Friday, August 12, 2011

5 Mistakes Nearly Every Newbie Mystery Writer Makes

Gosh, here it is time to blog again at NYUS and I very nearly forgot! I've been so deep into my edits for Lone Star, my contribution to this year's m/m Christmas anthology from Carina Press. Anyway, as the mystery romance crossover has become so wildly popular in recent years, I thought I'd address some of the typical mistakes I see from those new to the genre. These aren't exactly cliches all though they do result in cliched stories.

1 - Information only the police would have is made too easily accessible to the protagonist. A lot of writers try and get around this one by making the lead investigator the protagonist's romantic interest. That was a fun, fresh idea twenty years ago. Now days? Not so much. Now days the fresh, fun idea is the lead investigator is the protagonist or the protagonist simply has to work around not having the same information that the police have.

2 - The killer's motivation is crazy. No, I don't mean the writer came up with a crazy motivation. I mean the motivation itself is craziness. That way, no matter how illogical the killer's moves and motives are, it can all be explained by Teh Crazy. Now if you give the killer rational and believable motives for committing his crimes, you also waaay up the chance that the reader will figure out whodunnit. But even if the reader ultimately figures out the killer a few pages ahead of schedule, believable motives for all your characters still makes for a more satisfying read.

3 - The killer is a serial killer. See above. I know, I've written a few serial killer novels too, but with 43 stories under my belt, obviously I'm grabbing for any and every idea. What's that you say? The first mystery I wrote had a serial killer? Oh. Well, of course! Serial killers have built-in thrill value and, again, they're pretty easy because Teh Crazy eliminates the need for any kind of logic on the part of the killer. The serial killer is pretty much as worn out a convention as the lady in the nightgown fleeing along the cliffs, the castle lit by one lonely light in the background.

4 - Not enough suspects. There are all kinds of crime stories. Sometimes we're writing romantic suspense and sometimes we're writing classic cozy mystery and sometimes we're writing thrillers. In a thriller, we usually know who the killer is right away -- the who dunnit is not the important element -- but in a classic mystery or even romantic suspense, the reader likes a little more of a puzzle. More characters mean more subplots and that is certainly more work for the writer, but it results in a more satisfying and entertaining mystery.

5 - The prologue that begins with the gruesome murder of an unknown character. Generally this is a yawn. We're not invested in the character, we already know what's going to happen to her or him, and very rarely does anything that occurs in the prologue tie into the rest of the story in a meangingful way. THE KILLER HAS STRUCK! That's pretty much the point of most of those prologues. And they're usually popped into place because the author has a sort of dull first chapter, so a gruesome murder is supposed to compensate for that. A better idea is to write a really strong first chapter with characters we're soon going to love.

The qualifier to all of the above is sometimes someone comes along and makes all of these "mistakes" and yet still makes the book work. So write the best book you possibly can and all the rest of it will likely fall into place.

Other thoughts?

24 comments:

Clare London said...

Great post Josh! I can remember the impact of the first murder mystery I ever read - but of course, that plot device was nevr going to work as well again for me :). And as we're all avid readers, we build up all the past experience and it takes *that much more* to enthrall us. Hurrah for the great writers who can do that!

Looking forward to your book's release at Christmas :).

(I'd typed "looking forward to your release", then realised it sounded like you were coming out on probation *g*)

Josh Lanyon said...

HA! Thank you, Clare. Yes, a life in m/m makes even the most innocuous comments sound salacious, doesn't it? :-D

I agree with you that the first time we come across any literary device it really makes an impression!

Robin Covington said...

Josh: Great post. I don't write mysteries per se but my last book had a suspense aspect and I'm getting ready to do the edits. I'll keep your list handy when I check to make sure that those aspects are fresh.

Robin

Gloria Galasso said...

Great list. I am glad you gave the caveat at the end, because I am about to break on of your rules big time! (Number 1, in fact.) Hopefully the rest of my writing will be interesting and good enough to make it work.

Gloria Galasso said...

Should have been "break ONE of your rules...," of course!

Josh Lanyon said...

Thanks, Robin. I think most of these boil down to laziness on the part of the reader.

Not #1 because lord knows cops and investigators are sexy, but the others basically result from hoping to take shortcuts.

