If you’re writing as a career, then Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin, is a must-read. In 33 essays and interviews by Martin, writers talk about the subject that is often not discussed in polite society: money.
There’s a trend going around on Facebook where everyone lists 10 concerts they’ve attended (or nine concerts and one lie). I won’t jump on that bandwagon; instead, I decided to list 10 books—and I have read all—that I recommend for fiction writers.
1. On Writing by Stephen King. Part memoir and part writing lessons, this is a must-read for any writer.
2. How Fiction Works by James Wood. This is a little more high-brow than King. In just the first few pages, Wood references Tolstoy, Jane Austen, and Henry James. Very good lessons regarding characterization and narration.
3. Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. While read mostly by genre authors, this book has solid lessons for everyone wanting to take their novel to the next level.
4. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. This is not editing as in checking your grammar and spelling, but editing that helps you fix dialogue and narrative distance, with writing exercises at the end of each chapter. It’s an invaluable book.
5. The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell. This has important lessons on doing self-edits at the macro and micro level, but also is a favorite of mine for its long section showing how F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor, Max Perkins, edited Fitzgerald’s works.
6. Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham. Books often stall when they have scenes that don’t move the story forward. Bickham breaks down scenes, what needs to go into each one, what sort of variations are possible, and how to effectively connect one scene with another.
7. The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. Written by a literary agent, this book shows you why you must grab an agent by the first five pages—and what the most common mistakes are in manuscripts. If you hope to publish traditionally, read this book!
8. The Best Punctuation Book, Period by June Casagrande. Writers are often confused about grammar points, especially when it comes to punctuation. Part of the problem may be that style guides and even dictionaries provide conflicting information. Casagrande breaks it down for us, with a Punctuation Panel that gives advice when there’s no definitive answer.
9. The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation by Bryan A. Garner. What’s that? You still want to geek out even more on grammar? This is the book for you, then, with clear explanations and definitive rulings.
10. Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin. Everyone knows that writers don’t get into the business to make money. Here, through essays and interviews, well-known writers talk about their journey, some even discussing the financial side in detail. It was eye-opening.
I’m always looking for new books on the craft of writing and editing. What are yours?
As writers, we usually turn to books to learn more, including the craft of writing. But there’s also another choice: audio, whether it’s podcasts, online interviews, and more. Here are some of my favorites:
Writing Excuses, www.writingexcuses.com, which has a tagline of “Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.” Although it has the name of “Writing Excuses,” it covers everything writing-related, from characterization to setting to sensory writing.
The Story Grid, https://storygrid.simplecast.fm/. This is currently one of my favorite podcasts. For the past seven months, developmental editor Tim Grahl and author Shawn Coyne have been shaping Coyne’s work in progress. Hear them talk about scenes, story structure, and characters.
The Creative Penn, http://www.thecreativepenn.com/podcasts/, are podcasts by author Joanna Penn, who interviews other authors and publishing experts. There’s especially good information for those hoping to self-publish.
StoryWonk, http://storywonk.com/podcasts/, discusses books, TV shows and movies. As their description says: “We analyse, critique, and celebrate pop culture, the art and craft of writing, the worlds, characters and relationships that fascinate us, and much more besides. Listening to a StoryWonk podcast is like having two smart friends over for dinner, and talking about the stories you love!”
Magic Lessons, http://www.elizabethgilbert.com/magic-lessons/, with Elizabeth Gilbert are podcasts of a little over an hour featuring well-known and not-so-well-known authors—but all of them interesting.
Self Publishing Formula, http://www.selfpublishingformula.com/category/podcast/, has several podcasts for indie writers.
The Writer Files, http://rainmaker.fm/series/writer/, hosted by Kelton Reid, interviews authors in short podcasts of under 20 minutes.
Book Launch Show, https://booklaunchshow.simplecast.fm/, by Tim Grahl teaches you “the fundamentals of launching a bestselling book.”
Indie Author Fringe Conference
The Indie Author Fringe has daylong online events, courtesy of the Alliance of Independent Authors. Three are scheduled for 2017: in March, June, and October. There are also archives for the 2016 event. These are hourlong podcasts and interviews, all topics of interest to indie authors. http://selfpublishingadvice.org/what-is-indie-author-fringe/
Ted and Tedx Talks
Elizabeth Gilbert: Two talks at http://www.ted.com/speakers/elizabeth_gilbert, including one of my favorites, “Your Elusive Creative Genius.”
