25 Things You Need To Know About Writing Mysteries, By Susan Spann

Mystery novels work a lot like any other genre, except that mystery writers murder their imaginary friends. To paraphrase the Hoover campaign promise, a mystery novel will deliver “a corpse in every pot.” (Mystery authors are twisted. We might as well get that straight from the outset.)

Mystery offers plenty of room for variation, too. Murder is universal—it can happen in any setting and any time. A sleuth can be a professional, an amateur, or a NINJA (though I’ve already done that last one), and your victim and method can vary just as widely. One warning, however: killing your imaginary friends is a lot like eating potato chips. Nobody I know can stop with one.

Sound like fun? Awesome. Let’s get going:

1. DEATH: IT’S WHAT’S FOR DINNER

Occasionally, a mystery succeeds with a central crime other than murder, but generally speaking purloined papers, missing mutts, and the seizure of family jewels doesn’t get you very far in the mystery world. (However, properly handled, the family jewels have great potential in other genres.)

On the positive side, if your imaginary friends are at all like mine, they’re better off dead.

2. PUT THE HATCHET DOWN AND FIND A SLEUTH

It’s easy to rush prematurely into the process of fitting imaginary friends for cement waders. When real killers rush the process, they end up in jail (or dead). The best way to keep your novel (and your career) off the writers’ version of death row? Plan it thoroughly. Plan it well. And plan to start with an interesting sleuth. Readers don’t turn the pages because they care about fictitious corpses. Readers want to help the cool kids solve a crime.

3. KNEE THE DICK IN THE GROIN

What’s better than an intriguing sleuth? A BROKEN ONE! Hooray! Is your detective emotionally damaged? Physically impaired? Addicted to Hostess Fruit Pies? Excellent: good times lie ahead.

If not, stop now and take a hammer to your sleuth’s emotional kneecaps. Bust those suckers good—and be creative. Divorces, tragic accidents, and dead relatives are dime-a-dozen. You can do better. Make your detective allergic to coffee, or phobic of houseplants. Squash her beloved iguana beneath a Zamboni and then force her to solve a murder at an ice rink.

You get the idea.

3. MUMBLE, MUMBLE, BACKSTORY … OR, EVERY ZAMBONI-HATING SOCIOPATH HAS A MOTHER

Your detective needs a reason to solve the crime you’re about to commit. Faced with a choice between tracking a killer and going out for Mexican food, every normal human picks the churro. Something (aside from your need to MAKE A MILLION DOLLARS PUBLISHING, YO) makes your detective select “hunt killer” over “Tuesday Tacos,” and you have to know the reason before you write. Maybe the story prompts it. Maybe it’s something in the detective’s past. Best case scenario, past and story fuse in a giant quesadilla of motivation. Mmmm…cheesy goodness….

4.  THE FIRST RULE OF THE BACKSTORY IS DO NOT WRITE BACKSTORY

No, seriously. Don’t. Not directly, anyway. Backstory is the cayenne pepper of the writer’s literary spice drawer. A little, added at the proper time, enhances the novel and gives it zing. Use too much and readers dump the entire thing in the garbage bin.

5. EVERY BODY NEEDS A COFFIN – BUILD YOUR WORLD

But I thought this was about killing people! Patience, young Padawan. We’ll get there. First things first.

Your sleuth and your supporting cast live in a specific time and place. Construct and memorize that landscape. Novels set in the “real” world need just as much attention as the ones that live on fantasy and science fiction shelves. Maybe your victim lives alone in a fifteenth-story apartment carpeted with empty Reese’s wrappers. Maybe the sleuth uses only one-ply toilet paper. I don’t know, but you have to, and you need to know before you write page one.

6. MURDER: IT’S DYING, WITH STYLE!

In real life, people get run over with cars, shot with pistols, and decapitated with ancient swords. (THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!!) In fiction, anything is fair game if you can explain it. Take down your victim with all the creativity you can muster. Pufferfish poison? Absolutely. Shuriken to the face? You’ll see it in one of my novels. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours!

One note: In my world, the method comes before the victim, but this is a chicken-and-egg kind of problem. Do it the other way ‘round if it works for you. Which brings us to:

7. SPIN THE WHEEL OF VICTIMS!

As with the sleuth, choose wisely—and by “wisely” I mean with all the wicked, sadistic power within your twisted soul. You can kill ANYONE YOU WANT TO. Or more than one! The world’s your oyster…shiv—er, shuck—that baby and find some pearls.

8. WHODUNIT, WHY-HE-DUN-IT, DUN DUN DUN

You know that big “reveal scene” where the sleuth explains who killed the victim and why? Surprise! The author had that plotted out 300 pages earlier. (My first novel has 288 pages. Do the math.) Figure out the killer’s method, opportunity and motives before you start writing. Mystery readers will burn you in effigy (and barbecue your book in reviews) if these elements fall flat.

