Wednesday, April 19

Writing a Murder Mystery: The Making of a Murderer

Writing a Murder Mystery: The Making of a Murderer

Let’s create a murderer!

Today I'm trying something a bit different. In my last post (8 Ways to Make a Murderer) I talked about 8 ways to build a murderer your readers will love to hate. In this post I’m going to begin constructing what, arguably, is the most important character in a murder mystery: the murderer.

Not only do the actions of the murderer set the story in motion, the first killing is the event that breaks the normal functioning of the ordinary world, the victim’s world. Further, the murderer’s repeated interventions keep increasing the stakes, the danger, and the suspense.

Note: I've included this material in my book, How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters.

Detective and Murderer: Two Sides of the Same Coin


The antagonist—the murderer—must be a good fit for the antagonist. They are two sides of the same coin. For example, on Supernatural (I know, I know, Supernatural is NOT a murder mystery, but go with me here) the brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, are opposites. In many ways, each is the antagonist of the other. It works well! The puzzle pieces of character, of push and pull, fit together. This sort of ‘fit’ is what I aim for with the detective and murderer.

For example, Dean tends to draw sharp lines between humans and monsters. At the beginning of the TV series he thinks in terms of black and white: humans good, monsters bad. Sam, however, has a more flexible point of view since he is acquiring abilities (like telepathy and telekinesis) that only 'monsters' have. At the end of the first season the lines between hunter and monster have nicely blurred and Dean is having a bit of a crisis. The thing he loves most in life is his brother but his purpose is to hunt monsters. That clash produces a lot of (lovely!) conflict.

Other examples drawn from Supernatural’s lighter side: Dean loves junk food. LOVES IT!!! Sam, on the other hand, is a bit of a fitness nut. Dean loves classic rock but Sam dislikes it. Dean loves dive bars and friendly women while Sam likes research and getting a decent nights sleep. You get the idea. And, yes, this is a different dynamic than between detective and murderer, but I think it points us in the right direction.

Does one HAVE to do this sort of characterization to have a terrific story? No! Take Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House (I’m referring to the television adaptation with David Suchet). Hercule Poirot is in constant contact with the murderer, Magdala 'Nick' Buckley. I would say that the primary dynamic between detective and murderer is one of father-child, or uncle-niece. Poirot becomes a kind of mentor to Nick and sees it as his job to protect her. In the end, of course, we discover that Nick was manipulating Poirot, just as she manipulated everyone in her life! My point is that with Christie’s plots the satisfaction usually didn’t come from the complex relationships between the characters, it came from the fact that she could play (more or less) fair and still completely surprise you when it came time to reveal who the murderer was.

I think this is one of the major ways in which contemporary murder mysteries differ from those of Christie’s day: now there’s more of a focus on getting to know the detective as a person.

But Christie did create interesting characters! Don't believe me? Read Sparkling Cyanide.

Detective and Murderer: Shared Experiences

I think it’s most effective if there’s a certain amount of ‘mirroring’ between the detective and murderer.

For example, if the antagonist is brilliant, the protagonist should be brilliant. (This is true for a traditional murder mystery though it might not be in other genres.) But there can be variations. The antagonist could be brilliant and the detective clever. Cleverness can beat brilliance. If you don’t believe me, watch a few episodes of Columbo!

(We’ll get to this later when we talk about the detective, but if the detective is brilliant then it works well if he has a character like John Watson (in Sherlock) as his sidekick. Watson is an ‘everyman’ but he’s not dim. Sure, he’s not even close to being as smart as Sherlock but he understands people and THAT is a kind of understanding, of knowledge, Sherlock completely lacks.)

Generally speaking, if the protagonist has a difficult relationship with a sibling over a certain issue, say trust/distrust, then the protagonist often mirrors this in his relationship with another character. This other character is often the key character in the B-story. For example, if the protagonist is beginning to wonder if he can trust someone he has always had absolute faith in—his sidekick—then he might meet someone, sometime new, who seems to offer him the kind of relationship he thought he’d had with his sidekick. This situation could resolve itself in a number of ways but often something occurs in the B-story that allows the protagonist to see his sidekick in a new way. Perhaps that’s for the better, perhaps not.

Since, here, we’re talking about the antagonist in a murder mystery, it could be that the protagonist, the detective, is the new person in the antagonist’s B-story. This could make the antagonist’s sidekick jealous—in the protagonist’s mind, unreasonably so but they don’t (yet) know what’s going on—and create a nice, very natural, red herring. Of course I’m not suggesting that this buddy relationship between the protagonist and antagonist would need to last more than a few pages, but it could help move the plot forward.

Setting up a point of comparison between the antagonist and protagonist.

You could also go the other way and have the antagonist have a wonderful, trusting, relationship with a family member while the antagonist has a twisted relationship with someone in his life and show how that difference affects the rest of their lives.

