How Important Is the Mystery in a Mystery Novel?

I’m not asking this question with complete seriousness (because a thoughtfully written mystery is important). But when I’m reading these novels, I’ve noticed that a lot of times I’m most interested in things that aren’t directly about the crime. I tend to care less about who the murderer is and more about a dozen other things.

For instance, the two most recent mystery novels I’ve read are Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan and Detective Inspector Huss by Helene Tursten. The first one is set in the Philippines, and the second one in Sweden. With both novels, I wasn’t on the edge of my seat about who committed the murders. I found the novels absorbing for other reasons.

In Smaller and Smaller Circles, the two main investigators are Jesuit priests who are trained in forensic sciences; they’re unusual lead characters for a mystery novel. What stayed with me most about the novel was the exploration of corruption – in law enforcement, government, high society, and the Catholic Church. In Detective Inspector Huss, I enjoyed the peek into Sweden (specifically Gothenburg in the late 1990s) and the way the author portrays the methodical work of a police detective and her colleagues.

Other mystery novels I’ve read in recent years, like some of P.D. James’s books, were most memorable to me because of some of the psychological insights and beautiful descriptions. Even if I’d found out the murderer’s identity in advance, I would have kept reading.

A “shocking reveal” often doesn’t turn out to be that shocking, because readers have seen it all (or feel as if they have). Other things can suck the reader in. An exploration of richly detailed settings, other cultures, ethical issues, psychological states, and character dilemmas make the story more compelling. So that even if I’ve figured out who used the garrote in the attic, I still don’t want to put the book down.

Four Mistakes People Make When Writing About Abuse

Abuse (whether physical, emotional, or sexual) shows up a lot in fiction. Whether it’s written well or not depends on multiple factors, but the following are some mistakes I’ve come across when people write about abuse:

They include it just for a bit of drama

Any event in a story can contribute to the unfolding drama. What I’m talking about is when authors seem to not know what to do with the characters or plot, so they toss in some abuse. Because it’s a thoughtless inclusion, they don’t consider the ramifications of the abuse or explore its impact on the characters. It’s just there to add some adrenaline-fueled moments.

They include it just for “sympathy points”

Abuse can make a reader’s heart go out for a character. The problem is when it’s written thoughtlessly. The author wants to make the character seem more vulnerable, and they aren’t sure how to do it, so they add some abuse. They don’t really follow up on it or think about how it might affect the character both short-term and long-term.

They don’t do any research

There isn’t one way to react to abuse. So it’s important to not just find a checklist somewhere and make the character do all the things on the list (like a generic guide to post-traumatic stress). However, it’s still important to research potential responses to abuse and consider the ways in which your character may react. How might the abuse might change them? How do their responses and decisions reflect their specific character traits or psyche?

There are many factors that influence the effects of abuse, including the victim’s age and temperament, the type of abuse, the identity of the abuser, and the influence of helpful and supportive people. Research may also cover things like court trials, custody disputes, or life in a domestic violence shelter. Some authors make the mistake of not looking into these things.

They rush to happy endings or force Forgiveness scenes

Happy or hopeful endings are possible in a story with abuse. But you need to build up to those kinds of endings. Sometimes, authors slap them on to the story, and they seem to come out of nowhere. They’re rushed or otherwise unconvincing.

Another problem is when authors try to push forgiveness. Maybe because they want to send a message that it’s best to forgive. They may also assume, incorrectly, that forgiveness always means reconciliation or a restoration of a relationship. Forgiveness is not a requirement post-abuse; furthermore, how victims experience forgiveness (if they do experience it) varies. Even if an author is very pro-forgiveness, they need to take that into account.

These problems with writing about abuse boil down to not thinking enough – about the specific characters, the situation they’re in, and what it might really be like for them. To make your fiction convincing, you need to get to know your characters. And if you put them through something like abuse, give it thought, so that it doesn’t come across as a gimmick or throw the readers out of the story.

