WR Book Review #2: Mysterious Writers, The Many Facets Of Writing Mysteries Compiled And Edited by John Henry Mead

For all you aspiring or practicing mystery authors. In this second edition of WRITER READS, I’m reviewing a not-so recent release. Mysterious Writers by John Henry Meade (Poison Press, 2010) is a compilation of 73 mystery, thriller, and crime author interviews and essays, short but succinct, that should hold something of interest for any aspiring writer of mysteries.

Mystery readers are good people. Every time they read a mystery they are reaffirming their commitment to goodness.

Author, Carolyn Hart

Books on writing often break down, in terms of the overall structure, into the two most popular formats; those written by a sole author (such as the last book last reviewed here, Storyville by John Dufresne) or those books that are constructed of compiled articles, interviews, essays, etc. featuring a number of authors and either focusing on a given subject (genre, plotting, character), form (novel, short story, playwriting, screenwriting, poetry, etc) or giving their views on the subject overall.

Mysterious Writers, The Many Facets Of Mystery Writing, compiled and edited by John Henry Mead and published by The Poison Press is a version of the latter but done in combination. That is, it is a compilation of interviews with many mystery writers, but then broken down into genres and sub-genres. And with mini-essays at the end of each interview.

The first thing a prospective purchaser of this book on writing mysteries will discover is that it is not only about writing mysteries. Chapter 1 focuses on cozies and senior sleuths and includes interviews with Carolyn Hart and Nancy Pickard, among others. But then we move on to Suspense/Thrillers, including Jeffrey Deaver, Jason Pinter, and Robert W. Walker, Historical Mysteries with Rhys Bowen and Carolyn Dunn, etc., Western Mysteries with C.J. Box and Craig Johnson, and so on. So if you were looking for a book solely on writing the mystery form, this isn’t it. But I don’t think there is any interview in this book whose advice can’t also be applied to the pure mystery—or any other genre for that matter. Plus, with a glance at the table of contents, a writer/reader can easily find their particular genre or sub-genre and read those interviews first before expanding out to read the rest.

…Mysteries are about solving a crime, wheres thrillers are about preventing one

Jason Pinter

The second thing a reader of this book will notice (or at least I did) is the names of the many well-known authors interviewed, some best-selling, some mainstays in the genre. Not just the ones previously mentioned, but also Elmore Leonard, Louise Penny, A.B. Guthrie Jr., Lee Goldberg, and more. So there is a lot of credible and attractive star power within the pages from hugely famous writers who I’m sure most readers will jump to first. But then there are also the voices of those authors who are not necessarily publishing phenoms but who consistently sell well within their genre, as well as some unfamiliar upstarts (back then). And I appreciated the balance. Sometimes when reading the interviews of a best-selling author, particularly one who writes in your genre, is a favorite, and has been interviewed many times before, you are re-reading their perspectives on how they write, plot, develop character or worlds, etc. for the umpteenth time. With those authors not interviewed so widely you are getting fresh perspectives that often come across particularly refreshing and insightful because the interviews focus more on craft without the distractions of what it’s like being a famous author; publicity, fans, media, etc. (distractions, if you are reading this book, you probably do not yet have to contend with yet). These authors are also closer to the level of a beginning writer and so some of their candid answers can be particularly relatable and encouraging. The interview with Jim Doherty where he discusses, among other craft-oriented subjects, using pseudonyms, slagging sales numbers, and the perils of chasing trends is a good example of a candid interview with a hard-working writer.

The third thing the reader will notice is that this book is dated. Originally published in 2010, there are Q&As to do with the publishing industry at the time, the economy, reading trends, technologies, etc. that are just not relevant today and so not useful. However, the content and insight that stays true to craft by these writers—the important stuff–is timeless and does not feel at all dated. It’s also interesting to note some recognizable names and how their careers proceeded from that time. C.J. Box and Craig Johnson were nowhere near the superstars they are today (Netflix helps). Meanwhile, John Gilstrap’s career after his big contract for Nathan’s Run has sort of withered (though he is still publishing). And, yes, it is a little disheartening to read of some of the up-and-comers back then who, now, eleven years later, have not quite yet up-and-come. But all aspiring writers know the odds going in and this is not to say that there still isn’t much to learn from these writers’ advice as any other.

