Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel

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Some novelists like to begin with a blank page and see where their thoughts take them. This approach may be good enough to get started, but if it’s a mystery you want to write, sooner or later you’ll need a plan.

Before you get too far, you may want to check out Hallie Ephron’s Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ’em DEAD with Style.

The creator of forensic psychologist, Dr. Peter Zak (Delusion, Amnesia, Addiction, and Obsessed) Ephron lays out a four-part approach to the essentials of planning, writing, and selling a mystery novel:

Part I: Planning
Part 2: Writing
Part 3: Revising
Part 4: Selling

In addition, an appendix of resources includes lists of authors’ groups, agents, and contests.

Part 1 leads the writer through the steps of setting up the premise, devising the plot, and establishing the cast of characters. Specially designed forms simplify the process of working out characters and their relationships to each other and to the crime.

To Outline or Not to Outline?
I’ve heard writers insist they never outline their novels, but just let the characters “take over.” Ephron says she wishes her characters would take over, but they never do, so she outlines.

An outline needn’t be that kind of horror with Roman numerals and neatly-balanced sub-topics that the English teachers of my youth were so fond of. Ephron’s outlines are for her eyes only. She numbers each scene–arabic numerals are just fine–and briefly notes the following:

time of day
characters in the scene
what happens
which character has the point of view

Part 2 addresses such writing techniques as how to write a dramatic opening, how to introduce characters, how to dramatize scenes, and how to write suspense.

Part 3 provides a practical, easy-to-follow plan for revision. This section warns the writer against beginning revision with a “word tweaking” approach:

It’s tempting to open up your document and start editing, tweaking word choices and punching up sentences.

Instead, Ephron recommends these three techniques:

Reread from start to finish, examining the main plot and central character.
Create a scene-by-scene outline and analyze the chronology and pacing.
Take multiple selective read-throughs, leapfrogging through your manuscript looking at subplots and characters.

The suggestions for marketing the finished mystery in Part Four are gleaned from Ephron’s personal experience as the author of the Dr. Zak mysteries. She tells how to target agents and how to put together a query packet. She includes a sample query letter and sample summaries.

Finally, Ephron acknowledges the truth that the effort to sell a book can be as much of an endurance test as writing one, but urges persistence:

The race goes not to the clever or swift but the bullheaded and persistent who don’t know enough to give up.

You can find the book on Amazon.com

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11 thoughts on “Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel”

  1. Hallie, we are flattered to have you around.

    It sure puts some pressure on us to keep an eye on the quality of the content 🙂 .

  2. Maeve,
    Thanks for doing such a wonderful review. With so many books on writing out there it’s hard to know which ones to buy. This looks like a good one.

  3. Great review! You really made me want to get this one. Though I don’t write mysteries, I think Hallie Ephron’s book would be helpful for any work of fiction, or even creative nonfiction. Would you agree?

  4. It’s definitely a crossover book. Right now I’m using it to revise a mystery, but I expect it to be a great help in structuring the historical novel I plan to tackle next.

  5. When writing a mystery story, is it alright to question the role of a character as a reader? I mean, when I wrote a short mystery story I had to keep on going back to re-read my story and find out who did the crime and for what reasons. Then I thought about whether I really needed them or not and then continued writing. Is that right? Or musn’t I do that?

  6. Ogrigado!

    Espero que continuem nesta senda. Apoiem-me com livros semelhantes. Não aparecem onde eu vivo.


  7. Thank you!

    I have written a romance novel. At this time, I am working on a mystery/romance. I will certainly buy your book.

    Kindest regards,

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