Earlier this month, I went to one of the talks that Mystery Writers of America’s New York chapter regularly offers at the mid-Manhattan NYPL branch. These are free lectures and panels, and every time I go, I’m always shocked and delighted that these authors, agents, and editors donate their time on cold winter nights to come talk shop. (I’m also always shocked and delighted that the library’s rickety old elevator doesn’t plunge to the ground before reaching the sixth floor, resulting in the unfortunate headline, “ASPIRING MYSTERY WRITERS MYSTERIOUSLY DONE IN BY ROGUE ELEVATOR,” but that’s another story.)
The panel, moderated by Deborah Pines, featured Jennifer Barth (HarperCollins), Alafair Burke (author of the Ellie Hatcher and Samantha Kincaid series), Hallie Ephron, Gail Hochman (Brandt & Hochman), and Keith Kahla (St. Martin’s Press & Minotaur Books), and was packed with great advice on the nuts and bolts of writing and publishing mystery novels in 2012. I’ve tried to be as faithful as possible in my notes, but if I’ve misquoted anyone, I’m happy to correct it.
Deborah: What are you looking for?
Keith: No trends. Find your own voice. [It’s best] when voice, place, and character mesh into a unified whole.
Jennifer: Figure out what makes you unique. There are lots of mysteries—but there are also voracious readers. There has to be something unified about your story.
Gail: Character-driven novels. When the life and schtick and voice come together and set the mood! Place is important; likewise, great characters. The place has to come alive and match the character. Story is key—if it’s clackety, it won’t work. The story has to be amazing.
Jennifer: One of my main criteria: Does the book have suspense? Does it get your heart rate going?
Alafair: Don’t chase trends. Ask, “What it is about my book that makes it different?” It doesn’t have to be the story or plot that makes it unique; it could be the character.
Hallie: Write something that gives you the juices; something that gives you passion. Write the hell out of it. Know the difference between the subcategories in the genre—what constitutes a thriller, a traditional mystery, etc. Know who would buy your book. Write the kind of book you love, and know what you’re writing about.
Jennifer: Read a lot. If you’re not aware of, and conversant with, the current landscape of your genre, you’re going to end up with egg on your face.
Gail, on length: Eighty thousand words is standard. Anything longer poses a risk. When I was younger and skinnier, I said, “I’m not going to read anything that’s twice my weight.” Don’t give us a manuscript that’s easy to reject.
Keith: You read until you know you’re not going to put it down.
Deborah: What are some of the pitfalls writers should be aware of?
Keith: That’s why you need an agent–to mitigate the minefield of editors’ likes and dislikes. (Q: Are prologues a pitfall? Keith: Not for me, but make it count.)
Jennifer: Unagented submissions often come in with typos and misspellings; a good agent will help you avoid these, as well as overblown comparisons, when it comes to comparing your book to similar titles.
Gail: If you read the Nancy Drew series as a kid, you know there was always that point, before dinner or bed, when you just needed one more chapter! That’s a good lesson—send us something that we can’t put down.
Deborah: What about the question of designing a series versus a standalone?
Jennifer: Everyone loves a good character that you can develop through a series. From an editor’s perspective, it’s harder to build a series—readers no longer have unlimited attention spans. They’re more easily distracted, and they no longer latch on to a character as faithfully as they used to.
Keith: There must be enough juice in the character to carry the series. A good example of this is S.J. Rozan.
Hallie: I had a five-book series, then switched to a standalone, and that was a good thing for me.
Alafair: I don’t place too much weight on labels—I don’t label my own books. I write a book that I think works. My first book was meant to work as a standalone, but that then evolved to a series.
Deborah: How much promoting needs to be done? What advice do you have about developing a platform?
Gail: Make your book as amazingly fabulous as possible.
Keith: If you’re good at self-promotion, do it; if you’re not, don’t.
Hallie: Do it, but keep it limited. From 4 to 6 pm, say.
Deborah: Any success stories to share? Last words of advice?
Alafair: Listen to your editor, and learn from him/her.
Hallie: Know your own goals, and know what your book’s best shot is at getting there. (Hallie later added that an agent can be invaluable: “This is the person who builds your career, and builds each novel.”)
Jennifer: If the book is good enough, the writer’s track record [in particular, low self-pub sales] doesn’t matter. It’s tougher than ever to get an agent and get published; increasingly, it’s not going to be either/or. People won’t be married to just hardcover or paperbacks, or e-books. Readers will do some of each.
Keith disagreed, saying that 70% of St. Martin’s revenue in 2011 came from physical books; 30% came from e-books.
Gail: Learn from the rejection letters. But [ultimately], the technology exists to do self-pub, if you want to.
Alafair: Using [the story-structuring software] Scrivener has really helped me manage the structure of my books and think in terms of scenes.
[Audience Q&A] Deborah: Let’s talk about query letters.
Gail: One page long. In one paragraph, pitch the book. Make the query letter short, well written, and interesting.
Audience member: Truth is stranger than fiction. Does the story have to be true?
Consensus: There should be an element of emotional truth… As for “based on a true story,” that doesn’t happen as often as you might expect.
Audience member on the value of a publishing house: If you do self-pub, you’re doing everything on your own—and paying for it.
Keith, on marketing and audience: Topic and character are not your audience (see John Grisham). Don’t try to sell a mystery about chemical engineers to chemical engineers.