How to Write a “Strong Female Character”

It’s easy! Just follow these guidelines:

  • Don’t bother too much about character development.
  • Give her a lot of the following kinds of dialogue: expository statements about key plot points; echoes of what other characters have said; chiding comments (verging on nagging, but try not to make her nag too much); sarcastic quips in response to something interesting or funny that the hero has done.
  • Toss in some action sequences where she’s beating someone up while wearing tight clothes, short skirts, and/or high heels.

There you go. Behold the strength.

TV Writers Coming Up With Ideas for a New Show

Three TV writers (known from here on out as T1, T2, and T3) get together to brainstorm ideas for a new crime show.

T1: Ok, we want a show with some originality, but not too much. It needs to appeal to a lot of people. We want to give them something new but not too strange.

T2: How about we make the two leads a man and a woman? They don’t have to sleep with each other right at the start. We can wait a few episodes.

T3: Or maybe a few seasons. Ratchet up the sexual tension for years. Throw in all kinds of drama to keep them apart.

T2: To really keep them apart, we need to make sure they act out of character. They need to sometimes act much dumber than they are for reasons that don’t make sense.

T1: How about they never sleep together. They’ll be played by attractive actors who have a lot of sexual chemistry, but they’ll never have sex, ever.

T3: Because one of them is married?

T1: No. Because male-female friendship can be one of the things that makes our show fresh. The idea that men and women can be friends.

T2: In that case, let’s also have them be different races.

T3: Yes! Diversity cred.

T2: Though, whatever the woman is, we should make the man white.

T1: Yes! He’ll be an arrogant know-it-all who’s really smart and has a good heart, deep down.

T3: And if any of the fans want to see them have sex… that’s what fan fiction is for.

T1: The woman has to be smart but not unattractively nerdy, and assertive but not too pushy, and independent but also really self-sacrificing, and gorgeous but sometimes she eats hotdogs and her hair is a little messy.

T2: If we ever show her sleeping, she’ll need to have a full face of makeup, even in the middle of the night.

T1: Of course.

T3: She has to be like a mother to the male character. Like, she keeps reminding him to eat his vegetables and be nicer to people. She shouldn’t really have a sense of humor. Just a lot of fond and exasperated eye rolling at his shenanigans.

T2: Ok, but if they aren’t going to sleep with each other, who will they sleep with?

T1: The man will have some tragic ex-lover or ex-wife who died or betrayed him or something. The ex will be blonde.

T2: And fair-skinned.

T3: And if he gets together with anyone else on the show…?

T2: Also blonde and fair-skinned.

T3: Right, and she’ll be different from his ex in important ways. Like the fact that she’s alive and not evil.

T1: What about the female lead? She sleeping with anyone?

T3: Maybe she can have a sexual hangup. One that makes her super cranky. Sound good?

T2: Who cares. I’m getting kind of bored thinking about her.

T3: She’s an important part of the show. We need to give her stuff to do.

T1: She’ll be doing a lot. She’s supposed to be smart and tough. We’ll also put her through some traumatic moments.

T2: Trauma can get boring if it drags out too much.

T1: Don’t worry, we won’t follow up on the trauma. Something terrible will happen to her, she’ll have a nightmare or two, and then, you know, she’ll be ok again two episodes later.

T3: We need to make her complex. She needs to be as interesting as the male lead.

T1: That’s what fan fiction is for. Some of the fans get cranky. They say the characters are underdeveloped, the ethical issues are unexplored, the plots are underbaked. So they write their own versions of the story or fill in missing scenes.

T3: Oh, I know! The female lead is kind of a tomboy. But she also wears stiletto heels everywhere, and her hair is always long and lustrous.

T2: There you go. See? It isn’t hard to make her complex.

10 Writing Nightmares

A version of this was published on an older (now defunct) blog of mine. Enjoy! And let me know if these bring up any bad memories.

1) Misspelling the name of the person you’re writing to in an email or cover letter.

2) Producing an embarrassing typo for a word like ‘batch,’ ‘feckless,’ or ‘public.’

3) Putting the finishing touches on a 10-page essay, only to re-read the essay question and realize you didn’t answer it.

