Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Part II

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel was somewhat easy to write, probably because I had been thinking about it for three years. Some chapters took me a day to write, some two or three days. I went at it steadily, so that I would never lose touch with the purpose of the book and the tone of the book.

After I finished, I let a couple of weeks go by, and then I sat down with the manuscript and read it critically, marking it up heavily. From these marked-up pages I wrote the second draft. I showed that draft to my first two readers, listened to what they had to say, and wrote the third draft. I showed that to two more readers, and wrote the fourth (final) draft.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, my actual working title for this book was Writing the Mystery Novel, even though there were a few books with that title already out there. I knew that at some point I would change the title. When that time came, I read up on what constitutes a good nonfiction title. And subtitle. 

Many articles suggested making the title humorous and the subtitle serious. But I felt I wanted the main title to carry the message of what the book is, so that anybody searching for it could find it easily. And I wanted the subtitle to reflect what was in the book. Once I decided to title the book Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel, it took me maybe a minute to come up with the subtitle, Lots of Examples. I liked the down-to-earth feeling of the word “Lots,” which is of course colloquial. 

It’s amazing how our subconscious works parallel to and in step with our consciousness on occasions. No sooner had I deliberately, consciously chosen the colloquial Lots of Examples than, out of nowhere, my subconscious prodded, Plus Dead Bodies.

So I spent maybe three hours reading up on and thinking about nonfiction titles, about five minutes deciding on my main title, and about two minutes coming up with the subtitle. But the five minutes and two minutes would never have given me the solution had I not spent those three hours researching and thinking.

Every time I decide to self-publish a book, I ask Robin Koontz to design the cover. I’m always thrilled with her cover designs, and this one is no exception. It was Robin who came up with the idea of crime scene markers for the subtitle of the book and also for the inside chapter titles. I love it! In fact, even though I know about crime scene tape, I was unaware of crime scene markers — but I am so glad that Robin was aware of them! 

Robin also came up with the dead body (don’t ask how!), the layout, the colors, and the typefaces. An immensely appealing cover, I think. (Thank you, Robin!)

Designers put great thought into not only the front cover of books, but also the back cover. Personally, I find back covers difficult to decide on. The back cover of She’s on First contains review quotes: such testimonial blurbs are the most common back cover item. The back covers of Dirty Proof and Sound Proof contain book descriptions: sort of what the inside flap copy would be like in a hardback book.

The back cover of Research Notes Volume 1 contains extensive about-the-author information. The back cover of Volume 2 contains two long review quotes about Volume 1. The back cover of Jack and Larry contains five testimonials from sources with clout. The back cover of my poetry collection, Crossing the Skyway, contains nothing but the continuation of color from the front of the cover.

For Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel, I was seriously thinking of describing the contents of the book (as with Dirty Proof and Sound Proof), but Robin Koontz came up with a better idea. She took the topics discussed in the twenty-five chapters and created an attractive, intriguing, eye-catching collage of these topics for the back cover. This is my favorite of all the back covers of all my books.

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel was the eighth book I self-published, but it was the first of those books to contain an index. If I were using such a book as Guide and had finished reading it, then at a later date wanted to refresh my memory about what the author said about, say, subplots, I would want an index — because I couldn’t assume that every comment about subplots would be within the chapter on subplots.

So I asked Sharon Johnson, a friend who’s a professional indexer, and who indexed Women at Play back in 1993, if she would create the index. She said she would (Thank you, Sharon!), and the book has an index. I hope that many people find this index useful.

It’s interesting how things work out. If I hadn’t written my first mystery, Dirty Proof, I wouldn’t have written a second mystery with the same detective hero. And if I hadn’t written that second mystery, Sound Proof, and used it when teaching, I would have never written Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. In fiction, one thing leads to another. Just as in life.

___________________

Barbara Gregorich’s most recent book is Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers. 

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Part I

Perhaps a third of the way through writing the first draft of Sound Proof, my second mystery novel, I realized that I wanted to write a how-to book on writing the mystery novel. Two factors contributed to my wanting to write such a guide. 

The first was that I had been reading a lot of mystery novels which, in one way or another, annoyed me.  One might have had a far too obvious villain: somebody I recognized as the murderer by the third chapter. Another might have had a far, far too obscure minor-character villain who, when revealed to be the villain, created no emotion in me: I just didn’t care that this seldom-seen character was the guilty party. Still another mystery might have had way-too-clunky planting of clues. One may have had way-too-obvious foreshadowing, while the solution to yet another might have been totally unearned.

Annoyed at what I was encountering, I thought I could give some guidelines on techniques such as foreshadowing, or give examples of how to plant clues. I would certainly read such a how-to book, and I thought others would, too.

The second factor that contributed to my writing a guide on how to write a mystery novel stemmed from the fact that with Sound Proof I was being forced to think through writing decisions very different from those I made for Dirty Proof. For example: Sound Proof contains many more characters and is set over a five-day period at a folk music festival. As I began to write, I noticed that I needed to know where each of the seven suspects was at a particular time of day Monday through Friday. So I had to make a where-are-they chart listing the days, the time of day, and the location of the suspects. The chart would help me understand time and place, and my understanding of time and place in the novel would help the reader understand it, too.

SOUNDPROOF-Cover

Design by Robin Koontz

In Dirty Proof I had a major character villain, but in Sound Proof I had a minor character villain. I was worried: how could I keep readers from forgetting the character? So I made a chart tracking the minor character’s appearance in the novel, making sure to have the character present enough times so that the reader wouldn’t forget, but also absent enough times that the reader wouldn’t suspect.

