Judging a Book: Like, Really Judging a Book

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My basic grid

Twice in my life I’ve accepted a request to serve as judge for an annual mystery award. The first time was during the 1980s, when I served as one of the five judges to determine the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Mystery Novel. The Edgar is given by the Mystery Writers of America (MWA). The second time was this year (2016), when I served as one of three judges to determine the Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel. The Shamus is given by the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA).

For the Edgar Award I read approximately 200 submitted novels. There were more than 200 submitted, but some weren’t eligible (mainly because they weren’t mystery novels). The reading and evaluating of those novels was difficult, especially because the novels didn’t arrive at my doorstep at an even rate of, say, 20 a month. Instead, the bulk of them arrived after September — and the voting took place at the end of December. During some days I read one novel all morning long, finished in mid-afternoon, and started another novel in the evening.

For the Shamus Award I read about 20 novels. Here, too, some weren’t eligible (because they weren’t private eye novels). Instead of having a twelve-month reading period, as with the Edgar, I had about a four-month reading period, with voting due at the end of May, 2016. Still, even though in both cases I read each eligible novel from beginning to end, it was far easier to read 20 novels in four months than it was to read 200 novels in twelve months.

The real question in judging books for a contest, however, isn’t the number of books submitted — it’s how to evaluate them while reading, how to remember them, and, ultimately, how to rank them at the end of all the reading.

Conceivably a person reading 20 books in four months could remember what she thought of each and list her top five choices without having taken notes of any kind. She could, for example, stack the books in piles as she read them, the best going in the #1 pile, the good-but-not-best going in the #2 pile, and the others going in the #3 pile. Then, when the time came to vote, she could quickly skim the books in the #1 pile to refresh her memory, then rank them in the order she thought best.

I don’t think anybody could do this with 200 books, though.

And because my first book-judging experience was with the 200 books, I developed a chart and filled it out for each book. I kept the filled-out charts (and not the novels themselves) in three different stacks.

Somewhere along the route of computer upgrades, system upgrades, and word-processing upgrades, I lost the chart I developed for the Edgar judging. But when asked to read and judge books for the Shamus, I had almost no difficulty reconstructing it.

My approach was to read each book from beginning to end, thinking about it as I read. After I finished, I would fill in the chart by marking an X within each box. I also used the space within each box to more accurately record my impressions. To the left end of Average brought that aspect of a book close to Very Good. To the right end brought that aspect close to Poor.

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Not a contender

Above is an example of how I filled out the chart for one of the books. I have left off the title, author, etc., because I don’t want to identify the book, I simply want to use it as an illustration. It was not a contender, as you can infer from my ratings and comments.

Many people think that a book that deserves an award will be so good, so clearly dominant, that everybody will agree and vote it #1. This is certainly possible: there are years in which all the judges vote for the same book as #1. But it’s also possible, and in fact likely, that judges will vote for different books as #1.

The book with the highest number of points wins the vote and therefore the award. That is to say, each first-choice book receives 5 points; each second choice 4 points; and so on down to each fifth choice, which receives 1 point. It’s possible that a novel all five judges rank as #2 ends up being the winner. Therefore, it’s not a matter of simply voting for the novel one considers best, and not caring about the other four. A judge must think carefully about each of his final five choices, and think hard about how he would rank them.

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The book I ranked first

I found that the best way for me to rank the books in order was by evaluating them as I read them, recording my judgements, and then examining both the novels and their charts before voting. Above is my chart evaluation of the novel that I ranked first. It’s also the novel that received the Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel.

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The book I ranked second

Above is my evaluation of the novel I ranked second. As you can see by my notes, I thought the novel I ranked second was a good book, but I was critical of some weaknesses in the plot. I might read another book by this author, I might not. But I will read another book by the winner, because her characters and their situations were compelling. And her writing is excellent. She was, by the way, in my opinion the only one out of 20-some authors who wrote a mystery filled with tension. In fiction, tension is essential to a good story. If there’s no tension about what’s going to happen . . . who cares?

Now that the Shamus Award judging is done and the winners in each category were announced at the 2016 Bouchercon, I can put my master grid away. Until, perhaps, I need to use it again.

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Barbara Gregorich does not discuss award judging in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. But she does talk about how to develop characters, plot, and tension, and the importance of the solution.

Plot: The Steps of Struggle

In fiction writing there’s an endless debate over which is more important when you’re coming up with a story: character or plot. Personally, I don’t believe that one comes before the other, but that’s because when I’m planning a story, character and plot (as well as setting) come to me at the same time. I can’t create characters without at the same time creating their struggles — and their struggles and actions are the plot.

