So You Want to Write a Mystery?

Presented by Beth Anderson at a Chicago Writers’ Conference

The traditional genre description of a mystery is this: the story is about one or more aspects of the commission of a crime, which is usually, but not always, murder. There are many sub-genres within the mystery world though, each of which has its own elements that distinguish it from all other sub-genres.

Let’s begin with discussing the different sub-genres, because one of the things you need to decide first, before you start writing, is exactly the type of mystery you’re writing—partly so you can describe it easily in a query letter, but also because you want to know how to get where you’re heading so you won’t go too far off-track and start mixing your sub-genres.

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Writing the Tight Synopsis

Workshop Presentation at Autumn Authors’ Affair XIV

A while back my writers’ club held a contest for unpublished writers who were supposed to send a book synopsis and first chapter. I read most of the entries, and in doing so, found that in every case the synopses were unclear, filled with extraneous details, none of them representative of what a synopsis should be.

One of the contest entrants grabbed my interest because of the gorgeous writing style in her chapter–and in her synopsis. I could see she was a great writer who needed just a little help, so I decided to do a full critique on her synopsis, because like all the others, it was not a clear synopsis of her book. It was simply an extended example of her writing style, and it would never have gotten her a contract as it was written. So point by point, I critiqued it, first telling the author in a separate note that I thought she had a lot of promise, but I wanted to help her see why her synopsis wasn’t working.

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Getting into the Mind of a Killer

Writers’ Workshop Presented at Autumn Authors’ Affair, in Oak Brook, Illinois

There is an old African proverb which says,
“Human blood is heavy; the man who has shed it cannot run away.”

Let’s discuss getting into the mind of a killer…the one in your next novel.

This killer may be an integral part of your novel if you’re writing a psychological thriller where he shows up throughout your story and scenes are written using his point of view. However, even if you only get a really good look at him as the killer in the last few pages as your novel reaches its climax, you still need to have a clear working knowledge of what he really wanted when he did his kill or kills.

Key to this is realizing, as an author, that no matter how bad this person may be in society’s eyes, no matter how heinous his crimes, he still has his own personal needs and desires, skewed though they may be in our eyes. He still has his own personal agenda, even if that agenda is strangling every brunette female he sees wearing a pink skirt, then cutting pieces of her body away and taking them home for a midnight snack, or possibly just a souvenir.

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Avoiding First-Timer Pitfalls

From a Writers’ Workshop at an Illinois Writers’ Confernce

This workshop is about your responsibility as an author to your customers, the people who pay money in exchange for a few hours of what they hope will be great reading. That’s the author’s main responsibility–to write a book so good people won’t be able to resist it, so compelling they keep turning the pages, so exciting they have to tell their friends about it. When that happens, they’ll remember you as an author they’re going to look for next time they want a good book.

There are certain things great writers do to ensure this, and I want to share some of them with new authors just starting out, and possibly point out a few nagging trouble spots and their solutions for more experienced authors. Rather than just giving you a laundry list of do’s and don’ts, I want to try and help you understand why these things are so important, because I know only too well that a lot of what stumps us, when we’re learning about these trouble spots, is why. What are they really saying? How do I fix it?

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Whose Point of View is That?

Workshop/Lecture at: Rendezvous Autumn Authors Affair, Chicago, Il.

The difference between showing and telling is often a subtle one. When someone says you’re telling, not showing, the resulting confusion is usually caused by the author’s not understanding what point of view really is and does.

When you *tell* something, if it’s the author telling it, as it too often is, it’s boring because the reader doesn’t care what you think, she only cares what the viewpoint character thinks. If you’re really into the head of the viewpoint character and stay there even during your narrative, it’s a lot more interesting and magically becomes ‘showing’.

The personality of the viewpoint character should always shine through, even in narrative, even in internal thoughts–which is what narrative really is. Narrative also includes tag lines, i.e., what the viewpoint character is doing or thinking while she’s talking.

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