Ever wonder how successful authors go about writing? MWA-MA member GINA HAGLER will be getting answers from writers of fiction and mystery-related nonfiction. Gina is a small business consultant turned freelance writer. When she's not at work on nonfiction, she's busy with her mystery series set in an artist's colony where the residents soon learn murder is as predictable as the sunrise.

Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'em Dead with Style, By Hallie Ephron

Don't Murder Your Mystery: 24 Fiction-Writing Techniques To Save Your Manuscript From Turning Up D.O.A.

Don't Murder Your Mystery:
24 Fiction-Writing Techniques To Save Your Manuscript From Turning Up D.O.A.

By Chris Roerden

  1. Why did you feel this topic would make a good book?

    I want writers to understand what really happens during submission, screening, and selection-a process that agents and in-house editors are not eager to make known. As you already suspect, it's a myth that every submission gets a fair reading. Ninety percent get thrown in the "no" pile almost immediately. This early decision is based on early clues to amateur craft--which robs the manuscript of the fresh, new voice publishers are looking for. Most manuscripts commit suicide long before a first reader gets far enough to evaluate character and plot, the two elements that writers spend the most time and effort developing.

    The reason I chose to put this into a book was so I could demonstrate, in detail, how different authors resolve the same challenges of technique that confront every writer: hooks, backstory, flashbacks, description, dialogue, tags, points of view, and so on. Altogether, I analyze 160 positive examples from 150 authors.

  2. Why did you focus on fiction-writing techniques?

    Contrasted with nonfiction? Fiction is more fun to work with and to research. And fiction writers--especially mystery writers--are more motivated to improve their skills because they expect to produce more books over a longer period of time. They have a higher stake in remaining published.

    As for focusing on techniques, after 43 years as an editor I continue to see the identical writing habits kill good stories again and again. How do so many talented storytellers learn the same poor habits? Their work is screened out on the basis of craft and voice alone.

  3. How long did the research take?

    Four years of focused research. I read 500 mystery novels to find the 160 examples I analyze--examples that Mystery Scene's Jon Breen calls "excellent." It was the most enjoyable research I've ever done. Incidentally, the negative examples--I wrote them.

    In reality, I've been collecting examples of effective writing techniques for a long time. I analyzed technique for my undergraduate honors papers, then for my Master's thesis, then for the writing courses I taught.

  4. What was the most difficult part of this project?

    Revising--which as most writers know is where the real writing takes place. Having been a managing editor, I knew how to weigh an unlimited capacity for editing against the practical limitations of time and budget. But by nature I'm a tinkerer. When I write, the editor is in my head, not on my shoulder, and stifling her is a real struggle for me. My brief tongue-in-cheek intro to the book cautions others to not do what I do: revise while still writing.

  5. Was there anything in the process that came as a surprise?

    Aside from its having taken four years, yes. A big surprise, especially after working in publishing all my life with all types of writers, was hearing a few authors--and I emphasize only a few--boast openly of never reading books on writing.

    Contrast this with Margaret Maron, who said publicly that she found at least a half-dozen tips in my book that will directly apply to her writing. P.J. Parrish (Kelly) posted to the DorothyL listserv that she rewrote an entire first page after reading Don't Murder Your Mystery. Other many-times-published writers are using the book in their own teaching. I realize all this sounds like BSP, but it's why the categorical declarations of a few authors surprise me.

  6. What are you working on now?

    An all-genre version of the same book. My publisher, Bella Rosa Books, wants to release a second edition because reviewers keep saying DMYM is for all writers, not just mystery writers. Since I cannot take another four years to research hundreds of books in all genres, much as I'd love to, I'm inviting all writers--even those not yet published--to suggest passages from their own work for me to consider as replacements for specific examples currently featured.