For example, in Basic Instinct (again, I know, NOT a traditional murder mystery) Nick Curran, the detective, had three main relationships. One with the murderer, Catherine Tramell, one with his partner, Gus, and the third with his psychiatrist, Dr. Beth Garner. Basic Instinct is one of those movies I’ve watched over and over again because I LOVED the ending. Also, I thought it was well-plotted.

Notice that Catherine’s relationship with Nick forms a perfect counterpoint to Nick’s relationship with Gus (or so I would argue). Gus would (and did) die for Nick. Gus loves Nick like a not-too-bright younger brother. Gus thinks Nick is a good person, one who just keeps messing up. Catherine, far from dying for Nick, kills Gus and will likely kill Nick. Catherine doesn’t think Nick is a good person. (One of the interesting things about Basic Instincct is that this question, whether Nick is a good person, is left open: Was he a good person who did some bad things or was he a bad person who did some good things?)

Both Nick and Catherine had lost people. People they loved. And these losses had changed them. Nick was trying to reform himself, to kick cocaine, to stop drinking, and to attend therapy. Catherine, however, leaned into the trauma, the pain, the loss. She accepted it. She even seemed to revel in it. My point here is just that this shared link—both of them having suffered the loss of someone they adored—gives us a much needed point of comparison. We can compare them as people, we can compare their choices.

Of course the most important comparison is between the protagonist and antagonist in respect to WHY the murderer did what he did, his motive. In the end, it will be the detective’s insight into this aspect of the antagonist’s psyche that will point her in the right direction. It is what (although she doesn’t understand it fully at first) will give her an edge.

Murder at Meadowmead: The Murderer

Enough preamble! Let’s create a murderer.

Murderer’s Name

Let’s start with something deceptively easy. What’s the murderer’s name? Generally, this only comes to me after I’ve written a bit about the character. Before this—I kid you not—I just write “M” in my zero draft. At a certain point I’ll get a feeling for a name, or sometimes it’ll pop into my head. That’s what happened here. I was mulling over the story and then, “Lydia,” whooshed in. So—as I often do when this happens—I visited a site that gives the meanings of popular names. said that:

“Lydia is a very early place name, that of an area of Asia Minor whose inhabitants are credited with the invention of coinage and of having strong musical talent—as well as great wealth.”[1]

That fits since, as we’ll see, our Lydia seeks great wealth. Musical talent isn’t something I had thought of giving the character, but I’ll keep that at the back of my mind.

Murderer’s Motivation

Why does the murderer kill? I’m going to say she kills for LOVE. Specifically, she loves her husband madly, passionately. She can’t imagine life without him. Lydia is the sort of person who would spend everything she had on a love spell.

Here we’ve taken a normal, natural, wonderful emotion and twisted it by exaggerating it, by taking it to an extreme.

When Lydia thinks of life without her husband (let’s call him Mark) she feels as though she’s free-falling. Sometimes she dreams she’s falling from a cliff so tall she can’t see the bottom. She reaches out to clutch at something, anything, and wakes up in a cold sweat. She realizes that for her, there is no life without him.

The problem (and here I’m giving the problem from Lydia’s perspective): Although charming and capable of kindness, her husband insists on having a certain standard of living. If she can’t give that to him, he’ll find someone who can. If he knew she had run out of money then, even though he is genuinely fond of her, he would drop her like a hot potato.

Murderer’s motivation: Lydia’s desire to keep her husband in her life whatever the cost.
Murderer’s (specific) goal: To murder her father and brother to inherit her family’s fortune.
Murderer’s (general) goal: To acquire enough money to sustain her and her husband’s lavish lifestyle.

Important Note: It will turn out that LYDIA IS WRONG. She thinks that if only she can acquire a fortune that her husband won’t leave her but this isn’t true. It’s not the money, that’s NOT why her husband is slipping away from her (Lydia is correct that her husband IS slipping away). But even if she acquires a fortune he will still leave. It’s her. Her diminishing finances have put her under a great deal of stress and she’s become irritable and withdrawn. Further, there’s something about Lydia that’s immature, that never grew up. And it kinda scares him.

Okay! That was a lot of information. All this more or less just came to me as I was writing, but it seems to hang together. Now let’s try to unpack the murderer’s specific goal so we can see what kind of clues we’ll need to plant.

Murderer’s Specific Goal

Three questions need to be answered:

Why does Lydia have money? 
Where did she get it? 
Why is Lydia running out of money?

Let’s do some brainstorming. You could do this with me and see what answers you come up with!

