So You Want to be a Mystery Novelist . . .

Kaitlyn:What advice can published authors give to someone who is not yet published but who is


seriously considering a career as a mystery novelist? My advice is hardly original, but it is heartfelt. First: never give up if this is what you really want. Second: don’t quit your day job unless you have a spouse with health insurance. And third: don’t look for shortcuts, or for a how-to book or course that will teach you how to become a successful, published writer. The only way to learn how to write publishable books is by writing and rewriting and writing some more.

Lea: Don’t forget reading. Read every mystery you can. Study the genre. Learn from the books themselves the difference between a cozy and a traditional; between romantic suspense and suspense; between a suspense and a thriller. The books on writing mysteries will give you their definitions, but you need to understand the feel of the genre. And although you’ll never go wrong knowing about the fathers and mothers of the mystery — Sayers, Christie, Poe, Doyle, and the noir writers of the 1930s — if you want to sell your book now you need to read the authors who are selling now. Read Publishers Weekly. Study book reviews. Attend a mystery conference or two.

And join Sisters in Crime, even if you’re a Brother. They may help you find your first critique group.

Sarah: A critique group made all the difference between published and never-published for me. But it was a cutthroat group, with several already published writers in it, and while no one there was deliberately harsh there was no coddling of anyone, either. So one of my pieces of advice would be to find not just a critique group, but a serious one.

Kate: All great pieces of advice. I would tailor that a bit. Following up on Kaitlyn’s comment–I tell my students, and sincerely believe, since it sustained me through nearly ten years in the unpublished writer’s corner, that only you get to decide that you’re a writer. You’ll need that belief in the face of what the industry will throw at you. The boxes of rejection letters (at least they’re e-mails now, so trees don’t have to die as our spirits do). The unkind, sometimes unfair reviews. The difficulties of watching your friends succeed while you trudge on. You do need the hide of an alligator to get through this. Contrary to what we may all have believed about getting to hide in our rooms and luxuriate in the pleasures of writing–it is hard work, and after you’ve sweated blood and written ten drafts, you have to come out of your room and try to sell that book, which can be equally hard. Believing in yourself doesn’t mean you don’t have to listen, though. Or write those many drafts.

Reading is so important, and you should read what you expect to be your competition. Then deconstruct those books. Make the same ruthless outline of what happens in every chapter that you make for your own books. Know how a mystery is put together. Understand about ending those chapters so the reader must read on. Know the difference between a scene and a chapter. Even pay attention to how the books look on the page–the difference between huge, daunting, weighty paragraphs and crisp words that flow as fast as the story itself.

As for writing groups, Kate Barnes, who was Maine’s first poet laureate, gave me some great advice about these when I interviewed her. She said that this is about your writing, and you need to be ruthless about finding a group that will work for you. Ruthless may sound like a hard word, but consider what you’re there for. Sarah describes a group that was quite harsh. For her, it helped her become a better writer. But if your writing group always makes you feel like a failure, or wants you to write the book you aren’t writing, or conversely, always loves what you write instead of giving constructive feedback, it may not be the group for you. And you also need to accept that sometimes harsh criticism may be what you need–after you’ve crawled out of the corner you’ve gone to hide in.

Sarah: I agree, Kate. A too-harsh critique group can be as bad as a mutual admiration society. I suppose the real test is in the writing: is it getting better as a result of the criticisms you’ve heard? Do you feel less confused, instead of more so? Then for you it’s probably a good group.

Barb: The advice I have is timeworn–write, write, write. There really is no way around it. You do get better, or maybe you just get more confident which makes you better, but either way it works. I agree with Lea, read, read, read and with Sarah about critique groups. I always tell people picking a critique group is like playing tennis, you want to be with people who are better than you, who will up your game, but not so much better you’re just cowering in the corner with balls flying at you (to stretch a metaphor to the breaking point).

Actively seek out opportunities to learn, and repeat them as your abilities deepen. For example, the first time I took Hallie Ephron’s class about building suspense, I was like “suspense/schmepense, I’m just hoping to have a beginning, middle and end.”  But the next time I took the class, I kind of “got it” and actually put my plot points out along a diagram she gave, and the third time, I began to have an appreciation for the nuance of what she was saying about the writing itself. That’s one of the things I love about writing, you are always learning.

Julia:  I’ll echo everyone else and say writing = butt in chair. I started my first book – of course, not know if it would ever be published or not – while I was a stay-at-home mother of two. Then I went back to work. Suddenly, all the times I had previously used for writing – naps, Barney videos, after the children went to bed – were gone. I was up and out at the law firm all day, and by the time the kids were in bed, I was too exhausted to do anything but flop in front of the TV. My solution was to get up two hours before the rest of the family and write during that time. I gave up all my other hobbies – watching television, needlepoint, gardening – and went to bed as soon as the kids were down at 8:00. It made me a very dull conversationalist at parties, but it worked. I finished IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER and wrote A FOUNTAIN FILLED WITH BLOOD under that regime.

Also, after attending the Stonecoast Writers Conference (here in Maine, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it) and teaching at the Stonecoast MFA program, I’ve come to see the value of small-group workshops in taking your writing to the next level. However, I don’t know of any that are mystery-specific, which is a shame. Has anyone else heard of a genre-oriented writing conference that features group critiques and one-on-one work with instructors?