The interviews in Mysterious Writers are generally short (they have to be–there are seventy-three!) but helpful. They cut to the chase. The common denominator questions throughout are all the usual suspects: where do you get your ideas, how do you plot, writing schedule, creating the mystery, etc. Which is good. Trite and obvious as those questions may seem, these are the questions aspiring writers want to be answered first from the writers they are trying to emulate. This isn’t 60 Minutes, after all. Readers want information they can use. And there are some great insights that catch you by surprise–even though you may subconsciously know it beforehand–or succinctly sum up a point to keep in mind when writing (one of Jason Pinter’s quotes comes to mind: ‘Mysteries are about solving a crime, whereas thrillers are about preventing one.’ Obvious in hindsight, perhaps, but a clear demarcation a writer of either type of story might want to keep in mind when plotting). There are some other questions that seem irrelevant; what would you be if you weren’t a writer? What writers would you most like to have dinner with? etc. Still, the interviews generally get to the heart of writing craft and do not linger much on peripheral matters.

Something I thought that was a great idea in this book was having each interview end with a mini-essay by the author being interviewed. Sometimes this works better than others (Carolyn Harts’ succinct distinction between the crime novel and traditional mystery and Rick Mofina’s helpful reminder of 16 tips to writing a great thriller—useful. Tim Halliman’s meandering meditation on writing in an Asian coffee chop and Amy Carter’s promotion of her radio show—not so useful to writers looking for insight on craft).

Another unexpected and welcome addition was a chapter late in the book on mystery resources beyond the novel. It includes interviews with crime historian EJ Wagner, crime biographer Jeffery Marks, and police procedural expert, Lee Lofland, and others. These sections not only provide some great interviews and resources from people who, like the reader, are passionate about mystery and crime novels, but also highlight some genre alternatives for writers and lovers of the genres. Who knows–you may want to write some non-fiction one day.

I was not as impressed with the chapter on niche mysteries. I understand the inclination. They were extremely popular back then and still are. But success in that genre has predictably narrowed in the intervening years to its most popular authors and most of these mysteries are actually cozies that could—and probably should–have been merged with the first chapter on cozies. Even an interview/essay with one niche author on turning your passion into a mystery novel would have summed the sub-genre category up fine, I think.

This book does not go into a lot of depth on the craft of writing mysteries with any one author, and at times can feel sleight. You want more from Elmore Leonard. You want more from Louise Penny. But for those writers who want to write mysteries (or thrillers or procedurals, etc) and who love reading interviews with writers and to compare their own methods with published authors, this book is great to peruse and skip through and underline as you wish.

This is exactly that book when you remember a piece of writing advice but can’t remember who said it and so rush to your bookshelf to pull it out, find your highlights, and read more.

Random Kick-Ass Quote On Writing

Thank you for reading! And please subscribe so I know who I’m talking to and to receive WRITER READS directly in your inbox. If you have any recommendations for books on writing I should review, websites or content you think worthy of sharing, suggestions for articles on writing/publishing about writing, news to relate, questions, or criticisms please email me by replying to this post.

Happy writing!

INKLINKZ: 6/22/21

Cory Doctorow’s blogging retrospective, surprising blow-back for George R. R. Martin–and others, creating twist-endings, twisted (in a good way) writing, and a new contest to enter your chapbook fiction in.

Alternating with reviews of books on writing, WRITER READS will offer INKLINKZ posts featuring literary links of interest from around the web; newsy, opinionated, trending, recent releases, etc., as well as alternative media reviews (film, tv, periodicals, podcast, etc.) to do with the craft of writing. If you have any links you think should be shared with your fellow writers, please let me know.

  • In his new Medium column, Cory Doctorow’s reflection on 20 years of blogging makes for really interesting reading. You can also listen to the podcast version here.
  • Over at LitReactor, Peter Derk details John Swartzwelder’s writing-as-fun method of writing (Don’t think you know Swartzwelder’s work? You do, believe me).
  • On Vulture, Zakiya Dalila Harris has a short essay on how she develops twist endings.
  • The New York Times has this piece on what happened when a blogger of romance fiction reviews met the romance author she recently reviewed (Hint: anything can happen when writers read about writing!)
  • The Chestnut Review is, for the first time, holding a chapbook contest for prose. Read about it and how you can submit here.
  • And Annie Wilkes is everywhere these days! (in fantasy fiction anyway).
    • First, it was George R. R. Martin being trolled by his fans for taking too long to finish his sequel.
    • Then it was Patrick Rothfuss being called out by fans and HIS EDITOR for not writing fast enough.
    • And now, Divergent series author, Victoria Roth, is getting death threats for killing off a character.

