her mother. Really beautiful scene. It reminded me of my relationship with my mother. xo

  41. Hallie & Debs,

    I'm two days behind... oof. Sorry. I've had something fluish, and this is my first day not sleeping all the time. I wish I'd been awake to be more aware and make timely responses!

  42. Thanks, Reine! You know, writing setting is my favorite thing.

  43. Read this blog paperovernight.com where collected cool tips and articles on related topics.