9. ROUND UP THE (UN)USUAL SUSPECTS …

You’ll need at least three suspects (I prefer four), each of whom falls into one of two categories: people who wanted the victim dead and people who might have killed him. Sometimes they overlap. Sometimes they don’t. Also? At least one should come from “outside the box” – the victim’s kindergarten teacher, for example. Don’t stretch belief, but don’t just fill your story with expected variations on the theme.

10. … AND LISTEN TO THEM LIE ABOUT KEYSER SÖZE.

All suspects are liars. Let me repeat for emphasis: Every one of your suspects is a liar. The issue is that only one is lying about this murder. The rest don’t want the sleuth finding out they were dressing in drag, having sex with a prostitute dressed as a purple dinosaur, or fertilizing the marijuana grove at the time of the killing. Figuring out what your suspects are hiding is just as important as figuring out “who-done-it” … and sometimes, a lot more fun.

11. OUTLINE, OUTLINE, OUTLINE

Some writers pants their way through a novel, but how they do is a mystery to me. My novels start with an outline, and that outline starts with the murder—even when the killing happens before the start of the book. The outline doesn’t need huge detail, but it should include every major scene (and major clue) in the novel. It gives you a road map and helps you keep your sleuth on course when everyone starts lying.

12. BUT WAIT! THERE’S ANOTHER OUTLINE!

A secret outline, for your eyes alone. This one tracks the offstage action—what those lying suspects were really doing, and when, and why. The “secret outline” lets you know which clues to plant, and where, and keeps the lies from jamming up the story’s moving parts. Mmm….jam….Back in a minute, I need some toast.

13. GET A CLUE. IN FACT, TAKE TWO, THEY’RE SMALL

Mysteries have three kinds of clues. “Genuine clues” point to the killer and help the detective solve the crime. “Fake clues,” (also called “red herrings”) point to someone other than the killer. They serve to distract the reader (and, often, the detective too). “Pivotal clues” are the lynchpins upon which the solution turns—they give the final piece (or pieces) to the puzzle and, ultimately, solve the crime. You need all three types of clues, and you must insert them in a way that keeps the reader guessing which is which.

14. WAITER! THERE’S A DEAD GUY ON PAGE ONE!

Mystery readers are like the crowds in the Roman Coliseum—they came for blood, and they want it NOW. Readers will not wait a hundred pages for a corpse. They want death by page 50 … if not, your book may well become the victim.

15. HERO, MEET QUEST

Remember back around #3 where I made a big deal about the detective’s backstory? Without violating the First Rule of Fight Club Backstory, your mission—should you choose to accept it—is to persuade the reader that “hunting down a serial killer who wants to eat your eyeballs” is a viable alternative to churros and beer in your detective’s world. Extra points if you do this without internal monologues, flashbacks, dreams, or the Ghosts of Dead Ancestors.

And yes, the detective novel is the Momomyth (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth) in murderous form. However, the writer’s quest is to keep formula from becoming formulaic.

16. STEP 1: STEAL UNDERPANTS. STEP 2: ????

Between Act One (the choice between death and churros) and the midpoint-ish AHA!, lies a quagmire where unwary authors get lost in the process. Write the early stages of the investigation quickly. Take the suspects out for a test drive. See what they have to say. Plan to fill in the details once you get a grip on what’s happening in the endgame.

17. AHA! THE FIRST SOLUTION!

Your detective must identify the killer by the midpoint of the book. The investigation then shifts to proving how and why (s)he did it. Except that…

18. THE FIRST SOLUTION WAS WRONG

At some point, your sleuth will discover that everything he knew was wrong, the killer is NOT the female Elvis impersonator from the planet Diva-9, and OMG WE ARE ALL HOPELESSLY SCREWED.

Welcome to the long, dark, potty break of the soul—and every detective has to hit bottom (or at least wipe out) before he or she can find the killer. Let your detective dig a hole and fall through into a cesspool … and then collapse the ceiling on her head. Force her to dig her way out with a broken chopstick.

19. AHA, AGAIN, THIS TIME FOR REALS!

The second time ‘round, your detective is stronger and more motivated (digging out of a cesspool with a chopstick can have that effect). The answer doesn’t come easily, but this time, when the sleuth reveals the killer, it’s the right one. Which leads to:

20. BOTTOM OF THE NINTH, TWO OUTS, AND BASES LOADED: TIME FOR A GRAND SLAM!

This is the BIG REVEAL SCENE, in which the sleuth unmasks the killer, explains the motive, and gives free puppies to everyone. Hooray! The reveal is one of the two most important scenes in a mystery novel (the other being discovery of the corpse), and it has dual goals. The first is to explain (or explain away) every major clue and to expose the murderer’s identity. The second is more important: it can’t be boring. This is why your reader stuck with you for all those pages. Strike out here, and all the free puppies die.

