Friday, January 13, 2017

Hallie on teaching writing... and learning to do it better

HALLIE EPHRON: This is my favorite thing… I’m signing at a conference and someone brings me a well worn, dog-eared, Post-it festooned copy of my Edgar- and Anthony- nominated WRITING & SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL.
Flip through the pages and the person has written in it, underlined and highlighted, and completed the exercises. 

People won't have to write in the NEW AND REVISED EDITION (PUBLISHED TODAY from Writers Digest Books) because they can print out the exercises from the Web, though I hope they’ll still dog-ear and highlight the pages. 

I never set out to write a how-to-write book on mystery writing. An editor from Writers Digest Books approached me after seeing me give a talk, and asked me if I’d be interested in writing one. I’d long ago learned, always say YES!

Never mind that I’d published only three mystery novels. I had been reviewing crime fiction for the Boston Globe, which gave me a unique perspective on the breadth and depth of crime fiction, and most of all, what makes a book work (or not). Moreover, I was a teacher.

A former elementary school teacher and college prof, I knew that trying to teach something makes you understand it yourself in a much deeper way than just doing it. Try to teach someone how to ride a bike… or how to bake a cake... or why ice floats… or how to “carry the ten”… and you realize how little you actually understood to begin with.

Writing a book about mystery writing gave me a chance to dissect the process. I broke it down into Planning, Writing, Revising, and Selling. Duh. Then, step by step, topic by topic, I attacked each section.

I noticed things like…
  • The main character needs a compelling personal reason to solve the crime.
  • Story unfolds in waves of investigation, suspense, action, and reflection.
  • A mystery novel has more investigation, a suspense novel more suspense, and a thriller more action. It's not a crime novel if there's a ton of reflection.
  • Show don’t tell does not mean shovel information into dialogue.
  • Plot should never herd a character into an unlikely, illogical situation.
  • The protagonist is more compelling when she's in a state of disequilibrium (wants something she can't have, for example.) 

Here's an exercise from the book to help writers think about what disequilibrium means for their protagonist: 

And and and, so much more.
The first edition of the book came out and Writers Digest put me on their magazine cover! I love that it says MAKE MONEY WRITING beside my head because at that point I was not making enough money writing to quit my day job.

Revising and expanding the book, I got to add many more insights I’ve gleaned since the book came out. For example, I paid much more attention to the perennial question:
Which is more important in a mystery novel, plot or character?
My answer is both, of course, and in particular the interaction between plot and character which usually boils down to stakes. How does the writer answer the question: Why does the protagonist need to solve the mystery?

If there's nothing personal and important at stake, then the wrong character is the protagonist.

  • Secrets drive a mystery novel, and every main character needs at least one.
  • Characters should have competing goals.
  • Corollary: Conflict is the axle grease of a page turner.
  • The protagonist needs to be flawed, not necessarily likeable.

And again, so much more.

I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had to teach writing workshops and to work with aspiring, because that’s how I learn and keep learning to write better.
So my question: What have you learned better because you had to teach it to someone else?

About 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. 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 author 


  1. Happy book birthday, Hallie! Your book sounds amazing. I love the idea of being able to print out the exercises because I can’t abide writing in my books, even those with worksheet pages. Post-Its are wonderful for keeping notes in books . . . .
    My husband has always said that teaching someone else to fly makes him a better pilot; I guess it’s that same dissecting the process that makes it work so well.

  2. I was so pleased I could hear you present some of this in person the other night. I'm writing a first draft of a new series and I keep asking your questions of my brand new characters (esp my protagonist) - What's your secret? How can I make your life harder? How do I make your quirky habit into a compelling flaw?

    And more, of course. All the best with the new edition!

  3. Happy pub day, Hallie! I can't wait to get a copy of this book!

    Is there a particular writing concept that you've found most challenging to teach? I teach mystery writing in a Seattle Public Library program and have found that people always get tripped up on point of view. I recently asked my junior high English teacher for her tips and now have a better grip on it myself. Good thing teachers can ask their teachers!

  4. Ingrid, when I started writing I remember I kept a Post-It on my computer that said POV and WRITE SCENES. Those were my two biggest problems, and it's still hard to teach since first you have to convince people that these concepts exist and that they're important to manage control. A POV slide, for instance, is so much more subtle than an adverb, for intsance, that just lies there on the page looking ugly and practically shouting FIX ME!

