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

Book Review of The Barkeep by William Lashner

Justin Chase is an ex-law student turned traveling bartender who follows the teachings of The Tibetan Book of the Dead to numb the pain of his mother’s murder, the murder that Justin’s father is now rotting away in prison for. One night while tending bar, Chase makes the acquaintance of Birdie Grackle, an alcoholic hit man who claims to have killed Chase’s mother. For a price, Birdie is willing to tell Chase who hired Birdie to kill Chase’s mother. Instead of paying the hit man for the information, Chase begins investigating his mother’s murder, and aside from crossing paths with some well-drawn characters–a beautiful but self-loathing mistress, an aging detective obsessed with doing jumbles, and a borderline-retarded yet effective killer–Chase makes some shocking discoveries about the case, and his father.

This is a page-turner, but what I really enjoyed was the characterization and the shifting narration. Every character has a clear voice and is uniquely flawed, which made them all compelling. Too, the dialogue, particularly the scenes at the bar with Justin and his regulars is fantastic. There is something very cinematic about Lashner’s writing, but it is also literary as well. I really enjoyed this one, and I will definitely pick up another of his novels.

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MacGuffin Revisited

Far be it from me to disagree with Alfred Hitchcock, but I believe the concept of the MacGuffin has evolved sense he first popularized the term with his 1935 film The 39 Steps. Below is a brief definition of the term from the excellent literary magazine The MacGuffin, which is published out of Schoolcraft College:

The moving force (and sometimes the solution) of a work of mystery fiction is referred to as a MacGuffin. . . Alfred Hitchcock used the term and said, “No film is complete without a MacGuffin because that’s what everybody is after.” . . .in short, the MacGuffin is any device or gimmick that gets a plot rolling. The MacGuffin itself has little, if any, fundamental importance, and, according to Hitchcock, is nothing in and of itself.

Now, I am a fan of Hitchcock’s films, especially Rear Window and Psycho.  AIthough I cannot be sure what precisely he means by “fundamental importance,”I interpret it this way: the MacGuffin is purely a way to kick start a story’s plot, and it has no real significance beyond that. Working from that interpretation, I must offer an alternative thesis on the subject: in films and books, the MacGuffin does much more than just get the plot moving. When used by skilled artists (including Hitchcock himself), the MacGuffin has both symbolic and thematic significance.

malteseTake mystery novels, for example.  More specifically, let’s examine The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett for a moment.  The valuable black bird figurine–a.k.a. the maltese falcon–does exhilarate the narrative, but it also becomes a symbol for greed (the figurine is worth a bundle) and trickery (the figurine turns out to be a fake); it becomes a tangible representation of human weakness. To take the idea a bit further, the maltese falcon also not only propels the plot forward, but it helps develop layer upon layer of characterization in the novel. In this sense, the figurine reveals (or helps to reveal) the uglier sides of basically every character in the narrative, sides which would have remained hidden without the introduction of the maltese falcon (the MacGuffin).

dude How about an example from the movies? The Big Lebowski, a personal favorite, has arguably two MacGuffins: the alleged kidnapping of Bunny Lebowski and/or the theft of The Dude’s favorite rug. But let’s discuss the rug as it is the more interesting MacGuffin of the two. When The Dude is employed to give the money to the kidnappers and get Bunny back, he isn’t so much motivated by the fee he will receive; he is more interested in recovering his beloved rug, the one that “really tied the room together.” Because the rug belongs to The Dude, who has precious little interest in material possessions, it takes on an added layer of meaning when he is willing to risk life and limb to recover it, and he does so in such a humorous and imminently watchable manner. Go a step further: I would argue that the rug has a metaphorical significance as well, for The Dude’s life before his rug is taken is tranquil; after the rug is “swept out from under him” so to speak, his life is chaotic and, in many ways, not nearly as happy.

hitchcockBottom line, I think Hitchcock’s definition of the MacGuffin is limited. In many ways, the MacGuffin contributes to a more deeply satisfying narrative in both film and books. I recently turned in my second Eli Sharpe novel to my publisher, and the MacGuffin in that one is a valuable baseball, which has been stolen. I intentionally tried to make the stolen baseball mean something different to every character in the novel, and, in a way, the baseball becomes a character in and of itself. Hitchcock did this also, made MacGuffins more than just plot devices. What’s more, I suspect he did it deliberately. How else would he have become such a master of suspense?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review of The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

After twenty years together, Jodi and Todd have come to a bad place in their relationship. Todd, a successful real estate investor and serial cheater, has impregnated his oldest friend’s daughter, Natasha, who is twenty-five years his junior. But unlike his other dalliances, Todd is in love with and wants to marry Natasha; he wants (or thinks he wants) to start a family. Meanwhile Jodi, a part-time therapist, is kicking herself for never agreeing to marry Todd, something he proposed many times over their more than two decades together. In the eyes of the law, Jodi has no legal rights to anything, like, for instance, the couple’s expensive condo in downtown Chicago, or Todd’s sizable real estate holdings. After much reflection, Jodi realizes that everything she did for Todd–the cooking and cleaning, the emotional support, the looking the other way on his trysts–mean nothing to him, and she must do something about it. The whole sordid affair comes to a head when Todd serves Jodi with eviction papers, and from there, his violent demise is imminent, and, at least in this reader’s mind, somewhat justified.

