Written By Bob Sassone
I’ve always loved a mystery. And not just books either. Along with my well-worn copies of mystery novels by Chandler, Block, and the Macdonalds (Ross and John D.), I also treasure my videos of old “Columbo” and “Magnum, P.I.” episodes, and I always stop to watch “Murder, She Wrote” whenever I’m on the couch, channel surfing. Though I think that she’s around when so many murders occur, that she is either the world’s greatest amateur detective or the most cunning serial killer in history.
So, for my first novel, the natural choice for me was to write a mystery. Of course, starting any large piece of writing like a novel can be frightening. It can even paralyze you, as you look at the blank screen (or blank piece of paper in your Royal typewriter) and think, “I have to come up with around 70,000 or so words?!” I know that before I started my first novel, I thought that I wasn’t up to the task, that novels were something that “other,” “real” writers did.
But I eventually started. Though I don’t pretend to know all the answers (I believe a writer should never stop learning), by reading all the how-to books, reading a few hundred mystery novels, and talking to a few other mystery writers as well, I think I can help you, too. This isn’t a definitive guide, but it will certainly help you as it helped me. Little by little, the entire process begins to make sense, becomes less daunting, and, believe it or not, becomes more fun.
Tip #1: Just start the novel.
That’s the big secret. You have to actually start the book, even if you don’t know where it’s going or what’s going to happen.
Tip #2: A good, clean, correctly formatted manuscript is essential.
Of course, this is true for all writing, whether it’s a novel, an article, or a recipe column for your local advertiser. But for novels, it’s especially true. Double-space your manuscript. 10 or 12 point type. White laser or inkjet paper (not onionskin or paper that smudges easily). Send it loose in a manuscript box (unless the agent or publisher asks for just a chapter or two, in which case you can go the paper clip route). Word count in the upper right-hand corner of the title page, title and author centered, page numbers in the upper right-hand corner of the other pages. Spell the editor/publisher’s name correctly. And, please, no jelly stains or fingerprints.
I’ve been an editor, and if a writer handed in something in the wrong format or didn’t spell my name correctly or addressed it in a general way, I immediately threw it away without reading it. And enjoyed doing so. There’s no excuse for that.
Tip #3: Outline your plot.
Many mystery writers (including myself) do not work from an outline for the entire novel, but I find it helps if I at least jot down a skeleton-like structure of various scenes and transitions. They will probably change as the book goes along, but at least you’ll have a base to work from.
Tip #4: First-person or third? Whatever you want.
This is always the big debate, isn’t it? Which viewpoint to use? It’s especially debated in mystery circles. Most mysteries are written in the first person, though the downsides are obvious: your hero has to be present on every page, the reader has to collect clues and realize things at the same time as the hero, and the constant use of the word “I” may put some readers off (though I’ve never bought that argument – mystery readers know the format of the genre and eat up first-person mysteries).
Third-person advantages are many: you can get into the minds of various characters, and you can have scenes where the hero is not involved. I chose first person for my first mystery because it’s what I use for my essays, humor columns, and some of my non-fiction. First-person comes naturally to all of us, so many first mysteries are written this way. Though at some point you will want to write your next novel or short story in the third person.
As for multi-viewpoint, don’t even try that with your first mystery.
Tip #5: Create good characters, not just two-dimensional stick figures to propel the plot.
To create characters, I’m one for the old trick of creating little descriptions of each character: height, weight, job, hobbies, personality, work history, demeanor, friends, hangouts, hang-ups, etc. It gives you a good idea of what to do with your characters. Be consistent with the way the character talks and how he reacts to events in the book. And don’t give similar names to your characters, like Bill and Bob and Bret. Don’t confuse the reader.
Tip #6: To write good dialogue, don’t listen to people talking to each other.
Dialogue on the page doesn’t sound like real-life dialogue. Real-life dialogue is boring, filled with mistakes, and “tells” much too much. And be careful of “he said.” It breaks up the rhythm of the dialogue, especially if it’s repeated too often.
Typical real-life dialogue:
Joe: “Hey Ed, how are you?” Ed: “Fine, what’s up?” Joe: “Great. How’s your job going?” Ed: “It’s OK. But I’m looking for something else that pays more.” Joe: “Yeah, me too. What type of job are you looking for?” Ed: “I don’t know.” Joe: “Me either.” Ed: “Wanna go get something to eat.” Joe: “That sounds good.” Ed: “Where do you want to go?” Joe: “I don’t know…what time is it?”
Zzzzzzzzzzzzz. Dialogue on the written page has to involve more action, not only in the dialogue itself but in the descriptive paragraphs or narrative that should be inserted somewhere into the above conversation. Don’t let dialogue go on too long without breaking it up.
Tip #7: The best way to learn how to write a mystery? Read them.
In fact, devour as many as you can. Learn from the masters: Lawrence Block, Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler, Sue Grafton, James Ellroy, Steven Womack, Robert Crais, Jeremiah Healy, Donald Westlake. In fact, I’ll go one step further: I think it’s good to read ALL types of novels, not just in your genre. Good writing is good writing.
Tip #8: Write every day. Get a routine. Stick with it.
If you are a writer who writes every single day, whether in a journal, a notebook, or for clients, then you are way ahead of the person who wants to write a novel but doesn’t have the discipline. Many people see a writing career as “flexible” and “spontaneous” and “idealistic,” and all the other arty stuff. They don’t want to be forced to write for a certain number of pages or hours a day. But if you get a daily routine (for me it’s the early morning, when the world is quieter and I can get things done), you’ll see your writing increase and improve. If you write a page or two a day, you’ll be surprised how fast you can finish the first draft of your novel (and, believe me, that first draft will not be your finished product).
Tip #9: Don’t edit as you write.
It just gets in the way of the flow and energy of your writing, especially with a long piece of fiction like a novel. Save all the editing for the next day, where you can edit the previous day’s prose. Not only will you get more done, you’ll FEEL as if you’re getting more done. Get that first draft done, and you won’t find the editing and revision to be too much of a chore. Besides, when people ask you if your book is done, you can give them the old, “yeah, I just have to edit it a little more,” and you won’t be lying!
Tip #10: Some cliches are true, like the one that says, “writing is rewriting.”
Nothing you read, whether it’s a mystery novel, a humor column, an investigative piece, or a short story, is published exactly as it was written the first time. There’s a lot of revision and editing that is done. I used to dread revision, but now I look at it as a way to really clean up messy, unclear, or repetitive prose.
Of course, the steps above are just 10 ways to help you do what you ultimately have to do, which is to actually write the book. When you get right down to it, the best advice comes from Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser books, when he was asked for his advice on writing and submitting a mystery novel:
“Write it and send it in.”
Bob Sassone is a contributor to The Boston Herald and Ironminds (http://www.ironminds.com), and has written for Salon, McSweeney’s, Tripod, iUniverse, Compuserve, North Shore Magazine, and other publications. A book of columns and essays will be released later this year, as will his first novel. Web site: http://www.bobsassone.com.