21. HOORAY! YOU WROTE A NOVEL! CELEBRATE!

Surprise – this is an actual step in the process. The hardest part of writing a novel starts after you type “the end” on that stinky cheese you call Draft One. But reaching the end of that draft deserves celebration.

I recommend beer and churros, or lemon cupcakes, or port and honey-barbecue Fritos. Whatever form of celebratory debauchery fits your style.

22.  FEAR IS THE MINDKILLER, BUT REVISION KILLS EVERYTHING ELSE

Revision doesn’t mean “polish out a few passive cases and send that baby off to win worldwide praise.” Revising a novel is like killing a hydra with a safety razor. When you’re deep in the process, you swear it will NEVER END, but no good comes of short-circuiting the work.

Not only must you fill the rotting, swampy holes you left in the early pages, you have to tighten the pacing, fix the plot, and make sure the clues hold up. The characters may need tweaking so they don’t all sound like Grandpa from The Muensters, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg where the edits are concerned.

Remember that celebratory bourbon? Keep some around, you’re going to need it here.

23. AND NOW, A LESSON FROM BILL AND TED: IT’S NOT A CRIME TO GO BACK AND HIDE THE KEYS

(Yes, I’m about to quote Keanu Reeves for writing advice. Shut up or I’ll cut you with this safety razor.) Near the end of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the guys are stuck outside the San Dimas jail with a real problem: they must free the imprisoned historical figures or fail their presentation and flunk out of school. They have to engineer a jailbreak NOW. So Ted turns to Bill and says, “When this is over, remind me to go back and hide the keys.” Moments later, Ted slips behind a bush and returns with the jail keys in his hand.

The lesson? When you have a time machine, getting the details right is not a problem.

Hey, writer? You have a time machine. Go back during the editing phase and drop the keys where you need them. Just, please, find a better explanation for how they got there.

24. WIRE CRITIQUE PARTNERS IN SERIES, NOT IN PARALLEL

Readers get only one virgin pass at a mystery (heh… I said “virgin”…). If all your critique partners read at once, you won’t have anyone left to tell you if your edits and adjustments wreck the story or ruin the surprise.

I run my novels through three sets of eyes: my alpha reader, peer editors, and my critique group, making edits and adjustments after each. You don’t necessarily need that many, but you need good ones and you should space them out.

25. PUT A SHIV THROUGH THE HEART OF ANY ADVICE THAT DOESN’T WORK FOR YOU

What I’ve just shared is my method. (There are many like it, but this one is mine.) Some authors pants their way through a mystery, fueled by the tortured screams of their imaginary friends. Some of us find solace in chocolate waffles and naked shuffleboard. (Don’t judge…) The most important advice I can give is FIND WHAT WORKS FOR YOU AND DO IT EVERY DAY.

Whatever you’re writing, write it until it’s finished. Then revise. Then write something else. And something else again, until you run out of imaginary friends … and then create some new ones and kill them too.

About the Author

Susan Spann is a transactional attorney and author of the Shinobi Mystery series featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori. The first book, CLAWS OF THE CAT, released in July 2013 from Minotaur Books. In addition to murdering her imaginary friends, Susan’s hobbies include archery, martial arts, horseback riding, and raising seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at http://www.susanspann.com, or on Twitter @SusanSpann.

66 comments

  • “If your imaginary friends are at all like mine, they’re better off dead.” My favorite line I’ve read in a while.

  • This is really good. And that cover is amazing. I’m halfway through writing my third novel and this one is more a mystery than a thriller. I’m going to stick with some of your tips. Thanks.

    • Thank you – and I love that cover. My publisher did me a solid on it. Totally nails the vibe of the book, and I admit, I teared up the first time I saw it because it looked so right.

      • Hello I’m somewhat new to the writing world, and especially to mystery. I have always thought of different way to murder people, as it haunts my dreams. My dreams include putting a bag on someone’s head while on a roller-coaster to throwing someone in a gigantic shredder. I have always had a creative mind, and I think you’re advice will help me significantly. I may even write a novel one day.

  • “Not only must you fill the rotting, swampy holes you left in the early pages, you have to tighten the pacing, fix the plot, and make sure the clues hold up. The characters may need tweaking so they don’t all sound like Grandpa from The Muensters (sic), and that’s just the tip of the iceberg where the edits are concerned.”

    I’m gonna be contentious because, hey, contentious! but I see this kind of statement all the time and more and more I ask myself: why? Why is it almost universal for people offering writing advice to state that the first draft is invariably going to be crap, and that it will inevitably require an enormous amount of work before becoming in any way good enough?

