Lately I’ve been reading a lot of books written by inexperienced writers, and this has made me think back to my early days as a novelist. I completely rewrote my first mystery, Endangered, three times.
Rewrite #1: Editors said my writing was too much like Nevada Barr's. I’m embarrassed to admit I hadn’t heard of her at the time, but after I checked out her books, I could see that Nevada and I are probably twins separated at birth. So, I worked on my style and character.
Rewrite #2: I had made my protagonist Sam an internet blogger and according to reviewers, I’d thrown in way too much techie stuff, so I needed to tone that down and get back to the story line: a search for a missing child in the wilderness.
Rewrite #3: When I got to writing the synopsis, I realized that in many scenes, I’d completely lost the thread of the story. I really needed to focus, so I went back and ripped out every scene that didn’t have to do with the search.
I’ve learned a lot since then. Now I know that if you’re writing a mystery, you need to focus on the mystery: clues, maintaining suspense, and keeping the action going. Scenes with clever chit-chat? (My critique group told me that the conversations I thought were funny seemed just plain mean to them. Arg.) Unless the conversation adds to the plot, toss it out. Scenes showing your character’s happy home life? No, no, and again, no. Where’s the suspense in a happy home life? All characters need to have a life outside of the plot, but showing such scenes is guaranteed to kill the action, and so any references to that sort of thing better be only a sentence or two long. If you must bring in the pet or the kids or spouse, it’s best to do it as a subplot; a continuous thread throughout the book. With suspense. For example, in a novel, would you rather read about the protagonist’s happy teenager who she knows will obey all the rules while she's gone, or about the kid she suspects is planning to run away in her absence with a stranger “met” only on the internet?
Two other methods guaranteed to stop the suspense (and probably make readers put down the book):
1) Inserting a lecture about history or technology or location or any other subject just to show off the author’s knowledge. These sorts of details need to be blended in along the way. With suspense, as in “I knew he was lying about the gun’s history because that sort of weapon hadn’t even been invented then.”
2) Putting in descriptions of common procedures, events, and places. I once read a book where the author described in great detail how the character heated a can of soup, including opening the can, putting it in the pan, putting it on the burner, etc. I wanted to throw the book at the wall, or more accurately, at the author. Getting from one place to another typically fits into this category, too. We’ve all been in cars; we know what it’s like to drive or take a plane or a bus or train. So unless the character is going to pick up a clue or meet an interesting sidekick along the way, the author should just summarize with something like “I was so upset that I didn’t even remember driving across town to her apartment.” Likewise with places we’ve all been: chain stores, restaurants, etc. There’s no need to describe them unless some feature of that place is significant to the story.
So, my basic point is: genre authors need to keep their eyes on the prize. If you’re writing a mystery, each scene had better 1) offer a clue, 2) provide an obstacle to getting to the goal, 3) show an aspect of character development that’s new and interesting, or 4) move the story closer to the resolution of the plot line.
People read books because they want to immerse themselves in a story that’s more exciting or richer or more promising than real life. That's what I want as a reader, and that's what I hope I give to my fans in my novels.