Review: Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel

I’m at a stage where the best thing I could do to improve my writing would simply be to practice more. But every now and then, when I’m looking for some motivation to get back to my work in progress, I pick up one of those “how-to-write” books. There are some excellent ones (like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Writing the Breakout Novel) and some not-so-excellent ones. There are also some that are probably pretty good but whose advice is too intangible for me to incorporate into my skillset (e.g., Creating Character Emotions). Nowadays, I don’t have high expectations for these books. I just use them as a way to get back into the writing mood.

Cover of Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron

Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron

It was with this mindset that I picked up Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron, and boy was I pleasantly surprised. It’s easy for these books to overreach by trying to touch on all aspects of becoming a published author. Covering both writing and selling in a single book is ambitious, so my hopes for depth were low. Nevertheless, Ephron manages to pack a lot of great ideas into less than 250 pages. I found the portions specific to mysteries (e.g., tips on plotting, building suspense, and pacing) to be especially helpful.

Many of her specific suggestions I’d not read anywhere else before (and I’ve read a lot of these books). And while she doesn’t plunge into any of the ideas in great depth, in many cases depth wasn’t necessary. Many of her tools will go into my toolbox. Other tidbits immediately sparked several ideas that I am already applying to my work in progress. I look forward to revisiting her chapters on revision—if I ever get this first draft done.

The book is well organized. You can read your way through it pretty quickly (even if you do the exercises along the away). You can also use it as a reference by returning to individual chapters for a refresher as you move through the stages of writing your own story. Most of the chapters are short and cover very specific topics with thought-provoking discussion, concrete examples, worksheets, and checklists.

Ephron also interviewed several well-known mystery writers and let them contribute some of their own tips. For example, Lee Child offers tricks on how to avoid getting bogged down in description while writing what should be a fast-paced action sequence.

If you’re working on a mystery, or even a thriller, I’d easily recommend Writing and Selling your Mystery Novel. It won’t replace Self-Editing or Breakout Novel—you still need those (and fantastic blogs like Edittorrent). But you will get tangible, actionable ideas from Ephron’s work that you won’t find in the more general writing advisers.

One Tap or Two?

[This blog post is reconstructed from a draft dated April 5, 2006. The original post was lost.]

If you ever took a typing class, you were probably taught to press the space bar twice between sentences. Lately, more and more blogs have declared this to be wrong-headed advice. Today, they claim, with proportional fonts and improving electronic typography (even on computer screens), you should use just one space between sentences. But the debate rages on. So what’s a poor keyboardist to do?

If you’re a serious author, you should be writing rather than surfing, so I’ll give you an early out: prepare your manuscript whichever way your agent, editor, and publisher want. Period. Now close your browser and get back to work.

Still with me? Good. The rest of us will now debate this trivial point with a religious fervor that rivals operating system wars.

On a typewriter, or with a monospace font on a computer screen, there is only one type of a space: a simple gap the same width as any of the other characters in the font. If you need more space, you can line up several of these simple spaces. In fine typesetting, however, spaces are much more flexible. If you justify both margins of your text, spaces are stretched (and sometimes even squished) to make the lines come out to equal lengths. Printers have all sorts of spaces, from the interword space we all know and love, to em spaces and quad spaces and probably zillions of others. The sizes of these gaps are dictated by the font face and font size.

The debate, therefore, is not one-space-or-two. This oversimplification of the question is the root of much of the disagreement. Nobody thinks that, in a proportional font, intersentence spaces should be twice as wide as a regular space. We have to stop conflating these two ideas. First, should the spaces between sentences be any different than the ones between words? Second, how many times should you, as a keyboardist, hit the space bar between sentences?

Should there be a difference?

Donald Knuth, a professor of mathematics and computer science, pioneered fine electronic typesetting by developing TeX and Metafont, tools which many technical publications still use for producing high-quality documents. (I believe Metafont was the first application of scalable outline fonts.) If you know Knuth, you know he doesn’t do things halfway. From his writings on the subject, it seems he has studied the entire history of putting ink on paper.

According to Knuth’s design, whether and how much extra space goes between sentences should be determined by the font designer. Therefore, there is a distinction.

TeX’s model of a space is not just its natural size, but also how it can stretch or squish when it is being adjusted during justification. In TeX’s default mode with the Computer Modern fonts, spaces between sentences are fractionally wider than ones between words. The difference is so small, you can barely tell. When justifying the text, those intersentence spaces are stretchier than the interword ones. In fact, TeX also makes spaces after punctuation marks like commas, which don’t end sentences, stretch faster than interword spaces (though not as fast as intersentence spaces).