Amy Tan’s “Where Does Creativity Hide?” http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_tan_on_creativity
Jessica Lourey’s “Use Fiction to Rewrite Your Life” at https://youtu.be/a5vSLh3oPXI
John Dufresne on “How to Write a Story” at https://youtu.be/urJDbQl5W0I
Recently, I attended the premiere of a film about extreme athletes (Don’t Crack Under Pressure—I highly recommend it). I was impressed by the feats they have achieved, but also impressed with the passion they have, which sustains them and keeps them going. Even after breaking two legs, a skier comes back a year later to tackle a difficult mountain. A surfer almost drowns after being pounded by three massive waves. He is hesitant to go out again, but he does.
If you are a writer, you have a passion for writing. At times, it may take over your life. Other times, you struggle to fit it into the rest of your life. Here are 10 tips to help you when it comes to writing time. Surf’s up, so ride those waves of creativity!
1) Make writing your job. Schedule a time as if you were going to an out-of-the-house job. Don’t wait for the muse to show up; sit down and write at whatever time you have set aside for writing. I find it helps to use an online time tracker, such as toggl.
2) Start with half an hour a day, if that’s all you have. Build it up to an hour, then two hours, as you have time. A novel can be written in even that short amount of time. I’ve heard of authors with young children who only had 15 minutes a day some days—and made that work.
3) Once you have a schedule, don’t miss more than two days in a row. If you do so, you start a new—bad—habit, and it becomes easier to miss another day and another day.
4) Create a ritual. My ritual begins with making myself a cup of Earl Grey tea (the first of many throughout the day). My first hour is often spent answering emails before editing or doing other work. Some writers say they spend half an hour reading poetry before writing. Others may spend the first hour doing research, or reviewing what they wrote the day before. Some do free writing—a way to warm up before doing the actual writing at hand.
5) Set daily word count goals. If you are looking to write an 80,000-word novel, then break it down to how many words you need to write to finish the book in, say, six months. Make sure to build in time for editing and revising, if you hope to submit it to an agent by a certain date.
6) Set deadlines. Even if it is an arbitrary deadline—I’m going to start submitting this novel in six months—make sure you have a date in mind. Deadlines are great motivators!
7) Work with a partner. One author I know is part of a two-person team. Each week, she and her partner exchange what they have written for the week. This makes you accountable to someone else, and will spur you to write. You can also join critique groups or writing groups that meet monthly.
8) Turn off the Internet. Some writers have had to set Internet blockers in order to stay off Facebook or Twitter. It’s too easy to say you are just going to check Facebook for five minutes—only to look up an hour later. Some restriction apps are Cold Turkey, Freedom, Anti-Social, RescueTime, and LeechBlock.
9) Get out of the house. If you absolutely can’t work at home because of too many distractions—from family members to piled-up laundry—then get out of the house. Write at a Starbucks or find working spaces that rent by the hour. Some authors, such as Maya Angelou and JK Rowling, have even gone to the extreme of renting hotel rooms!
10) Plan what you are doing the next day. This can be as simple as writing a few words on a notepad you keep at your desk. When you come back to your desk the next day, you have a plan set for you.
“It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.”
― The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
Creating well-rounded, interesting, and, most importantly, believable characters is not always easy. As an editor, characterization is one of the most important elements I consider. You may have plot, setting, pacing, and dialogue down pat, but characters touch the emotions of a reader in a way that the other elements usually can’t. Michael Connelly, in Writing Mysteries, calls characterization the most important of the elements. “A good plot is empty unless filled with the blood of character,” he writes.
I recently attended the musical production Jekyll & Hyde, and was reminded of the duality that we all possess. This was a major theme in Stevenson’s work, as Jekyll asserts that “man is not truly one, but truly two.” In trying to separate good and evil, however, Jekyll only succeeds in alienating the dark side—a creature of pure evil who soon overpowers the good Dr. Jekyll.
The story is a good lesson in creating characters. The most interesting protagonists (and antagonists) are those who struggle with inner demons—it’s a reason why many detectives turn to alcohol, are divorced, or harbor deep family secrets. It adds dimension to the character. And, because a character must always face personal conflict in order to grow, it helps to add this inner drama.
