Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Mysteries On Our Hands

Several years ago, my writing group handed back my 400+ page meandering, unfinished manuscript and leveled with me. “You are writing a mystery," they said.

I protested. I was writing a literary novel. It was about a man with a family secret, who had lost some art, and a teenage girl who was trying to get the bottom of his story. 

“Exactly,” they said. “A mystery. Deal with it.”

I swallowed hard and put it under the magnifying glass. Then under an electron microscope. They were right. I had a mystery on my hands. My worst fear.

Even one of my main characters seemed terrified at the prospect of appearing in a mystery. Every time he showed up with something potentially important to reveal (and a chance to advance my plot), he retreated into shadows, or he dashed off into the night.
"I can't be writing a mystery! O, I can't!"

Why did I fear mystery? I associated it with complicated plots. And plotting was not my strong suit. I was more at home in the territory of characters contemplating life, or grappling with indecision, usually on some form of transportation. I excelled at descriptions of passing scenery. Scenery, yes, that I could do. Mystery writers, I knew, did not need to use trains or buses or cars to move the story forward because they were genius plotters.

I had the impression that mystery writers possessed some secret formula for writing. I felt this despite the fact that I'd read plenty of unformulaic, wildly inventive mysteries. And I feared mystery readers, who would have exacting standards about what a mystery should do, and who would probably speak with British accents and drink a lot of tea.

But once I accepted that I had a mystery on my hands, I began revising my novel aggressively in that direction. Where to start? I knew there were some hallmarks of mysteries that I needed. Suspects. An investigator (or a investigative duo, or team). Red herrings. Reveals. I placed a few calls to Central Casting. Some tired, overworked mystery characters showed up for my book, grumbling about the long hours and low pay. They spent most of their time looking alternately suspicious or puzzled, concealing messages in trench coat pockets, and skulking around corners with weapons.

The Scooby-Doo gang auditioning for my novel.
Finding places to include elements of mystery did help me push an early draft forward to an end point. But these features alone did not make the book a compelling mystery. I still had a lot to learn, both about the art of mystery writing and about my own story. I wanted to keep the emotional core of my original story, and the narrator's voice. I also wanted to unfold the complexities of the mystery in way that would keep readers turning  pages. I did not want to end up with Scooby-Doo. (Although, for the record, I like Scooby-Doo). Genre cliches and stock characters would not save my story. I started the novel over, from scratch. Again.

As I revised, I began reading more mysteries. Lots of them, for adults and for young readers. I noted what worked and what didn't. I added more tools to my toolbox. I learned how varied the mystery genre is, and how it's entirely possible to write a mystery with characters who are complex and real. I also rediscovered a stash of childhood and young adult books in my mother's attic and realized that I'd cut my teeth on mysteries. I had boxes and boxes of them up there -- Nancy Drews and more. I knew more about mysteries than I thought I did. And my story, it was now clear, demanded to be a mystery.

I became less intimidated by mysteries when I read interviews with authors and learned they didn't possess a magic formula. They too struggled with tangled plot lines, timeline problems, character motivations, pacing, suspense, and raising the stakes.They too wrestled with when to reveal vs. when to conceal.

Finally, I dove deeper into my characters and my story. Because all the mystery tools in the world couldn't help me if my own story mystified me. As a writer of a draft, you can frolic in the shadows of the great unknown. But at some point in the revising process, you have to know what's going on.

Later in the revising process, I received expert editorial advice. I continued refining both the emotional core of my story and the mystery plot. Mystery writing, like all writing, involves a lot of revising.

It took many, many, many revisions for my book, Tokyo Heist, to evolve into the mystery it is today. And in the process, I've learned a few things about mystery writing (and writing in general) which I'm excited to share on this blog. But I haven't figured it all out -- that would be boring -- and so I look forward to learning from my six fellow sleuths here: Elisa Ludwig, Kristen Kittscher, Lamar "L.R." Giles, Laura Ellen, Talia Vance, and W.H. Beck. I'm also excited to learn from other readers and writers (hey, that's you!) whom I hope will comment liberally on our blog.

Who are we? The seven of us write mysteries for young people: middle grade readers and young adults. Our debut novels come out in 2012 and 2013. Our investigative team aims to demystify the writing and publishing process. We're also exploring the question of what makes a good mystery. If you snoop around our site, you can read more about all of us and our books. You'll also find links to mystery writers' websites (we're always adding!), teaching resources, mystery writing resources, and lists of Edgar and Agatha award winners.

We blog in rotation every Tuesday, on a monthly topic. This month we'll be introducing ourselves and blogging about how we came to write mysteries. We also have special features on the blog every week. On "Mystery Mondays" we provide writing exercises and prompts. On Thursdays we rotate special features: "Under Cover" (books we're reading), "Writing DNA" (what inspires our writing), and "Mysteries Among Us" (how we find mysteries in everyday life or in the news, and what we mystery writers might learn from them).

Interrogation Room Suspect #1
Finally, you'll get the inside story behind some mysteries in our "Interrogation Room." Once or twice a month, we'll be hauling a published mystery writer in for questioning. You 'll be able to read transcripts of our interrogations here. We have an award-winning middle grade mystery writer on deck for later this month, and will be dropping some clues about who he/she is, so please follow us on Twitter (@kidlitmysteries) and see if you can guess before September 21!

Whether you're a mystery writer or reader, a teacher or student, a sleuth or a spy or a partner in crime -- and whatever your motives may be -- we hope you'll follow our footprints and join us here!

Diana was born in Seattle and now lives outside of Boston with her husband and son. She also works as a freelance writer and editor in educational publishing, and has authored several ESL textbooks (which is way more exciting than it sounds). TOKYO HEIST (Viking/Penguin, coming June 2012) is her first novel.

IMAGE CREDITS IN THIS POST: Sobbing woman, courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology: http://etc.usf.edu/clipart; Scooby-Doo gang copyright Hanna Barbera/Warner Brothers; http://clipart.toonarific.com 


  1. I'm so excited about this blog! I'm plotting out my first all-out mystery now and can use all the help I can get.

  2. Awesome post, Diana ... so much I didn't realize about writing mysteries!

  3. Great post, Diana! This blog looks awesome! So exciting!

  4. I love this site and this is a great post Dianna! I too struggled with the "Wait, this is a mystery?" thing when writing (and revising) BREAKING BEAUTIFUL.

    I'll have to visit here often.

  5. Thanks you guys! Sarv, good luck with your new mystery; we're here for you! Jennifer, we'd love to have you on sometime to talk about BREAKING BEAUTIFUL and how you grappled with mystery!

  6. OK, this is going to be lots and lots of fun! Go, Mystery People!


  7. Yay! I'm so excited for this blog. Mystery is where it's at.

  8. This blog is a great idea! I look forward to following along as it develops.


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