Sunday, October 26, 2008

Mystery Writing Checklist

  Sometimes a task can be easier if you make yourself a checklist to ensure you're covering all your bases.  With that idea in mind, here's a brief checklist you might want to consult before sending your manuscript off into the big, bad world of editors and agents. Or, it might be more helpful to think about these things while you're still plotting your novel.

Genre: Have you got a clear genre for your book? Thriller, cozy, police procedural, hard boiled? If you can’t identify your genre to an agent or editor, your manuscript won’t go too far.

Have you followed the rules of writing a mystery?: (see Twenty Mystery Writing Rules )

Setting: Frequently, setting plays a role in a mystery novel. It limits the number of suspects if it’s a remote island, for example. For a thriller, you may want a faster-paced, big-city environment. See how setting plays a role in your book. If it doesn’t, you may want to consider tweaking your manuscript.

An Engaging Beginning: Have you started out with a bang? Or have you started out with some messy backstory that no one wants to wade through at the beginning of your book? Make sure you’ve lured your reader in from the very beginning so they’ll want to stick with you.  Think twice before using a prologue or using flashbacks at the beginning of your manuscript.

A Murder that Happens in First 50 pages or so: Don’t wait until you’re half-way through the book for a body to be discovered. Your reader may give up on you.

Protagonist: This will be your sleuth or police detective. Are they likable people or at least people interesting enough for your readers to want to spend time with? What special talents do they have that make them capable of solving the crime? Are they easy to talk to? Have they spent many years in the police department? What sets them apart?

Suspects: Do your suspects all have motive, means, and opportunity? Does their motive make sense and is it believable? Have you given the reader a chance to meet each suspect and learn about them? Have your suspects misdirected your readers and provided some red herrings? Have they lied to the sleuth and the reader? Do they have secrets? Do they have some depth?

Murderer: The killer will need to be fairly clever so he isn’t caught right away. Is your culprit believable but not obvious?  If the murderer ends up being the least likely candidate, have you made his motivation realistic? 

Clues:  The clues need to be made available to the reader as well as the detective.  You have to be fair with your reader in providing them the clues, but make sure they don't stand out too obviously in the scene.  If they do, think about pointing the reader's/detective's attention in another direction, quickly.  There also needs to be more than one clue--preferably three or more. 

Red Herrings:  Make sure your red herrings don't last the entire length of the book---that's generally considered unfair.  Red herrings are a good diversion to mislead your reader, but  they can be taken too far. If the entire focus of your murder was blackmail and the ensuing investigation is wrapped up with blackmail victims and scurrilous gossip: and then the real motivation ends up being revenge or obtaining life insurance money,  most readers will end up wanting to throw your book in frustration. 

Victims: You know you need at least one. Do you need two? Do you need more? (Remember that some genres, like cozies, generally don’t have a high body count.)

Element of Danger: Does your sleuth or detective know too much? Are they getting too close to the truth? Adding some action or a touch of danger can help with sagging middles of books.

Exciting Chapter Endings: Don’t let your reader put down your book and go to sleep. Do you have some exciting chapter endings so they’ll want to go on reading?

Resolution: Did you catch the bad guys in the end? Did you tie up all the loose ends that you created? Did you explain how the sleuth/police followed the clues?

Errors: Have you checked all the grammar, spelling, mechanics? And double-checked it? Have you trimmed any pointless dialogue, scenes that go on too long? Everything you write should have a purpose….there’s no time to dilly-dally.  Double-check to make sure you haven't made any major changes in your manuscript--did your character start out being middle-aged and then end up being older or younger?  Did your story start out during the dog days of summer and then suddenly change to spring? Make sure you read your manuscript from start to finish to eliminate any content errors. 


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Clues: Planning and Planting Clues for Your Mystery

To me, one of the most fun things about reading a mystery is the puzzle. I love finding the clues along with my sleuth...and being misdirected by the author's red herrings.

I also have fun writing in clues and distracting my readers from them in my own book. But I admit that planting clues is the hardest part of writing a mystery for me. I want them to point to the killer, but I also want to make sure the reader doesn't have a neon sign blinking "CLUE! CLUE!" whenever I plant a clue.

Agatha Christie did a great job writing in her clues. She frequently slipped in an important clue among some useless information that seemed more important than the actual clue. Or she would plant a clue, draw the reader's attention to it, then have two characters suddenly burst into the room in the midst of an argument that completely shifted the reader's attention.

There are some good websites out there that can help writers learn more about writing effective clues and red herrings:

Don't Drop Clues: Plant them Carefully! by Stephen Rogers does a great job covering the types of clues, how to misdirect your reader, and mistakes to avoid.

Suite 101 covers planting clues in different ways: tucking them in a paragraph, heightening the drama, clues of omission, missing weapons, and clues from real life.

Author Sandra Parshall's website explains how "Clues Drive the Mystery Plot."

The Christie Mystery website demonstrates how Agatha Christie used clues and other plot devices.