At the beginning of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series, her two main characters, essentially good people, find themselves drawn to each other. The problem: Police Chief Russ van Alstyne is married and Episcopal priest Claire Fergusson is not looking to break up his marriage. However, the attraction is strong, and it’s something they must fight against.
Louise Penny’s novels often feature characters who are capable of both good and bad. Characters are jealous of spouses and colleagues, let resentments fester, and face problems of addiction—in short, they are quite human, with these “ugly” sides that we all possess from time to time.
Michael Connelly, in the same book mentioned above, gives an example of how Det. Harry Bosch’s character is revealed through a small scene. Some might call it mean-spirited; others, humorous. Bosch is getting no information from a bureaucrat at City Hall. After she leaves her cubicle, performing a pirouette move to get through the narrow channel, he pushes the desk a couple inches closer to the wall. When she comes back in, performing the same maneuver, she hits her thigh, spilling a drink she had on her desk. Connelly says the scene was all about character, showing how Bosch doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
You might also want to play with characters who shift throughout your novel. Perhaps you introduced the character for one reason. This doesn’t mean the character’s reason for existence has to remain static. Author Alyson Richman, in a recent talk, explained that she brought in one character for a specific scene of a sinking ship. The father in the scene gives up his seat on a lifeboat so a young, gifted musician can survive. It’s a pivotal scene. Later, however, toward the end of the book, it turns out the surviving character also had another important reason to remain throughout the story.
We also have to remember that a character is often seen differently by those around them, just as in real life we behave differently around our family, co-workers, and strangers.
S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin, a 30-something Chinese-American private eye, is one example. She is one thing to her clients: a professional, no-nonsense investigator. She is something else to her partner Bill Smith, with whom there are sparks. But some of the funniest scenes are between Lydia and her traditional mother. Lydia lives with her mother, who disapproves of her daughter’s career choices, love interests (and single status), and even her clothes—and lets Lydia know it often.
Anyone can find the big mistakes, the part where you’ve suddenly changed your protagonist’s eyes from green to brown or your antagonist’s body type from slim to stout. But it’s what I like to call the “niggly” stuff that authors have the hardest time finding, not because we don’t want to, but because we’ve read and reread our work so many times.
Here are some examples, found in my “final” draft of my new release, Skeletons in the Attic (rest assured, they have been corrected!):
Misty Rivers, psychic to Callie Barnstable, protagonist: “I’ll leave you my card. Please call me if you find yourself needing any assistance, any assistance at all. And thank you for the tea and cookies.”
Editor: The tea was never poured. [Impressive catch]
Callie Barnstable to Royce Ashford, contractor/next-door neighbor/possible love interest: “I really like the way you knocked down that wall in your house.”
Editor: When was she in his house? [Answer: In a previous draft, but certainly not in this one.]
Callie: I stopped my Garmin and closed my eyes, trying to remember standing there.
Editor: What’s a Garmin? [Answer: A GPS for running that shows pace/time/mileage etc. When you’re into a sport (I’m a runner), you assume everyone in the world knows the lingo. Bad assumption. I changed it to my GPS wristwatch.]
Now, you might be thinking, these really are niggly. And you’d be correct. But it’s the small things that pull us out of a book. Sometimes we’re not even sure why, we just know something is “off.” The best editors will point those niggly things out. It’s up to the author to make it right.
Skeletons in the Attic
What goes on behind closed doors doesn’t always stay there…
Calamity (Callie) Barnstable isn’t surprised to learn she’s the sole beneficiary of her late father’s estate, though she is shocked to discover she has inherited a house in the town of Marketville—a house she didn’t know existed. However, there are conditions attached to Callie’s inheritance: She must move to Marketville, live in the house, and solve her mother’s murder.
Callie’s not keen on dredging up a thirty-year-old mystery, but if she doesn’t do it, there’s a scheming psychic named Misty Rivers who is more than happy to expose the Barnstable family secrets. Determined to thwart Misty and fulfill her father’s wishes, Callie accepts the challenge. But is she ready to face the skeletons hidden in the attic?
Judy Penz Sheluk’s debut mystery novel, The Hanged Man’s Noose, was published in July 2015. Skeletons in the Attic, the first book in her Marketville Mystery Series, was published in August 2016. Judy’s short crime fiction appears in World Enough and Crime, The Whole She-Bang 2, Flash and Bang and Live Free or Tri. Judy is a member of Sisters in Crime, Crime Writers of Canada, International Thriller Writers, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find Judy on her website/blog at www.judypenzsheluk.com, where she interviews other authors and blogs about the writing life.
