Posts Tagged ‘novel writing’

Why Hire a Book Coach: Jen’s Story

Perhaps you’re wondering, Why hire a book coach? Jen’s story, below, will give you a novel writer’s first-hand experience of working with a professional book coach.

When Jen first contacted me, she’d completed a Young Adult (YA) novel and had already been under contract with a literary agent for a year. Unfortunately, the agent was not able to sell the book. The editors rejecting Jen’s manuscript said things like: “The plot was slow-moving,” “I found my interest waning by the third chapter,” and “I couldn’t quite connect with the main character.”

Finally, mutually frustrated, Jen and her agent parted ways. This brought Jen to a come-to-Jesus moment with her literary career—and led her to hire a writing coach. I’m delighted that coach was me! And I’m so happy to share Jen’s thoughts on our process together.

Why hire a book coach: Jen shares her story

If you’re a writer, you spend a lot of time in your own head. If you’re not a writer, that might sound weird to you, but trust me—it’s fun! There are people in there, and they’re doing interesting things: falling in love, learning magic, murdering their families. Writers’ heads hold maps of cities and castles and the location of quicksand. They’re populated by talking animals, ghosts who refuse to speak their needs clearly, and, maybe, if we’re really good planners, several generations of violent family trauma.

See? Fun!

Writers, however, aren’t content to hang around in their own brains by themselves forever. We writers want to show-n-tell the insides of our brains to the world. And we want the world to love what they see. And pay us for it.

So we sit down to our laptops and we type for many years. And then we send our manuscripts to our friends and family and wait for them to say they like it. And then we email our manuscripts to carefully researched agents in New York who we’re sure are going to love it. And then we die when we receive piles of rejection letters.

But we revive ourselves and do it again. And again. Maybe we do it three times before we stand in front of our haggard reflections and ask ourselves if we should stop—forever.

We don’t, though, either because we really loved show-n-tell (and we’re still mad that Mrs. Walsh mismanaged her time and missed our turn on the last week of second grade) or because there’s something in our bones that won’t let us stop.

When to hire a book coach

After all those rounds of rejection, we realize it’s time to do something different. If we’ve got several years of free time on our hands—not to mention a spare $50,000—maybe we go back to school for a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in writing.

If we don’t have that luxury—and I didn’t—I highly recommend hiring a book coach.

If you’re intimidated by the cost of a writing coach, you might want to research the cost of a three-credit graduate class on novel writing. Then consider the fact that you’d be sharing your professor with your classmates. Not only that, but your class will likely end long before you finish a first draft, let alone your second.

When I found Jamie, I was in the middle of my MA in Special Education, and it put the cost in perspective. By the age of 35, I had invested tens of thousands of dollars on myself as a teacher and only a few hundred dollars on myself as a writer. I decided it was time to change that.

Why hire a book coach if you have a finished manuscript

I came to Jamie with a finished manuscript—my first foray into writing adult fiction, rather than my seemingly unmarketable YA novels. But no matter how many times I revised it, it wasn’t working.

We decided to go back to the beginning of the process—back to story concept. That meant I had to trust Jamie with the raw contents of my brain, and it wasn’t easy. Jamie, however, is a big fan of raw brain. She’s an idea zombie, if you will—deeply interested in the process. I learned to trust her to help me untangle the contents of my gray matter and weave them into a cohesive story, one that connects with readers.

Not show-n-tell

Writing a novel is inherently a lonely process. While it may not be show-n-tell, writing is a way to make a human connection. (Maybe AI is going to write the next novel. And maybe it will be entertaining. But I daresay readers want satisfying connections with characters, understanding that another human designed that character and her journey.)

Leo Tolstoy said, “Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul, and shows to people these secrets which are common to all.” Writing 400 pages of the secrets of your soul just to receive a “no thanks” earns you membership in an especially sad club.

You start to wonder if there’s something wrong with you—something about your secrets that really are uncommon.

And then you meet Jamie, who tells you that’s crazy, to get back to work. The issue isn’t that you’re too weird, she’ll say. It’s that you’re not being weird enough. From there, you discover the secret to connecting to readers is mastering the craft. It’s a skill. It’s hard work. That narrative structure, the Hero’s Journey—the one that’s been in literally every story ever since the dawn of human language—it exists for a reason.