More than 2,000 years ago Aristotle, in his Poetics, explained what plot was: a series of causally related events. Aristotle considered plot the single most important element of drama, and he believed that it was plot which had the ability to arouse emotion in the audience.

Strictly speaking, it’s the characters’ actions (their taking steps that become elements of the plot: A, B, C, D, etc.) which arouse emotion. Characters alone, doing nothing, do not arouse emotion. But characters acting do.

Plot is a series of events that constitute a chain: each event is linked to another through cause and effect. In a linear novel, Event A causes Event B, which causes Event C, which causes Event D, and so on down the line.

But even though plot events need to be understood in linear order, they need not be presented to the reader in that order. For example, in my novel She’s on First, the first event is baseball scout Timothy Michael Curry sitting on the bleachers in a college stadium in Pennsylvania, watching the Liberty Bells play a game. That could be considered Event A . . . except that the story gives an immediate flashback to a Little League game several years earlier. This event (let’s call it Event B), appears to be the cause of Event A. But about two-thirds of the way into She’s on First there are more flashbacks, revealing that Event B was not the precipitating event. It, in turn, was caused by previous events.

No matter how complex the order of telling a story (and She’s on First is of very minor complexity — there are some super-complex novels out there!), the chain of events that form the plot can be reconstructed in linear order, joined by cause and effect.

master_mediumI highly recommend Robert Kernen’s book, Building Better Plots. He defines plot in this way: “The arrangement of events in a story to elicit a desired effect on the audience. A series of events organized to progress from inciting incident through rising action to climax and finishing with the resolution.” Aristotle, who felt that drama should achieve an intended effect on the audience, would have agreed. Good writers create plot points that reveal who their characters are.

Another good book on plot is Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them. When I first encountered this book many years ago, I thought that a book which compressed all plots into one of twenty types couldn’t possible help me.

I was wrong. Writing a novel is a complicated business, one that requires rethinking, restructuring, and rewriting, and during that process it’s often necessary for the writer to remind herself what the story is about: What is the basic plot? During that complicated process, it often helps to question the basic nature of your plot. Are you writing a Quest plot? An Escape plot? A Rivals plot? A Riddle plot? Or maybe an Underdog plot? According to Tobias, each plot requires a certain structure. His book helps you understand that structure and develop it.

The fact that plot events are related by cause and effect gives a novel great continuity. The plot events, and the character choices based on plot events, help expound the novel’s theme: the observations the author is making about life.

Writers to whom plot comes first don’t necessarily neglect character. They trust to the plot to reveal character.

UnknownAn example of how good plotting can result in greater character development is the example of Earl Derr Biggers. Back n the 1910s Biggers was a very successful novelist of popular fiction. He was, as well, a playwright and collaborator on other plays. In 1920 he and his family took a long vacation from New York through Canada, down into California, and, finally, to Hawaii. There, lying on the beach at Waikiki one day, Biggers came up with the idea of “how to commit the perfect murder.” He was so excited by this that he wrote to his editor about it.

It would be four years before Biggers found the time to return to his “perfect murder” plot, but when he did, he of course created the characters who would carry out the plot. One of the characters Biggers created was Chinese-Hawaiian police detective, Charlie Chan. This character became popular around the world, from Sweden to China, and places between. The Chan novels were translated into 33 different languages.

From a plot, Biggers was able to create a character who became bigger than the plot.

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Barbara Gregorich discusses different aspects of plot in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Behind That Curtain: Richness and Texture

In previous blogs I’ve analyzed my fourth reading of Earl Derr Biggers’ first two Charlie Chan novels, a series of only six books due to Biggers’ early death.

Technically speaking, Biggers didn’t have a series after he wrote The Chinese Parrot: he had a sequel, which does not yet equal a series. But Biggers did write a third Chan novel, Behind That Curtain, and thus created a series. In The House Without a Key: Four and Counting I mentioned that Biggers didn’t yet fully know his protagonist, Charlie Chan. In The Chinese Parrot: Biggers’ Big Decisions I analyzed the decisions the author made as he wrote a sequel and moved toward a series.

Behind That Curtain illustrates that by his third mystery Biggers was totally in control of his plotting and his characters, particularly his protagonist. It is, I think, a flawlessly plotted and written book, rich in texture.

