The Five Most Common Mistakes in Writing Mystery
Editor Allister Thompson is a specialist when it comes to working on mysteries. He has worked for a number of Canadian publishers and ran a crime fiction imprint from 2000 to 2011.
I've been editing crime fiction since 1998, so exactly 20 years, almost to this month. I was the editor of a small Canadian press that started a mystery in print in 1999. We discovered there were hardly any publishers putting out Canadian-themed mysteries at that time, so we developed a bit of a niche market that taught me a lot about how to niche market crime fiction.
We did that for about 13 years until the company was bought by a larger one. I worked for them for two years and, eventually, in 2013, went freelance, moved to a small northern-ish town where I continued to edit a lot of mysteries — heartily thanks to the great clients that I get from our friends at Reedsy!
Though I was not an avid crime fiction reader before getting involved in this genre, I've learned a lot about how to put together an interesting, distinctive, and I think that's the key thing I'm emphasizing here today: mystery or thriller, and there are many factors to consider right from the moment that you conceive of the idea for a novel (or series of novels).
Even though I'm no longer a submissions editor with a giant slush pile on my desk, I still see a ton of manuscripts. Most of the mysteries I read and edit, like most of the books I generally edit, end up being pretty good, serviceable at worst. I'm not a snob who's looking for the next Cormac McCarthy or Tony Morrison. I'm looking to help publish novels that are interesting, tell a good story, and are moving in some way.
What does it take to write mystery?
Talent is a factor, but it's not everything. Following the right steps, working hard and intelligently on planning are just as important to writing a good book as natural genius. I'm sure that you all know that by now, but take heart.
The bad news is the marketplace for all kinds of fiction is really crowded now, despite the decline of smaller traditional publishers, because self-publishing has exploded in recent years. This is mainly due to technological improvements that have made it easier to create, upload, and print books — and crime is a big, big, busy genre. It's one of the most popular genre fiction areas, both in self-publishing and with large and small publishers around the world.
Lots of people are writing books in the various subgenres of crime writing, and a lot of those end up on my computer as well — cozies, police procedurals, legal thrillers, hard-boiled, medical mysteries, historical mysteries and so on. It's a dynamic marketplace, and now that self-publishing is easy and can be done more cost-effectively, the market is splitting at the seams with really good mysteries, all clamoring for a piece of the reader's attention.
So how can you make your book stand out?
No crime fiction aficionado, no matter how devoted, has time to read more than a tiny fraction of the avalanche of what's out there. But remember that they can also be devoted to reading series, which means that if you make a fan, they're going to stick with you for book after book. This is a huge advantage to you as a writer, because you can develop an audience that will stay loyal to you based on your protagonist, concept, setting, or just the way that you tell a story.
There are lots of things that a writer can do to make their work stand out, both to readers and to submission editors and agents. The obvious one is developing the craft to become a skilled writer, of course: compelling storytelling, poetic writing, careful plotting, and interesting characters and points of view.
In crime fiction, though, there are even more considerations because it's a genre with many subgenres, and some crossover even with literary mysteries. As with science fiction, authors should consider which specific reading demographic they want to target — because, while crime fiction readers do read in the different subgenres, there are some who are also 100% devoted to a specific subgenre. For example, a cozy reader might read nothing else but cozies, so you have to take this extra layer into consideration.
Five common mistakes when writing mystery and crime fiction
I'm going to talk about five overarching issues in mystery here, rather than about the technicalities of writing — which of course apply to all genres of fiction. For example, POV is a constant debate. Do you stick with one main narrator or a person whose eyes we see through? Is it okay to have scenes that stray from one character's POV so you can show other key events, first versus third, omniscient versus limited?
That's not what I'm delving into here. I'm going to talk about mistakes that might keep your mystery and crime fiction from finding a publisher or a market: it might not be distinctive or well-planned enough, or it doesn't follow the genre's requirements closely enough, or it follows them too closely. And of course, I'll cover what you can do and what you should think about to make your work stand out right from the moment you start to plan that series.
If any of these points seem really obvious to some of you, that's great! But you'd be surprised by how many people, even very experienced writers, seem to neglect to consider them before I see a finished draft of their novel. So without further ado, here we go: the five most common mistakes in mystery and crime fiction.
1. Not doing your research
Do not neglect to do all of the necessary research for the background of your story. This is most important, of course, with procedurals. Don't do a police procedural or have any police content without extensively researching it first.
Many authors, over the years, have given me the email equivalent of a blank stare because they think they can make this kind of thing up based upon what they've seen on fictional TV crime shows. But those police are doing things that cops in your jurisdiction just don't do — even something small, like the way Miranda rights are read or how long you can hold a prisoner without charge, might be different. Even these small deviations can lose picky readers, and many genre readers can be very picky and critical (as anyone who has a novel on Goodreads knows).
Many authors who are serious about research will contact their local police to ask if someone might consult, read the manuscript, or simply correct incorrect procedure or behavior. Some cops actually find that a lot of fun!