No, it’s not easy to master. But Jamie is a plotting expert with a keen eye for characterization. She’s a voracious reader with a book recommendation for exactly what you need to work on this month. She’s a cheerleader and a tough-love distributor. Family and friends will pretend to like your work when it’s bad. Jamie will not. She’s your personal trainer who’s going to tell you that you need to work harder, but she’s also going to make sure you’re not wasting your valuable time working harder on the wrong things.

Welcome to the book coach reality show

Working with Jamie hasn’t exactly been the show-n-tell I’ve wished for; it’s more like being a contestant on one of those reality TV shows. You know. The ones where the straight-shooting declutterer holds your hand as you tearfully toss four of your five chipped Teflon pans into a distended garbage bag. Just like that host, though, Jamie reassures you that, somewhere, behind those dutch ovens and glass casseroles, there’s going to be a story people—editors included—will love.

And I believe her.

—Jen Russ

Struggling to get published? A top book coach might help! Let’s chat.

Writing coach Jamie Morris, pictured smiling, can help you learn how to self-publish your book. I love story—and the characters that live through their stories. I’ve helped many novelists develop their plots in ways that make them more engaging and more marketable. If you’re working on a novel and wonder how to make it more successful, schedule a free writing consultation with me. Also, check out THE WRITER mag article Should I Hire a Writing Coach.”

Book Coach Tips for Writing a Successful Novel

As a professional writing coach, I always want to support writers in their quest for success. This month, my post “Book Coach Tips for Writing a Successful Novel” focuses on the most important aspects of novel writing. I also include resources that will help you level up your novel-writing game.

Tips for writing a successful novel: Voice + character

Job one, connect your reader to your main character (MC). While we often think that readers are more interested in the plot of our stories than our characters, that’s not quite true. What’s funny, perhaps ironic, is that while readers generally think plot is the main draw for them, they’re actually wrong! (Most of the time. Generally speaking. In this book coach’s experience.)

In fact, what pulls a reader into a story first is voice. While the back jacket copy’s catchy synopsis of your story is what gets a reader to open your book, the voice your potential reader meets on page one must hook them.

Voice conveys attitude—usually, your main character’s attitude. It’s how you introduce your character, and it sets the tone for your reader’s experience. (It’s similar to a vacation destination: Some readers hate the snow. They won’t book a ski vacation! But another reader might love the crisp chill of your character’s voice.)

If the voice is engaging, you will keep your reader’s attention long enough to reveal your character’s need, goal, dilemma—those elements of story that integrate character with plot. If your reader finds your character sympathetic, they’ll tumble down the rabbit hole of your story, committed to seeing how your character fares.

Tips for writing a successful novel: Plot

As mentioned, readers tend to think that plot drives their reading choices. And a well-turned plot with a strong hook will certainly get your book “read-more” clicks! Whether your story is high concept or not, your plot should drag your main character into situations, environments, and relationships that, in her ordinary world, she would avoid at all costs.

Convince your reader that your MC has no choice but to involve herself in the dire circumstances you’ve built for her. Do this by creating irresistibly compelling stakes: putting her loved ones in danger, perhaps, or forcing her to face illness, financial ruin, or loss of her hard-won reputation.

Once your MC has embarked on the roller-coaster ride of her story, make sure there are no exit ramps along the way (sorry, mixed metaphors). In fact, you want to keep escalating the stakes! Push your MC to continually face new challenges as she tries (desperately!) to either meet her initial goal or to succeed in whatever glass-mountain-climbing task your story has provided her.

However you play it, for your main character, there must be no way out but through. And  every plot point you create should enforce this. (My deepest sympathies to your main character!)

Resources for novel writers

There are many masters of the novel-writers’ craft. And, fortunately for us, quite a few of them have written books to guide us on our writing path. As a long-time writing coach, I’ve found several that I recommend quite often. Here’s a short list for you.

THE SECRETS OF STORY, by Matt Bird

PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL WITH THE PLOT CLOCK, by Jamie Morris, et al

HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL, by James N. Frey

PLOT & STRUCTURE: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish, by James Scott Bell

SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL, by Jessica Brody

You might also enjoy my article “How to Write a Novel”  or be interested to learn more about how successful authors have used my Plot Clock method to get their novels agented and published.

Interested in receiving personalized book coach tips for writing a successful novel? A free chat with a top writing coach can offer just that!