    That said (or at least asked), thanks Susan for a great post, and double thanks for the Bill and Ted reference. Because—”Whoa! medieval babes!”—there can never be enough Bill and Ted references.

    • I used to ask that very same question David… until I finished the very first Draft One I’d ever managed to finish of a novel (it’d been all short stories, plays and lyrics for me before then.) Hate to burst the bubble, but it is painfully, horribly true.

      • Wendy,

        don’t worry, my bubble is fine! :-) But my question—which is intrinsic to my theory on this subject—would be: did you plot / outline your novel? Or did you just make it up as you went along? (I believe “pantsing it” is the vernacular.”

        • Depends what you mean by ‘outline…’

          I knew how I wanted it to start, I knew how I wanted it to end and I had about five or six ‘key point’ events mapped out in between that had to happen in order for me to get from start to end in the way I intended. But that was pretty much all; I certainly hadn’t gone down to anything like a chapter-by-chapter outline. I know there are lots of people out there who do that, but I’ve never been able to – my brain just doesn’t work that way.

          And, to be honest, I’m kind of glad it doesn’t, because I think that would’ve made working on Draft Two feel even more like taking a wrecking ball to the whole darn thing than it does already. I still have the same key points, the same beginning and the same end – but it’s only on the second pass that I’m seeing where this conversation might lead to that revelation, and that clues to this thing need to appear much earlier and to that thing much later, and does anyone really need to know this thing anyway and oh my god, I forgot to tell them about that thing but WHERE THE HELL IS THAT GONNA GO??!

          I’ve heard it said that the First Draft is where the writer is telling himself the story, and the subsequent drafts is where he works out which parts of it to tell the reader. Having got to this stage, I am in total agreement with that analogy. Am I plotter or pantser? I’d put myself somewhere in between. To use a software engineering term: I’m a top-level design kind of girl (and I promise you, in the software engineering world that’s nowhere near as big-headed a statement as it sounds!)

          • Wendy,

            I wrote the comment below first, and misadvertantly (I’m sure that’s a word) stole your line—”my brain [simply] doesn’t work that way.”

            I think the analogy you refer to is interesting: I have kind of come to the belief that ultimately it is the characters who are telling the story, and that both writer and reader are along with the ride.

        • My experience has always been that the (always heavily polished–I revise as I go) first draft is absolutely brilliant and perfect and the greatest thing anybody has ever written, and all my critiquers are telling me it’s totally great, barring a few edits … until a couple months after I’ve finished it. Then one of the critiques hits on something that makes me realize that the whole thing needs to be hacked apart, revamped, re-thought, and at least partially re-written. I’m in the redo-all-world-building/go-back-and-clarify/panic stage on my current project, which was definitely going to be the first perfect first draft anybody had ever done a month or two ago.

          In short, the periods in which I thought my first drafts were perfect were periods of blissful ignorance and mercifully finite duration.

          (For reference, I’m really far to the outliner side of the continuum. Not that I don’t make changes and re-outline as I go, but yeah, definitely need that outline, and no, it doesn’t save me from the rewrite.)

        • David,

          Whereas it is certainly true that everyone’s processes and procedures are going to be different, it has been my experience (both with my own work and working with others) that you invariably will not sit down with all the tools you need to create a fully fleshed-out and accurate masterpiece. A novel, finished and attended as it should be, is an extremely complex beast – it contains a whole world and a bunch of people that have to come off as real to a reader who only has access to the printed word on a dry page. We authors don’t have the benefit of an army of computer animators and theatrical surround-sound to make the experience real for our readers. We have to become adept at playing their brains like a flute. The brains of people you’ve largely never met before, no less!

          The first draft, for me, is more like a sketch prior to a painting. I need a pretty solid idea of the concept and composition, and I need to be able to get all the big gestures in there and quite a bit of the important details in place, as well, but we’re a long way from being done. Why I have to start this way, for myself, is also really related to time… No matter how much planning I do (this varies; I tend to work better with a ‘major points xyz’ outline than with either nothing or trying to wrangle out a really detailed scene-by-scene list – by that point I’d rather just start writing the narrative while I’m still excited), I’m not going to sit down and write the 75-100+ thousand words in a single sitting, or even a week’s worth of single sittings. My ideas about what’s going on (even the ones I was sure about at outset) are bound to change as I go through the process. Sometimes it’s logistical, and I realize part way through working on the thing that what I had planned works better another way. Characters often surprise me. Sometimes I just get bored with my own ideas and make changes for that reason (cause if it hasn’t held MY attention how is it going to hold yours??). This leads to inconsistencies, and inconsistencies lead to the dark side. So you gotta go back and fix stuff. And don’t even get me started on research (how many half-abandoned notes do I have in stuff reading ‘go back and look this up’ in my own efforts to not kill my momentum too bad while I’m working?)(this is partially my own methods compensating for the fact that I was never good at getting my homework done on time).