Stephen Rogers writes a different article on red herrings and how to use them effectively.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

More Mystery Writing Tools

I know there are a lot of writers who have a germ of an idea for a mystery novel. Most of them are mystery readers and feel like, if they can just get started, that they can finish an entire manuscript.

Here are some interesting and useful websites for mystery writers, and other writers, to help them get started on their mysterious voyage:

Write That Novel , which has useful, printable sheets for characterization, plotting, storyboards, etc.

Book Crossroads , which has links to online mystery writing groups, hardboiled slang dictionaries, forensic information, and legal overviews.

John Morgan Wilson's website , which gives tips on mystery writing, including a useful page that demonstrates how to bring your characters to life (if you've ever been told "show, don't tell," this would be good for you to check out.)

Holly Lisle's website , which has articles on creating characters, preventing a "sagging middle," ending your writer's block, etc.

A Yahoo Group for writers on firearms : a good place to start your research.'s Classic 12-Chapter Mystery Formula : Reading this can help you see the bare bones of many mystery novels. You don't have to follow it exactly--it's just a guide.

Advanced Fiction's snowflake method of writing a novel : one of many different methods of writing/plotting a book.

The Cliche Site is just sort of fun. But it can also remind you how many cliches you have built into your writing. Take a look and see if there's another way to word some of the cliches that you've used.

Hope these help!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

How NOT to Spend Your Weekend Morning Writing

Okay, I'm intending this post to be a warning to all you parents out there.  PLAN YOUR QUIET WRITING TIME IN ADVANCE!  I managed to do this during the summer, but for some reason have gotten out of the habit. 

What you should do: Tell your kids to give you_____ minutes for you to write. Have it be whatever length of time you feel you'll need.  Tell them what's available for them to eat for breakfast, or, go ahead and fix it for them before you get started.  Tell them not to disturb you unless they're sick or the house is on fire, etc.  Tell them to let the answering machine pick up. Take the dog out to use the bathroom.

What you should not do: what I did this morning, which was just to send them upstairs (this is early in the morning and my husband is not up yet.)  Because this led to my daughter ("I have a tummyache. And I'm hungry."), my son ("I'm having a problem installing a program on the computer.  Can you take a look at it?"), and my dog ("Whine! Whine!" and looking earnestly at the front door) all interrupting me.  Luckily, I knew where I was going with my story this morning and stepped back into it.  But how much faster could I have gone and how much more could I have accomplished if I'd done a little prep work before I got started? 

Friday, October 10, 2008


Okay, I know that rejection is no laughing matter.  But if you're an active writer (i.e., you have finished a manuscript, article, something else that's ready to submit), then you've probably experienced your fair share.  Think of all the opportunities for rejection that lurk out there between literary agents and book and magazine editors.

Sometimes you've just got to have a chance to laugh about it, though.  Remember, J.K. Rowling was rejected by an editor, too.  And isn't he sorry he turned her down? 

When I stumbled across a funny post about rejection and an even funnier web site, I had to share.  The website is  and it touts itself as: "The writer's and artist's online source for misery, commiseration, and inspiration."  Chances are, you'll see many versions of your own form letter rejection here.

I also came across a great blog entry on the agent blog "The Rejecter."  The anonymous literary agent assistant on the blog states that authors will find fault with any rejection they receive.  That's probably true.  Here's a sampling of the agent's possible rejection language and the author's possible response to it:

Rejection: "Thanks, not for me."
Author: "What, she couldn't take the time to write more than one line?"

Rejection: "(long and winding things about how the author should try other agencies and there's potential, but it's just not for this agent for some such reason, and good luck!)"
Author: "How long does it take her to say 'no'?"

Rejection: Printed on a half-slip of paper.
Author: "She couldn't afford an entire sheet of paper?"

Rejection: Printed on a normal sheet of high-quality paper.
Author: "For two lines? What a waste of paper. I guess agents don't care about the environment."

Rejection: Photocopied form response.
Author: "How impersonal! Did she even read it or did she just stuff envelopes?"

Rejection: Personal note on original query letter, handwritten.
Author: "What, she couldn't afford the time to type out a whole letter?"

It goes on an on. The point is: We're saying no and you don't like it. All agents try to use different tactics to soften the blow, but none of them work, though intentions are usually good.

Remember that everyone goes through rejection.  If the letters are personal enough to give you writing or revision tips, take the advice. And just keep on trying.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

More Rules for Mystery Writers

A while back I referenced "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories" as a great tool for mystery writers to use when working on their manuscript.  It is a great tool and offers advice like "the reader should have the same opportunity as the detective to solve the crime," and "the villain has to be someone who plays a prominent part of the story" (no sudden introductions of the killer at the end of the book).   The list of rules reminds us that the killer shouldn't be a professional crook, or a servant (none of "the butler did it.")  

