Showing posts with label creative. Show all posts
Showing posts with label creative. Show all posts

09 November 2019

My Rules of Mystery


Many writers have drafted up a set of "rules" for how to write and, specifically, how to write mysteries. I thought now would be a nice time to toss in my five cents on the matter. And the following list can equally apply to short stories or novels.


1.   First rule of mystery writing: There MUST be a mystery.

Readers KEEP reading, page after page, because they want to know the answer/solution/explanation of that mystery.

2.   Does a mystery always need a dead body?

No. But the "crime" needs to be significant, e.g., a serious physical assault, the robbery of a valuable jewel, a threat to kill.

An empty chocolate wrapper (and Who ate the candy?) is a children's mystery. A severed head is an adult mystery.

3.   The mystery must be solved at the END of the story.

Ask a question very near the beginning, e.g., Who murdered Roger Ackroyd? Answer this question very near the end.

If you don't answer the question, and the mystery remains a mystery, the reader will throw your book at the wall.

You could answer the question in the middle, but you better have another good question to ask at that point to lead the reader through to the end; and there needs to be a good, justifiable reason for doing this.

4.   There is a difference between mystery and suspense.

A bomb that brings down an aircraft is a mystery. A passenger on a plane thinking the guy two rows ahead may have a bomb in his overhead luggage is suspense.

5.   Be aware that “Mystery” is a broad church.

There are many sub categories (or genres) to mysteries, e.g., noir, cozy, police procedural, private eye, locked room. And feel free to mix these up.

6.   Genres have rules.

If you’re writing in one of the genres (99% likely), be aware there are conventions and reader expectations for each.

Unless you truly are one of the masters of literature, mess with reader expectations at your peril.

7.   You are unlikely to be one of the masters of literature.


8.   Write what you know. If you don’t know, find out.

Don’t write a story about a private eye, or a kindergarten teacher, if you have no idea at all what is involved in those professions. Don't set a story in Latvia if you don't, at least, know the country's capitol or what language the people speak (Riga, Latvian/Russian). Don't write about Euclidean geometry, if you haven't any idea what that is. Don’t guess; research (libraries, Google, talk to people).

A good writer is a good researcher.

9.   Clichés

Avoid these like the plague.

There are countless websites that list clichés and common and overused tropes.

10.  Conflict is your friend.

Conflict, at its simplest, is the "disagreement" between a person and another (person, external force/creature). It's between protagonist and antagonist; or to put it another way:

Main Character vs. ________________

Every work of fiction (mystery, or other) that’s ever been sold to a publisher has had conflict in it (literary fiction excluded). Conflict invites drama; it is the fuel of a story. If your story has no conflict, there will be little to engage the reader.

A scene where a married couple eats dinner and discuss what color to paint their bathroom is not drama. If one of the diners suspects the other of sleeping around, you have conflict (and they can still be discussing what color to paint the bathroom (see next)).

11.  Subtext is your friend.

Subtext is not written, it is implied. It is the underneath; the feelings and intuition, the unspoken meaning.

Even a shopping list can have subtext.
  • Milk
  • Bread
  • Eggs
  • Hammer
  • Shovel
  • Bag of quicklime
  • Bottle of champagne 
Subtext is one of the writer's tools of magic.

12.  Plants are your friends.

Don’t have the hero pull out a gun and shoot the bad guy on the last page, if there’s been no mention (or any kind of reasonable expectation) that the hero is carrying a gun. Plant it. Remember your Chekhov: Gun on wall in first act. Gun fired in third act.

And plants apply to everything, not just guns. Bad guy's sneeze gives away his position in the shadows; plant his allergy earlier. Hero must rescue cat from tree, but he can't; plant his fear of heights earlier.

Without planting, events and actions will appear implausible, and your book will meet the wall.

A good writer is a good gardener.

Note: Yes, I know I'm retooling Chekhov's meaning (he was more concerned with the relevance of things in a story, i.e., don't include something, if it isn't needed later).