          Another place where there is going to be a difference, I think, is between whether your first draft is ‘crappy’ or just ‘not done’. That’s going to depend more on process. I have read about (famous) authors (I say famous not to say that their methods are more legitimate, just to indicate that apparently these people did manage to get some stuff done) who didn’t commit to a sentence on the page until they felt it was perfect. Writing more carefully the first time probably yields a first draft that is not as poor quality as others, but it probably still isn’t query-worthy before the pen is even cool and revisions in order to fill in places that look a little thin when compared to others, or cut out details or scenes that have rendered themselves redundant or otherwise unnecessary as the process unfolds are probably going to be needed. This doesn’t really mean that the first draft is awful writing, though.

          I’m… well, not one of those people. I hack through a lot when I’m drafting, and one of the things I’ve striven for in my own process and exercises is allowing myself to hack through and get the ideas down, giving more time to iron things out to my liking once the major gestures are fixed in place and I can’t get lost so bad in bad crises of plot-n-character. So yeah. I’m a crappy first-drafter ;) I spend a lot of time encouraging myself and others to not feel badly when that first draft is crappy, too, because a lot of very worthwhile writers that I know get bogged down in that, feeling like because their words aren’t coming out 100% polished the first time through means that they’re not good at what they’re doing, which isn’t all that directly related. Putting the words in the right order is only part of writing a good piece.

          The final shaky metaphor I will leave you with is cake: maybe you are one of those bakers that starts with the inspiration to make a cake, and then spends a lot of time dumping stuff into a bowl and baking test batches until you have a good idea of how much of what needs to be in there. Or maybe you are like my sister and everything in the kitchen you touch turns into melty-in-the-mouth award-winning (seriously) gold, but there is still a lot of finishing work to get accomplished when you pull the cake out of the oven.

          Viola! Sorry it got so wordy, I’ve just been thinking about this a lot (and ramping up to talk to my NaNoWriMo group about it), and I think it’s a really interesting discussion.

          • No worries about wordiness, Marie … I often find myself writing comments that are longer than the post itself.

            As I’ve said before, this whole subject is one which I find fascinating and more so since completing a third manuscript—one which this time doesn’t suck.

            And yes, as per many of the commenters, the whole point is that everyone’s process is different. But I have come to believe that much of the work that is successful, i.e. books that work is done by writers who just make it up as they go along.

            Again, this is predicated on nothing but my own perception. It’s just from my own experience, remarkable things can happen when one doesn’t plot, or outline.

            As Remi below quoted John Updike, when asked why he never writes mysteries he responded that he wasn’t smart enough. Myself, I’m not smart enough to even write an outline, in the same way that I can’t play chess to save my life—my brain simply doesn’t work that way.

            Yet I’ve found that some kind of alchemy happens when you simply start with a premise and then just go, and that the end result can seem to the reader as if it’s been plotted to within an inch of it’s life.

            I’ll give a couple of examples which are perforce from my own work, a thriller set in the USA, which I have never visited. I was asking an American acquaintance about places to use as locations, and she suggested Arcata, CA, where she’d been to college. It sounded like a cool place, so I sent my two protagonists there. Now, being a thriller, these two are being chased by bad guys, the boss of whom is named McKinley. And it turns out that in Arcata there is a stature of President McKinley in the town square, and that the local airport is located in McKinleyville. So we get a confluence of things were never intended, but simply happened serendipitously.

            A second and final example: another major character, whose major characteristic is a love of flying, especially gliders. For completely random reasons, I located him in Arizona. Then, when writing an action scene where he’s being chased, I discovered that he was conveniently within gliding distance of the meteor crater near Flagstaff. So I realised that he could—and does—land his glider in the crater, creating a set piece which the reader naturally assumes was planned from the beginning—I know, I’ll have him land in the crater, it’ll be awesome!

            Anyway, none of the above is to prove what a great writer I am. It’s just that I think its something that Writers Who Are At The Beginning Of Their Careers (WWAATBOTC®) are possibly not fully aware of.

            Of course there are some other essential elements to the process, but like I say, I really do find this subject fascinating.

