Here at Mysterious Matters I like to occasionally ruminate on the philosophical... and I am feeling quite philosophical in the wake of Malice Domestic.
The question I get asked repeatedly, in a number of different ways, is "How do I get published?" or "How do I get my book published?" I understand what drives that question, as it's the ultimate goal of any writer.
But the more important question, I think, should be "What makes a good mystery novelist?" Or "How can I be a better mystery writer?" To that end, I offer the following suggestions/possibilities.
1. A good mystery writer thinks first and foremost about the reader's experience. Some writers will tell you that writing is fun; others will say it's hard work. I do find that many writers do get wrapped up in themselves, their books, their publishing ambitions -- which causes them to lose sight of the reader. This makes them ineffective editors of their own work, since they can't step back and read their manuscript as a book-buyer would.
2. A good mystery writer balances character and plot. This is really Mystery Writing 101, but you'd be amazed at how many manuscripts I get that lose sight of the balance. Many, many manuscripts end up 80-20, either heavily weighted toward the story or heavily weighted toward character. If you are looking for popular success, you can't lose sight of the importance of telling a really good story, and peopling it with at least some likable types and some really good villains.
3. A good mystery writer thinks about the future. I know, it's tough to manage the demands of your writing schedule - and trying to do some publicity - and dealing with family needs. But I think the best writers (the ones who are able to get agents and contracts) have a vision for the future, of how they can manage their lives and schedules to give us a book a year (more or less), and how they will arc their series character, etc. More and more writers are starting to do multiple series, which I think is good for them as writers (keeps them fresh) and good for readers and publishers as well.
4. A good mystery writer listens to and synthesizes the advice of agents, editors, and readers. Many writers see their manuscripts as their "babies" -- as their personal creations over which they have ultimate control. The agenting and publishing process can be a rude and very frustrating awakening when a bunch of other thumbs are added to that pie. Those who wig out don't really have what it takes to do this long term. Those who are willing to listen and learn from criticism, who develop the thickest skin, who ask "what can I learn from this?" -- and then implement what they've learned -- tend to be happiest and most successful. (This is not to say that books should be written by committee, as they must also be informed by a strong authorial vision. I guess my point is that a strong authorial vision is even stronger for being flexible.)
5. A good mystery writer takes him/herself seriously, but not too seriously. This is a tricky balance. To get published you really have to jump through the hoops and get put through your paces, which means taking your desired career as a novelist quite seriously. Going overboard, however, leaves you ramming your books down the throats of uninterested readers, or insisting that there's a market where there isn't one, etc. I think the ability to laugh at yourself (and even at your own books) is critical, as well as psychologically helpful (as you're going to need it when you get negative reviews, which are inevitable, as your book is always going to piss someone off for reasons you never in a million years would have considered).
6. A good mystery writer pushes and challenges him/herself. I am a bit suspect of books that are written too quickly or easily. Writing to formula can be effective and profitable; and yet I do think that the best writers are the ones who don't settle for formula, who don't take the easy way out, even though the easy route may be quite effective in its own way.
7. A good mystery writer understands the competitive landscape. I think this goes back to point #1. Really savvy writers know that readers have many choices, and that they have to provide a reason for people to come back to (i.e., spend money on) their books. They are able to talk about/ describe their books succinctly and in a way that drives interest in them. They keep abreast of what's being read and who's doing what, while still doing their own thing.