Writing coach Jamie Morris, pictured smiling, can help you learn how to self-publish your book. Novels and their authors are near and dear to my heart. Over the last decade, as a professional writing coach, I’ve helped many novelists take their books to the next level. If you’re working on a novel and wonder how to make it more successful in the current market, let’s chat. Schedule a free writing consultation with me. Also, check out THE WRITER mag article Should I Hire a Writing Coach.”

Writing Coaching: The Hard Stuff

I’ve been in the trenches, coaching writers, for well over a decade. From long experience, I can tell you that, with writing coaching, the hard stuff is the stuff that can make or break a career. And by “hard stuff,” I mean whatever you currently don’t have in your writer’s toolkit.

Most writers have mad skills in some areas, but struggle in others. For instance, you may be a crazy plotting genius, but create flat-as-a-pancake characters. Or, you’re an amazing researcher, but stumble when trying to organize your ideas on the page.

As writers, we all have strengths and weaknesses. But, weirdly, it’s looking our weaknesses straight in the eye that separates successful writers from those who never reach their full potential. It’s natural to want to work around our literary deficiencies. But if we’re willing to really dig in to the less-developed aspects of our writing, we will—eventually—strike gold.

Writing coaching: the hard stuff

Tackling those underdeveloped skills head-on isn’t easy. As a professional writing coach, I often see writers struggle with aspects of writing that feel completely out of their current reach—creating a dynamic plot, for some; finding a convincing voice for others. However, I know that if they keep at it—putting in what may seem an unreasonable amount of time and effort—there will be a pay off.

On the other hand, some writers can’t—or won’t—harness their energies to make the admittedly uphill climb to mastering a tough skill. They truly believe their current (easier, go-to) strengths will carry them to where they want to be in their writing life.

I understand! But that’s not how it works—at least not in my experience.

Hiring a writing coach

So … you know something in your writer’s arsenal needs to be powered up. You hire a writing coach. And it’s going wonderfully! Your coach is an angel on your shoulder. She encourages you, provides accountability, reads your work with enthusiasm and insight. Fantastic!

Of course, she also points out areas of your work that could use some improvement. Many of these aspects are easy-peasy to address. Yes, I can easily be more precise with my verbs, you say. Also, Giving more visual cues to my readers? No problem.

But the hard thing? That “weakness” which is native to you as a writer, your literary blind spot? As you work with your coach, that will become more and more evident. Worse, no matter how hard you try to address this most difficult of skills, you may feel you aren’t making significant progress. And your darned coach won’t let it go!

Fortunately, she will bring myriad ways to help you on-board the skill you most need to master. That’s because she knows how important it is to your career. You can’t maneuver around a deficit without compromising your work as a whole.

Yet, despite your—and your coach’s—best intentions, you may get to a point of frustration. You might want to toss up the whole enterprise and walk away. But—and I am telling you this with the deepest compassion I can bring here—if you keep moving in the direction of excellence, especially when the going gets tough, you will make it through. Then, you will reap rewards you can’t even imagine when you’re humping that huge load of sticks uphill toward your beautiful writing dream.

I believe in you! If you’re ready to dig and find out what you’re made of, a chat with a top writing coach might be your next step on the road to literary success.

Novel writing coach Jamie Morris, pictured smiling, can help you outline your novel. As a professional writing coach, I support fiction and nonfiction writers working in a number of genres. Wherever you are on your writing journey, I would love to see how I can help you achieve your literary goals. Schedule your free writing consultation with me. And take a look at THE WRITER mag article Should I Hire a Writing Coach.”

 

The image of tarot’s Ten of Wands comes from the ASTROMATRIX TAROT, available on Amazon.

How to Write a Fantasy Novel: Quick Tips!

Wondering how to write a fantasy novel? As a professional writing coach, I’ve learned that following a few important guidelines can make all the difference! Here are some magical tips to help you write fantasy fiction, from me—and NEW YORK TIMES best-selling fantasy author Lev Grossman. Dark blue cover of Lev Grossman's book The Magicians writing a fantasy novel

Quick tips for writing fantasy fiction

World-building: Your fantasy world may be an ancient one, filled with a long history of dwarves and elves and dragons. Or it might exist in a contemporary city, where magic hangs heavy in the air.

Whatever your fantastic world, make sure you establish consistent rules to govern your magical elements. Also, even if there’s not a dwarf in sight, you will still need to include the background of your world.

To do so, answer questions like these: What is the origin of magic in your world? Who is allowed to use the magic? How does the magic manifest? Are there factions in your world? If so, what is the source of their differences?

