Sweating Blood: How to Write a Mystery Novel, Lesson 2

Sweating Blood: How to Write a Mystery Novel, Lesson 2



Before you type a word of your novel, you need to decide whether you want to prepare an outline of the plot. Outlines can be either very detailed or very brief. In the former, you divide your novel into chapters and write a one or two paragraph description of what takes place in that chapter. (This type of outline will be necessary when you submit your complete manuscript to an agent or publisher for consideration.) The latter is a more brief: one sentence to describe what goes on in each chapter. Some writers prefer to begin writing without any outline to see how the characters and the plot evolve. You should also make a list of your major characters by name, so you don’t mix them up. (This is for you as a guide and should not be submitted to anyone else.)

Once you are ready to write, remember that a good first page sets the tone. This works like a journalistic lead. You don’t follow the old “5 W’s and an H” approach for news stories (who, what, when there, why and how). The first sentence needs to hook the reader and entice them to go on. Whether it be “Call me Ishmael” or “These are the times that try men’s souls,” a good first sentence is very important.

After this, you should tell the story, as if you were meeting a friend on the street who asks you what your book is about. After this, you tell the story one step at a time, adding information and other characters as you need them. Let the characters speak for you in whatever way they want to speak—nasty, nice, snotty, kind.

Next, you should set up the story to have points of conflict, usually people or events that stand in the way of the protagonist solving the crime. You need also to put your hero in danger from time to time. Every chapter does not need a cliff hanger ending, but they do keep the reader interested.

Some mystery writers think you need to have a murder in the first fifty pages because everything that comes afterward revolves around this key event. Sometimes, however, the writer needs more pages to convey information leading up to the murder. There is really no set rule for this.

It is perfectly acceptable to create false leads here and there, in which you focus on people who turn out not to be guilty. In this case, be fair to readers. Don’t make the killer someone who has barely been mentioned before. Readers will be confused. Even killers deserve their time in the limelight.

If bringing in factual material to augment the story, be sure that it does not slow the narrative down. (See blog on “Turning Fact into Fiction.)

Write an ending that will make readers either fulfilled or confounded. Be sure to tie up all loose ends and not end let you novel end with a thud.




After figuring out your plot, the next most important aspect of writing any kind of novel is to create the characters who will propel the story.

In a mystery series, that is reasonably easy, once you have chosen a protagonist.
Your lead character needs to be described physically. Is he or she young, old or middle-aged? Is this character tall or short, thin or a bit on the heavy side? This main character need not look like the movie star you hope will play him or her when your book is adapted for the screen. The world is full of average looking people and it is okay if your characters look that way too. Readers, the majority of whom are average looking, can identify readily with those who look and talk and act like them.

Dialog is crucial in letting readers get acquainted with your characters. If they are well-educated, they need to talk that way. If they are not, they need to use slang and incomplete sentences. A street thug would not talk like a Harvard professor.

Main characters need to have a background so the reader knows more about them than just their names and what they look like. In third person, this is easy to do. The story flow is interrupted by the narrator filling in the blanks. In first person, this is harder. The best way is to have someone else give background details.

Once the characters and the plot are established, the writing becomes fairly easy. Cliché that it is, “go with the flow” is the best approach. Let your characters carry you along.

Writing anything is hard, especially for those who fear it. As the 1920s sports writer Red Smith said, “Writing is easy. Just sit in front of your typewriter until beads of blood appear on your forehead.”

Another bit of advice to remember, this from New Yorker writer John McPhee: “Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one word from more than a million in the language….”




To make any kind of progress with your book at all, you need to write a certain number of pages a day. Let’s say it’s five. In a five day week you have twenty-five pages and, in a month, you are up to 100.

Writers usually work in one of two ways: either go through the story without stopping, except to correct typos and grammar errors, or pause after each page and revise it until you go on to the next page. This slows down progress but may make some writers more comfortable.

The “plunge ahead” approach is very journalistic and means that you might have inconsistencies on every page. You may forget the names of some of your characters (unless you keep a list of them). You may make mistakes in some of the factual material you are using. Don’t worry, you will catch these errors when you do your second and third and fourth drafts. Also, keep in mind that that is what you pay editors for!

Similar errors may creep into the slower method, but you will have had more time to catch and correct them.

Except for the spelling errors the “spell check” feature of your computer will catch, it is a good idea to print out the pages as you go and edit them by hand. It is easy to miss things when you are viewing your pages on a computer monitor.

Use standard manuscript format—one inch to 1.25 inch margins on all sides. Drop down six spaces before beginning each page. Be sure to double space your sentences. Left margins must be justified but right margins should be unjustified.

After your entire book is finished, read it aloud to yourself and also to someone you trust. That same person might read it themselves as well to gauge reader interest.

If you believe in your work, however, don’t make changes you don’t agree with just because a good friend suggested them. You need to trust yourself.