by Ann Collette
As a veteran literary agent, I’ve read hundreds of mystery manuscripts. Some have been fabulous, where the writing talent shone, but it’s the other end of the spectrum that inspired me to write this piece. New crime writers seem to make the same mistakes over and over. But you can avoid those pitfalls! Get these lessons under your belt, and you’ll have a better shot at attracting a mystery agent’s attention.
Understand the formula
There’s a tried and true formula for crime fiction that hasn’t changed in decades: a clever hero has an impossible mission to foil evil; she’s brave, but she’s in terrible trouble. Her mission is urgent and the stakes are high, but she’s often self-sacrificing and has a personal stake in the case.
And of course, there’s a killer puzzle at the heart of the story.
Develop your characters
Characters should resemble real, authentic people—most real people aren’t insanely attractive, with superlative abilities and personalities. What your characters should have are clear wants that drive the plot and illustrate her inner life. A strong protagonist can override familiar elements of a story.
This doesn’t mean that every side character needs to have a detailed personal life. Introducing too many secondary characters is distracting, especially at the start of the book. Present your reader with the characters that matter, and…
Don’t get bogged down in unnecessary details
Details matter when there’s a mystery to solve, but you want to keep the pace moving at a fast clip. While obviously it’s important in real life to spend a lot of time in the lab, your novel doesn’t need paragraphs and paragraphs explaining how DNA testing is done.
The same goes for exposition. Backstory is good, but scatter it throughout the book; don’t dump it all in the first few pages or it’ll stop your story in its tracks.
Ask yourself, “Does the reader need to know this detail to understand what’s going on right now?” If the answer’s no, cut it.
Think outside the box
Not every mystery needs to be a murder, and not every protagonist needs to be a detective. Play around with setting and structure, and chances are better your novel will stand out. If you find you’ve surprised yourself while writing, your readers will probably be surprised, too.
Keep it new and fresh; try to avoid trends. Don’t write plots or situations based on other books you’ve read. The current bestseller was bought by an editor at least one year ago, and that particular trend may have died by the time you finish your first draft.
But remember, you need to know the rules before you can break them. And on that note…
If the opening lines of your novel are a dream or description of the weather, you’re starting with cliché. Neither creates atmosphere, and both are boring. Unless your book is a paranormal mystery where it’s a vital part of the plot, don’t use dreams with premonitions. If you’ve created a situation where the only way you can solve it is through a dream, it’s an easy way out that leaves readers disappointed.
Don’t trick your readers—outsmart them
Twist endings are more popular than ever, but in order to be satisfying, they need to be believable. Groundwork must be laid with a deft touch; readers shouldn’t be knocked over the head with clues, but when they look back, the puzzle pieces should fall into place.
A minor character we barely meet shouldn’t be responsible for every single aspect of the story, nor should the main character be suddenly revealed as the killer unless it’s already been hinted at. You want your readers to say, “I didn’t see that coming, but I should have.”
Just keep in mind—editors tend to prefer books where the good guys win.
Keep it tight
Aim for an average length of between 65,000-100,000 words, and keep the story focused. Avoid red herrings if they don’t fit the plot, and don’t throw in killings or trouble just to artificially raise the stakes. Every threat against your heroine should match the unfolding of the plot.
Don’t overcomplicate things. With a gang of compelling characters, an exciting puzzle to solve, and a few twists along the way, you’ll be sure to keep your reader turning the pages.
Happy writing! If you’re wondering why agents keep saying no to you, Career Authors’ Paula Munier says she knows five possible reasons why. And here they are.
And if you’d like to chat about getting an agent, join us on the Career Authors Facebook page.
Ann Collette was a freelance writer and editor for 15 years before joining Rees Literary Agency in 2000. She specializes in crime fiction, upscale women’s, and accessible literary. Her secret desires include: crime fiction set in SE Asia, ancient Greece or Rome, and thrillers set in the world of martial arts or biker gangs. Her list includes the New York Times bestseller The Art Forger (Algonquin) by B.A. Shapiro; The Muralist (Algonquin) by B.A. Shapiro; the Amory Ames Mystery series, including Edgar nominated Murder at the Brightwell (Thomas Dunne) by Ashley Weaver; Hollow Man (Seventh Street) and the Hugo Marston mystery series (Seventh Street) by Mark Pryor; Newport (HarperCollins) by Jill Morrow; the Vampire Empire series (Pyr) by Clay and Susan Griffith; and the Natural Remedies mystery series (Pocket Books) by Chrystle Fiedler.