4) Repeatedly misusing ‘matriculate,’ ‘genuflect,’ ‘obfuscate,’ or any other polysyllabic word that was supposed to make you sound smart.

5) That brilliant manifesto/sonnet/one-act play you wrote last night? What it looks like the next morning.

6) Working on a 5000-word paper that’s due in less than 24 hours and based on volumes of source material you haven’t yet read.

7) Forgetting to delete something from your submitted work, such as a note you left for yourself. (“What am I even talking about?” or “Find source to back up this nonsense.”)

8) Basing the central argument of your essay on a logical fallacy or on your misreading of another person’s work.

9) Running out of ideas.

10) Submitting a piece of writing before you’ve fini

A mix of hopeful and bleak: the ending of If I Had Your Face

The endings of some novels are unambiguously happy, while others are overshadowed with tragedy. What about endings that occupy a more ambiguous space?

I recently read If I had Your Face by Frances Cha, a novel focusing on the lives of a group of young women in South Korea. They all live in the same apartment building, and each has her own struggles.

These struggles involve their job or career, appearance, relationships, and some of the paths they’ve gone down on (based on decisions they made before they knew better). Their problems are also connected to their precarious position in society – they aren’t wealthy or born into elite families. Their missteps aren’t as easily forgiven or recovered from.

By the end of the novel, they’ve generally become more savvy. Their self-awareness has increased. They’ve also helped each other out, and they seem to want to continue giving each other support when necessary. At the same time, their lives continue to be precarious. They’ve pushed disaster away for the time being, but disastrous possibilities still loom in their future or wait for them in the shadows of the paths they’re taking. They may have adapted to dealing more effectively with some of the brutal realities of the world. But the sense of hope at the end of the novel is tempered by some bleakness.

The ending feels more like a pause for breath. They’re breathing a little easier in this moment in time. But it doesn’t feel like a secure happiness.

You may be thinking that this is true of real life, which is one reason the mix of hopeful and bleak works well. However, it takes skill to pull off an ending like this. It doesn’t cater to people’s need for a conclusive answer one way or another. There’s no quick summary about how these women are doing years after the events of the novel.

But there’s still a sense of finality, because of everything that leads to the novel’s closing scene. Some scales have fallen from the characters’ eyes. They’ve stopped lying to themselves in certain ways. At the close of the novel, it’s night, and they’re all back in their apartment building. The sense of solidarity is strong. They’re better able to face the morning, whatever it brings. For the time being, they can count on each other for different kinds of support.

And maybe that’s enough, for now.

An example of reducing redundancy in fiction writing

I recently read The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters, a novel written in first-person POV about a newly minted detective who investigates a suspicious death. Sounds like many other crime novels, but the difference here is that no one seems to care about the investigation, because an asteroid is going to hit Earth in six months.

In the following excerpt, the detective, Henry Palace, is at a suspect’s house. The suspect, whose name is Toussaint, has something on his mantel:

There’s a scale model of the New Hampshire state house on the mantel above the fireplace, six inches high and fastidiously detailed: the white stone facade, the gilded dome, the tiny imperious eagle jutting from the top.

“Like that?” says Toussaint when he comes back in … and I set the model down abruptly.

In this excerpt, the narrator never explicitly says, “I picked up the model of the state house.” He just describes what the model looks like. It’s only at the end, when he tells the reader, “I set the model down,” that you know he even had it in his hands.

This is hardly a pivotal moment in the novel. But it’s still a nice example of how you can cut down on redundancy in fiction writing. A narrator doesn’t need to always share each movement, such as picking things up or opening or closing windows and doors.

It’s like if your narrator said, “The window was closed. I opened it.” Would it be necessary to say that the window was closed? Usually not. (Though, who knows, sometimes you’d want to keep that line, maybe to create a certain effect with your prose or to illustrate something about a character’s thought processes.) In any case, when editing your work, it’s important to be thoughtful about these choices.

