Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Damn(ed) Good Mystery Writing

Welcome to our Tuesday "Case Files from our Detectives." This month our theme is HARD FACTS. Mystery writing resources we turn to, from books to websites to people. Or how we wrestle with the practical matters of plotting and planning our mysteries. Whether you're a mystery writer yourself, a teacher planning a unit on mystery, or a reader who wants to know more about this genre, you'll find some great references and tips listed each Tuesday in July.

I have a confession to make. How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James N. Frey* has recently become my bible. This is oh—a good two years after I wrote my mystery, The Wig in the Window — a mystery, by the way, I didn’t realize was a mystery while I was writing it. “What did you think you were writing?” my editor asked me, puzzled, when I revealed my ignorance. I still don’t really know. I guess I thought I was writing a story about two unlikely friends who just happened to suspect a local middle school counselor was a fugitive?

How everything would have been easier had I known about How to Write a Damn Good Mystery back then**! (Of course, that would have required knowing I was writing a mystery.) I could have spared those poor agents I queried with my ridiculously long, plotless, meandering draft that warmed up around page 150. And I could have spared myself the feeling of utter embarrassment of people having read it in that condition…

I tend to think reading about writing is a little bit like trying to learn guitar by reading about it. Did Jimi Hendrix pore over tomes about guitar solos? I suspect not. That said, if future Hendrix biographers discover  he owned a well-worn, heavily annotated copy of HOW TO PLAY A DAMN GOOD GUITAR SOLO by James N. Frey, I’d revise my opinion.  Frey knows how to break down mystery writing in a way that’s clear, basic, and useful — but he doesn’t offer formulas. As he says in his introduction, “[The book] is not a collection of tips on what to do and what not to do. It’s a guide to brainstorming, planning, plotting, drafting, rewriting, and polishing a mystery.” Sure, the title’s cheesy. (How I want to add an ‘-ed’ to the end of that ‘damn’ title!) And some of his advice is a little muddled. Still, Frey really knows what he’s talking about, and for the most part he provides very clear illustrations of his advice in action. For those new to mystery writing and looking for some guidance, I highly recommend it! It’ll save you lots of agony…

What about you? Any mystery writing resources you’ve found especially helpful?

* No, not that James Frey, thank goodness. You're thinking of the author of How to Pass Off Lies as Nonfiction and also Cheat Naive Authors as well as a little-known book called A Million Little Pieces.

**Technically I should have bought Frey’s other how-to book How to Write a Damn Good Thriller as Wig is really more of a psychological thriller for the middle-grade set:-)
Kristen Kittscher’s debut middle grade mystery THE WIG IN THE WINDOW (Harper Children’s) will be released in Summer 2013. It follows the comic misadventures of two tween sleuths who suspect their school counselor is a dangerous fugitive — and just might be right! A former middle school English teacher, Kristen lives in Pasadena, California with her husband, Kai. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her running her after-school tutoring business or taking orders from her hopelessly spoiled cat and dog.

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