  5. Thanks, Joan!
    Hi, Edith!! Yup, those are the questions... along with: What's a stake for this character?

  6. Congrats Hallie! and yes, POV is a stumper. After 15 books in the first person, I'm trying something from multiple perspectives. It's very challenging!!

    With all the teaching and critiquing you've done Hallie, can you tell right away from a writing sample whether someone will get published??

  7. Lucy, it's still challenging for me! It's one reason why I usually suggest writers start by writing from a single perspective. And first person (I) is easier to control than third (he/she).

    I can't tell who's going to get published for SO MANY REASONS. Some writers start out good but don't get any better (impatience, inability to hear criticism and respond...) Others start out dreadful and work at it and work at it and improve more than I'd ever have expected them to. Then there's luck and the vagaries of the market. I have a friend, a fabulous talented writer with a terrific novel who's being rejected by publishers. They like it but, as Hank likes to say, the publishers are looking for "blue pants" and the novel she's written is (perfectly lovely) "black pants."

  8. Happy pub day, Hallie. I think this pay period I'm buying the books before I buy the groceries. :)

    What I learned better by teaching? Making a pie crust. Leading someone through the process makes me think about each step and why. Why do I use ice water? Lard vs shortening? When it's just me, I fly through the steps without paying attention (if that makes any sense).

  9. Field, lab, classroom, I was always teaching and it all challenged me to understand what I was doing better. Critique groups can do the same, I think. After a while, you get better at putting some distance between yourself and the written page--whether it's your page or someone else's--why something is working or not becomes more obvious.

    Your book is great for any writer, Hallie--it creates that distance you need to honestly examine your work.

  10. Congratulations to one of my all-time favorite writing teachers!

    I am one of the people with a dog-eared copy of the original Writing & Selling your Mystery Novel and will absolutely buy the new edition. You know how some teachers leave you scratching your head but others speak your language? You are the latter for me, and I am so grateful.

  11. Great post!

    When I try my hand at writing a story, I find that I struggle with the dialogue.

    For example, I write something like this:

    "What happened?" she said

    "Someone stole jewels." he said

    How do authors keep track of who said which questions / sentences / statements ?

    Thank you,

  12. Happy Book Birthday, Hallie!! I was delighted to wake up this morning to your book in my inbox from Amazon!! I pre-ordered and now must get started on devouring it!!

  13. Congrats on the new edition. It sounds like a great book since I was nodding along with all the things you cover. They are all elements done well in books I love.

  14. Hallie, I've used your book when I've taught writing courses. Great stuff! So happy for a new edition.

    I find every time I teach I learn something about my own writing. It hones my focus, makes me see that MY character is doing something I've told my students never to do. The one thing I've told novice writers is that every mystery novel is driven by the knowledge that a crime has been committed and the killer may strike again if he or she is not stopped. That gives no time or space for coffee with friends, a trip to the supermarket, flirting with the favorite guy UNLESS they offer us some insight into solving this crime.

    Having said that I confess that my Lady Georgie books in no way follow this commandment but they are not really crime novels.!

  15. Completely makes sense, Mary. Why DO you use ice water? And lard, really? Or Crisco?

  16. Thanks, FChurch --
    Though I don't care how experienced I get, it's still so much easier to see what's wrong with someone else's work than it is to see what's wrong with my own. Why is that?

  17. THANK YOU Brenda! Because your novels speak mine...

  18. Great question, Diana -- it's not something I have to do consciously (keep track of who asks what)... because if it's working well the questions grow out of the character's personality and situation and aren't random or interchangeable. Having said that, dialogue is the thing I have to work at hardest.

  19. Debi: YAY YAY! Be sure to see how you can print the exercises from web links. Instructions are in the introduction to the HOW THIS BOOK WORKS chapter.

  20. Rhys, YES on if there's a murderer on the loose there's no time for coffee. I remember reading a manuscript where the sleuth slips into the suspect's home and snoops around, lies down on the bed, and FALLS ASLEEP! No no no no no no no....

