Saturday, February 27, 2016

Guest Post: "How Not To Write A Mystery" by Stephen Morrill

For those of us who can’t travel to a conference or book signing hearing an author in person discuss his or her work can be very difficult. Today, please welcome talented author Stephen Morrill with a guest post that comes from his presentations at events.

How Not To Write A Mystery

I published my first mystery last year through my patented system of doing nothing right. Here’s a recap. Perhaps, if you strive as I did to do things wrong, you, too, can publish.

It’s not as though I didn’t know my way around the written word. I’d been a fulltime nonfiction freelance writer since 1982, publishing thousands of articles and news stories and several books. But I had never tried fiction and selling fiction is an entirely different thing.
Stephen Morrill

For fiction, and unless your name is Stephen King, you have to write the book first. My impetus was twofold. First, my literary hero, Robert B. Parker had just died. Parker wrote the popular Spenser private eye series as well as the Jesse Stone/Paradise, Massachusetts police procedural series. When he died, I was bereft. I especially liked Jesse Stone and now what was I supposed to do for entertainment?

“Steve,” I said to myself because I’m my favorite conversationalist, “You could write such a book. Create your own Jesse Stone and your own small town.” This was an arrogant assumption given that I knew zero about the fiction writing/marketing business.

Second, I needed something to challenge me anyway for NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month event held every November: write 50,000 words in 30 days.

So I set out to do just that. I created Mangrove Bay and my police chief, Troy Adam. I peopled the town with weird characters. I made up a map. I also created a huge outline, on a spreadsheet. All great writers, I’d been told, just sit down and … I don’t know … scribble. Their characters tell them what to write. Well, mine don’t. I tell them what to do. They work for me.

With outline on one computer monitor and manuscript on another, I set to work. And work. And work. God, it was fun! Thirty years of getting a second confirmation of every fact, of being the invisible recorder of news events, fell away as quickly as sobriety vanishes when the drunk sees a bottle of Scotch. I could make stuff up! I typed and slept. I woke up, looked at my outline, and typed. I hit the NaNoWriMo deadline of 50,000 words in 17 days.

But there was a problem. A 50,000 word rough draft is too short and too disgusting to read anyway.

Turns out writing a mystery isn’t the hard part. The hard part is making it good. Through rewrites. A lot of rewrites. I probably rewrote that first book a dozen times. Each time I rewrote it, it got better. And longer.

Now I needed an agent. I made a list, using various books and the AAR (Association of Authors Representatives) web site. I started at the top and ran down the list alphabetically.

I hit the “Z’s” and had not interested anyone. That took a while and I wrote a second book while I was banging on agent doors.

What do you do when every agent that represents mysteries has turned you down? I decided to run down the list a second time. That’s right, I sent the same queries to the same agents who had told me no. I figured that half of them had never read the thing they rejected and the other half wouldn’t remember me anyway.

And I got a hit. An agent who had rejected the first book just six weeks earlier wrote to me (twice in one night) desperate to represent my book. So now I had an agent.

Meantime, thinking it would be good to have a website, I tried to get MangroveBay .com. No dice. Already taken. But MangroveBayou .com was available. So I added two vowels to my town name and used global-search-and-replace on the two manuscripts already written.

Meantime, the agent was banging on every publishing house door. Nothing. There seemed no point to our continued association so I cancelled our contract. I went back to my list of agents and started emailing again, from the top.

Which was when Untreed Reads popped up, apologizing for not getting back sooner, and desperate to publish my book. In fact they were desperate to publish both manuscripts the agent had. So we went forward with that plan and Mangrove Bayou came out last May. The second book, Death Among the Mangroves, is due out this May.

And a big shout-out to Kevin Tipple, who gave me a very nice review for Mangrove Bayou. Hope he likes the second book too but we’ll see …

Lessons learned:

1. The point of all this is that it is possible to turn a horrible draft into a published book. If you have some talent and if you just persist. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. You don’t sharpen a blade with one pass of the stone, you don’t write a novel with one rewrite.

2. I’m a great believer in outlining. That’s my preference. I also write fiction by creating a rough draft, almost a skeleton, then layering on detail through many rewrites.

3. And one rule that’s always been there: if you want to see your work published, you have to send it to a publisher or find an agent to do that for you.

4. You will get rejected. A lot. So what? Persistence pays off. To get published you have to send your work to a publisher.

5. Oh. And get the website first.

Stephen Morrill ©2016

Check out his website at for information on his various series and more as well as his publisher for this series at Untreed Reads.

1 comment:

Grapeshot/Odette said...

Great advice. I love to see someone succeed.