|My education as a mystery writer
began with a bang. Unfortunately, the
bang was the sound of my mentor shooting
holes in the idea I had just presented to
him for my first novel.
He did it
kindly, but I had worked hard on the idea
and was disappointed he didn't like it,
but I didn't argue. He was a publishing
author who made his living writing
original paperback novels. He had offered
to help me get started. He had already
read a short story I'd written and sent
it to a magazine editor he knew, and it
became my very first sale.
When I confessed I wanted to write
novels, he gave me six paperbacks
published by the house he sold to, told
me to read them and come up with and idea
and storyline. He would work with me to
make sure I stayed on track.
A week later, I handed him lesson one.
Now I swallowed my wounded pride and
listened as he told me what was wrong and
"Your idea is okay, but you
haven't developed it into a story for
this audience. If you don't give them
what they want, they don't buy. The
publisher knows what kind of story his
readers expects in this subgenre, and he
doesn't buy any manuscripts that don't
Then my mentor pointed out specific
things that were wrong with my idea and
First, my protagonist didn't have a
provlem to solve, and there was no reason
for the reader to care about him.
Everything that happened in the first
half of the story happened by chance or
someone else's design.
The plot hinged on a coincidence that
readers wouldn't accept.
There was nothing to hook readers into
going beyond the opening scene, no
promise of action, adventure or intrigue
to lure them on.
He had a few more comments, but I
already saw the light. I hadn't developed
the idea into one solid enough to sustain
a novel, and I hadn't developed it for
the action/adventure market audience the
book was aimed at.
What I didn't realize at the time was
that my mentor had just taught me the
most important lesson of success for a
novelist: Know the audience you are
This goes far beyond age group,
gender, education and other physical and
mental attributes. It means knowing what
scares, excites, terrifies and makes that
audience buy books and keep turning the
pages as they read.
Most of us read a variety of subgenres
in mysteries and suspense. Sometimes the
lines of subgenres are blurred or
deliberately crosse, such as romantic
suspense or historical mysteries. Readers
of cozys don't expect or want blood and
gore in their books, but readers of
hardboiled detective novels look forward
to a body or two before they get very far
into the story.
If you decide to write a mystery or
suspense novel, select a subgenre you
know and enjoy. Give yourself a little
refresher course by reading a stack of
novels in that subgenre before you plan
your book. Choose some by authors you
like and the others by writers new to
you. But read them as a writer instead of
as a reader. Notice things they have in
common, how and where in the story the
mystery is introduced and what creates
These are the building blocks of a
story that will appeal to fans of the
subgenre. They will help you write
saleability into every page of your book.
Success isn't an accident, it's a
plan. Begin planning yours today.
Until next time, happy reading and
Marilyn Henderson, 42-year novelist,
coach and mss critic