Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Killer Writing - How To

Many an author has been told, "I have this great idea for a mystery. I’ll tell it to you, you write it, and we’ll split the money." Nowadays, I just say, "Write it yourself and you can keep all the money."

I’ll even tell you how to do it.

First, think What If . . . What if someone kidnapped a puppy? What if you found out your best friend was an embezzler? What if you found the naked body of a stranger in your bathtub? Once you start thinking like this, you’ll rarely run out of ideas.

Second, Invent the Ending. Figure out the who, what, why, where, when and how. Most mysteries have this place near the end at which the sleuth says, "Let me explain," and proceeds to lay out the whole story, putting the clues in proper order, and showing how s/he figured out who dunnit. That’s the part you write first. Doing this will invent your sleuth, your culprit, other suspect(s) and a witness or two. It will also tell you what kind of mystery you have hold of: private eye, police procedural, amateur sleuth.

Third, Check Your Facts. In mystery fiction "a fact that ain’t so" is a clue, so make sure you don’t inadvertently destroy your credibility by treating something false as true. Writers of mystery fiction garner an enormous amount of information, some of it decidedly esoteric (elephants can’t jump; silencers don’t work on revolvers; needlepoint is not the same thing as embroidery).

Fourth, Invent a Grabber. Start your story off with a bang. "It was all Tom’s fault, he’s the one who brought an elephant to church." Okay, it was a plaster elephant, a contribution to the annual rummage sale. But it should be a troubled rummage sale, with a body found among the winter coats.

Fifth, Move in Logical Steps. First the crime, then the reaction, then the hero or heroine must solve it (why?), then clues are hard to find and/or don’t make sense, then the best suspect is proved innocent, then one last clue makes everything clear – to the detective, but hopefully not the reader. In a "play fair" mystery, all the clues must be laid out for the reader, though not necessarily in the proper order that makes the solution obvious. It is often wise to put the biggest clue in first, before the reader has the characters sorted out, and to hide a clue within a scene that seems to point to some other clue. Example: the murder weapon was hidden on a top shelf, this suspect is too short to have done that. Expose his lack of height during a serious quarrel he had with the victim.

Sixth, Develop Good Characters. You can have a "cast of thousands" if you like, but your reader shouldn’t have to keep track of more than six or seven, so add characters parsimoniously. Make each memorable (red-headed, fat, crabby, ignorant, kind, clumsy, assertive) and refer to the memorable thing every second or third time the character appears. Don’t name them Don, Dan, Dave, Dick, Dawn, Donna and Doris. Name them Sam, Monroe, Gomez, Fran, Hermione, Jewel, and Desktop (a book on naming a baby can help a lot). No real person is all good, or all bad. Give your hero(ine) some flaws, and say something nice about your culprit.

Seventh, Don’t Tell, Show. "Sam was scared" is telling. Showing: "Sam’s breath caught in his throat but it was only the refrigerator starting up. He crouched even lower behind the sagging couch and wished for the sound of sirens."

Eighth, Behave Realistically. If you came home to that naked stranger in your bathtub, would you call your best friend and organize a sleuthing party? No, you’d call the police. (So learn something about police work.) Make your characters behave like real people – only a little funnier, braver, smarter, simpler.

Ninth, Make the Ending Fit the Story. Don’t say at the end that Jewel did it, if we never see Jewel until near the end, or you never made Jewel a suspect. Don’t make the solution that a ghost did it if your reader doesn’t know it’s a ghost story. On the other hand, it can be fun to make your reader think space aliens did it while your detective, who doesn’t believe in space aliens, quietly proves it was a human culprit anxious to make everyone believe it was space aliens.

Tenth, Read the Kind of Stories You’re Trying to Sell. Analyze them, study them, read them over and over. What do you admire about this story? How does the author make you like this character and dislike that one? How does s/he put a picture of a character in your head in so few words? How is the story told, straightforward or in flashbacks? How would I do it differently?

Eleventh, Take Yourself Seriously. Join or form a writers group. Read books about writing. Write something every day – every single day. Persevere. A story gets sold because a writer sends it out one more time than it has been turned down.

Twelfth, remember what Somerset Maughm wrote: There are three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.


Camille Minichino said...

Wonderful, Monica. I like that you make it sound doable, but not easy; a lot of work, but satisfying.

Writing is a craft, and you've laid out a crafts class. Every writing student should print this out and tape it to her writing wall.

The only thing on your list that I DON"T do: write every day. In fact, thinking I had to write every day delayed my writing career a few decades. I finally realized that as long as you do it eventually, even if in spurts, it works.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

This is the best! Monica, you've managed to present a clear roadmap that I'll print out and keep by my side.

Thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

I think that writing every day is key. The only time I run into trouble on a deadline is when I give myself permission not to do that. Even if you only write a paragraph, you've made progress, and you've reinforced the habit of "gluing butt in chair and writing." Great post!!

Betty Hechtman said...

I agree with everyone else. It's a great explanation of how to write a mystery.

So good that I am printing it up and keeping it by my computer so when I get stuck I'll have a road map.

Monica Ferris said...

Remember the last line: Nobody knows what the rules for writing a novel are. I break every one of those rules once in awhile.

Linda O. Johnston said...

This is great, Monica! I didn't read it until late in the day because I was busy following some of the rules, at least, and moving forward with my latest Kendra mystery. I love how concise you have made this whole confusing but wonderful process--although I, too, love Somerset Maugham's take on it.