Since beginning my mystery novel project two summers ago, I’ve learned a lot (The Long, Steep Learning Curve), and I’ve gotten lots of advice—from writer friends and colleagues, from books on the craft of writing, from magazine and web articles, from writers’ conferences, workshops, and professional organizations. I’ve listened to all of it. I really have. Much of the advice has resonated with me and has already been incorporated into my manuscript, at least to the best of my ability. But some of the advice I’ve gotten has been, frankly, contradictory. What, then, do I act on?
Recently I started reading a mystery by a well-known author, the winner of several prestigious awards. I like the story. I want to keep reading. And while I wouldn’t call the plot exactly riveting (so far), I’m being gently drawn in. I want to see what happens to the protagonist, a young girl from Boston with no money and no family ties. And I am eager to see how the author provides motivation and rationale for her to involve herself in the investigation of a murder. So far so good. The goal of every author is to keep his or her audience interested enough to keep turning the pages.
But nowhere yet (I’m several chapters in) do I see the element that all the current advice says is “absolutely necessary” if one wants to be published today—tension. Oh, maybe there’s some mild tension in the fact that the protagonist finds herself at loose ends in a foreign country. And yes, her grandmother did leave a last request that she look into her heritage. But this is nothing like the kind of tension I’ve been advised is a must in today’s mystery market. Things are going pretty well for the protagonist. There’s not even a body yet.
And there’s something else. I can’t count the times I’ve heard or read something like this: “Don’t make the mistake of explaining too much at the beginning. Slice and dice the backstory, dropping it in only when necessary. Cut to the chase. Pose questions that simply must be answered.”
I’m sure that’s right, and yet the mystery I’m reading has quite a bit of back story at the beginning. And it’s taking its own, sweet time getting to the murder. No jumping into things in medias res. No puzzles to pique the reader’s interest. But, to repeat myself, I like it. And obviously others have as well, since it’s gotten very good publicity.
Here’s my take-away—at least for now. Listen to advice but act on what seems right. So, I will finish this revision. Then I will give the manuscript to a few beta readers, after which I will revise again. And then I will begin the process of sending out queries and synopses and sample pages. Will there be an agent out there who loves my writing? Will there be someone who believes in it enough to pitch it to publishers?
Now that really is a mystery.