Limit point of view (POV) characters; Your fantasy may encompass many characters. However, if this is your first foray into writing fantasy, I suggest you limit yourself to no more than four POV characters.

Limiting POV characters makes it easier to map out your story. It also allows you to create an internal arc for each POV character. Those arcs ensure your readers invest in your characters as well as your plot.

Create a stand-alone first novel: Fantasy novels are often developed into series. However, if you’re a first-time fantasy novelist, I suggest you write a stand-alone first novel. Forcing yourself to complete a significant narrative arc in a single book will keep you from drowning in story-line possibilities.

If you love your fantasy world, you may decide to set another story there. Eventually, you may find you have created a series! But if you follow this advice, each volume of that series will be a satisfying read on its own.

Of course, as you dig deeper into your fantasy-novel-writing craft, you’ll be ever-better prepared to commit to a full series, right from the get-go!

Let’s learn from Lev Grossman!

My short list of tips covers what I consider to be the most important for fantasy writers to consider. However, Lev Grossman has written a terrific essay on novel writing that addresses many other points of interest for fantasy—and other—writers.

Check out his Buzzfeed piece “How Not to Write Your First Novel,” subtitled, “It is Okay Not to be a Genius.” (Hm. Reading about Grossman’s chilly, oddly heart-filled journey through six cold months in Maine, I’m pretty sure I see his genius shining through.) Grossman is the author of THE MAGICIANS, THE MAGICIAN KING, and THE MAGICIAN’S LAND, among other well-regarded fantasy titles.

Wondering how to write a fantasy novel? A chat with a top writing coach might help!

Novel writing coach Jamie Morris, pictured smiling, can help you outline your novel. As a novel writing coach, I support writers working in a number of genres, fantasy, among them. Whether you’re world-building or developing your characters, I would love to see how I can help you, too.  Schedule a free initial consultation with me. And also check out THE WRITER mag article Should I Hire a Writing Coach.”

How Long Should a Novel Be?

IN THE BOOK WRITERS’ CRITIQUE GROUP I LEAD, we recently discussed the differences between works of narrative fiction. While word count is not the only distinguishing feature, it’s certainly the easiest to grasp. Perhaps you’re wondering, “How long should a novel be?”

As a professional writing coach, I’m asked about book lengths quite often. That’s why I compiled this quick guide to word count—and a few distinguishing features of long fiction forms, as well.

Word counts for novels, novellas, and novelettes

We call all of the above—novels, novellas, and novelettes—book-length fiction. But they actually vary wildly in length.There are typically other differences in these forms, as well.

Novelettes: Sometimes a term that is used derogatorally. The word count for a novelette is between 7,500 and17,000. In addition to their short length, novelettes are characterized by their sentimental style and, often, on a romantic focus.

Novellas: Not to be confused with telenovelas, a term given to dramatic, primarily Latin American, television series. Novellas have an approximate word count between 17,000 and 40,000. A novella will typically have fewer (if any) subplots than a novel. It will also generally take place in a shorter, more contained time frame and a single location.

Novels: Starting at 40,000 words (except for children’s fiction), with no cap other than what agents, editors, and readers will accept. Given its length, a novel has room for a writer to develop subplots, use multiple points of view, and explore multiple locations—and even multiple periods in time. (Think, time travel novels or family sagas.)

Word counts for novels by genre

Middle Grade: 25,000 – 50,000

Young Adult: 45,000 – 100,000

Fantasy: 50,000 – 150,000

Sci-fi: 50,000 – 150,000.

Romance: 50,000 – 90,000.

Mystery: 40,000 – 80,000.

Horror: 40,000 – 80,000.

Dystopian: 60,000 – 120,000

Thriller: 90,000 – 120,000

I hope this quick look at word counts and genres helps as you prepare to write your novel. You might also like this article: “How to Write a Novel.” It’s an exciting journey—and I wish you all the best as you get underway!

How long should your novel be? A chat with a top novel writing coach can help you navigate the word-count waters!

Fiction writing coach Jamie Morris knows how long a novel should be. As a top novel writing coach, I help book writers decide how long their novel—or novella, or novelette—should be. We can address practical questions like this and much more in a no-cost phone chat. Schedule a free initial consultation with me, now. And read THE WRITER mag article Should I Hire a Writing Coach,” too! 