Kate: Not quite the same thing, Julia, but the Crime Bake does one-on-one manuscript critiquing conferences with writers. And I believe that Hallie Ephron and Roberta Isleib do a weekend retreat that offers some of this, though, while they’re mystery writers, it isn’t solely genre-fiction focused.

Have to second the importance of discipline in all of this. I also wrote around the children’s schedules and in little corners of time. It made me very efficient.

Paul: The Center for Fiction in New York is starting what looks to be a high-powered Crime Fiction Academy with a faculty that includes Dennis Lehane, Lee Child, Laura Lippman, and just about every demigod in the heavens. I think it will attract quite a crowd of applicants, eager to shell out big bucks in the hope that some magic rubs off on their manuscripts.

I’ve spent much of my life either studying writing, helping people get published at Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, or being in the powerful position of deciding what gets into print or doesn’t at Down East. What I have to say on the subject could probably fill a PhD seminar.

The succinct version is this: Be a professional even before you have a profession. Writing for a living is work, not self-expression (actually it’s both, but focus on the work part for now). Treat it as such. Study fiction like a lawyer studies for the bar. Seek help and instruction, but always treat the people you approach for advice or assistance (whether it’s the instructor at the writer’s conference, the literary agent, the editor, or the publicist) with respect until they have given you reason not to respect them. Be clear in your communications. Don’t pester people. Try to understand what their actual needs are and then seek to fulfill them. Sometimes you’ll realize you can’t do so. Then it’s time to move along. But keep moving along. Determination and perseverance—coupled with the self-knowledge you gain from reading everything and having a trusted mentor or a constructively critical writer’s group—will take you very far, sometimes past the limits of your own talents.

I attended a Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing with dozens of students. I’d wager that most of those people—many of whom were far more talented than I was—never published a word. The difference? I wanted it more and was willing to do what it took. But I sacrificed a lot along the way, and there are some dark nights when I wonder who made the better bargain.

Lastly and most importantly, there is luck. Everything ultimately depends upon it, sad to say. You can’t control luck, but through careful preparation you can make yourself ready to seize an opportunity if it suddenly presents itself.

As a postscript: One of the wonderful things about the revolution going on right now in publishing is that not everyone needs to train like a Spartan. My advice above is geared toward those who want to teach at the Crime Fiction Academy someday. It’s OK if you don’t! You will be happier when you realize why you want to write and who your audience truly is. If your motivation is primarily self-expression, the world now offers a variety of options for you to self-publish a printed book or upload an eBook on Amazon. Just don’t start obsessing with your Kindle ranking.

Vicki: Such great advice here — I’ll only add that for me, it’s important to like what I’m writing. That sounds obvious, but there was one non-fiction book I thought I “should” write, and it was torture.  By contrast, writing Moving to Maine was a great experience, and I’m having great fun with my Darby Farr mysteries. Not so say it isn’t hard work, because it is. But hey, life is short — why not enjoy what you’re doing?

Gerry: All sound advice from my esteemed colleagues. Worth printing this page and hanging it in your writing room. (if you don’t have one, you should). I wish I’d had something like this when I was starting out but the important thing is that I did start and I didn’t stop. I know many people who say they want to write a crime novel, or who have half of one on their computer, but haven’t completed the book. I’m not faulting them. But those who are drawn to this labor should feel it’s a labor of love. You should need to write that book, feel a gnawing inside when something keeps you away from your manuscript. If you don’t, find something that really is your passion.

For those who have made that cut, I can only repeat what’s been said. Read a lot, and not just crime fiction. Find writing you love and then consider why you love it. If you read a novel and come away dissatisfied, consider why. What were its shortcomings? And then write. Write with discipline and conviction. Be hard on your own writing. And when you think you have something that is the best you can do, show it to somebody whose opinion is informed and honest. And be ready to go back to the keyboard again. And again. And again.

After all, writers love writing, not just having written. Enjoy the power of your own creativity. Add the craft that comes with practice and you’ll be ready to join our ranks. I look forward to reading you.


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4 Responses to So You Want to be a Mystery Novelist . . .

  1. Terrific advice. Especially about reading, reading, reading–and then writing, writing, writing. No matter what. Set a word count or page goal if time limits don’t work for you–ie, you’ll willingly sit before your screen for two hours, but nothing gets typed. And mostly the never giving up thing. If you have no choice–if you can’t NOT write–then write till you’ve accomplished your dream. Write until you’re read.

    These days there’s a choice about whether you want to undergo the five, ten, fifteen years it can take to become traditionally published. Not everyone should make that choice–there may be better avenues for what you want to accomplish. But if you do dream of traditional publishing, I am here, having just broken in after 11 years, to say that it’s a viable, thrilling, and enriching experience that feeds a writer’s soul.

  2. Dee says:

    I have never wanted to be a writer, but have been reading since the age of two. I just want to thank you all for your butt in chair, write, write, write. I love to read. Please keep writing!

  3. Vicki Doudera says:

    Congratulations, Jenny! Clearly you’ve “got what it takes,” and I salute your persistence.

    Dee, thank you for reading! We couldn’t do it without you. (Well, actually we could… but it isn’t much fun to write something that nobody reads!)

  4. Pingback: So You Want To Be A Mystery Novelist | grub street daily

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