Regarding the question of “Will Todd be murdered?,” there is no suspense. You learn practically in the first ten pages that he will meet a violent end. And yet, this an incredibly suspenseful novel, well-paced and gorgeously-written. The chapters alternate between Jodi’s voice and Todd’s and are each labeled HIM and HER. How the author completely inhabited the minds and bodies and souls of both Todd and Jodi is a marvel and was a true pleasure to read, but even more impressive is how she managed to make Todd hate-able and likeable at the same time, how she portrayed Jodi as both victim and perpetrator.  The author’s prose, the way she develops character deliberately, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter reminds me of the writing of Henry James and, more recently, Jonathan Franzen.  There were passages in this novel that were so lovely, so true, and so unflinchingly honest they demanded to be read aloud.

Bottom line, while this isn’t a mystery in the Whodunnit sense of the word, it is by far the best novel I’ve read in the last six months. The character development, the pacing, the prose, and yes, even the plot manages to, in the end, surprise the reader. I’ve read reviews of this book that compare it to Gillian Flynn’s work, particularly Gone Girl, and I can certainly see the similarities.  However, I do think The Silent Wife has one major difference: Gillian Flynn’s books are really, really good, and Harrison’s novel is great. Tragically, Harrison died recently of cancer, and I can’t help but feel a sting of selfish anger, for there will be no more books from this fantastic author.

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Advice for Writing a First Novel, Part 3

Congratulations!  You have a completed rough draft of your very first novel.  You deserve a bit of a celebration.  Grab a gluten-free muffin and a decaf.  Do a couple of deep knee bends, and put your butt back in the chair because now the real fun begins.  (Actually, I’m quite serious about the fun part; I really dig the revision process, but I am, admittedly, OCD.)

  • Read the entire manuscript and make notes only on plot issues. As a mystery reader and writer, I am obsessed with plot.  The narrative is what keeps a reader turning pages, so make sure your plot a) makes sense, b) creates tension and suspicion, c) moves at a moderately rapid pace, and d) provides a surprising, yet inevitable and satisfying ending. And the only way I know to achieve a, b, c, and d is to revise, revise, revise, revise, and then revise some more. A quick tip on revision reading: assign yourself no more than five pages per day.  Moving at this glacial speed, while tedious at times, will ultimately make your reading sessions more productive.  After you’ve identified the plot issues, make any and all necessary corrections.
  • Read the entire manuscript again and make notes only on tone.  Plot is important for mystery readers, but we also read for the voice.  Bottom line, we want an engaging, lively, and unique narrative voice, so take the time to make sure your first novel has one. Too, make sure the tone is consistent throughout. Characters, of course, can evolve (or devolve), but the tone should not. Think of it this way. I’ll bet if I  copied and pasted a passage from one of your favorite author’s books into this post, you’d be able to tell me right away who wrote it. And how would you be able to do that? Because the author created a distinct tone, a unique voice. After you’ve identified the tone issues, make any and all necessary corrections.
  • Read the entire manuscript again and correct any mechanical errors. Like I tell my students day in and day out: proofread for grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  An abundance of typos, misspelled words, and rambling sentences is just sloppy.
  • Have an astute reader read your manuscript.  This must be someone you trust to give you honest feedback.  Me, I give my manuscripts to my wife, who is a voracious reader and highly critical (in the good way). Quick story: I gave my wife my first Nick Suits novel, and she flatly told me the plot was all over the place, the voice was off-putting, and the dialogue was wooden.  This criticism, while difficult to hear, was, in a word, spot-on.  Even better: it was specific. My point is find someone who can do more than just say, “I enjoyed it,” or “It wasn’t my cup of tea.”
  • Put the manuscript in a drawer for a month…and then read it again. Honestly, I think all writers get too close to their work, so this break is very important. One other thing: during this break, start a new writing project. After all, writers write.quote-every-writer-is-a-frustrated-actor-who-recites-his-lines-in-the-hidden-auditorium-of-his-skull-rod-serling-167422