13.  Red herrings vs. Playing fair

Feel free to mislead and misdirect your readers (let them reel in many red herrings), but always play fair. Give your readers some real "clues" as to what is going on; so, at the end of the story, they'll slap their heads and sigh, "Oh, but of course!" Give them enough clues so that they "almost" might be able to work out what is going on, before you yank the curtain back and startle the snot out of them.

Never try to "trick" your reader; your book will be thrown at the wall.

And if you end your story with: it was all just a dream, you'll hit the wall before your book does.

14.  MacGuffins are a thing.

Many mysteries make use of a MacGuffin. A microfilm that everyone wants, and will kill for, is a MacGuffin. The Maltese Falcon is a MacGuffin. The object of a quest: a diamond mine, an unknown Beethoven Symphony, the Holy Grail, can all be MacGuffins. MacGuffins give the characters something to do.

Wikipedia sums it up best: "In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself."

The shark in Jaws IS NOT a MacGuffin.

15.  Impose a deadline

Deadlines work well in suspense (We have to find the bomb, it explodes at midnight!!!), and they also work in mystery. A deadline focuses a story on its end/outcome and creates urgency. Think of a story as a tunnel. The deadline is the light at the end.

The detective on board the train must identify the killer before the train arrives at its destination and all the passengers disembark. An unknown man who smokes Gauloises has threatened to hijack a school bus, and it's two hours until school's out.

16.  Twists are good. (there be spoilers here)

A TWIST ENDING is not a prerequisite for a mystery, but if you can write an unexpected and satisfying twist into your story's end, it will certainly make it more memorable; it will add another layer of icing to the cake. A twist ending completely upends and rearranges the facts and events of what's come before it.

The Sixth Sense: The child psychologist IS one of the dead people the kid is seeing. Psycho: Norman Bates IS his mother.

Pro tip: Twist endings are never arbitrarily dreamed up at the end of writing a story. They are written in right from the very beginning. Robert Bloch knew on page one of Psycho that Norman Bates' mother was dead and that Norman was the killer, and Bloch carefully hid this in the fabric of the storytelling. He didn't let the reader in on the truth until the end.

PLOT TWISTS can appear anywhere in a story and are different to the "twist ending." Plot twists change something significant about the story and/or the characters, but don't rewrite the whole thing.

Star Wars: Luke, I am your father. The Shining: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

An excellent, legendary plot twist appears in Psycho, about one third of the way in. Mary Crane, the book's main character (the one we've been following and who we care about), is murdered. She's gone for good. Never comes back. Bloch was one of the masters of literature; he could get away with that kind of thing.

17.  Last rule of mystery writing: Ignore all the rules at your pleasure. Except for the first one.


So, do you have any "rules of mystery" that you live and write by?



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Twitter: @_StephenRoss/

21 April 2014

Shameless Promotions



Jan Grape
SHAMELESS PROMOTIONS

by Jan Grape

A few years ago, the Sisters In Crime organization published a little booklet titled, "Shameless Promotion For Brazen Hussies."  I don't know if they still have it in their publications. I couldn't fine it listed on their website publications but I'll briefly talk a bit about promotions. This will have to be a short article because I'm dealing with vertigo and don't know how long I can last here. Most of my problem is what I've discovered on google. It does have a name, Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo. It mainly happens for only seconds when I lay down or get up from that position. And it's an inner ear problem.  Okay class, back to promotions.

Some of the information in the booklet will more or less be out of date now, however, there are a few ideas that might help. If you can come up with a clever idea to give to bookstores, book buyers and fans that promotes your book and you have a little money to spend on your book, then by all means do it.

