Quite often in this space, I try to help those who are attempting to write a piece of crime fiction with some aspect of the process. I don't pretend to be an expert on the subject, but I have had a few mystery novels published (okay, 10 so far, with another coming in a little over two months), so I can pass along that small amount of knowledge I've accumulated through experience and luck. A decent amount of luck.
But maybe the best way to learn to write (other than writing itself, which is always the primary path toward learning about the process and the only one that can't be avoided) is to think about what you absolutely should not do when attempting to write a crime fiction novel.
How Not to Write a Crime Novel
- Don't decide on the crime and and then create a character to fit it. Character comes first. The crime is the bait; it's what Alfred Hitchcock called "the MacGuffin," something the people in your book are desperate about but the reader should find secondary. Your characters are first. Write characters the reader cares about one way or another, and you're halfway home. Killing someone with a guillotine in the middle of Indiana isn't the key to your book.
- Don't write a character who knows everything. Yeah, Sherlock Holmes was always pulling arcane information about every possible subject out of his butt. Arthur Conan Doyle was a bit of a know-it-all, and the temptation with Internet research so easy these days is to write a character who simply knows all there is to know about the specifics of the crime you've invented. Let them work a little for their data, even if you're vague about it. Someone who's all-knowing should have the damn murder solved in three pages. That would make for a very thin book.
- Don't just have people tell the sleuth exactly what happened. Murder is a serious crime. Hell, shopliftiing can be a serious crime. The 12-year-old caught with a packet of ball point pens at the Rite Aid is scared of being caught. When asked about the crime, they will lie. Having people fess up on the "well, ya got me" defense is false and silly. Clues have to be dropped, but not everybody's going to tell the truth.
- Don't write an unending series of suspect interviews. Yeah, you have to introduce a bunch of suspects so the reader doesn't solve the crime before you've gotten warmed up. But character is the most important element, remember? Have the character's life play a role in the story, instead of just barreling through question after answer after question. You'll avoid reader fatigue and tedium, two good things to avoid.
- Don't let the gimmick of your story overshadow your story or your character. We all know that the publishing business isn't quite as broadbased and open as it was, say, last week. We know that each crime fiction book needs a hook, something that will attract readers before they even know the broadest outline of the premise. If your story hinges on some side interest, some hobby, and it contributes to the story, that's great. But if all you want to write about is needlepoint, or growing gardenias, or repairing pinball machines, you're not going to concentrate on the important areas, like building an interesting character of having your story paced properly. If that's really what you want to write about, go for nonfiction.
- Don't write nothing but dialogue. Now, I'm a sucker for good dialogue, and I love nothing better than writing a snappy conversation. So I'm not saying that you should write dialogue and make it as entertaining as you can. What I'm saying is that if nothing happens in your story except that people talk about stuff that happens, you're not telling a story; you're telling a rendition of a story. Have your reader be there when things occur. And then let your characters talk about it.
- Don't make it so cozy we don't know a crime has been committed. I get the concept of the cozy mystery, and I can empathize with those who prefer not to look at the uglier sides of a story even if it involves murder. But if your charactes aren't emotionally affected by the devasatating event at the center of your story, it trivializes the crime. Beyond the moral implications of making a terrible, violent act seem frivolous, it also weakens your story, and if you're trying to get published, that can be worse.
- Don't be a wiseass. Part of the allure of writing mystery stories especially is knowing things your reader doesn't know. But writing a story that's meant simply to show off how much smarter than the reader you are is just going to annoy people who pay good money to read your book. Assuming that some publisher is silly enough to charge them money for it. Yes, keep secrets; certainly drop red herrings and lead the reader in the wrong direction. But play fair: Keep the clues visible and make it possible, but never easy, to figure out whodunnit.
The above represent some self-imposed rules I try to remember when writing. I'm not always successful. But when I don't do the stupid things I know I shouldn't, it leaves me open to make mistakes I'm not aware of yet. And sometimes, those turn out to make for fascinating stories.
P.S. Happy Labor Day, ladies and gentlemen of the USA. Remember that today is a celebration of those who do the work, and the fact that they can indeed band together to make sure that they are not mistreated. Let us not treat this as the Last Weekend of Summer, but as the Respect for People Who Work For a LIving holiday.
P.P.S.: Jon Stewart returns to the Daily Show tomorrow night. That can only be a good thing.