Josh Lanyon said...

Gloria, that one is pretty much par for the course. :-)

Just because it's a cliche doesn't mean it can't work, but the writer has to make sure she's not taking shortcuts and using that relationship as a way to avoid the real work of having the sleuth do his own investigating. If all the tough questions are solved by the romantic interest handing the info over, that's a no-no.

Rita said...

Great post! Mystery is very difficult to write. Why I don’t do it*grin*. It’s all about the clues and delicate information balance given to the readers to keep them going. I like your rules. That said I think you can break the rules if you do it well. Like a serial killer is the vice-president or the beautiful, number one, actress in the world.

MaureenAMiller said...

Somewhere my little "Cliche" bug is doing the happy dance. :)

You are always dead on with your observations, Josh. Great post!

Toni Anderson said...

Excellent list, Josh :) Funny because I'm currently writing a serial killer book :)
I agree with everything though--with that old caveat that sometimes breaking the rules can work too.

KC Burn said...

I have a total mystery pet peeve arising from #1 and that's the series sleuth. Making the love interest a cop or investigator may seem like a great idea for the first book, but if your protagonist is a hair dresser or a caterer or a wedding planner or whatever, if people keep getting murdered around you, I'm betting your business will fold & if your lover doesn't start wondering about you, his/her superiors will. And if that doesn't happen, I lose my ability to suspend disbelief. So, not exactly a newbie mistake, but something for newbies to be aware of. I speak as a seasoned mystery reader, because I can't write 'em for s**t. :)

Amber Kell said...

Great post now I have to get back to my crazy serial killer story with one suspect, but don't worry I'll kill off six people in the first chapter to keep it fresh *snicker*

JB Lynn said...

Love the list! I'm always so impressed when someone manages to make a cliche fresh and so disappointed when they don't.

Marcelle Dubé said...

Good advice, as always, Josh.

Josh Lanyon said...

Rita, I think some of the most entertaining books are when someone takes one of those old chestnuts and turns it on its head. It's almost the best of both worlds because you get the cheesy fun of the tried and true but you also get something unique to that book and those characters.

Josh Lanyon said...

Thanks, Maureen!

Josh Lanyon said...

Hey, Toni, if you're going to be in this business for any length of time you're going to HAVE to do a serial killer novel. :-D

It's da law.

Josh Lanyon said...

I hear what you're saying, KC, but this is the weird paradigm of the cozy mystery series. The sleuth must be a non-law-enforcement professional and they must continue to fall over bodies for the course of the series (and each mystery must somehow be sort of personal and hit home for the sleuth).

Is it preposterous? You bet.

But in fact no more preposterous than the harboiled detective series where the PI has a murder to solve in every case. Because, believe it or not, very few PIs ever solve a murder or even investigate one.

It really gets down to reader temperament. Some readers love the unreality of the cozy, some love the unreality of the hardboiled PI. Both readers do an equal amount of suspending disbelief.

Josh Lanyon said...

I agree with you, JB. There are only so many plots in the world and the fact that writers keep coming up with new spins on them is testament to the versatility of the human mind.

Josh Lanyon said...

Thanks so much, Marcelle!

Blaine D. Arden said...

Great article, Josh.

Sometimes it seems so easy to fall back on clichés, because they're familiar templates to work with.
Of course, turning them into something fresh and new is the hard part :)

I have to admit I froze a little at the 'serial killer' mention. So I do hope I won't fall into the trap when I get to edit my serial killer first draft.

Josh Lanyon said...

Just remember that there are no new ideas in mystery fiction, Blaine. That damned Agatha Christie seemed to be on a mission to hog up every possible variation there was. ;-D So the best the rest of us can do is take an old idea and put our unique spin on it.

Wendy Soliman said...

My problem is that I usually do guess 'whodunit', however many red herrings are dotting through the story. It' a constant challenge to write a book where it isn't obvious. Not sure if I've got there yet but it's fun trying.

Josh Lanyon said...

Wendi, I think most seasoned mystery readers do! ;-)

But very few modern mystery readers read primarily for the puzzle. So long as the mystery is sufficiently interesting and mysterious enough all will be well.