Checklist for Writing a Mystery Novel

One of the many mystery/crime writing blogs I follow is called Writing Mystery is Murder by Elizabeth Spann Craig.  Craig is an accomplished mystery novelist and award-winning blogger, and she always posts incredibly helpful articles about the business of being a writer.  Recently, I was scrolling through the archives of her blog, and I came across a post entitled “Mystery Writing Checklist.” As I was (and am) in the process of outlining my third book in the Eli Sharpe mystery series, I read the article and found still more useful tidbits about preparing a mystery novel to be sent out into the publishing world.  Below are the items I believe are the most important. A link to the entire article is posted below.

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.

To add to that, you might want to have a good idea what published authors write in your milieu; both agents and publishers always want to know where your manuscript will fit in the current market.

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.

Personally, I do not like books that begin with prologues, particularly prologues that do not begin with action. Too, and this is just my humble opinion, many times too much of the mystery is given away in a prologue. Start with action, and sprinkle in relevant backstory throughout the narrative.

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.

When I read mysteries, I want someone to get killed, kidnapped, blackmailed, or beaten pretty quickly. (And yes, I know that sounds awful).

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?

Of all the elements in a mystery, the protagonist is the most important to me. If the star of the book is interesting, I’m in. Characterization is always the hook for me. Write interesting characters, and interesting situations will follow. And when interesting situations follow, I’ll be reading.

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?

Always remember MMO (motive, means, opportunity). And when it comes to suspects, try to avoid cliches.

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.

 

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?

When I was rewriting the second book in my Eli Sharpe series, I realized just how important chapter endings were (and are). Think of it like show business: always leave the reader wanting more.

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?

A professor of mine once said that the ending of a story has to be surprising yet inevitable.  The resolution, by extension, must make sense, and, if you’re writing a series, perhaps you could give a bit of hint about what’s next for the protagonist.

http://elizabethspanncraig.com/1386/mystery-writing-checklist/

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Go Go Gato Book Cover

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Here is the cover for my debut detective novel Go Go Gato. This is the first book in the Eli Sharpe series, and it will be released on August 1st (Camel Press). Below is brief “pitch.”

In Go Go Gato, a strikingly handsome young ballplayer named Almario Gato goes missing.  Having recently negotiated a $1.2 million dollar signing bonus from the Colorado Rockies for her best client, Veronica Craven hires a private detective to locate Almario “Go Go” Gato.  Enter Eli Sharpe, an ex-ballplayer turned private detective.  With eight years experience, five ex-fiancées, and charm and wit to spare, Sharpe takes the case.  But after meeting the women in Almario’s life—his statuesque agent, his devoted twin sister, his spoiled girlfriend, and his cocaine-dealing fiancée—Sharpe begins to wonder if Almario is missing or in hiding.  Navigating a quirky cast of characters that could only reside in a hodgepodge town like Asheville, North Carolina, Sharpe soon discovers Almario may very well be in danger.  The mortal kind.

Make Your Mystery Stand Out: Tips from the Marshall Plan for Novel Writing

True story: about a year ago, I received feedback on my mystery novel from a literary agent based out of Los Angeles. Along with a two-page critique, she also sent a multi-page checklist of items she and her agency require before signing a new client. The checklist included dozens and dozens of very specific items–too many to mention here–and while I studied the checklist carefully and gained some helpful insight on what agents are looking for, I was still a bit overwhelmed. . .which brought me back to The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. Below are excerpts from an article entitled “Make Your Mystery Stand Out.” In it, Evan Marshall–literary agent and best-selling author–boils down the list to three essential elements.I found this incredibly helpful, especially when I was writing the first draft of my detective novel Go Go Gato.

Look for the Hook

In fiction, a hook is a way to promote a book through some aspect that has commercial appeal or provides publishers with a gimmick or “handle” that lends itself to publicity. Your detective might have an occupation that is of high interest in the current culture, is especially timely, is interesting for its very obscurity, or is the same as that of the author. For instance, Patricia Cornwell’s series of mysteries featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta first became popular at a time when public interest in the world of medical examiners had been heightened by such nonfiction books as Coroner by Dr. Thomas Noguchi, L.A.’s coroner to the stars, not to mention the tremendous public fascination with true crime. That’s Ms. Cornwell’s hook.

 

Dig Into Your Characters

Today’s readers want richly textured characters, especially in the series detective. A clever puzzle for your mystery novel is important but not enough. We must know all of your major characters as people, just as we would know the characters in any well-written novel. For purposes of characterization, think of your book as a novel with mystery, not a mystery novel. Tell us about your characters’ pasts, their psychologies, their faults and weaknesses, their relationships to one another. Remember, it’s your characters who will bring your readers back for more.

 

Devise a Clever

Don’t settle for a plot device if you can recall seeing it in another book, in a movie, or on TV. Work hard to come up with something different. Granted, there are only so many ways to kill someone, but the canny mystery writer will give one of those ways a new twist. The same goes for motive. There’s no excuse for stale clichés; your plotting is truly your own and should bear your distinctive fingerprint.

See more at: http://themarshallplan.net/mysterystandout.htm#sthash.WDGd8jxA.dpuf

Eli Sharpe: Enter the Mind of my Fictional Private Detective

Question: Why is Eli Sharpe, the PI featured in my debut novel Go Go Gato, fascinated by and/or obsessed with Richard Nixon, seersucker jackets, baseball, psychology, detective novels, George Dickel whiskey, guns, the Rolling Stones, his complicated relationship with his father, and lie detection?