Outline Your Novel with ChatGPT

Did you know you can outline your novel with ChatGPT? No? Me, either. But I asked my super-smart techie novelist friend MK Swanson if she had used ChatGPT, and she said she had. Specifically, she told me that she now believes “novelists can use ChatGPT to supercharge their process. For instance, you can outline your novel with ChatGPT.” Then she offered to write a blog post for my readers showing her first-time process in doing so! 

Below, MK describes how she approached ChatGPT for outlining assistance—and the surprisingly good results she got. As you’ll see, MK first needed to get ChatGPT up to speed for the task. To do so, she first picked a specific approach to novel outlining (from the gazillion available). She chose to work with the plot clock-–which is what I use to help my clients with their outlines.

Then, based on what ChatGPT discovered about the plot clock, she had the program ask her appropriate questions to get her ideas flowing and on track. “Watching” them work together is fascinating! 

Here’s MK …  

I’m MK Swanson, a novelist who’s interested in tech.  Cute Cartoon of a female writer outlining a novel on a computer with ChatGPTI wanted to see how I might put the large language model (LLM) ChatGPT to use as a creative writing partner.  At first, I found its responses stilted and awkward. I said to myself, “This is fine if I was a middle school student cheating on a take home assignment. But I’m a real writer. It doesn’t offer me anything that I can’t do better myself.”

But I tried again. And now I think that every writer, especially novelists, can use ChatGPT to supercharge their process. For instance, it is ideal for the delicate project of outlining your novel.

How to outline your novel with ChatGPT

Create a dialogue

You want to enter into a dialogue with ChatGPT. Start that dialogue by giving ChatGPT a clear prompt.

MKS (prompting ChatGPT): You are a writing coach who uses the plot clock method to guide writers to create an outline of their novel, and I am your client. Ask me a series of questions that will give me a good outline of my novel, stopping to allow me to answer after each question. 

This prompt sets up the interaction between me and ChatGPT. I use the prompt to tell ChatGPT what perspective I want it to take (“you are a writing coach”) and what outlining method I want it to use (“the plot clock”). Finally, I set up a conversation-style interaction where it will ask me the next question fluidly.

Story starting point

ChatGPT (responding to the prompt): Of course! I’d be happy to assist you in creating an outline for your novel using the plot clock method. Let’s begin by diving into some key aspects of your story. Remember to take your time to think about each question and provide as much detail as possible. Here’s the first question:

What is the initial situation or setup of your story? Describe the world, the main character, and their ordinary life before the inciting incident occurs.

MKS: Livendra is a young woman living on the remains of the Florida peninsula in the future. The world environment has become more unpredictable and dangerous. Coastal cities have been submerged. Livendra makes a living as a pirate, stealing treasures and supplies from salvage corporations whom she blames for the state of the world. She believes that civilization is in its death throes.

Inciting incident

ChatGPT: Thank you for providing such a vivid and detailed description of your story’s initial situation. It sets a compelling backdrop for the events to come. Now, let’s move on to the next phase of the plot clock:

What is the inciting incident that disrupts Livendra’s ordinary life as a pirate and sets the main events of the story into motion? How does this incident change her perspective or force her to confront new challenges?

MKS: Livendra tries to steal a boat from a corporation, and is caught, but the man who catches her not only lets her go, he joins her. After they escape, he insists he can help her reach her most precious goal—to retrieve a sculpture her mother carved from inside the flooded borders of Jacksonville, which is guarded by a paramilitary group.

Conflicts and obstacles

ChatGPT: Excellent! The inciting incident you’ve described adds an intriguing twist to Livendra’s life as a pirate and sets the stage for new challenges and unexpected alliances. Now, let’s move on to the next phase of the plot clock:

As Livendra and her companion embark on their mission to retrieve the sculpture, what are the major obstacles or conflicts they encounter? Consider both external factors, such as the paramilitary patrols, and internal struggles that Livendra may face along the way….

ChatGPT and I continue this back-and-forth all around the plot clock, with me making up a host of other details.

You can also ask ChatGPT to help you outline your novel using the Snowflake method, the hero’s journey, a chapter-by-chapter approach, or any other outlining method you desire. And, you can ask ChatGPT to be a character in your novel, then engage it in dialogue to learn more about your character’s motivation.

Other things you can do with ChatGPT

You can use ChatGPT to outline a draft of an existing novel-in-progress in order to add complexity, straighten out a plot tangle, or create a timeline. You might also ask it to use the outline you created with it to summarize your novel, write a book jacket blurb, or come up with an elevator pitch.

