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.
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.