9780897335843In music, texture is the richness of all that’s going on at the same time that melody and beat are occurring. In literature texture (or lack of) is the manner in which all the different parts of the work combine to produce a final effect. A story with texture is a story with multiple threads  woven together: these could be threads of plot, character, allusions, foreshadowing, or repetition. A story with texture contains vivid language; contains characters whom the reader is engaged with and remembers vividly; contains conflicts that are interwoven so that when events and character converge at the end, the reader feels something like — Yes, this was wonderful! I could feel it coming. Reading a textured novel is the literary equivalent of rubbing a tightly-woven wool tweed between one’s fingers. The nubs and ridges, the rise and fall, the zig and zag of the cloth offer great sensual pleasure. So, too, does a textured novel.

In my first three readings of Behind That Curtain, starting with my first reading at the age of sixteen, I can’t say that I consciously noticed the texture. But in my fourth reading, this was what I noticed most: how Biggers wove a very satisfyingly textured book out of plot, character, and language.

PLOT — Of Bigger’s first three mysteries, this one is the most ambitious plot-wise. It involves a murder from 16 years ago, a seemingly unrelated disappearance from 15 years ago, and a murder that occurs early in the book as the first two events are being discussed and re-investigated.

Behind That Curtain features four separate investigators, only one of them a member of the San Francisco Police Department. (The story is set in San Francisco.) The other three consist of humble visitor Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police Department; Sir Frederic Bruce, retired Scotland Yard inspector; and active Scotland Yard Inspector Duff. These investigators are on the trail of different crimes, and they approach them in different ways. Sir Frederic wants to solve the disappearance case above all. . . and that is what gets him murdered. Captain Flannery of the SFPD wants to solve the murder of Sir Frederic and pooh-poohs the other cases. Charlie Chan wants to solve the meaning of the single clue that Sir Frederic left behind. And Inspector Duff seems to want to study Charlie Chan as well as catch the murderer of Sir Frederic. That’s a lot of investigators pursuing a lot of paths that, the reader hopes, will end up with one solution.

Not only are there four different investigators in Behind That Curtain, but almost every one of the many interesting suspects is guilty. Of something. This, too, makes for texture.

Woven into the story are the plot elements dealing with Charlie Chan’s strong desire to return home to Honolulu to see, for the first time, his newly born eleventh child, a son. What should be a direct matter of Charlie’s boarding the weekly ship that sails for Honolulu is anything but easy, anything but direct.

CHARACTER — The decisions that Biggers made in writing his second mystery novel bore fruit in this one. In The House Without a Key we learn that Charlie Chan is highly intelligent, highly respected by those he works with, proud of his heritage, and willing to call out those who treat him in a racist way. In The Chinese Parrot we see more examples of Charlie’s pride in his heritage, learn more about his patience, and learn about his relationship with other members of the Chinese-American community. We also learn about Charlie’s ability to hone in on “the essential clue.”

In the third novel Biggers developed even more of Charlie’s character, so much so that we begin to feel deep empathy for this good person and good detective who is is not perfect. When employing a tiny bit of fakery to get the information he wants, Charlie is outsmarted by a young Chinese-American Boy Scout. When he is about to board the ship to Honolulu, eager to return home, Charlie allows himself to be manipulated into staying after the Assistant District Attorney coldly states that Charlie is leaving because he’s not smart enough to solve the case. Chan knows that the words are meant to goad him into changing his mind. He doesn’t want to change his mind . . . but he can’t let this statement go unchallenged. His pride is not only in his heritage, but in his own abilities.

Chan is a man who does the right thing, even though the matter is not his responsibility, and even though he wants to be on board that Hawaii-bound ocean liner. There is a certain weight and sometimes a certain sadness to a character who always does the right thing, even though doing so runs against his most fervent desires. Out of the first three Chan novels, this is the one that gives us the most texture in Charlie’s character. Each time I read the novel and come to its final paragraph, I feel tears in my eyes.

“Aloha,” he called. “Until we meet again.” His fat face shone with joy. The big ship paused, trembled, and set out for Hawaii.

LANGUAGE — Biggers was an above-average writer in his genre at the time. His stories are laced with great wit, with clever plotting, with foreshadowing, turnabouts, and dozens of misdirections. His sentences are more than serviceable: they do their job of moving the story forward while at the same time helping create the flavor of the setting and characters.

87c8d93b34e60b34717d82d37a5f667dIn Behind That Curtain Biggers wove deep texture into the story through the use of language, primarily the language of Charlie Chan’s aphorisms. These observations on life, these words of wisdom, this advice on how to live — these things form the warp through which the rest of the story is woven.