Lydia comes from money—her father is a billionaire—but he is a firm believer in not spoiling his children. When Lydia was young her father set a trust fund up for her. It was enough that she could live comfortably—though not lavishly—on the interest. If she wanted to dip into the principle she could, though her father warned her in no uncertain terms that, barring extreme circumstances, she would get no more money from him.

This could go one of two ways.

First choice:

Lydia is out of money and so needs extreme circumstances. She racks her brain and settles on the idea of a fake kidnapping. She will need the help of another person to pull it off, but if her father received a ransom note she feels he could be persuaded to part with enough money to fund their lavish lifestyle for the rest of their lives.

Lydia finds someone to help her but it goes terribly wrong and her accomplice dies. Lydia didn’t murder him (perhaps he attacked her and as she defended herself he was killed) but he wouldn’t have died if she hadn’t been trying to deceive her father. Something within Lydia snaps. She hides the body and then goes back to dispose of it.

Second choice:

Lydia is out of money but doesn’t know anyone who could help her with a kidnapping, so that’s out. She doesn’t see any other way: if she wants the money she’ll have to kill her father and brother.

The second seems more straightforward so that’s the one I’ll go with.

The 8 Ways to Make a Murderer

So far so good. Now let’s go back to my previous post and see if we can answer those questions I raised yesterday. By answering these questions we’ll (hopefully) be able to discover concrete answers as well as discover what clues need to be planted. Afterward, we’ll step back and see where that leaves us and we’ll try and answer the question, or at least make inroads on the question, of what the underlying thread of similarity or contrast will be between the protagonist and antagonist.

1. Make the murderer at least as formidable as the sleuth.

The sleuth can only be as impressive as the murderer so we need to create a smart, capable, powerful murderer.


- How are we going to show that the murderer is smart, capable and powerful? What sort of actions or objects would demonstrate this?
- What are the murderer’s most important characteristics, their tags and traits?

I’d love to read what you come up with (we’re doing this together, right?!), but here are a few of my brainstormed answers:

Smart: Like Inspector Morse from the show of the same name, Lydia does the New York Times Saturday crossword, a crossword known as challenging. (This is more of a behavioral trait than a tag.)

Capable: Since musical aptitude is part of her name, perhaps Lydia plays an instrument. This isn’t generally what I think of when I think someone is capable, but I’m going to run with it. (One thing is sure, from what I know so far about Lydia she is NOT a wiz at financial management.) It could be that she began playing an instrument in school and kept at it. Perhaps she found that playing an instrument soothed her anxiety. (Ah! She has anxiety. Good to know.)

What kind of instrument? To work as a tag it would have to be something she could carry around, so it would need to be small, something like a harmonica, recorder, flute or ucalaly. I think I’ll go with recorder. She becomes interested in various ways recorders can be made, their history, etc. Lydia likes the idea of DIY and she’s even made a few of her own recorders. It’s a hobby.

Powerful: I think of a powerful person as someone who can influence the lives of others. I’m not sure this fits Lydia, though perhaps I’ve missed something. Perhaps she runs a company of some sort, one whose prospects have diminished recently. Perhaps she owns a huge beer company but the craft breweries that are sprouting up like mushrooms after a rain have cut into her sales. She knows the company will have to declare bankruptcy. She’s powerful in the sense that the fate of her employees rests with her. Of course she hates beer—can’t stand it. She’s a wine snob.

How can I turn this into a tag? What represents the significance of this company to her? What represents the impact it has had on her life? Perhaps Lydia owns the company but her husband runs it. In her mind, he has run it into the ground, but she’s not being fair. The market for large commercial breweries is shrinking, there isn’t anything Mark could have done about that. This isn’t exactly a tag, but when Lydia sees beer ... part of the reason why she hates beer is because it represents the conflict between her and her husband, it exemplifies her dismal financial state.

Okay! Better.  At least we have a significant part of the backstory, a significant emotional element, tied to something physical (beer and a company that makes beer), something we can introduce into a scene to elicit an emotional reaction. A reaction that will demonstrate the murderer’s—Lydia’s—character.

Ack!!!! I’m only at 8.1 and this post is pushing 3,000 words! Okay, I’ll stop here.

I wasn’t planning on publishing a post tomorrow but I think I might try to push on with this. SO! Please do come back tomorrow as we continue to create our murderer.

By the way, if you’d like to take a look at my previous post (8 Ways to Make a Murderer) and offer suggestions regarding what characteristics our murderer should have, please do!


“Lydia” over at

Tuesday, April 18

Writing a Murder Mystery: 8 Ways to Make a Murderer

Writing a Murder Mystery: 8 Ways to Make a Murderer

I’ve decided to try something new! As many of you know, I’m putting together a book on how to write a murder mystery (see: How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters). As part of that I’ve begun developing an example story, a traditional murder mystery with elements of a cozy.

