Looking at the site meter on this blog, I noticed that I tend to get the most readers, and the most email, when I write about my annoyances and pet peeves. How perverse! But maybe it isn't, and the phenomenon has given me some insight, perhaps, into how consumers think. There's a fairly popular TV show titled "What Not to Wear," and I understand that people (my wife and daughter included) love it. And I think I know why: perhaps dressing well is as much about knowing what NOT to do, as it is about knowing what TO do. And maybe the same goes for writing mystery novels: Knowing what you SHOULDN'T DO is as important as knowing what you SHOULD do. I also get the feeling that when I write about the crazy or ineffective things writers have done, I devolve more into the realm of gossip, which is always going to be more interesting than spouting the conventional wisdom (tell a great story, have interesting characters, make sure there's plenty of conflict, etc.). I love gossip myself, so why not spread some here on Mysterious Matters?
(Side note: If I were a nonfiction editor, I think I might be tempted to sign a series of books a la the Dummies series: "What NOT to do when Dating," "What NOT to Cook for a Party," "What NOT to do when planning a wedding," "What NOT to do on the Job," etc.)
So, in honor of celebrating all those bad things you should NOT do when writing a mystery novel, I present my list of "The Cardinal Sins," those things that cause me to consign a manuscript with great enthusiasm to my recycling bin.
1.SLOW PACING IN CHAPTER 1. I find that a surprising number of writers decide that their manuscript should have a slowly building sense of menace. This usually means beginning with a slow, deliberate first chapter, in which the story is set up or the main character is introduced. The protagonist's every move, every thought, is described in excruciating detail, with the goal of introducing a sense of unease or dread in the reader. Unfortunately, most of what ends up being introduced is a sense of boredom. I really do need to see your book take off like racehorses at the Kentucky Derby. There is absolutely nothing wrong with action in the first chapter; and of course action can be combined with an interesting character twist.
2. HIGHLY DESCRIPTIVE LANGUAGE. For me, paragraphs of descriptive detail are (or should be) the realm of literary fiction. Perhaps I don't have much imagination for this sort of thing, but lengthy descriptions always slow things down for me, often to a crawl. I enjoy a manuscript where people, landscapes, settings, furnishings, etc., are described with broad and effective brushstrokes, with the detail coming in only when necessary. Actually, I think it's quite important that a mystery novelist know when a high level of description is helpful/necessary, and when it isn't. It's usually necessary when writing about elements that are key to the mystery: the intricate details of that painting that's been stolen from the museum, the details of that Moroccan carving knife found in the victim's back, the layout of the room where the killing took place. It isn't necessary, usually, to go into lavish detail about every square inch of the characters' physical appearance, or the color of the curtains, or the breathtaking view across the lake. (Something about lake views sends writers into paroxysms of description. I love a lake, but really--if you've seen one lake, haven't you seen them all?)
3. WATCHING THE KILLER SETTING UP THE KILL. I admit that these sorts of openings used to be effective...We readers watch the psycho setting up the trap, or lying in wait, for the victim. It's been done a million times now, in books, and movies, and TV shows, and at this point I feel like it's nothing more than a cheap trick. True, it can be effective...no denying that. But when a book opens this way, my automatic assumption is that the writer cannot be very original, and that the manuscript is unlikely to offer me anything I haven't seen before.
4. FAILING TO CONVEY ANY SENSE OF MYSTERY. You'd be amazed at how often this happens: You read through Chapter 1, and perhaps even Chapter 2 and 3, and you think: "Where's the mystery?" The writer is so busy setting up everything up that s/he fails to position the story as a mystery/suspense novel. So many manuscripts I get have a workaday feeling, with the Sleuth (amateur or otherwise) getting out of bed, or going about his business, that I often get the feeling that I am reading Ladies' Home Journal. A good mystery is not about the mundane: it is about an initiating event that is deeply dissonant, odd, or unexpected. It really is essential to me that a first chapter make me ask some sort of probing question: What just happened? Why is she behaving so oddly? Why would this dog lover be abandoning her dog at the local pound? Wanting an answer to those questions is what will keep me reading.
5. WORKING TOO HARD. Writing a good mystery is hard work, but the best practitioners make it look easy. I'm sad to report that I get a lot of manuscripts where the effort really shows, but not in a good way. Most of the time this takes the form of a writer trying desperately to make the protagonist likable. I remember meeting an aspiring author at a recent convention who said to me, "I want readers to think of my protag as their best friend." And sure enough her protag (first-person narrative) was a paragon of virtue: friendly, funny, warm, delightful, and about as realistic as gremlins and golems. Now I don't deny that we want and need some likable heroes and heroines, but they do need to have at least a flaw or two. I think a lot of writers are really afraid to take their protagonists to dark places, to have them do things that are quasi-immoral, to really make them struggle with something. I have also grown weary of those self-consciously wacky or "humorous" protags who work hard to make the reader laugh. Too many wisecracks in Chapter 1 leave me with the feeling that I'm about to experience an evening in the Catskills of the 1940s, so I find myself withdrawing from the manuscript and setting it aside.