One of my most successful authors is a woman named Barbara Fradkin— who has twice won Canada's top crime award, the Arthur Ellis Award. She has an Ottawa-based procedural series, and she uses a consultant who checks all the police content. She did this even before she got published, as far as I know, and she took this really seriously from the first draft.
This may seem less important with cozies, which are very lighthearted and often a bit unrealistic, with many people finding inconsistencies book after book. But even then, if police behavior is totally outlandish, unbelievable, or buffoonish, it can be very off-putting to readers who might feel the plotting is sloppy.
The same goes for other very specific subgenres: legal thrillers, medical thrillers, etc. These are often written by people who have a professional background in that field. But if you're not a professional, you need to find out how a court case is run in your jurisdiction or what the procedures are in a local hospital. If you don't know it, research it; it will make your book so much better.
One of my recent Reedsy clients, Rachel O'Day, has a medical thriller entitled Code Pink which has been getting some great reviews. Well, Rachel happens to be a nurse in Texas, so she knows her stuff — which is why there's a really authentic feel to it.
That doesn't necessarily mean you have to only write what you know, of course. That would restrict all of us who haven't really done anything exciting in our lives — but if you haven't lived the situation, make sure to research it. This applies to everything in mystery and crime fiction, but it's especially true for things like police work.
2. Relying on "whodunnit" and other genre tropes
Don't assume that "whodunnit" is the only key element in a crime novel. Yes, this Agatha Christie stereotype is still a lot of fun, and it's a staple of cosies. But some crime novels don't even conceal the killer's identity, and the mystery is in how they're caught; this can be a great twist on the classic trope.
Another recent personal example via Reedsy is the novel Azrael by M.T. Ellis, an Australian author I work with who just got shortlisted for an independent publishing award. In Ellis's novel, we know who the killer is from the start, but she fills in interesting info on the killer's background so we know how his psychology developed from the time he was a child. We know who he is and how he came to be, but we don't know how he's going to get caught, and this is just as suspenseful as the classic "whodunnit."
Another way of putting this is: don't fall into customary genre patterns. I've seen hundreds of cozy-style mysteries that always have the "whodunnit," the red herrings, etc. In the end, our sleuth hones in on the killer, finally unearths them, and then goes to meet the killer without a cellphone — without calling for backup or telling anyone else where they are. Then the killer catches them and is going to kill them, so our hero says, "Before you kill me, tell me the story of how you cleverly pulled this all off," and the stalling helps save the day one way or another. This plays out in book after book.
I'm not saying you should never do that either. Some very successful, fun, well-written and entertaining series I've worked on feature that sort of pattern — but before you fall back on that, think about what's best for your story. Don't just blindly follow genre conventions that might not work for you and what you want to say.
3. Mixing genres or going too far "off-genre"
Mystery readers are not always genre-focused like a laser, but they can be in certain key aspects, so don't mix genres too much to the point where your book can't be marketed to that demographic. We all want to avoid falling into boring patterns, as I've just noted, but we also don't want to go so far that we alienate our potential fan base. This may not seem fair, but it's important: when marketing a self-published book in particular, you really need to be able to hone in on your target demographic.
For instance, is your novel a cozy? Then don't be putting in a gory bloodbath or scenes of extreme sex. Do not even think about it. Cozies are almost uniformly gentle and fun and gentile. If you have some XXX erotica going on in there, you are probably going to get in trouble. Don't have people's eyeballs getting gouged out or heads being hacked off either, no Game of Thrones-type stuff or scenes straight from a Saw movie. Just don't do it.
On the other hand, if your book is supposed to be traumatic — it's real, it's raw, it's an episode of The Wire mixed with Californication or something — and you're a naturally reserved person who blushes when you see someone's butt appear on screen, then you might want to try writing a different book. Or at least, if that's the kind of book you want to write, you'd better learn some new tricks. In any case, avoid making your mystery/crime book too much of a hybrid that can't figure out which one it's going to be, because readers will notice that.
4. Using stereotypical settings
Don't necessarily use stereotypical settings where many other genre pieces are set. This might seem like kind of an odd point, but it's a real favourite of mine to emphasise, especially for brainstorming authors. This will affect you most when you're conceiving of your story, as you're deciding what you want to write about and where you want to set it.
Many of us complain about how many movies are set in New York — and if not there, in LA, and if not there, maybe Chicago or some other urban setting. Following that vein, the world simply doesn't need another crime novel to take place in New York, to be honest — or if you're British, in London, or Canadian, Toronto, or Spanish, Madrid. Unless you have a very personal connection or extremely good reason to use one of these cities, why bother?
The fact is, offering a distinct, new setting that may be exotic to readers sets you apart. It gives you more interesting material, plus it gives you a really good marketing plot.
I spent over a decade publishing books set in places like Sudbury, Ontario and Victoria, British Columbia — and those books weren't just read by people from those places. They have fans all over North America, even the world, who love the settings that may have been prosaic to the authors, but were exotic to the readers.
There's a very well-known author from my town named Giles Blunt. He has a TV series on our major national network now based on his series— and it's set here in little old North Bay (though under an assumed name).