Skeletons in the Attic is now available for preorder on Amazon Kindle for the special introductory price of .99 (reg. $4.99).
You can also find it at http://www.imajinbooks.com/skeletons-in-the-attic
How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries, by Kathy Lynn Emerson, is the book to read if you are writing historical mysteries. At the time she penned this book, Emerson had written 14 historical mysteries in two series, three contemporary mysteries, and other novels. Although the book was published in 2008, it remains relevant, with great advice and examples of what to do, as well as what not to do.
Emerson teaches writers how to create historical characters, including what to take into account when setting characters in the past and whether using real-life people as characters is viable. Using real historical figures in fiction could backfire, as mystery fans may not be able to suspend disbelief—would a real-life person really be traipsing around and investigating? Also, while your character has already been created for you, you will be bound to play fair with the real person’s timeline—you can’t have them in France during the years they were in England, for example. Emerson gives us much to think about when creating historical characters.
She also touches on “information dumps,” which can easily overwhelm a historical if the author isn’t careful to balance dialogue, plot, and pacing with the historical tidbits. The best piece of advice here is that not everything needs to be included. Emerson writes: “Historical mystery readers enjoy vivid settings and are prepared to read a great number of historical details, but they don’t want them all at once. Furthermore, there must be a good reason to include these details. Do you really need to describe everything your character sees while walking from one place to another in eighteenth-century New York? Unless one of those things will turn out to be important later, or you are using the trip to give the character a chance to mull something over, then simply take him to his destination.”
Language is an important part of a historical, and Emerson devotes an entire chapter to this, covering slang, proverbs, dialects and speech patterns, expletives, anachronisms, distinctive speech, and just how accurate an author needs to be—language that is accurate to the period might be unreadable to today’s readers, after all.
A chapter on anachronisms is a must-read for any historical writer. Anachronisms, writes Emerson, “are things used in the wrong time period” and it is very easy to have these slip through the cracks when you are writing. Unfortunately, there is always one reader (or more) who will spot even the most minor of anachronisms. Emerson gives tips on word usage, the deliberate use of anachronistic language, dealing with inconvenient historical facts, and how to deal with bloopers. There’s a great passage on changing attitudes—how do you present a character with modern-day attitudes in a historical.
Emerson also writes about research, plotting, and even selling your mystery. If you have your sights set on writing a historical mystery, this book should be part of your personal library. I can guarantee you’ll come back to it often.
When I first began reading books and attending lectures on writing, I consistently heard, “write what you know.” In theory, the concept is simple. Stories incorporating personal experiences will be more believable, interesting, and engaging for readers. My problem is that “writing what you know” doesn’t always work for me.
For example, I was my mother’s miracle baby–her first successful pregnancy, her brilliant, beautiful bubbly daughter (she saw what she wanted to see). She taught me to read, was my Girl Scout leader, cheered me on in whatever activity I chose to try, and beamed with pride when I graduated from college and law school. Even if something didn’t quite go the way I hoped, my mother was there for me.
In three sentences, I’ve summarized enough of our relationship for you to realize our story lacks conflict. Although this scenario may result in a plot that is believable, I doubt that any reader except my mother would find it interesting or engaging. But, what if our interaction had been different? What if she hadn’t been loving and supportive? If she’d walked out of my life when I was a child without telling me why? What if I was raised by my father? Or, if his position in the community brought a number of surrogate mother types into my life? How would such a family dynamic impact the woman I became?
Once these questions crossed my mind, endless story possibilities intrigued me. The result of modifying “write what you know” to “write what you don’t know” became my new book, Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery. In Poker, Carrie’s mother returns to her life twenty-six years after abandoning her family. Within hours of appearing in Carrie’s office and leaving Carrie with a sealed envelope and the knowledge that she once considered killing Carrie’s father, Carrie’s mother is murdered. Compelled to find out why her mother is dead and to unravel why she abandoned her, Carrie soon learns that what she was taught to believe and the truth may very well be two different things.
Blending what I know and what I don’t raised the stakes for Poker’s plotline beyond the sentimental tale of my mother loving me. It also convinced me that the boundaries of reality often need to be challenged by writers. At least for me, failure to take the challenge means there could never be a Goldstein book or story about vampires, werewolves, the inner thoughts of animals, or a mother who doesn’t have twins.