Remember when William Shatner told his adoring Trekkie groupies to get a life?


Random Kick-Ass Quote On Writing

Wonderful Ionesco portrait by Rebecca Andoff at https://aisforandoff.blogspot.com/

Thank you for reading! And please subscribe so I know who I’m talking to and to receive WRITER READS directly in your inbox. If you have any recommendations for books on writing I should review, websites or content you think worthy of sharing, suggestions for articles on writing/publishing about writing, news to relate, questions, or criticisms please email me by replying to this post.

Happy writing!

WR Book Review #1: STORYVILLE! An Illustrated Guide By John Dufresne

In this inaugural edition of WRITER READS, I’m reviewing STORYVILLE! AN ILLUSTRATED GUIDE by John Dufresne. (W.W. Norton, 2020). John previously wrote one of my favorites, “The Lie That Tells The Truth”, and–spoiler–Storyville continues his tradition of honest, helpful instruction.

You have to have two skills to be a fiction writer. You have to be able to write and you have to be able to tell a story. Telling a story is the harder skill to master.

Get used to the name John Dufresne around these parts. I’m a huge fan of both his fiction and non-fiction and I’ll be reviewing some of his other books on writing in the near future, for sure. John Dufresne, if you haven’t yet discovered him, is a professional’s professional. A talented, skilled, and experienced writer with a gift for sly insight and humor, and bold, muscular, often lyrical, prose. If Anthony Bourdain had stuck to writing and wrote books on writing, he might have been John Dufresne (and, come to think of it, if John Dufresne ever decides to write a book on food, I’ll probably snatch that up the moment it hits the shelves). He’s an author of fiction novels and short stories who teaches writing at Florida International University and who, later in his career—and to the benefit of all us writers—decided to start writing about the craft of writing. His fiction includes the novels Requiem, Ma., Louisiana Power & Light, and Love Warps The Mind A Little. His short story collections include The Way That Water Enters Stone and Johnny Too Bad. His books on writing include The Lie That Tells The Truth, Is Life Like This?, and Flash! Writing The Very Short Story. You can visit his website at www.Johndufresne.com (and when you do, check out his killer blog—predictably smart, funny, and fun). And John has found a collaborator this time around with Evan Wondolowski. Evan is an artist who, along with occasionally providing illustrations for books, also makes art out of money—literally. You can see for yourself at www.theartofe.com

This is my very first Writer Reads post. When I first came up with the idea of Writer Reads, I envisioned my first post being either an introduction to the site (but screw that—why not just get on with the show and let it define itself?) or a revisit to a writing classic and favorite of mine—namely, The Lie That Tells The Truth by John Dufresne. As it turns out, however, I had just purchased Storyville, John’s most recent release and so why not review that?

First off, Storyville is fun. As Dufresne’s writing always is. If you’re familiar with his previous work then you’ll immediately recognize the smart, assured tone. The dry, surprising wit. The effective (almost hypnotizing?) use of the present-tense second-person to lead the reader through the writer’s-eye-view of being and becoming a writer. As well as the wealth of literary references, anecdotal and by quotation, from a Greek chorus of great writers (not just the usual Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Bradbury usual suspects, but also from Hilary Mantel, Cynthia Ozick, and Bernard Malamud) which serve as more than just page-dressing, but more as further expert testimony to the particular lesson being taught.

There is some overlap in the teachings as you would expect from a book that is not focused on a single, newly explored aspect of writing but rather on the craft in general. After all, he has tackled the broad subject before and hasn’t changed his fundamental writing views and practices.

It’s a provocative world out there, and you try to make yourself susceptible to it. You understand that every object is worthy of your attention because a story can begin anywhere, because everything is implicit in anything, because any irritating grain of sand can become a pearl.