    Submission guidelines are at Does submission require actually reading DMYM? 'Fraid so, just as for most magazine submissions and contests for free books. But this isn't a ploy to get writers to buy my book. Instead, borrow it from your library, and if they don't have it ask them to buy it. After all, it's a work of reference. It's also an Agatha nominee--for which I'll be forever grateful--and Cozy Library urges non-writing readers to think of it as "a well-written, often funny lesson in 'author appreciation,'" just like music or art appreciation!

  7. Awards/Nominations:

  8. Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction Book
    Writer's Digest Book Club Selection
    Macavity Nominee for Best Nonfiction Book

Chris Roerden has been editing manuscripts for more than 40 years--the last 25 as a full-time independent editor. Her clients have won 22 awards, including an Agatha, and they are published by St. Martin's, Berkley Prime Crime, Intrigue, Midnight Ink, Walker, Viking, Rodale, and others. Visit her website to learn more.

Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'em Dead with Style

By Hallie Ephron

  1. Why did you feel this topic would make a good book?
    Actually, the editors at Writers Digest Books approached me about writing a how-to book about mystery writing. As I wrote the proposal, it occurred to me that although there were lots of books that contained insightful essays about the many issues in mystery writing, there wasn't one that took a writer through from start to finish, from planning to writing through revision and on to selling that sucker. In my heart of hearts, I'm a teacher, so it was natural for me to take a very step by step approach. That's what makes this book different from most of what's out there.

  2. Why did you focus on style?
    The book doesn't focus on style, and it's most certainly not about adding fancy flourishes. It focuses on basics like plotting, introducing characters, writing the opening scene, writing suspense and action, pumping up verbs and weeding out adverbs…there's even a planning blueprint to complete. Done well, I suppose all of that adds up to some version of "style."

  3. How long did the research take?
    I write mystery novels and I've taught for years (kids, adults), so I had a really strong gut feeling about what I wanted the book to contain. I didn't want to contaminate my thinking so avoided reading books about mystery writing. Instead, I really thought about the process, analyzed my own approach, analyzed the processes espoused by other authors. Just for example, planning: there are passionate adherents of outlining and equally passionate adherents of not outlining. Same deal with revision-some authors tear through a first draft and then revise; others revise as they go along. I had no desire to show a single 'best' way to write-there isn't one. But it can be enormously helpful to find out how successful authors have done it.

  4. What was the most difficult part of this project?
    After writing 5 novels, writing a how-to book felt like a walk in the park. I didn't have to make anything up! The flow was logical; I didn't have to salt away the secrets and surprises or sprinkle red herrings. I suppose the hardest thing was getting down to the nitty gritty--I didn't want to write 'around' any topic. So, for instance, creating compelling characters. How do you do that? It's tempting just to throw a bunch of examples out there and hand wave. But characterization comes out of what a character says, does, wears, what car she drives, how she treats her mother. It's all in the choices the author makes, and there are concrete approaches an author can take to create compelling characters. It was important to be as specific as possible and to show how tools like dialogue, internal dialogue and description can create character. I had an excellent editor who kept pressing me for more, more, more.

  5. Was there anything in the process that came as a surprise?
    I always thought that 'voice' was something unique to fiction, but it turns out that it's essential even in a how-to book. People want to learn but they also want to be entertained. It was great fun to be irreverent, crack jokes, and to write in my own voice instead of in the voice of a character.

  6. What are you working on now?
    I just finished a standalone psychological suspense novel. You'd think, having written a book about writing, I'd have found it easy. Not.

  7. Hallie Ephron is co-author of the Dr. Peter Zak mysteries by G. H. Ephron (including AMNESIA and GUILT). Her WRITING AND SELLIING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL: HOW TO KNOCK 'EM DEAD WITH STYLE was nominated for Edgar and Anthony awards. She is the crime fiction book reviewer for the Boston Globe and won the Ellen Nehr Award for Excellence in Mystery Reviewing. Paperback published by Writer's Digest Books (September 2005); ISBN-10: 1582973768; ISBN-13: 978-1582973760

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