What about you? Do you stick to reading or writing only what you know?
Judge Debra H. Goldstein is the author of Should Have Played Poker: A Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery (Five Star Publishing, April 2016) and the 2012 IPPY award-winning Maze in Blue, a mystery set on the University of Michigan’s campus. She also writes short stories and nonfiction. Debra serves on the national Sisters in Crime, Guppy Chapter, and Alabama Writers Conclave boards and is a MWA member. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband, Joel, whose blood runs crimson.
This week’s post is by Susan Van Kirk, who usually writes full-length novels, but decided to try her hand at novellas. Here she explains why.
Over the past three years, I’ve been writing a series called the Endurance mysteries. Three May Keep a Secret came out in 2014 from Five Star/Cengage Publishing. It led to a second Endurance novel, Marry in Haste, which will launch November 16, 2016. That book will be followed in the late spring of 2017 by Death Takes No Bribes. All three are full length novels.
This past January, I decided to try my hand at a novella. This would afford me three excellent advantages: (1) I could expand the character of my detective, TJ Sweeney, by writing a story around her instead of Grace Kimball, the protagonist of my Endurance series; and (2) I could give my readers a story to keep them in the small town of Endurance since my first and second novels are being published two years apart; and (3) I could mix up the tone a bit from cozy mystery novels to a slightly darker police procedural. My fictional town of Endurance would be in all of the books, but my main character, Grace, would only put in a brief appearance in the novella. I found that writing a novella is quite different from writing novels, but I really enjoyed the change.
Length is a prime consideration. My cozy mysteries run anywhere from 71,000 to 82,000 words. I discovered a novella should weigh in between 20,000 and 40,000 words. The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney, my novella, ended at 25,000 words. It may be read in one or two sittings, the perfect length for a spring afternoon reading break.
The second consideration is plot structure. A novel has multiple subplots that need to connect to the main plot and possibly be tied up at the end. But The Locket is a straight shot. Detective TJ Sweeney is called to the scene of a burial. A construction crew digging a new foundation on the outskirts of Endurance finds a pile of buried bones and a skull. The bones are decades old and raise a lot of questions. They turn out to be human, and the condition of the skull indicates a possible murder. Male or female? When did this happen? What happened? How can Sweeney identify a person long before DNA results were registered in databases? Who did this? Why? Sweeney must answer a series of questions to try to solve this case. During her investigation, the reader learns about the detective’s past, her family history, and why this case becomes so personal.
The point of view is also different compared to writing a novel. In my Endurance mysteries, I followed the main character, Grace Kimball. Much like me, she is Caucasian, a retired teacher, and a disaster in the kitchen. It’s easy to write a character who is similar to me. But The Locket delves into TJ Sweeney’s life, and she is thirty-nine, biracial, single, and a police detective. While Grace is a widow and single mother who is just starting to date an equally senior man, the single Sweeney goes through men like a high-speed commuter train. Uh, not like me. This is a stretch.
A novel may have several conflicts, although one in particular usually stands out. In Three May Keep a Secret, Grace Kimball is battling a terrifying ordeal from her past and also investigating a murder in the present. She only recently retired, so she is dealing with a huge change in her life. In the novella, TJ Sweeney is coping with some very deep feelings tied directly to solving a decades-old murder. One complicated conflict.
A novella is obviously shorter than a novel, but it is also more straightforward and leaves less room for description and details. If you’re looking for a mystery that can be read in a few hours, a novella is perfect. The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney is a good example of how a novella can fit between two novels in a series, but can also stand on its own for new readers. It is now available from Amazon.com as a Kindle e-book.
About the Author
Susan Van Kirk was educated at Knox College and the University of Illinois. After college, she taught high school English for thirty-four years in the small town of Monmouth, Illinois (population 10,000).
She taught an additional ten years at Monmouth College. Her short story, “War and Remembrance,” was published by Teacher Magazine and became one of the chapters in her creative nonfiction memoir, The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks).
Her first mystery novel about the town of Endurance, Three May Keep a Secret, was published in 2014 by Five Star Publishing/Cengage. Marry in Haste is her second Endurance mystery, coming out November, 2016, also from Five Star Publishing/Cengage.
I recently went to see a community theater production of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. There are two endings to this theatrical production—Christie’s original ending for the novel and the ending she rewrote in 1943, when she adapted the play for stage (she and the producers agreed the book’s ending was too grim for theatergoers).