If you’d like to learn from the best novelists of all time, you can even ask ChatGPT to outline novels in its corpus. It offered me a quite reasonable outline of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.

Things you can’t do with ChatGPT (yet)

Of course, there are many things ChatGPT can’t do, such as:

  • It can’t retain context in a chat window for more than a few thousand words. (If the AI model begins to lose focus, switch to a new window and give it the outline so far.)
  • It isn’t completely private. (Read the fine print.)
  • It doesn’t offer truly creative ideas. (Those come from you!)

ChatGPT might not be a magical solution to all your writing needs, but it’s not just a cheat sheet. With patience, you may find you can use it to invigorate your outlining process. And once it’s done that, what other ways will you find to make it work for you?

* I used OpenAI’s free research preview of ChatGPT for this example.

This article was written by novelist MK Swanson, who writes about tech and writing at writingdreamer.com and brasstack.net.

Trying to outline your novel? I can help!

Novel writing coach Jamie Morris, pictured smiling, can help you outline your novel. As a novel writing coach and memoir coach, I have helped scads of writers outline their stories. Let’s see if my approach can help you.  Schedule a free initial consultation with me. And also check out THE WRITER mag article Should I Hire a Writing Coach.”

Book Writers’ Coach

Why am I a book writing coach? Great question! Over the last ten years, I’ve coached writers of all types. New writers, short story writers, dissertation and thesis writers, hobbyists and journalists. But after a decade of working with a myriad of different writers, I’ve found my greatest joy as a book writers’ coach.

red book cover for book writers' coach Jamie MorrisFolks who commit to writing a book are a different breed. They’re tenacious (and sometimes hard-headed, lol).

They see the long view. They know their actions today (and tomorrow, and the next day/week/year) create their future: If they keep writing, they’ll be authors.

Me? I want to be along for that ride. Sure, there will be ups and downs. (If it were easy, everyone would write a book, right?) So when I agree to become a book writer’s coach, I’m declaring myself in it with you for the long haul.

I’ll be there to remind you about your goals, sure! But more than that, I’ll listen to your ideas and help you develop them in ways that (almost magically) transform your book into something more than you ever imagined it could be! (Believe me, I have a track record for doing just this!)

I’ll guide you to be more efficient when you need to get something—chapter, outline, query letter—done. But I’ll also encourage you to explore enticing paths that may make your work both richer for you as a writer and deeper and more meaningful for your eventual readers.

So, why am I a book writers’ coach? Because I consider it a gift and an honor to help creative people—you!—accomplish the huge task of turning your dream into a book.

It’s possible. It’s hard. It’s worthwhile. And you don’t have to do it alone.

Gearing up to write a book? A chat with a top book writers’ coach might help!

As a book writers’ coach, I have tricks of the trade to share! Book writers' coach Jamie Morris Schedule a free initial consultation with me. And also check out THE WRITER mag article Should I Hire a Writing Coach.” 

How to Write a Mystery: 10 Tips

Writing a mystery is complicated, no doubt! But, since mysteries are my favorite type of fiction, I thought it would be a fun challenge to narrow down my thoughts about how to write them effectively. The following 10 tips will help you understand how to write a mystery novel and create suspense on the page. a light shines on a closed book beneath the word "investigation." how to write a mystery

Since two heads are better than one, when considering such a complex topic, I called my award-winning mystery writer pal Elizabeth Sims. She generously agreed to allow me to pick her brilliant mystery-writing brain.

Together, Elizabeth and I settled on the following 10  tips for writing a mystery. We hope they help you find your way through the tricksy woods of your story!

10 tips for writing a mystery

How to write a mystery: sub-genres and outlines

1) PICK A SUB-GENRE: There are many mystery sub-genres. These include cozy mystery, hard-boiled detective fiction, and police procedurals, to name just a few. Job 1? choose your sub-genre and familiarize yourself with the conventions of that style.

2) READ WIDELY: Once you’ve chosen your sub-genre, read 100 (really: 100!) books of that type. While this might seem like overkill (and maybe slightly insane), reading very (VERY) widely in your genre is the single best way to absorb the rhythms of the category.

Plotting your novel with the plot clock book cover helps you know how to write a mystery3) MAP OUT YOUR STORY: Depending on your sub-genre, your story is likely to be quite intricate and complex. Allow yourself time to identify the various twists and turns of your plot. Mystery writers, even more than other writers, benefit from creating solid outlines before starting to write.