For example: a few years ago, Dean James and I co-edited a book titled DEADLY WOMEN. It had interviews, articles and histories about, written by, for and featuring women mystery authors. For some reason I came up with the idea of a pink record using the known duo of surfer singers Jan and Dean. I mean Dean and I just happened to have the perfect names for that. We had a jar gripper opener made (you know those little rubber thingies that help you grip the lid of a jar to open it.) Any way it was a pink square with black lettering. I found a company that made promotional ideas for companies. The middle of the gripper had what looked like a black 45 rpm (anyone remember those) record. Around the center hole of the record was printed "The best of Jan & Dean. '97" In tiny font on one side of the middle hole of the record was printed Published by Carroll & Graf.  Opposite that was printed Due Date, November '97. At the bottom of the record and underneath the center hole was printed DEADLY WOMEN and under that in smaller font it said, with Ellen Nehr. (Ellen had originally been scheduled to edit with me, but she passed away and we tagged Dr. Dean James, who at that time was a co-manager of Murder By The Book bookstore in Houston, TX. My husband and I owned Mysteries & More bookstore in Austin. Outside the printed black record in one diagonal corner of the gripper was printed "Get A Grip" with the ISBN number of the book. Again the book title, DEADLY WOMEN in a larger font than on the record was on the opposite corner. And underneath that in smaller font, Edited by Dean James and Jan Grape with Ellen Nehr. Across the bottom of the gripper, again in smaller font was printed: The Major Surfers and not "a little ole lady among them." Underneath that still in the small font but in all caps: Mary Higgins Clark, Elizabeth Peters, Margaret Maron, Marcia Muller, Nancy Pickard, Minette Walters, Joan Hess and many more of today's top mystery authors. We ordered 500 I think, because it was cheaper. We mailed them to bookstores, took them to conventions and handed them out handed them out at book signings. I still run into someone who says they still have their jar gripper. I still have mine and would show you a picture of it if I knew how to scan with this computer. I can't even get it to print.  I love to hate technology.

Alright you say, but that was years ago. What about nowadays? Two items I got recently that had nothing to do with books but were items that are quite useful and there's no reason you couldn't come up with something similar. First I have a little fan that is shaped like a Frisbee but is flexible. It's metal edges twist into a little round thing about the size of a drink coaster and now fits into a little bag to be slipped in your purse or shirt pocket. When needed you pull it out of the bag and it pops open. It's an advertisement for a legal document website. It came in green and in purple. I have one of each. It's probably more useful for a female than a male yet it's very handy. The other useful item (and from two different advertisers) is those little microfiber type cloth glasses lens cleaners. One is from the same legal document website and the other is from a bank where I have an account. All you have to do is go online and look for promotional items online and come up with a useful item and have your book cover printed on it along with due date, ordering information, etc.

When we had our bookstore we got author postcards, bookmarks, pens, pencils, drink cozies, key rings, a couple of ball caps, T-shirts, pins with book covers and a huge assortment of promotional materials. I can say without a doubt, booksellers are thrilled to have little promo items like this. And so are your readers. You can give away a smaller item like a No. 2 pencil or an emery board to everyone who drops by your signing and save your larger items like caps, cozies and such for the people who actually buy your books. Is it worth spending money on items like this? I think so if you really want to have your name and your book title to get word of mouth recognition. And bookmarks are still useful items.

If you're doing a signing at a book store or an event, it's especially nice if you have a poster made they can put on display prior to your signing. Be sure to add the day and time and location of your signing. Even during the signing, if the store will put the poster on an easel or close to the signing table. Most print shops will do those large blow-up picture sizes for you and you can attach to a poster board.  Often the best thing is to ask your publisher to do some blow-ups for you. It doesn't really cost them that much to do it.

Now the other main thing in my opinion is to do something especially nice for the book store where you are signing. If there's is a female you have been dealing with, how about taking her a rosebud or two?  If it's a man who is the signing coordinator, how about some fresh baked cookies or candy?
You really want your bookstore to be happy you were there, especially if it's your local bookstore and even more especially if it's an independent bookstore. At least two months before the signing, send a press kit to the store with a recent photo of yourself and either an ARC or if the book is out, a copy of the book. If possible send a press kit to your local newspaper. I know newspapers are slowly dying out but most cities and towns still have one. They might do a write up on you. To increase your chances, tell them a little something about your book so they might find a hook and do a story. If your character is a lawyer or a doctor find something different to make your book more interesting than others. Like if your character has a memory problem, send some memory tags that the character uses to help. Or if your character is a jazz lover, you're probably already a minor expert on jazz and can write a paragraph or two to send with your press kit.