When I sat down to write this blog post I had an idea: Why not take a deep dive into this material and try it out on my blog! I’ve been thinking about how to structure this and hit on the idea of doing a “theory” post—talk about an element of structure—followed by an example post—take the previous day's theory and use it to create an outline.

For example, this post gives 8 tips for creating a murderer. Next post I will step through each tip and use it to create the murderer. This is just the start, though. Over the next few weeks my plan is to develop an outline for a murder mystery I’m calling Murder at Meadowmead.

I don't plan on using this outline to write a story—but if you would like to, please do!

Warning: Murder Mystery Under Construction

Please keep in mind that this is an experiment! I don’t have the story already plotted. I will be putting it together as I go (and please feel free to make suggestions!). As a result the outline will evolve. Story elements will shift, break apart, re-form and (occasionally) disappear.

At the end of it all I should have a completed outline for a traditional murder mystery. At that point I’ll bundle up all the posts as well as the example story outline and put it into a book for easier access.

I’d love to know what you think of this idea! Thumbs up, thumbs down? You can leave a comment here or contact me privately. Thanks!

So, here we go! What follows is the theory and then, tomorrow, I’ll post my outline of the murderer, one which implements most of these points.

The Murderer

The murderer is the person who violates the norms of society by intentionally ending the life of another.

8 Tips for Creating a Murderer Your Readers Will Love to Hate

1. Make the murderer at least as formidable as the sleuth.

Since the sleuth can only be as formidable as the antagonist (weak antagonist equals weak sleuth), make the antagonist smart and capable.

How are you going to show the murderer is smart and capable? What sort of actions would demonstrate this?
What are the murderer’s most important characteristics, their tags and traits?

2. Differentiate the murderer’s motivation from his/her goal.

Picture this: A man in a rowboat frantically rows away from a shark and heads toward an island.

Character’s motivation: To escape the shark.
Character’s goal: To reach the island.
Story Question: Will the man reach the island before the shark eats him?

The character’s motivation explains the goal and reveals their passion.

How does the murderer’s motivation resolve into a concrete goal?
How does the murderer’s motivation show their passion?

3. What is the murderer’s goal?

The murderer must either passionately want to acquire something or prevent the loss of something (spouse, job, status, money, power, and so on).

The murderer’s general goal is to get away with his/her crime, but let’s drill down. What, SPECIFICALLY, does the murderer want? Does she want to prevent the loss of her business? Acquire satisfaction by getting revenge on the sister/mother/brother/father who made her life hell for the last 30 or so years? Prevent the loss of her spouse by preventing him from running off with his much younger mistress? Prevent her sibling from gaining the inheritance?

I love Agatha Christie’s work but occasionally she wrote killers who were motivated solely by money. For instance, in Evil Under the Sun the murderer's specific motivations aren’t revealed other than that they killed to acquire the victim’s vast fortune.

It would have been nice to know WHY the murderers were so intent on acquiring vast sums of money. Sure, who doesn’t want vast sums of money? But still. It doesn’t personalize the killers in any way. If they had needed the money to finance an operation for their child, or because one of them wanted to return home to Russia one last time to see her ailing mother, or ... well, you get the idea.

The decision to murder isn’t a decision driven by abstract calculations. It is something one passionately, desperately, desires. (I thought Christie did a good job of this in Body in the Library (this holds for BOTH the book and the TV adaptation).)

What does the murderer love? Be specific.
Why is the murderer passionate about attaining this particular goal?

4. Be merciless! Give the murderer a deep psychological wound.

The murderer, like the sleuth, should have a deep psychological wound. The wound needn’t explain the murder or in any way justify it, but it WILL help humanize them.

Moriarty’s strength was also his weakness (as Mr. Monk said, “It’s a gift and a curse.”) He is brilliant but his very brilliance isolates him. This is true for Sherlock as well, but he has been able to make connections to others, to Dr. John Watson, Mrs. Hudson,  DI Lestrade and Molly Hooper. Moriarty views regular humans (in other words, you and me) as ants to be squashed if it suits him.

What is your murderer’s deep psychological wound?
How is this deep psychological wound tied into Lydia's strength?

5. Let the murderer win occasionally.

Keep in mind that letting the murderer score a point on the detective is different from the detective suffering a setback.

If a grumpy witness refuses to cooperate that is a setback for the detective (and so, automatically, a gain for the antagonist) but here I’m talking about a stratagem—an intentional plan implemented by the murderer that paid off. Perhaps the murderer feels the detective is getting too close and he/she plants a red herring that succeeds (at least for a while) in misdirecting the detective.

How does the murderer get the upper hand? Give at least one instance where the murderer ‘wins.’

