Monthly Archives: April 2015

Genre Lessons: Mystery

Detective. I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

I expected this post to be all about plotting. Mystery writers are great at writing twisty plots, revealing just the right amount of information at just the right times, and keeping readers turning pages. And while some of the things I learned have to do with plotting, I was surprised and delighted to pick up tips about descriptions and characterization as well. Here are the main lessons I took from studying mysteries.

1. Don’t give too much information up front. If something dark or traumatic happened to your main character in the past that plays into his present conflict, don’t put that whole flashback in the first chapter. For example, if he’s a detective who was disgraced after botching an investigation, and that case is similar to his current case, don’t give readers every detail of the first case. Instead, mention it casually as needed (but be careful not to get too repetitive) and drop hints about what happened. Readers like to keep guessing, and not knowing what happened means they’ll keep turning pages.

2. To create suspense, save that flashback scene until the climax of the novel. By this point, readers know something bad happened, and they’re dying to know what it is. They’re already hooked by the action of the present, so slipping in that flashback does double duty — they finally get to know why the detective can’t stand murder-by-rubber-chicken cases, and they’re on the edge of their seats to learn who the rubber chicken killer is this time (and if it’s the same one as the last time). To raise the tension even more, interrupt that flashback with something from the present — and if you’re writing a series with this detective, maybe keep readers waiting for another book to get the rest of the flashback.

3. Descriptions don’t have to be long or elaborate to be memorable. In mysteries, there are plenty of minor characters that could be suspects. These characters could get a single sentence to describe them, but if it’s the right sentence, readers will remember them a hundred pages later. For example, the girl in the TARDIS dress whose alibi was that she was in a Whoovian chat room at the time of the murder. This also makes it easier for your other characters to discuss (and often dismiss) these suspects without readers having to flip back and remind themselves who these people are.

4. Finally, active setting descriptions can help propel the narrative forward in a fast-paced scene. The mystery I read had a lot of creepy forest scenes, where rivers of ivy cascaded down stones — a gorgeous image, and one that mirrored the protagonist’s run through the woods. Even if you’re writing a slower scene, descriptions like this can make your setting come alive much better than “the stone was covered in ivy.”

There were so many good things to take from this book, but these were the ones that stood out the most. Have you read any good mysteries lately? What writing lessons did you take from them?

Road trip playlist

I’ll be driving cross-country this weekend, which means I’m going to need listening material to keep me entertained. Since I’m too busy writing and preparing for my trip to come up with a post about writing, I thought I’d share some of the books I plan to listen to on my drive.

The Whispering Skull. The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud, narrated by Katie Lyons. This is the second in the Lockwood & Co. series, fun books about teenaged ghost hunters. I liked listening to the first book, The Screaming Staircase, so much that I decided to save this one for my road trip.

Egg & Spoon. Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire, narrated by Michael Page. I’ve had mixed feelings about other books by Gregory Maguire, but this one comes highly recommended. Plus Russian fairy tales, mistaken identities, and Baba Yaga sound like fun.

The Poison Eaters and Other Stories. The Poison Eaters and Other Stories by Holly Black, narrated by Holly Black. I don’t know why it took my so long to read something by Holly Black, but everything I’ve read by her has been brilliant. I haven’t read a collection of short stories in a while, so I think this will be a good pick.

What’s on your to-read/to-listen list?

Getting Unstuck

Horses stuck in mud. All writers have been there. Maybe you just finished one project and are trying to get started on another. Maybe you’re half-way through a draft and are struggling to write the next scene. Maybe you’re revising and can’t figure out how to make that change you know you need to make. Regardless of where you are, getting stuck is a part of being a writer. Today I’m going to share a few tricks that help me get past those sticky moments.

1. Go for a walk. I’d advise walking in silence — don’t listen to music or audiobooks, just let nature (and maybe the neighbors’ kids or cars) be your soundtrack. Getting your blood flowing and letting your subconscious work uninterrupted will help you figure out how to move forward with your writing when you get home.

2. Take a shower. Especially if you’ve been so busy writing/working your other job(s)/spending time with your family that you haven’t in a while. But seriously, a hot shower almost always helps me figure out where I need to go next with a project. It may sound weird, but it works, and I know many other writers who swear by this method.

3. Brainstorm. I use this both to come up with new project ideas and to figure out what should happen next in early drafts. Sit down with a notebook or pad of paper and pen, and just think about “what ifs.” “What if this character were a girl instead of a boy?” “What if every time someone cast a spell in this world, someone else was hurt or killed?” “What if this character’s parents didn’t die, but instead abandoned her?” A series of “what ifs” led to my current WIP, and I swear by this method when I’m drafting. This is probably as close to outlining as I get for most projects.

So that’s what works for me. Have you gotten stuck on a project recently? What helped you get unstuck?

Three reasons to post-outline

OutlineI’m an unashamed pantser, writing first and even second drafts of novels without an outline. The closest I get to pre-writing is brainstorming sessions where I’ll make lists of possible scenes to write. So far, every project I’ve tried to outline has been a mess until I decided to chuck the outline and just go with my gut.

But as I’ve revised and prepared my current manuscript for submission, I’ve come across a few reasons why even a pantser can benefit from a basic outline. If you’re at this stage in the process, you may find post-outlining helpful, too.

1. Outlining makes big-picture revisions easier. I went through my manuscript chapter-by-chapter and summarized every scene in one sentence. Then I highlighted each scene that was important to the main plot in one color, and chose different colors for scenes that furthered the different subplots. When I examined that, it was a lot easier to see where and why things might be dragging, which scenes I should cut, and which ones I needed to move or change.

2. Outlining makes it easier to write a synopsis. Most writers hate synopses, but they’re a necessary component of the submission process. With my highlighted outline, I can see what I need to include in a synopsis, and what I should leave out. Reducing 78,000 words to one to two pages is tough, and having the big-picture view of an outline really helps.

3. Outlining makes it easier to talk about your book. I have a hard time discussing my work, whether I’m talking with a fellow writer or delivering a prepared pitch to an agent. How do I explain this thing I’ve poured so much of myself into without simply saying, “Here, read it”? Creating an outline helps me summarize my story without rambling about a favorite character or subplot.

Do you outline your work at all? If you’re a pantser, have you considered post-outlining? What works for you?