Dufresne believes in writing as an organic process that starts from a true place. He believes in “accidents” and following the dream of fiction. He believes in exploration. And he believes in believing in the process. And what the writer personally brings to the table.

But before you begin to think it’s sounding a little too hippified, you’ll also come upon his not so gentle Ten Commandments Of Fiction Writing (reminiscent, though somewhat different, from Elmore Leonard’s famous version). Among them, #1: Keep Your Ass In The Chair!, And #8: Thou Shalt Rewrite Again And Again. And Again!

The book leads you logically and efficiently through its four parts: The Fiction Writer, Fiction Writing, Plotting, and Revision. While I found especially useful—and personally connected with—the plotting and revision portions, the first two sections deserve emphasis. In these two parts, Dufresne takes time to explore the writer first. Their interests. Their obsessions. Their motivations for writing. Their insecurities and uncertainties. These are important aspects to the artist and their creative process that, if not resolved, may hinder the writer from the outset. Normally glossed over in writing books that often focus more acutely on writing “rules” and “no-nos”, Dufresne, his long experience as a teacher of fiction showing its worth, doesn’t shy away from these issues, or take a simplistic hardline, but instead embraces and addresses them like the generous mentor he is.

While the book comes in at a substantial 271 pages, Storyville is a quick and easy read that can be completed in a single sitting if the reader wanted (though I would instead advise taking your time with it, journal opened, notes taken, exercises fully exercised). This is in part because much of the book is made up of illustrations and artwork (which I haven’t forgotten about and deserves much credit! See further down), writing exercises followed by pages of empty lines for completing them (which does seem unnecessary and more like filler—a writer, I think, would want their own notebook to do such exercises so that they could write as much or as little as they wanted), and full-page quotations from the writers mentioned before. But also because of the layout of the pages, which is often made up of bulleted lists, headings followed by short paragraphs, pages and their subjects broken up by artwork, bullets, and pull-quotes, etc.

That is not to say that the book is sparse or lacking. It isn’t. It’s economical. There are pages of mostly uninterrupted prose devoted to subjects which Dufresne feels needs the attention—particularly in the Fiction Writing section when dealing with the subject of character and in those later sections where he takes time to write a story in full so that the reader can follow along to learn, in real-time, exactly what the teacher is teaching (I guess it should be no surprise that a fiction writer would give a good amount of effort to actually writing some fiction, right?).

Storyville’s sub-title title describes itself accurately as a “guide”. It could almost serve as a companion to The Lie That Tells The Truth. “Lie…” is a more detailed book which I’ve read many times over and will again whenever I want to be once again immersed and reminded of these lessons in detail, whereas Storyville might be the book I would pull from the shelf for a quick reference and reminder on process while in the midst of the writing itself and feeling stuck.

You’re not as smart as you thought you were. Fiction teaches you that real quick.

Lastly (and only because I’m a writer and not an illustrator), the illustrations by Evan Wondolowski are creative, understated, and fit in perfectly both with the playful structure of the book and with Dufresne’s learned but wise and witty tone. The artwork is simple but spot-on, never distracting, and always helping to further cement in the reader’s mind the important bullet points that Dufresne’s prose is making.

In summary, Storyville is yet another unique and helpful addition to John Dufresne’s catalog of books on writing. In my mind, the biggest reason it stands out among its peers—both Dufresne’s own works and others—is its fun, playful (again), and pressure-free approach to writing that focuses as much on the writer themselves as the craft of writing. I think it will be particularly helpful and appreciated by new writers who often fall prey to the fears and anxieties of facing the blank page. And then as well serve as a reminder to those who have been writing awhile that while writing can be work, can be challenging, can even, at times, be frustrating and disappointing, it can also be—and should also be—enjoyable. Otherwise, why do it?

Random Kick-Ass Quote On Writing

Actually, not so random. One of my favorites from one of my favorites:

(Me too)

Thank you for reading! And please subscribe so I know who I’m talking to and to receive WRITER READS directly in your inbox. If you have any recommendations for books on writing I should review, websites or content you think worthy of sharing, suggestions for articles on writing/publishing about writing, news to relate, questions, or criticisms please email me by replying to this post.

Happy writing!