One of my favorite parts of the mystery writing rules states:

20) All of the following tricks and devices are verboten. They've been done to death or are otherwise unfair.

a) Comparing a cigarette butt with the suspect's cigarette.
b) Using a séance to frighten the culprit into revealing himself.
c) Using phony fingerprints.
d) Using a dummy figure to establish a false alibi.
e) Learning that the culprit was familiar because the dog didn't bark.
f) Having "the twin" do it.
g) Using knock-out drops.
h) If the murder is in a locked room, it has to be done before the police have actually broken in.
i) Using a word-association test for guilt.
j) Having the solution in a coded message that takes the detective until the end of book to figure out.

Good reminders.

As great as it is, though,  this list of rules was compiled in 1936 by author S.S. Van Dine and includes some possibly outdated advice, "the detective should not have a love interest."  I don't see a lot of problem with the detective having a romantic interest (poor guy or gal has to have some fun in the book.) 

A different version of a mystery writing rules list can be found here.  It's an article on modern mystery rules.  It does repeat some of the items on the earlier list, but also adds things like: "The culprit must be capable of committing the crime," and "wait as long as possible to reveal the culprit." Their reminder to make sure to research your details is also a good one. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Your Mystery Outline--Planning for Your Busiest Days

Okay, here's the situation. I've just come back from a fun, but busy, weekend out of town. I returned to a bunch of laundry, suitcases to unpack, school forms to sign and return, a child with a nasty cold, a Monday morning doctor checkup...oh, and I pulled my neck somehow when unloading the car. Sigh. BUT--amazingly enough I was able to scrape together a page of my manuscript yesterday.

The reason yesterday's writing was easy was because I already knew what I was going to write. I was actually in the middle of the denouement scene (no, I'm not done with the book. But I knew how I wanted it to end.). Because I knew where I was picking up and what was going to happen in the scene (I could see the action happening in my head), it made it much easier to write. I had a roadmap for writing that day.

Here's one way I've found to easily hop into your writing with no delay on a day where you might not have time to figure out which scene you need to work on.

First of all, I have a folder in "My Documents" labeled with my book's name. Inside that folder, I have many different saved documents. You can plan ahead the scenes you'll need to write in the future. With a genre mystery (cozy, police procedural, etc), this is pretty easy. You know you need a scene where the first body is discovered. You know you need a scene where each of the 4 or 5 suspects is interviewed about their opportunity and possible motive (that's 4 or 5 separate scenes right there). You know you need to plant clues and red herrings. You know you may need a scene where a second body is discovered. Possibly a scene where your protagonist is in danger and a scene where the killer is apprehended. You see what I mean.

I've already named and explored the character of each of my five suspects. So one day I created five separate Word documents. Each one had the name of my sleuth (Myrtle) and "interviews ________(suspect's name)."

On a day where you just need to jump right into your manuscript and write it, having your book divided into its components makes it easy. You can even print out the document if you're on the go and take it with you to scribble on while you're out. You can write at the top of the page some notes for yourself on what you want to accomplish with the scene ("have suspect lie about their alibi" or "have suspect implicate another character", etc.)

Later you can assemble your book into one manuscript by copy/pasting it in to approximately the right place. Once you print it and read it through, it's easy to add scene transitions, segues, etc.

Creating a "Platform"

There was an interesting post at the Editorial Ass blog recently that you can read here:

Editorial Ass: how does a stay-at-home mom go about creating a platform?

Want to build a name for yourself (especially online) and make yourself and your manuscript more interesting to potential agents and editors? Moonrat explains how to go about getting some serious writing credibility, especially if you're new to the game. 

Some of her recommendations: blog, submit stories to your local newspaper (then the state newspaper), write for online magazines (webzines), then to national magazines, become an expert on a subject and write about it.

There are lots of good ideas there.  And it sure beats "I've always loved reading and am so excited to have finally written my first book" on your query letter.


Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Keeping up With Your Suspects

I love Agatha Christie stories for lots of reasons:  the familiar sleuths (Miss Marple , Tommy and Tuppence, Hercule Poirot), I love the coziness of the locations (the small village, the large country house), and...I love the chapter where Agatha Christie spent several paragraphs introducing each suspect.

The characters were all conveniently located in one place.  If you forgot who someone was, you could easily flip back and reference it. In many of Christie's books, she even thoughtfully provided a cast of characters with the name and a brief explanation of their role in the novel. 

With too many books these days, I lose track of characters.  I've even gotten close to the end of a book, read a character name and gone "Who the heck is that?!".  Either the author created too many people for me to keep up with, the characters' names sound too much alike, or...let's be honest...I've been interrupted so many times when reading that I can't remember who's who. 

I can't help but think there are other readers like me out there--scatterbrained folks who love a good read but don't want to keep up with too many names.  Maybe they're moms or other busy people who just want to keep it simple.  I can usually read just 20 minutes at a time before I'm running up to take laundry out of the dryer, dashing out the door for a carpool, falling asleep after a long day, or hearing "the doctor will see you now."

I'm making a conscious effort to limit the number of murder suspects for my books.  Five is really a good number--not so many that you lose track of them, but not so few that you don't have any sense of surprise when the killer is revealed.