Our community theater alternates the endings; the night I attended, we got the grim ending (which I didn’t like). A quick Google search gave me the alternate ending, which I now envision as the end.
No matter. Watching Christie’s play, and the audience reaction, reminded me of how great a writer she was. Yes, there are some who criticize her wooden characters and say she wasn’t “literary” enough. Yet the Queen of Crime remains the top-selling mystery author and her books are only increasing in popularity, with sales growing 50 percent in the last 10 years, according to novelist Andrew Taylor in The Independent. Christie obviously did some things right.
Through the eyes of And Then There Were None, here are five elements that Christie got spot-on:
1) Gave us characters we cared about. There are two we especially care about in the play. As all the other characters are killed off, part of the suspense is in wondering whether these two will survive.
You can carry this lesson through to your protagonist. If you are writing a mystery or thriller, you need to put your protagonist through the wringer—either physically or emotionally (or both). You may feel you need to protect the protagonist, but in doing so you may be sucking the tension out of your novel. A reader identifies and empathizes with a character who faces difficult choices or a hard journey (either external or internal). You may need to step back and ask yourself whether your character has faced enough conflict.
2) Provided plenty of suspense. One after another, the characters are killed off in Christie’s play. Can the killer be caught before all are dead?
From the beginning, we know that the killer (unrevealed) has plans to kill off all 10 of the guests, who have been brought to an isolated island. The killer believes—rightly or wrongly—that all of them have caused the death of someone else and gotten away scot-free. As if that’s not bad enough, a raging storm outside keeps everyone from leaving, or anyone from coming in to rescue them. And then the guests realize that the killer has to be one of them. Christie not only introduces a mystery, but she continues to ratchet up the suspense through the ending.
In traditional British mysteries, by the way, there’s the initial murder, but then that’s followed by another (or a few more others). This may be formulaic, but it does keep the suspense high. You don’t always need multiple murders in a mystery, but if your action is lagging, look to the classics to see how tension is kept at a high.
3) Kept the whodunit front and center. During intermission, the theatergoers batted theories back and forth. Everyone had a favorite for the role of villain (a great thing about the play was that every character was both potential villain and potential victim).
Christie was brilliant at constructing puzzle plots—who was with Character X when he was killed? Who was out of the picture? Since there were several murders by intermission, this truly was a puzzle with many different pieces. The audience, from their conversation, enjoyed putting these pieces together.
If you are writing a traditional mystery (rather than a thriller, for example), your reader may be the type who wants a puzzle she can play along with. Make sure you sprinkle in enough clues, as well as the occasional red herring.
4) Played fair with the audience. The clues were all there—at one point, a little light clicked on for me, and I knew part of the solution, though not the who. When the villain was revealed, it was so simple and made so much sense. Of course that person was the killer!
5) Made sure to misdirect. While she played fair, Christie was the master of misdirection. There have even been academic papers written about her use of misdirection. Like a magician, she has the playgoer focused on one thing, while something else is happening right in front of our eyes. Christie also did this very successfully in her books, which may be the greatest reason for her continued popularity.
Misdirection may be the hardest element for a new writer. I often see beginning writers get everything else right—wonderful characters, enough clues, even a red herring or two, yet the mystery itself is transparent. That’s because, in planting the clues, the author has failed to employ misdirection. A reader who figures it out midway through the story might wade through to the end, but they will still come away dissatisfied. And they won’t buy your second book.
Look to Agatha Christie for misdirection. In Five Little Pigs (aka Murder in Retrospect), two characters are having a conversation that is overheard by a third character. But the third character misinterprets, drawing the wrong conclusion—as does the reader.
Mystery writer Margot Kinberg, who often gives workshops and classes on Agatha Christie (and other writing topics), says Agatha Christie remains popular today because her novels deal with “essential human characteristics, faults and virtues.”
Says Kinberg: It doesn’t take a bizarre plot or a serial killer to move the action in a story along. Christie’s stories (well, the best ones, anyway) don’t make use of a lot of gore, explicit sex, or some of the other things you so often see in a modern crime novel. But nor are they too ‘sweet and frothy.’ They simply tell human stories of greed, fear, and some of the other motives that real people have for murder. Everything in each story serves the plot. It’s not there for shock value.”
That sounds like another very good lesson we can take away from Agatha Christie’s works!
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.