          • Oh yeah, David. All that. When I do get stuck on things and caught up in trying to figure stuff out and I’ll agonize for days or weeks about where I’m going from here… more often than not, I find again and again that if I just sit down and do some GD writing, my characters are typically much cleverer than I am and… know what’s going on if I just let them do their thing on the page. Humbling experience ;)

            As I mentioned, I do work better with some kind of a road map on a larger piece, mostly because I tend to paint myself into corners. I come up with more situations than plots, and I have a lot of those lying around, waiting. I only had part of the premise… and I was really excited about it, wrote what I saw first, and then hit this inevitable ‘AND THEN… :| ’ (I think that’s the number above about stealing underpants?) so if I throw some flags out into the snow to find my way, I’m a little more productive. Currently, I’ve just had the marvelous revelation that I grew up somewhere that many people consider kind of *exotic and remote* (Alaska, oooh aaah) and I can *use it as an interesting setting* without having to do nearly as much research! You’d think that would have occurred to me before now, given that I’ve been writing stories since I could pick up a pencil and I’m zeroing in on 30 now.

            My favourite serendipity moment, however, was when I was plotting a near-ish future science fiction world and needed a remote, empty place in the US to plop down a space elevator for what was being called, in the story, ‘The Eden Project’. So I popped open Google maps and started zooming in on a gap in the major roads grid of Wyoming (there’s a lot of nothing in Wyoming, I drove through it twice last month), and as I zoomed in I literally found in the center of my selected empty patch a tiny little town *called Eden*. I just about screamed. :D !

      • Megan,

        I had read that one but it was a while ago, so I went back and re-read. Yep, I think Mr. Smith has, as usual, a bunch of very salient points.

        One of my favourite quotes on this subject is one that I got second-hand from an author whose editor told him, with regard to his first draft, “It is difficult to shorten the legs of a stork, or lengthen the legs of a duck, without also doing considerable damage to the stork or the duck.”

        For me, that is the essence of it—trying to get your stork (or duck) pretty close to right from the beginning!

    • I kind of mentioned this down below but I think the advice is universal because, for the vast majority of us, it’s true. Some writers don’t need revisions, but statistically they’re in the minority.

      That said – I put that piece of my advice in exactly the same category as all the rest (of mine, and of everyone else’s): “Pass Rule 25 and Work for Me, Or I Shall Shiv You In Your Tender Bits.” In other words – your process is yours, and sacred, and if something doesn’t work for you … ignore it.

      Also? The wisdom of Bill & Ted is indeed overlooked. “Be Excellent to each other.”

  • But even if you plot, there will still be things to fix. I am working on my first novel (she says, dodging the rotten tomatoes) so maybe I’ve got nothing much to add here, but I plotted and outlined like an SOB and still ended up 30,000 words in with plot holes so big a truck and a tractor-trailer drove right through and tore my story up. At least for me, I KNOW that no matter how much I outline, there’s going to be much to fix before it’s done. I’m glad if it doesn’t work that way for others and maybe people get better as they go.

    • The beautiful thing is, nobody ever has to see that swampy, stinking first version unless you want them to – and hey, editing is fun! It gives you more chances to spend time with the characters :)

  • October 15, 2013 at 10:24 AM // Reply

    Great set of advice, and very timely. I’m currently slashing away with my mini-razor (yet again!) at my first mystery, which I totally pantsed. At the same time I am planning the holy hades out of the next one. Believe her when she says that pantsing is a poor technique for mysteries!

    And now I have more thoughts about things I may need to tweak on both. Thanks.

  • Hi, Dave,

    I’d say it depends on how brilliant or deluded you are. To use music as an analogy, it’s *possible* for a five-year old musician to create a brilliant song in one go, from the top of his head, without any planning. It’s equally possible it’ll sound terrible even though his mom might applaud.

    In the same way, yes, a first draft might be wonderful and ready to print, especially if you’ve plotted it and edited it painstakingly as you went along, but equally there’s a good chance it will need work. That’s what lies behind the advice. Most experienced writers chip away to get to the finish line and then go back and fix.

    If you’re so good, you get it right first time, then more power to you. Ignore the advice. All advice is there to be ignored if it doesn’t apply to you.

    P.S. My first drafts aren’t bad, but they do benefit from being reworked.

    • Hi, Jason,

      sorry, I’m a little confused: What depends on how brilliant or deluded someone is?

      My question was, why is it so very very common for writers to advise other writers that their first draft will almost certainly be bad?

      The reason I asked it was because this is a subject I talk about with the wife sometimes, only she’s not a writer and so only engages in the discussion to humour me. (She’s good like that.) And what interests me about it is this notion of plotting, which is where it seems to me the bulk of any first draft’s failings are presumed to lie.

      Indeed, as Michelle above says, “I plotted and outlined like an SOB and still ended up 30,000 words in with plot holes so big a truck and a tractor-trailer drove right through and tore my story up.”

      My feeling—which is wholly unconnected with my own abilities, whatever they might be—is that the whole notion of plotting / outlining trips up a lot of writers, especially those who are nearer the beginning of their writing life, and that the benefits can be hugely outweighed by the costs.