Character arcs, subplot, stakes, and settings

4) GIVE YOUR DETECTIVE PROBLEMS: Allow your main character to struggle in their personal life while trying to solve the crime. Their struggles should force them to make a much-needed inner change. This change is as satisfying to the reader as seeing the mystery solved.

5) RAISE THE STAKES! You might think the very fact of an unsolved murder provides enough motivation for the investigating detective. But acctually, stakes-wise, you’ll want your detective to have some skin in the game. Whether they’re threatened with a demotion if they don’t resolve the mystery or they are actually suspects in the case themselves, raise the stakes by giving your main character an urgent  reason to apprehend the murderer.

6) CREATE SUBPLOTS: Mysteries are meant to be, well, mysterious. If you’re driving your story down an unswerving path, your reader won’t enjoy the ride as much as if you add twists and turns—some of which can be provided by a subplot.

Perhaps you can develop one of your main character’s difficulties (above) enough that it distracts that them from solving the crime at hand. If that distraction puts the investigation in jeopardy, you’ve added an extra dollop of suspense into the subplot mix.

7) KNOW YOUR SETTING: Set your mystery in a location (or era) that you know well. Perhaps you’ve got a deep interest in Colonial Africa. Or lived in Boston in the 1980s. Wherever you set your story, be sure you know enough about it to create a faithful and familiar world for readers.

Also, involve your detective directly in that world. Perhaps they’re an investigative reporter in a small town in Alabama or a political protester in Berlin. A main character who’s actively engaged in your mystery’s location adds depth and interest to your work.

Red herrings, reversals, and reveals in your mystery

8) ESTABLISH RED HERRINGS: Red herrings are clues or information that mislead both the detective and the reader. Use them to create suspense by misdirecting the course of the investigation.

9) NAME CHARACTERS CAREFULLY: Don’t give your characters names that signal to the reader where they fall on the good-guy/bad-guy spectrum. Creating “dark” names for dark characters limits your ability to surprise your readers with a character’s unpredictable behavior.

SPOILER ALERT: Think Snape in the Harry Potter series: Learning his dark, nasty name, readers expect him to be a real baddy. But, in fact, he’s a much more sympathetic character than we could ever have imagined. Great work, J. K. Rowling, misleading readers  with a well-considered character name!

10) ADD SURPRISES TO YOUR FINAL SCENES: Twisty endings are appropriate—and necessary—in such a twisty genre. When thinking about how to write your mystery, be sure to leave some surprising reveals or reversals for the last act. You might resolve a red herring or conclude a subplot in an unforeseen way. Whatever you do (“Luke, I’m your father”!), add something unexpected to the (pre-)climactic moments of your mystery.

Writing a mystery in a moral universe

In a way, a mystery novel describes a moral universe. Someone has done something wrong—and we want to see them pay. While you may choose not to bring your antagonist to justice, do your best to create a conclusive ending of some sort.

We’re living in uneasy times. If you can restore order to even a fictional corner of the world, without compromising your artistic vision, I, for one, will be grateful.

Resources to help you write a mystery

Of course, these tips are just the—ahem—tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning to write a successful mystery novel. A search on YouTube, Amazon, or Google will yield another gazillion helpful hints. The resources that follow are particular favorites of mine. Your mileage may vary.

START HERE: When you’re considering writing a mystery—or any other book, for that matter—Elizabeth Sims’s YOU’VE GOT A BOOK IN YOU is a great place to start. Subtitled “A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams,” Sims’s book has garnered tons of well-deserved love—especially from newer book writers.

Plot is central to writing a good mystery. My own book, PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL WITH THE PLOT CLOCK, is a small-but-mighty-tome I wrote with two fabulous co-authors. Its simple—not simplistic—approach to plot can be a game-changer. (Learn more about the Plot Clock!)

OTHER GOOD BOOKS: Larry Beinhart’s HOW TO WRITE A MYSTERY, Patricia Highsmith’s PLOTTING AND WRITING SUSPENSE FICTION, and P.D. James’s TALKING ABOUT DETECTIVE FICTION are just three of many other helpful titles for writers who want to know how to write a mystery.

ORGANIZATIONS: Mystery Writers of America is a wonderful organization. It hosts regional and national mystery writing conferences and provides many other valuable resources for members. Sisters in Crime provides support for women crime writers. And the site The Cozy Mystery Library has virtual shelves full of helpful links for those writing cozies.