That Biggers realized the importance of Charlie’s aphorisms to characterization, to plot development (they make the reader think), and to language is evident when you realize that the first novel has perhaps a dozen aphorisms; the second has about the same number. Behind That Curtain has three times as many sayings as either of the first two books: more than the first two books combined.

Biggers added the large number of aphorisms to his third novel, and to each of the subsequent ones, because he realized that in doing so he was adding significantly to the texture of his art. Among my favorites from Behind That Curtain are the following:

• Muddy water, unwisely stirred, grows darker still.

• It is always darkest underneath the lamp.

• Guessing is poor business that often leads to lengthy saunters down the positively wrong path.

When it came to his craft, Earl Derr Biggers did not guess. He knew what elements and qualities were required to tell a good story, and he employed them well.

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Barbara Gregorich employs both music and texture in her mystery, Sound Proof.

The Hard-Boiled Mystery: American Influence

In The Golden Age of Mystery: British Influence I wrote about how I was influenced by reading hundreds upon hundreds of British novels written during the first Golden Age of Mystery (roughly 1920-1940). At the same time, I also read American mysteries written during the Golden Age.

Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan (novels, not movies!) published his first mystery, The House Without a Key, in 1925, and the sixth and final Chan novel, Keeper of the Keys, in 1932. Biggers’ Chan novels fit perfectly into the Golden Age. Like some of Christie’s Poirot novels, they’re set in exotic places. They often contain an element of romance. And, the crime is cleverly planned, in keeping with the Golden Age tradition. Only careful observation of everything and everybody leads Chan to the solution.

My mother was a fan of Erle Stanley Gardner, who created lawyer Perry Mason and published The Case of the Velvet Claws in 1933. Between 1933 and 1973, forty-six Perry Mason novels were published, the titles all starting with The Case of the. I read maybe a dozen of these. After a while they all seemed alike to me — though I did enjoy the way each novel ended with a courtroom scene in which Mason exposed the murderer. I think that Gardner was particularly good at such endings because he himself was a practicing attorney.

toomanywoman2Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books are one of my favorite mystery series. Individual titles that I regard with admiration are The Red Box, Too Many Cooks, Some Buried Caesar (love it!), Too Many Women, In the Best Families, and A Family Affair. And although The Black Mountain isn’t one of my favorites, I do love the fact that it takes place in Montenegro and that Archie and Nero must hide in a haystack.

Stout published the first Nero Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance, in 1934, so he falls directly into the Golden Age of mystery. He published his last, A Family Affair, in 1975. Even though he started writing during the Golden Age, wrote throughout the hard-boiled age, and even into the modern age, Stout wrote short, clever-solution stories in which most of the characters were two-dimensional. I think of him as a classic Golden Age writer who just kept on producing.

Dashiell Hammett wrote during mystery’s Golden Age, but he represents the beginning of a new style of mystery — the hard-boiled — and is decidedly not part of the Golden Age “style.” Hammett’s most famous novel, The Maltese Falcon (1930), carried on the hard-boiled detective type he had created in his first novel, Red Harvest. The detective in Red Harvest is called the Continental Op, named after the agency he works for. The detective in the second is Sam Spade. Hammett is considered a great mystery writer, credited with creating the hard-boiled detective and an “American style” mystery with three-dimensional characters and gritty details.

The hard-boiled detective novel dominated the 1940s. Raymond Chandler’s hero, Philip Marlowe, was first introduced in The Big Sleep in 1939. With imperialist nations on the verge of a second World War, the intellectual mysteries so prominent during the Golden Age gave way to a more realistic, more hardened type of detective fiction. And this fiction would begin to approach mainstream fiction in its concern with plot, character, setting, motivation, and theme. Chandler’s The Big Sleep, for example, was considered by many critics to be a mainstream novel that just happened to be a mystery. Mysteries of the Golden Age, on the other hand, confined themselves to being short, focused works. The writers of hard-boiled mysteries paved the way for modern mysteries of the 1970s through today.

51z2zsixJ+L._AA300_While most Golden Age mysteries are solved by an intellectual confrontation at the end, in most modern day mysteries there’s a physical confrontation at the end. And while I am very drawn to the intellectual solutions in Golden Age mysteries, I confess that in both of my mysteries, Dirty Proof and Sound Proof, there’s a physical confrontation at the climax. I can reconstruct my thinking as I was writing those endings: I thought that in most cases a murderer would react physically and thus have to be confronted in the same manner.