Another famous mass media example is, of course, Breaking Bad — which is probably the first thing I've ever encountered set in Albuquerque, but the distinct cultural mix and geography of that place were a huge part of the show's hook.
It's the same in fiction. You may find people who disagree with this point: who think that New York can be sort of a conventional blank canvas, a fictional playground for authors who don't want to bother with providing or researching a sense of place, who are more interested in character than making the setting almost like a character in the book. This can work really well, but those authors aren't doing themselves any favors in attracting readers who are hungry for something different. Remember, it's a crowded marketplace, and you do want to stand out.
5. Not keeping sequel possibilities open
Don't necessarily write your book specifically as a one-off with no series or series potential. Unless there's some super-compelling reason not to do this, like it's a true story or something similar, why limit your future success by boxing yourself in? The mystery genre is definitely still based around series, so keep that in mind as you plan and write your book.
Of course, it's possible to have a piece of crime fiction that doesn't lend itself well to series, that doesn't have characters that can continue on in other books. If that's what happens, then fine — but say you're successful with that book. People will want more because that's what they're used to getting. So you should at least think about whether your protagonist and other key characters are interesting enough to carry over.
There are always things you can expand upon: themes, subplots, backstories of other characters or settings. Make your secondary characters interesting enough in Book One so that if you need them later on, an interest has already been established.
One of the most successful series of cozies I published was the Camilla MacPhee mysteries by Mary Jane Maffini — who has gone on since then to publish further series with Berkeley Prime Crime, so she's done very well. Maffini's main character was a lawyer, but she created a cast colorful supporting characters, and in subsequent books, the plots would highlight each of these characters in turn: a nosy old neighbour, an annoying sidekick from Nova Scotia, etc.
She established these characters with the idea to highlight them later, and it paid off. There were several successful books in that series, and it allowed her to move the stories to the other settings around Canada because the characters had lived in those places.
Just last year, I worked with a client on Reedsy who wrote a really good mystery that I was excited about, and I asked her, "So where you taking this next? Another book?" The book had been getting some really nice reviews. But still, she gave me that email equivalent of a blank stare. "What second book?" she replied. "I was just trying to get through this one."
Now, I understand that writing your first book is really hard and just getting it done is a huge achievement — and you can find that series potential after the fact without any pre-planning. However, you will find it a lot easier with planning, just like everything else in life.
A couple more bonus points:
Plausibility is a big issue in crime fiction. Don't avoid thinking about the plausibility of your story and the concept. It's easy to make a police procedural believable because that's what cops do. They deal with crimes. It's their job. Where things get dicier with crime fiction is where cosies are concerned — because, yes, it's fundamentally absurd that a pet shop owner would continually be involved in finding bodies all over the place.
Still, is there a way that you can take some of the absurdity out of that by making the situations more realistic? Maybe there's a different way the deaths happen that not all are crimes or murders — just something to mix it up. This is just something to think about. (Mind you, it's kind of a moot point in a way because, as I said, the absurdity of that same situation presenting itself over and over again is pretty well accepted in the genre, and it's all part of the fun, really.)
In our aforementioned Camilla MacPhee series, for example, the author got around this problem by making her character a lawyer who runs a charity for victims of crime. That sounds very serious, but it really just helps the crimes she comes across make more sense. Because of the lighter tone and the humour on every page, it's definitely a cosy mystery series and a very good and celebrated one.
My last few points are something of a plug for my profession — and the fact that you're already watching this means I assume you already know all this — but these are some things that I like to emphasise with everyone.
If you're working with an editor, and they've done some developmental work with you and you're happy with the plot and pacing and everything I mentioned above, and if you plan to submit to publishers and agents, please get a copy edit of it done. It's too competitive out there not to put your best work forward, as polished as possible without errors, formatted well, etc.
It doesn't have to be perfect at that stage, but it should be close, and I think there's still too many people not taking this step. You can have a really great story, but bad punctuation and spelling can really mess up your chances when you're sending stuff in. I know that it's a lot of money, but it's definitely something that should be considered if you can afford it.
Part B to that is that if you're going to self-publish, you're going to get a copy of it done, but do get a proofread done as well — either of your final Word file or, even better, of the final laid-out book. This will help you find last-minute errors, typos, or possible design or layout errors. Proofreading is best done at this near-final stage because, you can see places where there are bad line breaks and all kinds of different typographical problems.
It's also best to get a new set of eyes on the manuscript than your regular editor, because authors' and editors' eyes become tired of reading the same text over and over again. Get a pro for that final once-over, and you're going to have something as good as Doubleday would put out. It's worth the money if you're serious about building a career, and I believe that you can. That's why I do this work.
There you have it. Lots of don'ts, but also some dos about how to make your mystery stand out, how to make sure it does well, how you're going to go about it, and how that can help you market, as well. I can't emphasise too much how important it is to be able to target that readership when marketing. Being in this genre is a lot easier than writing general literary fiction in many ways. It really allows you to target your audience — and you can do even better than just that initial targeting of the genre.
Any thoughts or questions for Allister? Feel free to share them in the comments below