by guest blogger Peggy Ehrhart
I recently had the chance to be a fly on the wall as forty successful mystery writers critiqued forty unpublished projects. As chair of the mentor program run by the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America, my task was to relay the mentees’ submissions to the mentors and then relay the mentors’ critiques back to the mentees. Each mentee submitted fifty pages and a synopsis, and each mentor read one submission.
The program’s grand finale, a panel discussion at the Mercantile Library in New York City, included a summary of the mentors’ comments--naming no names, of course.
As I worked on the summary, it dawned on me that I could have saved myself a lot of trouble by cribbing my talk from almost any how-to-write text--the major points were the same. But there’s something compelling about insights derived empirically, as these were. And one warning, about the problem many mentors characterized as the absolute deal-breaker--stay tuned--came with much more force from these published writers than from the pages of a book.
At least three-quarters of the mentors said that the plots in the projects they read were lost in background and explanation. One mentor called it “info dump.” They pointed out that exposition should be woven in gradually. Only if we’ve come to care about a character by watching her in action do we care about the experiences that shaped her.
Many mentors told their mentees to open with a more compelling incident, something to grab the reader’s attention. And one mentor, explaining why exposition isn’t crucial at the beginning, said that puzzling the reader with a dramatic opening that omits context is fine because “readers like doing work as long as there’s a reward.”
At least half the mentors said they had trouble connecting with the protagonist; one observed that the only character he identified with was the killer. Mentors stressed that we need to understand and care about the protagonist or nothing that the protagonist experiences will matter.
Discussing supporting characters, mentors made three main points: Don’t throw in too many all at once. Don’t bring them onstage before they have something to do. And be consistent with their names so the reader can tell them apart. John shouldn’t also be “Johnny,” “Butch,” “Little John,” and “Mr. Wilkins,” or the reader will think he’s five different people. And supporting characters should be interesting and distinctive. One mentor complained that the project he read was full of supporting characters who were all “tall” but otherwise indistinguishable.
And here’s a crucial point that the mentors--three-quarters of them--made about supporting characters: they should do what real people would do and not what the plot requires. If a character is a wimp, he should not suddenly become brave because the plot requires it.
In discussing dialogue, several mentors observed that all the characters in the projects they read sounded the same and that their speech was too formal. They pointed out that a character’s speech should reflect such things as age and social class, and they suggested that writers read their dialogue aloud to check that it sounds natural.
A related point was that characters didn’t speak in ways that seemed natural given the emotional content of the scene. Characters conveying and receiving horrific news sounded as matter-of-fact as if they were chatting about everyday events.
A number of mentors advised their mentees to get a better grip on the conventions of their chosen subgenre. One example of a project with a problem was a book set up as a cozy but featuring graphic scenes of violence; another was a cozy that opened with a bomb explosion. Once that bomb goes off, the mentor observed, the reader expects a thriller.
No matter what the subgenre, mentors cautioned that police work must be handled believably. Several pointed out that even if a project is an amateur-sleuth cozy, police will show up when there is a murder. A scene in which a dead body is discovered but police never appear will strike the reader as unbelievable. And when police come, they have to do things that police would realistically do, such as establish a crime scene and summon detectives and CSI people, even if, because of the nature of the project, the technical details of these tasks aren’t dwelled on.
Many of the mentors have backgrounds in police work--a fact that made them very valuable critiquers, particularly when assigned to critique police procedurals. The police details in a project like that have to be perfect, of course, and those mentors pointed out that procedure varies from city to city and department to department, so the best advice is to consult a cop.
And the deal-breaker? A surprisingly large number of mentors found problems with grammar, spelling, punctuation, and page formatting in the projects they read. And they were unanimous in their belief that when an agent encounters a project with that kind of carelessness, he or she will just put it aside and turn to the next submission.
Peggy Ehrhart’s blues mystery, Sweet Man Is Gone, featuring singer-bandleader Maxx Maxwell, is due from Five Star in July. Visit Peggy on the web at www.PeggyEhrhart.com