In modern mysteries there’s more opportunity for the reader to feel an emotional involvement with the hero. Emotional involvement with fictional characters helps develop empathy toward other human beings: the fear or pity or love or hate we feel for a fictional character helps us see that others are perhaps not so different from us as we thought they were. Modern mystery writers are huge on emotional involvement. And I doubt there will ever be any going back to a time in which reader involvement was purely intellectual.

The downside (it’s a downside for me, though I don’t know if it’s a downside for others) is that the modern way of emotional involvement with detective heroes seems to be to load them down with baggage — ex-lovers, murdered children, murdered spouses, — that follows them from book to book like the black cloud follows Joe Btfsplk. After a while this gets tedious. Very tedious. That’s when I turn to the Golden Age Hercule and Charlie and Nero for a breath of fresh air, a shouldering of responsibilities without focusing on the baggage.

As a modern-day mystery writer, I’m strong on emotional involvement. But I’m equally strong on intellectual involvement, and I especially value the classic elements of Golden Age fiction, such as the use of small clues sprinkled throughout (playing fair with the reader) and the revelation of the “least likely” villain in such a way that it all makes sense at the end. In Sound Proof there isn’t a roundup of suspects as in a Golden Age, but rather a modern-day ending in which the detective and the murderer confront each other. My lifelong reading of mystery novels, about half of them Golden Age and half of them modern, helped me with all aspects of Sound Proof — but particularly with planting the clues.

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Barbara Gregorich wanted to use a planting machine for the clues in Sound Proof, but couldn’t find one that worked. So she planted the clues herself.

The Golden Age of Mystery: British Influence

Mysteries written during the Golden Age of Mystery, roughly 1920-1940, influenced all mystery readers and writers who lived then. And even now. I’m sure it influenced me, mainly because at one time I read hundreds of mysteries from that period, and these stories helped shape my idea of what constituted a satisfying mystery. (And perhaps even what didn’t.)

90599-86823Agatha Christie epitomizes the Golden Age of mystery. Such is her influence (particularly in plotting, her forte) that she is still the best-known mystery writer in the world. Many scholars date the beginning of the Golden Age with the 1920 publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie’s first novel. Not only did this novel introduce the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (he of the egg-shaped head, drinker of tisanes), it also introduced “the little grey cells” he employs to solve mysteries.

I think of Poirot’s little grey cells as a symbol of Golden Age mysteries, for these novels stressed the intelligence of the detective, his/her ability to observe and deduce, to solve intricate puzzles, to see inconsistencies and contradictions, and, often, to possess arcane knowledge.

16322I’ve read each Agatha Christie novel at least twice, and some I’ve read three times. My favorites are all Poirot novels, particularly The ABC Murders and Murder on the Orient Express. I can recall the very first time I read Murder on the Orient Express, when I was in my late teens. At some point I muttered out loud, “This is ridiculous! They couldn’t have all done it!”

English intellectual Dorothy Sayers wrote poetry, plays, essays, literary criticisms, and translations, including a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. She also wrote the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels. I love these, particularly Strong Poison, Murder Must Advertise, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon. But I find the Scottish dialect in Five Red Herrings difficult to read. In addition, the intense use of time tables makes the solution of the mystery less than riveting. While The Nine Tailors is a long book, and tells me more about bell ringing than I might want to know, I nevertheless liked the mystery and its solution. Sayers’ use of timetables is very much a Golden Age characteristic. As is the arcane knowledge about bell ringing.

Philip MacDonald wrote mysteries in the 1930s and onward. He’s best known for his novel The List of Adrian Messenger, published in 1959 and made into a movie in 1963. The book was very Christie-like in its plot. A seemingly unrelated series of murders turns out to be very related indeed: somebody is killing all the men who were prisoners of war in the same camp in Burma. John Huston directed the film, which featured well-known actors in disguise — Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, and Robert Mitchum among them.

Philip MacDonald was even better known for his screenplays than for his novels. He wrote the screenplays for Charlie Chan in London and Charlie Chan in Paris; for several Mr. Moto film; for an Agatha Christie movie, Love From a Stranger; and he did an early adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca for screen. In addition, he wrote TV scripts for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and for Perry Mason.

imagesNgaio Marsh was a New Zealand writer who moved to England in her early 30s. She wrote 32 novels featuring Roderick (Rory) Alleyn, a detective on the London Police squad. Because Marsh was interested in theater and painting, many of her mysteries feature artists and/or the stage. I think she plotted well and wrote well, though, compared to Christie’s, her plots don’t move as quickly. (Compared to Christie’s, few plots move quickly.)