6. How does the murderer attempt to mislead the detective?

At a certain point all the clues will be on the table. The detective just isn’t seeing them in the right way. This will soon change. The murderer needs to at least TRY to spin the events. They need to have some sort of story that explains the murders, the clues gathered, but in a way that casts them as an innocent person. I think of this as the Janus Story, after the two headed god. The murderer is in the unique position of, throughout the entire story, knowing the truth but they must spin a convincing lie.

What is your murderer's Janus story?

7. Reveal the killer’s true face.

The murderer is a cold-blooded killer. She has taken the lives of those she knew, perhaps even those she loved. AND she did it for personal gain. She’s NOT nice, NOT ordinary, perhaps not even sane (though she will likely APPEAR to be all these things prior to being revealed). At the reveal it is important we get to see the murderer as she really is.

We need to see the murderer’s contempt for those around her, for those who counted themselves her friends (a terrific example of this is Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House).

At the end of the story how does the murderer reveal his/her inner nature? What do they say? What do they do?
What does the killer fear the most?
How does the murderer react to being unmasked? Does she become violent? Does she curse the detective? Does she try to make everyone understand why she did it, why she had to do it? 

8. What happens to the killer at the end?

If you're writing a traditional murder mystery, then there has to be some sort of punishment meted out. SOMEONE must be punished. But if you want to have a recurring character you could make one person the 'sufferer,' they get caught and pay the price, but their partner—or perhaps the mastermind—escapes. Still, though, at some point they must pay. So, even if they aren't punished in the current story, think about what their ultimate fate will be.

How will you wrap up the killer's story? Do they go to jail? Are they killed? Do they (as Agatha Christie wrote in several of her books) take their own lives? 

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending Jeff VanderMeer’s wonderful creation: Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction.

From the blurb: “Employing an accessible, example-rich approach, Wonderbook energizes and motivates while also providing practical, nuts-and-bolts information needed to improve as a writer.”

That’s it! As I said, tomorrow I’ll post the start of my outline. Please keep in mind this is an experiment and that your feedback is (as always!) welcome.

Thursday, April 13

4 Reasons to Write Fan Fiction

4 Reasons to Write Fan Fiction

Fan fiction, for many people, is ... a gateway drug to all other fiction writing.”
—Emma Lord

Before Amazon came out with Kindle Worlds I never seriously thought about trying my hand at writing fan fiction. This blog post was inspired by a podcast I listened to a couple of days ago: NPR 1a: Fans And Fan Fiction (I've also embedded the podcast, below). It got me wondering: can fan fiction help writers hone their skill and, if so, how?

Why write fan fiction?

We’ve all heard of fan fiction, or fanfic. Fan fiction is just what it sounds like, fiction written in an established universe which features characters and settings from that universe.

For example, the TV show Supernatural has a LOT of fans. I’m one of them, but certainly not the most hardcore. Over at Supernatural has the biggest community in the TV show section. Supernatural has acknowledged their fans by making fanfic the subject for a couple of episodes (my favorites!).

But, why write fan fiction? 

4 Reasons to Write Fan Fiction

1. Personal fulfillment.

You love a particular narrative world and there are stories you’d like to read which aren’t being written.

Have you ever wanted characters to do something that you know can’t happen on the show? For example, you want to tell a story about the main character’s death or you would like two characters (possibly the protagonist and antagonist!) to begin a romantic relationship. Or perhaps the stories being spun in a particular universe are strictly PG and you want to take things in a more NC-17 direction. 

2. Change part of a story

You might love a particular story but hate the ending. For example, I’ve always LOVED Bram Stokers Dracula. If any of you haven’t read the original, please do. But I’ve never been a fan of the ending. I’ve always wanted to take Stoker’s story, put it in a modern setting, and—while  leaving the beginning more or less the same, change the ending. 

3. The series is finished

No more shows are being produced, no more books are being written. The only way you’re going to get a new story is if you write one.

4. Mashup

You want to mash two narrative worlds together. For instance, Buffy wakes up in Mordor and takes on Sauron.

The Advantages of Writing Fan Fiction

Writing fanfic has definite advantages for new writers—I wish I had written fanfic when I was a kid; I think most of my stories would have been set in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia!

Another advantage for new writers is that they don’t have to create everything—the characters, the world—from scratch. They can work with fully developed characters that work and they can draw from LOTS of examples. It’s a bit like being an apprentice writer.

That said, I don’t mean to suggest fanfic is ONLY for new writers! 

The Rhythm of Story

Just today I was listening to an interview with one of Stephen King’s children, Joe Hill (10 Minute Writer's Workshop: Workshop 18: Joe Hill). He mentioned a time when he was blocked. To push through he wrote out, longhand, great chunks of a story by one of his favorite authors. It helped him internalize those story rhythms. (Incidentally, several best selling authors have also given this very same advice; it’s what they did at the beginning of their careers.) I think fanfic can help writers in a similar way. By trying to write in the same voice (or a similar one) as a more experienced writer we can internalize the rhythms of successful storytelling.