Because I intended to write a guide book after completing Sound Proof, I kept track of all my major writing decisions. I saved all my doodles and scraps of paper. After I finished and published Sound Proof (2011), I put all my files aside for a while, so that I could think about the organization and tone of the guide book. While letting my ideas for the guide book simmer,  I wrote and published Jack and Larry in 2012 and Research Notes for Women at Play, Volume II, in 2013.

When 2014 came along, I started to organize the guide book. The first thing I did was create a working title: Writing the Mystery Novel. I’m the kind of person who needs a title before I can write a book . . . even though I may change the title after I’ve finished. In this case, after I completed the book, I changed the title to Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel.

After coming up with the working title, I thought about how to organize the book.

 

BookmarkPerhaps there was a time in the history of reading when every single reader read a book from beginning to end, in the order the pages were printed. If there was such a time, it clearly no longer exists. People read books, particularly nonfiction books, in any order that pleases them. Middle to End to Beginning. Beginning, End, Middle. Who knows.

I happen to read books from beginning to end, in the order the pages/chapters are printed. But I don’t want to impose my reading preference on others, and so as I began to create Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel, I made certain that the book would logically lead a reader from beginning to end, teaching skills along the way — and that any individual chapter could be read at any time and still make sense. In that respect, Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel is “interactive” in that the reader can interact with the book in any order she pleases.

People who teach know that nothing works like examples — theory and instructions are abstract: examples are concrete. In addition to explaining foreshadowing, for example, it helps to show an example of foreshadowing. This is why Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel contains (as the subtitle promises) lots of examples.

Most of the examples are from Sound Proof, for a variety of reasons, one of which is that I own the copyright to Sound Proof and therefore don’t need permission to publish quotes from it. Equally important is that because I wrote the novel, I knew what problems I faced when writing it, and I know what my thinking was in reaching a solution. I shared these problems and my thinking and my solutions with the reader in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel.

_____________________

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, is one of Barbara Gregorich’s most frequently requested books.

Presenting to the Public: The Golden Rule

Like many writers I supplement my income and increase the sale of my books by presenting programs to the public. Usually, but not not always, my programs are related to one or more of my books. Experience has taught me that an audience loves to see photos of what I’m talking about, so ever since Apple introduced Keynote (Powerpoint’s superior cousin), I’ve taken the time to build Keynote presentations.

Today most speakers/presenters take advantage of modern technology and use graphics, movement, and sound to enhance the content of their programs. Yet despite the age we live in, many presenters fail to meet the grade. As one who goes to talks given by others, I find myself more often disappointed than not, and the reason I’m most often disappointed is that the presenter reads his or her talk.

I find this totally boring and incredibly annoying. If you’re an author (or a teacher, historian, musician, scientist, whatnot) and you intend to present to the public, think thrice about reading out loud.

Did the person who hired you ask, “Would you be willing to read a speech to our patrons?” Or: “Can you come to our event and read out loud the notes you’ve typed into your Powerpoint/Keynote program?”

I’ll bet not one Outreach Director or Program Coordinator in history has ever made this request.

So: Don’t. Read. Speeches. to. the. Audience!

I don’t know about you, but I’m a fast reader and a good comprehender of what I read. If you intend to take 60 minutes to read a talk to me, I much prefer you give me a copy of the talk so that I can go sit in a corner, read it in 15 minutes, and then use the other 45 minutes to do something exciting.

At the Bloomingdale Public Library, Illinois, with my favorite roadie, Phil Passen

At the Bloomingdale Public Library, Illinois, with my favorite roadie, Phil Passen

In giving presentations, I feel it’s my obligation to give the kind of talk I myself would love to see and hear. See. And hear. Thus I put together visuals, I add transitions and movement, and I use the logic of events or the logic of story to carry my visuals forward, so that I can simply glance at the screen and see what’s coming next.

I speak directly to the audience. I move around. I make eye contact. I use humor.

Do people actually want this?

You know what the answer is.

I recently gave one of my most popular presentations, When Women Played Baseball: The Story of Margaret, Nellie, and Rose, at the Warren-Newport Public Library in Gurnee, Illinois. Several weeks later, the Adult Programming Specialist kindly shared with me the remarks that patrons made on their evaluation sheets. Here are some of their comments.

• interesting, good presenter, good graphics
• excellent research, brought Nellie, Rose and Margaret to life, fun facts
• very interesting, fun
• informative, told stories, knowledgeable, loved her topic
• speaker was super, kept my attention
• entertaining, informative
• the historical slides and the humor
• very impressive, Barbara’s knowledge and facts; the flow she talks with, not just ‘notes;
• enthusiasm; knowledgeable
• excellent; very knowledgeable in the subject, enthusiastic; great slides
• informed, enthused; engaged with audience; humorous; lively; much expression
• very prepared and great pace
• entertaining; funny
• knows her stuff and enjoys sharing it
• loved her knowledge and enthusiasm; but also her physical presentation; very cute “slides” and use of quotations; excellent
• enthusiastic about her subject

This is a long list. I print it not to brag about my presentation, but to help you, if you intend to speak or present in public. Look over the list and notice what stands out:

Knowledge
Enthusiasm
Humor
Visuals
Pacing
Story

These are what I want to see and hear when I attend somebody’s talk. And so they are what I give to others when I’m the speaker. Give unto others as you would have them give unto you.

If you’re going to present to the public, work on your presentation until it’s rich and full. Until it shimmers like a gem. Until it wows the audience. You will please people, and you will be invited to give more presentations — at which, being a writer, you can sell more of your books.

_______________

Barbara Gregorich enjoys sharing what she knows about writing mysteries in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. And, she gives a related 60-minute presentation titled Thinking Like a Mystery Writer.

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.