TeX also offers a mode, called French spacing, that lets you override the font designer by eliminating these spacing distinctions and makes all the spaces the same size and stretchiness.

I should let the typographers and font designers battle over whether it’s right to make a distinction, but I have my opinions.

Personally, I prefer to read material that adds a little extra space between sentences (and, no the open space above a period doesn’t do it for me). I’ve been noticing that fewer and fewer new books are typeset this way. I find myself stumbling and re-reading a lot more, especially in fiction with lots of dialogue. Although the extra space is a tiny, subtle cue, it’s something I notice. Please God, when e-books finally catch on, please give us a choice to read them in either mode.

Apparently I’m not the only one who stumbles without longer spaces between sentences. This comment on screenwriter John August’s blog points out that actors reading aloud stumble less when there’s extra space between sentences. This isn’t a totally fair comparison, because he’s talking about a typewritten (monospaced) script. Nevertheless, it supports the idea that the spacing between sentences should be distinct from the spacing between words to help the reader.

Another reason to distinguish is to eliminate ambiguity. These two lines have slightly different meanings:

"Run!" I gasped.

"Run!"  I gasped.

I’ve used a monospace font to make it clear. The first example is a single sentence (and a good example of bad dialogue). The second one is two distinct sentences (and avoids using a cheesy dialogue attribution). Yes, it’s contrived, but I stumble across a few of these in every novel I read. And even when the spacing isn’t the sole clue to the sentence boundaries, it can help the reader by being a redundant clue.

The font designers and typographers may now proceed to argue over “color” and “rivers” until their hearts burst. For the rest of us, it’s enough to know that at least some reliable sources do make a distinction between interword and intersentence spaces.

What should you type?

My keyboard, and I assume yours, has only one space bar, so how can we distinguish these spaces when we type?

Well, that all depends on which rendering method you’d like to use. And, as it turns out, most rendering methods suck.

If you’re typing plain text, in a monospace font, use two spaces between sentences. There seems to be little debate over that.

If you’re composing an email, be aware that the reader might see it as plain text, even if you try to format it with HTML or rich text. Reading incoming mail as plain text is an excellent defense against web beacons and browser exploits in all that spam that slips by the filters. If your text can’t make the point without the fancy formatting, then you should probably be spending more time on content.

If you’re writing for the Web in HTML or XML, it doesn’t matter how many spaces you type, because (with a few exceptions), it’s going to treat any number of consecutive spaces as a single space. That’s good news for those of you who have a hard time changing your typing habits, but it sucks for readers who want a little more room between sentences.

If you’re using TeX or LaTeX, it doesn’t matter how many spaces you type. No really. Go ahead, put 42 spaces between your next two sentences. Trust me. It’ll be fine. TeX can usually figure out all by itself which spaces are between sentences. Unfortunately, the algorithm isn’t perfect, so occasionally you do have to give it a hint, especially in dialogue and after certain kinds of abbreviations.

I’m not sure about troff.

I had a colleague

who would write

in short phrases

like this.

He found it


to edit and proofread.

troff then turned his text into normal type. Nobody else ever knew how strange his source files were.

Let’s see. What else. Oh yeah, Word. If you write in Word, I’m sorry. Word is schizophrenic when it comes to how many spaces you type. On the one hand, since it’s a WYSIWYG editor (WYSIWYG is the wrong paradigm for composing text), every space you type becomes a space on the page. If you type two spaces between sentences, you’ll end up with intersentence spaces that are twice as wide as a regular space. And, if you justify the text, that gap will stretch twice as fast. We all agreed at the beginning that this is bad. And it’s the primary reason why so many people have oversimplified the issue in their blog and described the two-space tap as “100% wrong.” On the other hand, those of you brave enough to leave Word’s grammar checker turned on may have noticed that the grammar checker screws up less often if you put two spaces between sentences. This, in and of itself, isn’t a strong argument for using two spaces.

Still, I cringe every time I see a blog recommending that people use a global search and replace to change all of the space pairs into single spaces. It just doesn’t seem right to throw that information away. What we need is a better rendering method. One that lets writers type however they like and lets readers choose how they want the text displayed.

For the record, I’m an unrepentant double-tapper.