When I wrote my mystery crime novel, The Last Girl, I wasn’t writing blind. I had a good idea of what I wanted to write about and how to go about it. I wanted my main character, Dexter Vega, to be full of vitriol because life hadn’t been kind to him. At least not at the moment when the novel takes place. I don’t think this is much different than how most of us live: paycheck to paycheck, difficult relationships, losing jobs, and disliking the change around us—especially when we feel we have no control over it.
Anyway, the point of this little essay is to give all aspiring mystery writers a few tips and hopefully a little encouragement. But please note that before I wrote The Last Girl, I took writing courses, wrote a lot, and read a lot of fiction, especially mysteries.
Step 1: Find a few good characters, then kill one of them
Don’t look to TV for inspiration, focus on real life. When I came up with Dexter Vega as my main character, he stood in front of me for weeks. Here was this guy, recently laid off, a chip on his shoulder, lost and looking for redemption. Perfect—not by any means. He was difficult. But I liked him. So I went with him. All the other characters in the novel pretty much came from encounters with strangers, friends and a little imagination. Look at it this way, without characters you got nothin’.
Step 2: Plot. Or for lack of another word: story
Now, there are plotters and there are wanderers. I’m a wanderer. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I write. When I wrote The Last Girl I focused on my characters and set up a number of scenarios. Some people like to know what’s going to happen at the end, or they lay out their plot in outline or index cards. I can’t do that. Every time I’ve tried that, my stories sound contrived. The dialogue feels forced. The characters are not living, instead they’re like puppets and the reader can see the strings.
So I stick to wandering. I set a lot of ‘mines’ or possible conflicts. Then I listen to my characters. At some point between pages 100-150 the characters take over and I just follow. Then I go back and revise the beginning so it makes sense in combination with what happens at the end.
All I knew when I started The Last Girl was that Dexter Vega was going to be out of a job, angry, going on a bender, and getting duped into taking a case. Vega’s smart, but he’s not a detective. Not professionally, so he fumbles his way through the mystery. I just followed along.
Step 3: More story
Keep the story moving. And move it as fast as you can. Shit needs to happen and it needs to happen all the time. This means that that as soon as one obstacle is overcome, there needs to be a new one that’s even greater. In The Last Girl, Dexter Vega searches for Maya, things get complicated for him from different angles. He thought finding this missing college student would be easy. It wasn’t. It never is. Otherwise you ain’t got a story.
Step 4: The end
If you’re a wanderer like me, then the ending can be the most difficult part. Your characters’ motivations need to be real—or at least feel that way. I am aware that people will kill one another over a hit of crack or a half bottle of booze or over a girl. It happens all the time. But in fiction things need to feel a lot more exaggerated. In other words, the stakes need to be higher. The guilty party in your book must have had serious motivation for killing. The higher the stakes the better. And at the end you tie it all together. No loose ends. Surprise endings are good, but they can’t come out of nowhere, otherwise we feel cheated.
Some writers and editors believe you should have a dead body or a missing person by page 11 and introduce the guilty party by chapter 3. All I can say is: it works, but don’t make it a rule. I did this in The Last Girl. Then added a few twists. The idea behind this is that your reader needs to get hooked quickly. But she also needs to know all the characters who could possibly be guilty early on in the story. In the end, we find out what happened, the motivation behind it, and how the shit went down.
Step 5: Revise
They say that writing is rewriting. I live that. I can write a manuscript fairly quickly but then it takes me months of rewriting and revision to make it palatable, and another few months of work to make it sing. I double check my research. I make lists, look at maps, check syntax, rhythm, watch for repetition. Make sure the ‘voice’ is consistent. And then the editors go over it and tell me everything that is wrong with the story and I go over it again. I won’t even tell you how many times I revised The Last Girl (too many).
I always fear putting out a shitty story and so I always try and turn in a perfect manuscript. And yet, I do know there is no such thing as perfection.
Step 6: Write.
I know, it seems obvious. But this is the hard part, and this is where most aspiring novelists fail. We all have good ideas. We all like stories. But we don’t sit down for 3 or 4-plus hours a day at the typewriter and do the necessary work for a few months—or years. So really, step 6 should be step 1 because without it you got nothin’.