  21. Happy book birthday, Hallie! Looking forward to holding your brand spankin' new edition in my own hot little hands.

    Teaching sewing, and then teaching others how to teach sewing, made me both a better sewist and teacher, in so many ways.

    And helping my three daughters with English projects when they were in high school taught me to tighten my own writing, as well. Two of the three of them went on to high praise in college and their career lives for the quality of their writing, so Steve (another writer) and I must have done something right.

    Sleuth falling asleep? Story FAIL.

  22. All of it contributes to a flakier crust.

    I've done crusts with both lard and Crisco. Never butter. Although my grandmother swore by lard, I must admit I can't tell the difference (I used lard because I had a guest who was sensitive to hydrogenated oils). I've never used plain cold water or room temp.

    Also, no more than three attempts at rolling the crust. Handle as little as possible or the dough gets "tough" and chewy.

    Hey, grandma made great pies. If it was good enough for her, right?

  23. Karen, it speaks to your relationship with your daughters that they LET you help them with their writing when they were in high school.

  24. Congratulations on the new edition, Hallie!

    By facilitating training sessions on business analysis and mentoring less experienced business analysts, I find I am constantly improving myself. This year, I will be working with a colleague to try to establish a "center of excellence" for business analysis at our company and work on getting more BAs certified. I know I will grow a lot from that experience as well.

  25. Happy pub day Hallie. Is it true that if I read your book and do every single thing you suggest, I will produce a best seller?

    Or do I actually have to write something? Xox

  26. Congratulations, Hallie, on the new edition. What an incredible resource for writers, both beginning and seasoned. I plan on buying this new edition and actually dipping my toe in the waters. Nothing grand planned, just the dipping. I can't think of a better opportunity than the publication of your new book to do so, Hallie.

    Back in the mid to late 90s, I worked as a writing portfolio coach, first in elementary school (4th grade) and then in high school (12th grade). Kentucky at that time had a mandatory writing portfolio program for 4th, 7th, and 12th grades. The fourth grade was the most challenging, as those students were just beginning to learn their writing skills. Since one of the teachers didn't want anything to do with writing, I ended up being the writing teacher completely for her class for several years. One of the required pieces was a persuasion piece, and I came up with an outline by which the students could organize their thoughts into an effective paper. I preached organization a lot, and that teaching helped me when I decided to finally earn my Masters. During the time I worked in the elementary schools with writing, I worked with my son. I taught him the importance of drafts, and that there would be several at least. I was rather hard on him, but he turned out to be an excellent writer (not entirely my doing) and speaker, too.

    Something else I learned while working with students on their writing is that everyone has a story to tell, some more compelling than others, but there are interesting tidbits in most lives worth writing and reading about. That has definitely carried over to life in general. I look at people and know that each of them has a story with struggles and joys and history. It helps one to be a bit more compassionate.

    Hallie, you have given writers and would-be writers a great gift, and I only hope that I can one day hear you speak on this subject.

  27. Ann: Cracking up! Because even if you do every single thing I suggest, AND write something, I can't say if it'll be a best seller! All I can teach is basic competence, not the art and amazing good luck that come together to make a bestseller

  28. Yay, Kathy!!! One day we'll be hosting YOU here!

    And you're so right about everyone having a story to tell. The dirty secret about writers is we're magpies... we listen to other people's stories and experiences and, ahem, borrow.

  29. Happy pub day, Hallie! And thanks for your great timing, since I am starting a new book and it's amazing how much these reminders help. I'm already thinking about your character traits... And motivations!!

    Whenever I talk about writing to a group, I always find that it makes me think more clearly about my own. So does critiquing.

    I also find when I explain a recipe to someone, it makes me really understand why I cook something the way I do--and hopefully cook it better!!

    Kathy, will look forward to your magnum opus!

  30. Debs, my daughters all wanted me to write down some family recipes, especially the ones they all kept calling me to find out how to make. I realized that I'd been winging it, and since I was cooking a lot less after they all went to college, etc., I might actually forget some of those recipes. Typing them out forced me to remember and to refine many favorites.

  31. This is fantastic, Hallie . I wish I had a copy right now as I'm filled with revision madness - a potent combination of self-loathing and self-doubt. I am going to order my copy right now. Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

  32. Oh, I ADORE this book! ANd cannot write without it! xooxoxoo

  33. Hallie,