Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mystery Mavens: Quick Tips for Writers

Neophytes and seasoned writers alike occasionally troll for that trusty tome that will yield up esoteric secrets on How to Write - Edit - Sell the Perfect Crime Novel.

Most writers have favorite standbys: Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (the original beloved "little book" of 1919), Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron, Jack Bickham's 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, Writing the Thriller by T. Macdonald Skillman, You can Write a Mystery by Gillian Roberts, The Sell Your Novel Toolkit by Elizabeth Lyon, or Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

A wise man said once, "When you're looking for wisdom, go to every tent in the bazaar."

In 1993 Eleanor Hyde, Ruth Furie, Herma Werner, Jean Fiedler, Eva C. Schegulla and the Midlantic Sisters in Crime produced six pocket-sized gems called "Quick Tips for Writers", the SinC's version of a "parvum opus."

  • 39 Steps to Self Editing
  • How to Plot a Mystery
  • Building Suspense
  • Narrative Style
  • Clues to Good Character
  • Murder She Said - Dialogue Do's and Don'ts

Assistant editors and contributors included many well-known members of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America: Marilyn Henderson, Ronnie Klaskin, E.W. Count, Renee Gardner, Annette Meyers, Camilla Trinchieri, Mary Anne Kelly, Elaine Budd, Claire R. Jacobs, Carolyn Wheat, K. T. Anders, Marissa Piesman, Mickey Friedman, and Stephanie Matteson.

For your edification here are a few "rich deposits of gold" (a la Strunk and White) from this series:

Take out words that add nothing to the narrative. Example: "She sorted through papers, notebooks and folded drawings." Is it important that the drawings are folded? If not, take it out.

Don't fall so in love with your words that you can't part with them.

Avoid over-long chapters - shorter chapters help the plot to move quickly.

Accept the fact that the middle is often a hazy uncharted area that seems to be waiting for an inspired direction. When it comes - also called "mystical intervention" or, more prosaically, "as "the unconscious kicking in," the direction of the plot grows clear.

No matter how exciting your plot is, you need at least one additional subplot to provide texture, movement, and additional interest.

Sting endings to chapters are useful steps to keeping the suspense going. A sting ending is another way of saying that each chapter should end with a cliffhanger.

Open with a hook, the punch in the stomach that gets the reader's attention.

The reader also wants to discover truths about life and about how different segments of society function. Research your subject. Realism makes a book scarier.

Author intrusion and overwriting undermine suspense by slowing down the flow of the story. Keep your writing as tight as possible.

John Gardner likens fiction to a dream. It's your dream and you want the reader to enter it. You control the lighting as you reveal the landscape. That means choosing detail that reflects the characters and the states they are in. Your tools are the five senses.

Don't stop the narrative and toss in a shovel full of back story. Get out your eye dropper, instead, and insert bits the reader needs in small doses and in places where the information can slide in easily.

Give the protagonist human feelings and the villain virtues along with her vices.

Writing a villain often means tapping into your rage, your emotions.

The best way to learn how to write dialogue is to listen to conversations. Eavesdrop in restaurnats and elevators. Use the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Even if your character is an odious villain, she should be intriguing enough to make you want to ask her to lunch.

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

P.S. If you are interested in a copy of my set of these gems, email me at

P.P.S. For a quick shot in the arm of writerly inspiration, review E.B. White's Introduction to The Elements of Style, Third Edition.

Full disclosure: Kate Gallison has put links to in this blog. If you buy any books through these links the Crime Writers will use their commission to get together and buy themselves a coffee.

No comments:

Post a Comment