Use your imagination. You're a creative person. I know an author who had baked goods or cookies to all her bookstore signings. She shipped them to the stores who were out of town. Her main character was a caterer and she generally had recipes in her book. The first time Mysteries and More had Sue Grafton sign at our store, she suggested we advertise a peanut butter and pickle sandwich contest for fans and she would taste, declare a winner and then our store gave an autographed copy of the book. I think it was for L. For those of you who are not Grafton fans, her character Kinsey Millhone LOVES peanut butter and pickle sandwiches and often eats them. It was a big success. We probably had a dozen or so entrants, Sue dutifully tasted each one and found her winner. People called and asked if they should use smooth or crunchy PB and what kind of pickle, sweet or dill or what. She had said to tell them to use whatever they liked or what appealed to them.

And last, but not least, if you have a bookstore signing, don't forget to write a thank you note. Same with a newspaper or magazine reporter. Do whatever you can to get word of mouth going about your book. I think you can get more sales from that than from all the social media. But of course, do the social media too.

24 June 2013

STAY CREATIVE



Jan Grapeby Jan Grape


In January, my niece Dona and I went out to California to help my sister-in-law's 90th birthday. Dona and I stayed at a small, but very nice, hotel in Red Bluff, CA. In our room was a note pad on the night stand. The hotel's logo was on one corner of the pad, "Holiday Inn Express." In the left top corner in large all caps letters, "STAY CREATIVE." I brought the note pad home and it's on my night stand.

Since January, I've wondered many times, why would a hotel have this on a note pad? Some of you may know, and I'm quite sure it's possible to look it up and find an answer or at least an explanation. But I haven't done that. Maybe I wanted somehow to be creative about it?

Actually, a few ideas come to mind. Perhaps it's a message for the many business people who stay in these hotels. Reminding them to stay creative and think outside the box for their sales techniques. Or it could be a way to remind tourist there are many things to do and see in the area. Don't just visit mountains, visit the ocean.

As an artist, singer/songwriter or even a mystery writer, it suggest that your mind can sub-consciously be in a creative mode all the time. Most of us who write don't consciously think of staying creative, but all of us know our muse is generally on duty staying creative.

For instance, last night I went to a local restaurant to listen to a singer/songwriter that I had not heard in two or three months. I went by myself but two couples I knew were there so I sat with them. My friend, Wake Eastman began singing and I ordered food. A small crowd was in this dining room but people do sort of come and go. It is a restaurant after all.

It was time to "stay creative" as this turned out to be a great place to people watch. Men and women both came in with cowboy hats on their heads. Not unusual in central TX but a couple older ladies were loaded down with turquoise jewelry and knee-length skirts and cowboy boots. Men who definitely looked like prosperous ranchers except their protruding bellies and soft-looking hands and fancy-looking boots told they were either drugstore cowboys or retired.

One lady just screamed out to be a character in a story for sure. Her skirt was touching mid-knee and was a muddy brown. Her blouse was flowered and worn outside her waist, but the neck line was low and her breast tops were quite prominent. She had curly blonde hair definitely colored from a bottle, But her face was the kicker...her make-up screamed south side streetwalker but her face was wrinkled and had to be on the north side of sixty. I don't like to call anyone "old-looking." I'm no spring chicken myself, however, I think both men and women might be smart to dress age appropriate.

Maybe the hotel pad hasn't any hidden meaning after all, but guess what? Thinking about this pad, gave me an idea to write this article.
STAY CREATIVE everyone.