Answer: Because I am fascinated by and/or obsessed with those things. I write for two main reasons. First reason: I love to read, and by writing, I can write the kind of stories I prefer to read, which, primarily, are detective stories. Second reason: wish fulfillment. I’m never going to be involved in a shootout or fistfight.  I’m never going to track down a missing person or say witty, off-the-cuff remarks to a femme fatale.  I’m never going to interrogate a suspect, or go on a high speed chase, or a stakeout.  I’m never going to break into a car or house, or any of the other incredibly cool stuff that happens in detective stories. I can, however, write about those things. What I can do is create a fictional world based on my own experiences and tastes, construct an interesting cast of characters to inhabit this world, and then–this is the fun part!–I can shove these characters into a dicey situation…just so I can watch what happens. The truth? The characters I create are the adult versions of imaginary friends; they’re who I “hang out” with instead of going golfing with buddies or drinking with colleagues.  And best of all? They don’t talk at me; they talk for me.  (Pretty sure Stevie Ray Vaughn said something similar about his guitar.)

Bottom line, Eli Sharpe is an amalgamation, a Frankenstein I cobbled together out of spare parts just lying around the junkyard in my brain.  From television, I constructed my detective from Atlanta Braves games circa mid-1980s, reruns of the Rockford Files,the first season of The Wire, and the Fletch movies.  From hard-boiled PI books, I borrowed elements from Lew Archer, Philip Marlowe, C.W. Sughrue, Archy McNally, and dozens of other fictional detectives. From my own life, I drew on half-remembered conversations between my father and me, fragmented images from my time in Asheville, and god-only-knows what else. But, in the end, Go Go Gato is the kind of story I would like to read, and Eli Sharpe is the type of detective that I, as a reader, would become obsessed with. Hopefully, other readers will share my obsession.  rockford_files__120417170500

 

 

 

 

 

“Important” Novels Can Be Entertaining: Book Review of The Circle by Dave Eggers

the circleMae Holland is one lucky girl, for she’s just landed a job at the most prestigious and powerful internet company in the world. The Circle (ominous name, no?) has a sprawling campus in northern California that has everything from bowling alleys to libraries, dormitories and restaurants, day care centers and gymnasiums, and, quite often, employees never leave after the work day is finished. On campus, there are parties and athletic endeavors; there are famous musicians and artists and chefs and other celebrities brought in to perform or cook or just hang out.

Soon after taking the job, Mae becomes one of those Circlers who prefer life on campus, who prefer living in the ultra-modern dorm rooms to her own apartment. Mae’s rise up the corporate ranks is meteoric, and after she agrees to go “transparent,” which is when one wears a tiny camera on one’s person and broadcasts every minute of one’s life out to millions of strangers on the internet, she really gets caught up in the terrifying vision of The Circle’s three founders, this idea of Completion.

The Three Wise Men, as the Circle’s founders are called, invented an algorithm that links a person’s email, banking accounts, social media, and purchasing into one account known as a Circle account. No longer do users have to remember dozens of passwords; long gone is the hassle of identity theft, for a Circle account has eliminated these problems. The only issue is the Circle also has nearly unlimited access to personal information.  As it gobbles up start-up companies left and right and gains more and more control of the government in Washington, D.C., the Circle will achieve Completion when it makes having a Circle account mandatory for all Americans, when it makes voting mandatory through the system it invented called Demoxie. For Mae, the stakes really escalate when she becomes romantically involved with Kalden, who may or may not be a spy looking to bring down the Circle.

What is truly stunning about this book is how Eggers captures the zeitgeist of the early 21st century, how he builds an entire technology-obsessed, dogmatically-idealistic world peopled with realistic characters, ones we would all recognize as friends, or neighbors, or colleagues, or students.  Too, he manages to be funny and serious at the same, for this novel is both important and entertaining. The Circle is on the same plane as Orwell’s 1984 and Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, but it also has the humor (and heart) of. . .pick any novel by Vonnegut.  Eggers’s commentary on privacy, corporate monopolies, free market, government, human nature, and the Millenial generation are all spot-on, and, remarkably, not didactic or preachy in any way.

Bottom line, The Circle is a brilliantly written novel that is both timely and timeless.  Eggers has always been an ambitious writer, and thematically speaking, in this book he throws up half a dozen targets and hits them all, dead center.

Revision of Go Go Gato…Meet Eli Sharpe, PI

I just received my editor’s comments on Go Go Gato.  Aside from minor tweaks, they are asking I change the main character’s name.  After several days of kicking around names with my wife, and a writer friend of mine at work, and my students, and pretty much anyone whose path I’ve crossed recently, I have settled on… Eli Sharpe.  I’ve always loved one-syllable first and last names, and I dig the name Eli.  Too, I’ve always been obsessed with the cadence and rhythm of a person’s entire name.  Eli Sharpe, to my ear, rolls off the tongue.  Hopefully, one day, the stories of ELi Sharpe will be as loved as the stories of my favorite PIs: Elvis Cole, Spenser, Conway Sax, and Boone Daniels.

I’m very excited to begin reworking Go Go Gato for publication next year. I’m also very grateful to Camel Press for the opportunity to bring my stories to print.

http://camelpress.com