[By the way, this is off the main topic of the post, but I do recommend The Last Policeman. It’s a good, absorbing read. One head’s up, though: The novel contains multiple descriptions of suicide and suicidal thoughts, plus it focuses on tragedies that are extremely improbable but happen anyway. Just keep that in mind, because sometimes you need to have a certain frame of mind to enjoy a book; other times, you may want to put off reading it.]

Which Kinds of Mistakes Do You Accept in a Nonfiction Book?

In one nonfiction book I’ve been reading recently, I found an inaccurate description of a novel.

In another nonfiction book, the author mischaracterized a Jewish holiday. The author himself is Jewish, but not observant, so maybe he bought into an inaccurate interpretation.

On the one hand, I understand that each of these books has a lot of information backed by hundreds of footnotes. Probably some mistakes are inevitable.

On the other hand, I don’t know how many mistakes the author is making. I picked up on the two I mentioned earlier, because I already knew about the holiday and the novel under discussion. But what about the topics I don’t know about? Can I trust the author to give me accurate information?

Maybe the nature of the mistake makes a difference. For example, getting a date wrong may not be a big deal, if it’s just a typo. Though even that kind of error can be confusing and misleading in certain contexts.

Nonfiction authors often do use fact-checkers, so I’m hoping that many errors will already be caught before publication. Meaning that the book will largely be accurate, with maybe a few minor errors slipping past detection.

But I’m interested in what the line is. Which kinds of mistakes would lead you to put the book aside? And which would you respond to with more lenience?

Verbs That Inflame the Senses!

A while ago, I was reading Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, and came across a description I liked of a cat that “oiled against” the main character’s ankle.

“Oiled” captures a slick movement and a shivery, slick, clinging sensation. A moment where a cat brushes against someone’s ankle becomes even more unsettling.

Months later, when I was reading Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I found a noun-to-verb usage that I really liked: “The evening paper rattlesnaked its way through the letter box…”

“Rattlesnaked” conveys the movement of the slithering newspaper, and the sound it makes when traveling through the letter box. (Although I’m not 100 percent sure this was the author’s intention, the verb also makes the newspaper seem like a venomous creature – and given its contents, maybe it is.)

These kinds of verbs, which include nouns transformed into verbs, deliver a memorable sensory impact. In your own writing, you can use them to add more flavor to the text and to capture multiple sensations or feelings in one word.

But it’s important not to use them too much. If you insert them into every other sentence, they start distracting the reader. They each become less memorable and effective, and you give the impression that you’re trying too hard as a writer, that you’re straining too much to produce a certain effect. If you want to, try using these verbs here and there, in moments that stir the senses and keep the reader hooked to the world you’re building with your text.

Please Stop Confusing Criticism With Censorship

If you’re reading this and thinking, “I don’t confuse criticism with censorship,” that’s great. This post is for people who do, or for people who aren’t sure what I’m talking about and would like some elaboration.

I’ve participated in many discussions over the years where someone reacts to a criticism by saying, “I have a right to my opinion,” even though no one questioned their right to have an opinion. Because there’s a difference between criticizing the content of a statement/opinion/argument and denying your right to express it.

Maybe this reaction is heightened in an environment where people are subject to various forms of censorship. Not just censorship from the government, but the threat of being fired, unpublished, or attacked for expressing a dissenting opinion on a subject. No matter how thoughtful or courteous you are, there may be people who look at any dissent as “harmful” and use it as an excuse to try to ruin you.

But it’s still important to distinguish between criticism and censorship. For example, it’s especially weird seeing so-called “free speech warriors” rail against criticism in the name of free speech, even though criticism itself is a form of speech. But maybe not so weird when you consider that the “confusion” can be deliberate – a useful strategy for staving off criticism and making your opponents seem unreasonable.

I’ve also seen the flip side of this – people calling for censorship while pretending their call for censorship is mere criticism. For example, people may ask for a book to be banned or unpublished and claim that this request is merely a form of criticism. But it isn’t. There’s a difference between thoughtfully writing a negative review of a book and asking for that book to be banned (or burned).