Ready to write that mystery? A chat with a top writing coach could help you get started!

Discover how to get your mystery novel off to a great start. Jamie Morris is a mystery novel writing coach. Schedule a free initial consultation. And also take a look at this THE WRITER mag article Should I Hire a Writing Coach.” 

Writing Young Adult Fiction

If you’re writing Young Adult fiction, also known as YA, you’ve probably already created an angsty, yet sympathetic, teenage main character (MC). Teen boy against wall writing young adult fictionWhat else do you need? Well, when we’re writing Young Adult fiction, we first need to give our angsty MC a problem to solve. We’ll also want to bestow upon them a skill to develop and an inner need to resolve.

In addition, we’ll want to surround our MC with a cast of characters—teenage and otherwise—who complicate or obstruct the MC’s goals. These might include a love interest (or two, for conflict), a mentor, and a sidekick/best pal. You’re also likely to need an antagonist (who may end up being a friend) and a “precious child” (a character dear to the MC, whose vulnerability puts the MC’s goals in jeopardy).

Be sure these characters have agendas that run counter to your MC’s. These competing objectives will provide a solid field upon which your MC can play to get the win.

YA writer published and awarded!

The above ideas may seem (unbearably?) clichéd to your own inner rebellious teen. But we can always at least explore the conventions of our genre. Then, we can see what of those tried-and-true ideas will serve our own story best.

My Young Adult fiction writer client Melody Maysonet found a balance. In her now award-winning YA novel A WORK OF ART, Maysonet skillfully incorporates YA conventions into her fresh, edgy tale of an art student on the brink.Writing Young Adult fiction book cover A Work of Art

Melody writes, Jamie, Thank you for the inspiration and knowledge you bestowed on me during the writing of the first draft. Not only that, but you gave me a killer critique for my revision. I revised based on your feedback, so the manuscript that got sold reflects your amazing instincts. Thank you so much.

Writing a YA novel? I’m a young adult fiction fan—and a top writing coach. I can help!

Book coach Jamie Morris can help you writing young adult fiction Morris can help.As a lover of YA, myself, and as a professional book coach, I can help you see the path for writing a young adult novel. Schedule a free initial consultation. And check out THE WRITER mag article Should I Hire a Writing Coach.” 

 

King of Cups, Your Writing Coach

If Tarot’s King of Cups were your writing coach, he’d teach you to calm the troubled waters of your writing life. He rules a kingdom that is entirely fluid and in motion—and he’s had to learn how to maneuver in its emotional depths. It took him some time, but the King of Cups has matured into a person who can acknowledge his feelings without being overbalanced by them. And this is his gift to you.

King of Cups, your writing coachYou see, it’s his kingdom—of water and creativity and the unconscious—from which our dreams and our writing emerge. But when we enter his world, we must be prepared. Our writing can take us far from known shores. It can bring us into waters so deep we get the bends. But, whether we are writing memoir or fiction, those depths are where we are most likely to find pearls of great worth.

Writing coaching advice from the King of Cups: “B” is for “ballast”

So how do we make the best use of the King of Cups’ advice? Take on ballast! “Ballast” is defined as something that gives stability—certainly helpful when we’re about to tug on our scuba gear and slip backwards into the wild waters of our creativity.

One way to stabilize ourselves is to take on a daily writing practice. Our writing practice might look like Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages or Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice. We might use a journaling app or keep a quiet blog. However we choose to do it, writing daily can keep our ship steady as we navigate difficult shipping lanes.

The King of Cups might also suggest we have regular conversations on dry land. We can meet with other writers, sharing advice as well as telling harrowing tales of the tsunamis we’ve survived! We might also seek out a counselor or a 12-step or other supportive group. Sharing our experiences with others can help us find balance while we’re deeply engaged creating an imagined or remembered life on the page.

From his sea-tossed throne, our writing coach the King of Cups reminds us that the more we commit to our literary work, the more likely we are to be pitched about by internal squalls. He’d like us to prepare for those squalls—by having plenty of ballast at hand.

Would you like to discuss your writing process with a top writing coach?

I’ve worked with many deep-diving writers. I’d love to hear about your work and see if I can help. Jamie Morris Writing CoachI invite you to schedule a free consultation. You might also read Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

Thanks to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for kind permission to use the image of the King of Cups from the DREAMING WAY TAROT.

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