      • Dave,

        Sorry for any confusion caused. I was trying to say that the perception of how good a first draft is depends on the individual. It may be brilliant – hurrah! It may be awful – but a deluded writer might still think it’s brilliant. That was all.

        My take is that writers advise other writers that a first draft will not be good, is because it often isn’t – certainly not so good that it doesn’t need work – and the assumption that it reeks is a good, and humble, position from which to start revisiting.

        I fully agree with the necessity of plotting and planning, but there’s more to storytelling than that – just look at Stephen King!

  • Great post. I have been plotting out a murder mystery for NaNo this year so this was really timely advice for me. I feel like I’m on the right track but that I have my work cut out for me. Thanks!

  • First off – thanks so much to Chuck for letting me finger-paint on the wall today while he’s gone – I’m thrilled to be able to share the process here.

    Also, THANK YOU to everyone for all the great comments – I love it when a post sparks conversation. :)

    As far as the question of “first draft vs. one-and-done” – I’ve heard there are people who can write publishable books in a single draft. I’ve never actually met one, but I do believe they exist, and if you’re one of them – see Rule #25 and put a shiv through my “draft and redraft” strategy – for me, that Rule 25 is one of the most important (if not THE most important) on the list.

    For most of us, though, the work benefits from editing. I mentioned it with such emphasis in large part because it reassured me to learn (many years ago, and much to my surprise) that brilliant books didn’t just spring from other authors’ hands like Venus from the waves. I’m trying to pay it forward by pointing out that my first drafts? Yeah, they stink.

    Oh … and yes, much love for the outlines.

      • Exactly – for me, writing advice always boils down to two things: The first is “cool opportunity to learn how someone else makes the words” and the second is “examine, and evaluate, to see whether this works in my world.” #1 makes it all worth reading. #2 requires knowing myself and my process. If it works, awesome! If not, it’s interesting to know how someone else does it, because maybe a riff on the theme will work for me.

  • God bless mystery writers. How do they do it? Even when i’m reading one with holes and poor writing I’m always blown away by the fact that anyone could plot in that way, sprinkling clues and dead ends throughout their stories.

    I’m going to mangle a John Updike quote here, when asked why he never writes mysteries he responded that he wasn’t smart enough.

    Great post. Thanks.

    • The irony: until I sat down to write a mystery, I felt EXACTLY the same way – I thought the whole idea completely beyond me. I think, in part, mysteries pick the writer – if you ever find yourself really wanting to write one? It’s a lot easier than it seemed before you started. All of which said? It’s not the clues that I have the most trouble with. It’s keeping up with the cast of unrepentant pathological liars who now inhabit my head.

  • October 15, 2013 at 1:18 PM // Reply

    Yes, there are writers who get it right the first time, usually by editing and bleeding over every word as they go. Based on my very small sampling (okay, I know exactly one who works that way) they are less likely to finish and more likely to be depressed than the adherents of the “crappy first draft” model. The thing is, NO ONE gets everything exactly right just as it first comes to mind. So you either edit while you draft or edit later. There is also that little thing about elusive perfection. You can pretty much always improve the book.

    • I think, to add to Rebecca’s thoughts here, that it’s easier for the yet-to-be-published folks to labor over each word (I mean, I know *I* do it) because they’re not in a contract/on a deadline. But I have watched what happens for authors who become pros: their first novels, they get to spend a lot more time on, but later ones are often (not always, but often) on a tighter deadline and they just have to write like the wind to meet that. Get the story written and worry about perfection later, because there’s also 3 other projects they’ve promised before the end of next year. They don’t often have the luxury of editing while they draft.

  • I agree with Jenny…this advice came at perfect timing, although I think my NaNo novel is more mystery/horror type than straight mystery because there is some supernatural elements to it as to who the culprit is. But this is very, very helpful. Thank you!

    • Glad to help! And I think mystery “plus” is increasingly common (and awesome) now – I love mysteries that wrap their little tendrils around another genre and give it a loving but murderous hug.

  • “Faced with a choice between tracking a killer and going out for Mexican food, every normal human picks the churro.”

    This is actually one of the best explanations I’ve heard for why writers need to pin down the thing that their character desperately wants and make sure the audience knows it. As a writer, it’s way too easy to want a particular plot and strong-arm an underdeveloped or under-explained character into it.

    Great list!

  • Susan, as always, I love you! This was such a great list. I found myself checking off my latest MS. Glad to say 1st draft, I hit at least 20. Now time for beer and nachos. BTW, halfway through Claws, and loving it.

    • Hi Julie! I’m glad you liked it – and yes, it’s ALWAYS time for beer and nachos. Unless, of course, you’ve just had emergency oral surgery. (And then, you can always opt for the blender…)

      Thrilled to hear you’re loving Claws. I’m actually reading FROGGY STYLE right now, and it’s awesome (as I expected, after CURSES).