Edmund Wilson, an American, had little regard for Golden Age mysteries. In his famous critique, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” (The New Yorker, 1945), Wilson, an author and critic, claimed that Golden Age mysteries were subliterary. He called the reading of such mysteries a harmless vice and said that people were addicted to them the same way they might be addicted to solving crossword puzzles.

Mah-jongg tiles from the 1920s

Mah-jongg tiles from the 1920s

Puzzles is a key word when it comes to Golden Age mysteries. Many who read these novels compared them to crossword puzzles, in that the reader is given cryptic clues that she or he can use to solve the mystery before the detective solves it. It’s interesting to note that the Golden Age of mystery grew and flourished during the same time period (1920s-30s) as did the crossword puzzle (first printed in the New York World on December 21, 1913;) as did Mah-jongg (first sold in the US by Abercrombine & Fitch in 1920); and as did contract bridge (Vanderbilt rules set in 1925). One of the similarities between mystery novels of the Golden Age and the these games is that they all require use of the intellect: the faculty of reasoning.

It would be coming full circle for me to say that in my mysteries, Dirty Proof and Sound Proof, I was so influenced by the British Golden Age mysteries I read that I wrote a puzzle mystery.

But I didn’t.

Because, much as I admire the puzzle mystery (particularly when it’s turned into a stage production, which seems to emphasize the puzzle aspect even more than a novel does), I also admire realism, a certain degree of hard-boiled sleuthing, and emotional involvement with characters. More about these in a future blog.

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In Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies I offer chapters on “Plot Complications”; “Casting Suspicion”; “Planting Clues”; and “Disguising of Motive, Means, and Opportunity,” as well as other mystery-writing topics.

Book vs. Class

In February I’m scheduled to teach “Writing the Mystery Novel” at the Off-Campus Writers Workshop in Winnetka, Illinois. Teaching the class is a result of having published Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. While I’ve taught many writing classes in many different places on many different topics, I’ve never before taught one based directly on the contents of one of my books.

You would think that this is an easy teaching assignment: pick up the book and go through it, chapter by chapter.

Not. A. Chance.

I remember how horrified I and a classmate were when, freshmen in college, we encountered a World History professor who proceeded to read from the book. Day after day, hour after hour.

The book — but not the class.

The book — but not the class.

What, we asked ourselves, was the sense of our reading the book and attending the lectures? Doing one or the other would have been more efficient. Doing both was boring, and the professor didn’t seem to understand that it’s often more productive to teach the same topic in several different ways, maybe from several different directions, to increase the chance that students will grasp the meaning of what is being taught.

Because of that experience, I never teach “from the book.” Instead, I approach the topic (in this case, writing a mystery novel) in a different way, from a different direction.

Speaking live to a group of people is quite different from writing a book. For one thing, a book is dated the minute it’s published — but in teaching a subject face-to-face, a mentor can mention or use as an example something that happened yesterday. Or this morning. Or just five minutes ago. In teaching “Writing the Mystery Novel,” I’ll be able to bring in current events if I wish, or novels I’ve just finished reading.

For my in-person teaching I plan to use a wider variety of mystery novels as examples than I did in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. The examples in Guide are strong examples that illustrate the techniques and problems I discuss. They are, however, all examples from my own writing — not only because I know my own writing process best, but also because I freely give myself permission to quote from any of my books.

Such is not the case with getting permission to quote passages from other people’s novels. Getting permission is a boring, time-consuming affair. (For Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, I spent three full months doing nothing but getting permissions. . . . ) But each teacher is free to hold up somebody else’s book and talk about it in class and read a passage from it. In fact, reading aloud to students is a great way to entertain them and get them to hear/see things in a different light.

I find that the structure of a live class often reveals itself to me in a different form or outline than does that of the book. As I prepare a class, I imagine what students expect out of (in this case) two sessions. They will receive less information than is contained within Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel — maybe only one-third as much. But what they receive will be central to their immediate concerns: for example, the crime, the villain, the suspects, and planting clues. And what they receive will be a give-and-take experience: if they have a question, they can ask it then and there. Ask for clarification, ask for examples, tell what they’re writing about and what problems they’re facing.

I love writing books both because I am captivated by story and because I love the written word. I love teaching in person because I enjoy the opportunity to clarify, the spontaneity of examples, and the unexpectedness of random questions from students.

Teaching is a wonderful challenge. And I’ll be challenged again when I give a 30-minute presentation on this same topic, at Mystery to Me Bookstore in February, and Aunt Agatha’s in March.