Tags and Traits

Established characters generally have well-defined tags and traits and seasoned writers deftly weave them into character introductions and reintroductions. This, however, is one of the things it is sometimes difficult for a beginner to pick up, even though it's one of the most important. There are several TV shows that do this exceptionally well. In my opinion, one of the best shows for this is Archer (<-- NSFW). That show continually amazes me! See also: The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Supernatural

Watch or rewatch an episode of one of these shows and pay attention to how the characters are introduced, how tags and traits are used to define the characters and hook viewers, as well as how they hook into the story arc for that season. Also (and this isn’t specific to tags and traits) notice how these shows get right to the inciting incident with minimal preamble.

Where to publish fan fiction?

The legalities are beyond me but if you would like to read about this I suggest the wikipedia article on Fan Fiction.


It seems as though copyright holders will not prosecute if a work of fan fiction is published on a site devoted to that purpose, for example


In the case of commercial fiction things are much different. Generally speaking, without some sort of prior understanding between you and the copyright holder, one cannot write in another author’s universe and get financial remuneration. But some authors do allow others to write in one of their fictional worlds AND receive compensation for their efforts.

For instance, Kindle Worlds offers writers a place to publish fan fiction inspired by popular books, shows, movies, comics, music, and games. Of course there are conditions and restrictions which you can read about here.

Tips for Writing Fan Fiction

Voice. If your goal is to write in the voice of the original author then you must get the atmosphere right. In this context Ian Sansom’s positive review of The House of Silk (a Sherlock Holmes novel) might be of interest: The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz.

Characterization. Even if your goal isn’t to write in the voice of the original author and even if you intend to transform the characters in some way or other, be careful to make your characterizations are consistent. Of course this applies to ALL writing but chances are your readers will already be fans of the characters and may be even more sensitive to inconsistencies. Further, if you change any of a character’s traits be careful that the characterization you settle on doesn’t ‘break’ the character.  

For example, in the 1992 retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula on the big screen, Lucy was depicted as more sexually inquisitive than in the book. Even so, she was recognizably Lucy. I’m not suggesting that each character has a core set of characteristics that any fan fiction must adopt—I rather doubt this—but that’s part of what makes writing a deliciously dark art. Keep in mind that IMHO no matter what you do, no matter what decisions you make in writing (as in life), there are going to be folks who vehemently disagree with you.

List of Fan Fiction Sites and Resources This is a huge site that serves the interests of a vibrant community. If you’re at all interested in writing fan fiction I encourage you to wander down its highways and byways.

The Writers’ Area. This is a master list of miscellaneous resources devoted to fan fiction. 

Harry Potter Fanfic Resources. There are many sites devoted to all things Harry Potter and this is by no means the only fan fiction resource for that universe but it’s a place to start. 

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m wholeheartedly recommending The Fantasy Fiction Formula, by Deborah Chester. DC taught Jim Butcher in university and he dedicated his first book, Storm Front, to her. I’ve read DC's blog for years and love it!

From the blurb: “There's more to writing a successful fantasy story than building a unique world or inventing new magic. How exactly is a plot put together? How do you know if your idea will support an entire novel? How do you grab reader attention and keep it? How do you create dynamic, multi-dimensional characters? What is viewpoint and do you handle it differently in urban fantasy than in traditional epics? What should you do if you're lost in the middle? How do you make your plot end up where you intend it to go? / From the writing of strong, action-packed scenes to the handling of emotions, let award-winning fantasy author Deborah Chester guide you through the process of putting a book together.”

I’m curious, do you write fan fiction? If so, when did you start? Do you also write original fiction? What do you love most about writing fan fiction? Is there anything you don't like about it? I’d love it if you posted your comment for all to read but if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, you can also contact me directly. I’d love to hear about your experiences! 


Monday, April 10

5 Ways Instagram Can Help Writers Reach More Readers

5 Ways Instagram Can Help You Reach More Readers

For a while now I’ve heard many writers include Instagram as a productive part of their social media platforms.

My reaction: Instagram!? Really???!!!!

It’s not that I don’t love Instagram. Who doesn’t like pictures of delicious food, sun-drenched hills clothed in golden wheat, or ... well, you get the idea. But Instagram is a VISUAL medium.

Writing ... not so much!

Writing IS visual, but those images are internal, subjective. They are formed from our thoughts and ‘seen’ only in the minds eye. But writers WRITE. We produce text, not pictures! So how could Instagram be a good medium for us?

That’s the question I set out to answer.

5 Ways Instagram Can Help Writers

It turns out that there are an enormous number of ways using Instagram can benefit writers. Here are the top 5 I've come up with.

