NLU’s Writer’s Week came to its conclusion with a half-day workshop on Saturday, July 16th featuring mystery/legal thriller writer David Ellis. He’s reading this right now, I know, because he subscribes to Google Alerts. Quick aside to David – great workshop! Thanks for sharing.
I first made David Ellis’ acquaintance over lunch at the mystery confab Love is Murder – he was earlier in his career, but I believe his debut novel (Line of Vision) had already won the MWA Edgar. He was a great conversationalist then, and he certainly still knows how to tell a great story.
Since Line of Vision, Ellis has written several stand-alones: Life Sentence, Jury of One, In the Company of Liars, and Eye of the Beholder. The most recent book is The Hidden Man, the first in his series about attorney and grieving family man Jason Kolarich, soon to be followed by Breach of Trust, the second Kolarich novel.
Here’s some advice on writing a mystery, courtesy of David Ellis:
- You can learn to write by writing. Read really good stuff and you’ll be inspired to write really good stuff.
- It’s true you should write what you know. And if you don’t know it, you better learn it before you write about it.
- Humor is tricky but can be rewarding.
- Go with what feels right. The first agent who called him with an offer for Line of Vision had low expectations. He just couldn’t bring himself to sign the contract… and a good thing, too. The next agent had big dreams… and sold the book to Penguin/Putnam.`
- One key decision: Point of view. First person? Third person? Second person? (Tricky, but it can be done!) The choice you make sets the stage for everything else. It’s a big decision to have more than one POV in a book.
- Character development makes a more satisfying story. One dimensional characters just march through the plot.
- Trust the reader’s imagination. You don’t have to write every detail – just that one evocative touch that makes the scene come alive. And that detail can be visual, or it can be a sound, a smell…
- Know your protagonist very well. Ideally, the bad guy, too. And all major characters. Write out their backstory, their likes, their dislikes, their physical features, their strengths, their weaknesses. This’ll keep you on track as you write the book.
- Can you write a book about a protagonist that the reader doesn’t like? Yes, but you might not sell too many books.
- At the end of your novel, you want the reader to be surprised but not irritated at the ending. Strive for what M. Night Shyamalan pulled off with The Sixth Sense. He didn’t cheat – all the clues that Bruce Willis is dead were right there in the film – but there was an alternative explanation. The audience bought the misdirection. Need more examples? Unbreakable. The Usual Suspects.
- Make the stakes personal and raise the stakes as the book goes on.
- Grab the reader. The first chapter should be the best chapter, first paragraph should be the best paragraph, first line should be the best line. No backstory. No lengthy descriptions.
In addition to his own work, Ellis has joined the ranks of James Patterson co-authors. I was a little disappointed to hear this – I’m not a James Patterson fan and his factory approach to publishing may churn out a consistent product, but it’s not one I buy (or even read for free). On the other hand, after hearing David Ellis describe what he has learned from Patterson, I can see what the opportunity would be appealing. And nothing ventured, nothing gained!
BTW, I did hit the library on Sunday the 17th, and hit the jackpot since all the David Ellis books published to date were right there on the shelf. I’ve already finished the Jason Kolarich debut The Hidden Man – a great read! I’m now going back to the start and re-reading Line of Vision. You, of course, should get to the bookstore and buy retail.