      • My hubby works for a brewery, and loves nacho chips, but just yesterday had oral surgery (bad tooth) and is bummed about the “yogurt, apple sauce and soup” diet he’s stuck on until it heals. I’m going to recommend the blender idea. :)

        Mmmm, nacho smoothie…

  • Susan, I love your humor. Laughing out loud throughout. And great advice, especially #25. Because I put a shiv right through the “outline is necessity” concept. I’m a pantser who writes mysteries.

    What you do need is to have the key elements lined up: who gets killed by whom and why, who investigates and why, who at least one or two red herrings will be and how you will set that up (in general terms).

    On the ‘first draft is crap’ subject, pantsers need to realize that they will be doing more revisions than plotters, but as someone said, there is always room for improvement. The question sometimes is not how much to revise but when to stop.

    Why is it okay to be a pantser, even when writing mysteries? Because we have to do what works for us. For me, if I carefully outline the entire story before I start, I lose interest. I’ve already told the story. It’s out of my head and on paper and my mind is ready to move on to the next one. It is torturous to make myself sit down and write the actual story, and it comes out flat.

    But if I line up my key elements (some of which may end up changing) and then start writing, seeing where the muse leads me, I am excited until the very end.

    • October 16, 2013 at 5:21 PM // Reply

      But Kassandra–what you describe is what I think of as an outline :D ! Seriously, that’s about what I’m aiming for before I start writing my second mystery (just as soon as I finish the 20th revision of the first one, which I really did write with no idea where it was going). I’m trying to know who did it and why before I start. And now, thanks to Susan, I’m at least thinking about the other suspects and what they are lying about.

      • LOL I seriously doubt any plotter would consider what I do in advance as an outline! It’s whodunnit and why, and then a bunch of random notes to myself as plot points occur to me.

        But I do think the whodunnit and why is essential even for pantsers. You have to know where you’re supposed to end up or you’re likely to wander all over the map (as I did in my first book; first draft was 169,000 words–30 drafts later I had it down to 90K) :)

        • October 16, 2013 at 8:01 PM // Reply

          I had sort of the opposite problem–my story went arrow-straight to the solution in about 30,000 words!

  • Thanks Kassandra! And, by the way – I have enormous respect (bordering on awe) for pantsers who write mystery. I know a few, and the level of creativity amazes me. I call myself a “plantser” because I start from an outline but let the story go where it wants to once I get started – and I’d be lost without my outline, but there’s a part of me that wishes I could pants it.

    I totally agree with you that the best way to write is “whatever method works with your creative process” – it’s one of the things I love most about writing. We can all do it differently, and yet all create awesome stories.

    In an ironic twist? The character who held the key to solving the crime in the second Shinobi Mystery novel didn’t appear in my outline at all – just showed up “onstage” and refused to leave, and it took me until the end of the novel to realize why. Also? That character ended up being one of my favorites in the entire book. Pants for the win!

    • Yay! Lets hear it for the pants!! I’ve had that happen. A character that was supposed to only have a walk-on part in my first book ended up a significant secondary character, and as the series has progressed she’s moved up to almost main character status. And she is definitely one of my favorites.

  • Woohoo! Excellent tips Susan!
    I have never written any mysteries, but if I do, I will have this post bookmarked and waiting for me.
    I am definitely a pantser, but my twisted brain seems bent on breaking out of the confining outline. It may be the artist in me. I never drew within the lines.

  • October 21, 2013 at 6:45 PM // Reply

    If I could chime in on the whole rewriting thing, I’d add this: let everything you write cook for a while. It worked for me as a songwriter. It’s amazing how mistakes jump off the page when you are reading something you forgot you wrote. I think that works for both camps, those who rewrite because they believe the first draft is never perfect and those who believe less is more.

  • I would also add — please don’t have your detective “definitively” ID more than three killers at the VERY most (and I would personally prefer not doing as many as three). Too many misdirections long string of “It was THIS GUY! No wait —” destroys all respect a reader has for the PI — unless they have already proven themselves awesome in at least two previous books and this particular eff-up is the low point of their overall character arc.

  • If there’s a nearly-identical post that got through just now by someone called “T” — that was me, it’s unedited, I had my fingers on the wrong home keys, and if someone decided to delete it I would have absolutely no problems with that!!

    • I would also add — please don’t have your detective “definitively” ID more than three killers at the VERY most (and I would personally prefer not doing as many as three). Too many misdirections erodes confidence; a long string of “It was THIS GUY! No wait —” destroys all respect a reader has for the P.I. — unless they have already proven themselves awesome in at least two previous books and this particular eff-up is the low point of their overall character arc.

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