1. Instagram can help writers get personal.

Many readers want to know something about their favorite writers. This doesn’t have to be ultra personal.

- Share pictures of your office. Many of your readers would be thrilled to know what your office looks like (or even just your writing desk).

- Share pictures of the books you’re reading. These needn’t be books in your genre, or even fiction books! I read a fair amount of non-fiction these days, mostly research material plus the occasional biography or cookbook (I LOVE cooking!!).

- Share pictures of your pets. What pets (if any) do you have? Share pictures of them! If you don’t have a pet, consider sharing a pic of a cute nicknack on your desk or perhaps a plant.

- Share pictures of nature around your home. Pictures from walks you’ve taken around your where you live. If these walks are close to where you live I would advise stripping out your geolocation. Also, you might not want to post pictures of anything that would uniquely identify where you live, unless that information is already in the public domain.

- Share pictures of you! Not everyone will feel comfortable with this, but (as I discuss below) you might think about putting up pictures of yourself that were taken at (say) a keynote speech you gave or a signing.

2. Instagram can help you grow your community.

- Share your new book cover. I love it when authors share their book covers, especially if they show a picture that almost made it to the cover. In general, I like it when an author gives me a peek behind the scenes, when they share a bit about the process of putting a book together.

- Use relevant hashtags. Including a hashtag with your image allows you to connect with readers as well as potential readers. I want to write more about this, but for now I’ll just include this list of writing related hashtags:

#author #writing #writer #write #amwriting #handwriting #fountainpen #handwrite #writingcommunity #quote #quotes #writinglife #writingprompts #creativewriting
#writingthis #poetry #poet #writersofinstagram #prose #book #books #blogger #firstnovel
#secondnovel  #thirdnovel #godmode

- Be social! Use Instagram to get to know other writers and readers. Like and comment on the pictures of others. Don't do this in a mechanical or spammy way, be genuine! If you're a writer then you're also a reader, so follow your favorite authors, get involved in discussions. Comment on photos that grab you.

- Let your readers help choose your artwork. Often writers create more than one version of a book cover. In this case it doesn’t hurt to ask your readers which book cover they’d rather have.

- Pictures of short passages from a book of yours. I love this! Composition and design is not my strong suit so I love looking at what other authors have done in this regard. Also, I have been inspired to read new authors and have not been disappointed!

- Pictures of your other creative endeavors. Do you draw? Doodle? Paint? Hike? Bike? Chances are you have many different avenues for expressing your creative drives. Writers are artists, indulge your creative self.

- Share your upcoming book signings and appearances. As I mentioned, only a few of your die hard fans will be able to make any one of your signings, but by sharing pictures of the event all your readers can share in the experience.

3. Instagram can help you nourish your community.

- Share images of what inspires you to write. The picture of a bead of rain on a green leaf. Of babies, puppies, kittens, your bookshelf, the stuffed toy poodle your mom gave you when you were five and that helped chase away nightmares. Or your dying cactus. Anything. Whatever inspires you.

- Share images which remind you of one of your characters and explain why. These needn't be photographs of people (though they often are). They could be of a pensive giraffe or a spectacular sunset or a happy kitten. Or perhaps something darker. The point is, it's up to you. You can see through the eyes of your character, you know what he/she would be drawn to.

- Share images of your book signings and speaking engagements. Most of your readers won't be able to attend any particular speaking engagement you have, so share pictures! Even better, share a video of the event.

- Share art for your book. This can be a book cover, or art for a book cover that wasn't used, but it could also be art that one of your characters created. It could be a picture of their goal, the object/person that they want more than anything else in the world.

4. Use Instagram to nourish your own creativity.

People who are creative in one area are often creative in other areas as well. Painting, drawing, designers, decorating, cooking, to name only few. Take pictures and share them! Often authors don't have any other outlet for these hobbies, but your readers would love to know more about you, about your other passions. Share them!

5. Create a contest.

Who doesn’t like a contest? This can be a fun way to engage with readers and—bonus!—it encourages your readers to share their own creative efforts with the world.

How do you set up a contest on Instagram? Good question! Instead of going into this process here, I’ll refer you to How to Run a Successful Instagram Contest by Krista Bunskoek over at Social Media Examiner.

After you’ve created a contest, it’s a good idea to set up a page on your website that spells out the rules of the contest, what prizes you’re giving out, instructions on how to enter, and so on.

For example, let’s say you create a contest that asks your readers to take photos of themselves while holding your latest book. Perhaps ask them to dress as their favorite character from the book. You could give out prizes for most creative costume, for best-dressed, and so on. If you do this, take a picture of yourself in costume holding your book. It will embolden others and act as a convenient example of the sort of thing you’re looking for.

Writers who use Instagram:

Looking for examples of how established writers use Instagram? Here are a few:

- Neil Gaiman (neilhimself)
- Lindsay Cummings (authorlindsaycummings)
- John Green (johngreenwritesbooks)
- Erin Morgenstern (erinmorgenstern)
- Ransom Riggs (ransomriggs)
- Kami Garcia (kamigarcia)
- Jane Friedman (janefriedman)

Reference: Posts about how writers can get the most out of Instagram:

Ten Authors And Publishers To Follow On Instagram, Tasha Brandstatter on BookRiot

Miranda July And 15 Other Literary Instagrams You Should Follow, by Claire Fallon at The Huffington Post.

Instagram for Writers, by Crystal King on Grub Writes.

Instagram Marketing: Top 6 Fan-Building Tips For Writers, by Web Design Relief Staff at Web Design Relief (WDR)

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I'm recommending a book I'm reading for the fourth time: Sparkling Cyanide, by Agatha Christie. I think this is one of Christie's most charming mysteries, equal parts love story and murder mystery.

From the blurb: "Agatha Christie's genius for detective fiction is unparalleled. Her worldwide popularity is phenomenal, her characters engaging, her plots spellbinding. No one knows the human heart-orthe dark passions that can stop it-better than Agatha Christie. She is truly the one and only Queen of Crime."

That's it! I'll talk to you again on Wednesday. Until then, good writing!

Friday, April 7

Murder Mysteries: Open vs Closed

Murder Mysteries: Open vs Closed

One of the fundamental distinctions between murder mysteries is whether the plot is open or closed. Today I explore this distinction, breaking it down into its constituent parts and focusing on its significance for the writer.

Open vs Closed Mysteries

Whether a mystery is open or closed depends on when the reader discovers the identity of the murderer.

If the identity of the murderer is unveiled at the beginning of the story without the reader having to do any work to figure out his identity—that is, if the identity of the murderer wasn’t a part of the puzzle for the reader—then the mystery is said to be OPEN. In most open mysteries the reader knows MORE than the detective for much of the story.

On the other hand, if the identity of the murderer is unveiled at the end of the story and if the murderer’s identity was the main mystery—the main puzzle for the reader—then the mystery is said to be CLOSED. In most closed mysteries the reader knows LESS than the detective (though the detective may draw conclusions from the evidence, conclusions he doesn’t immediately share with the reader).

Open Mystery

Lee Goldberg, scriptwriter for Diagnosis Murder and author of many of the Mr. Monk books, advises that if you write an open murder mystery make sure that both the murderer and the reader believe the perfect crime has been committed. What they read for, what pulls them through the story, is watching the detective find all the tiny—or not so tiny—flaws you didn’t notice.[1]

The knowledge gap: Notice that through much of the open mystery there is a knowledge gap. The detective mulls over clues the reader knows MORE about. This knowledge gap occurs because the reader knows everything the murderer does. What no one knows at the beginning of the book is what mistakes the murderer made. This is what the detective figures out by the end of the book, it’s what reveals the murderer’s identity.

The question: From what the reader already knows of the murder, and from the clues the detective uncovers throughout the story, will she be able to figure out where/when/how the murderer slipped up before the detective figures out the identity of the murderer?

The suspects: The detective interviews suspects but the focus is different because, often, the detective has a pretty good idea early on who the murderer is. The problem is proving it.

Closed Mystery

If, on the other hand, a closed mystery is more to your liking make sure the crime is confounding to both reader and detective. The clues don’t seem to single out any one person. In this case what pulls the reader through the story is watching the detective come to understand the connections—connections between clues, connections between people—that aren’t immediately obvious.[1]

The knowledge gap: Through much of the story there is no knowledge gap: the reader knows as much as a detective. Everything the detective discovers the reader also knows AND the detective is the reader’s only source of information, the reader doesn’t get to peek over the murderer’s shoulder as he does the deed. That said, the detective will know more than the reader after around the two-thirds or three-quarter mark, but this is only because he has drawn inferences from the clues he has found, inferences he doesn’t have to divulge to the reader until the denouement very end.

The question: Can the reader figure out the identity of the murderer before the detective does?

The suspects: The detective searches for clues that will help him determine each of the suspects MEANS, MOTIVE and OPPORTUNITY. The detective looks for inconsistencies between what he knows about the suspects—the available clues—and what any particular suspect has told him.

Examples of Open and Closed Mysteries

Open mystery:

- Columbo.
- Diagnosis Murder (some episodes).

Closed mystery:

Agatha Christie’s stories.
- Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.
- Mr. Monk (some episodes).


1. To read more about open vs closed mysteries I recommend Lee Goldberg’s article: How to Write a Murder Mystery.

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

The books I’m recommending today are Lee Goldberg’s Mr. Monk books. It has been a few years, but I’ve read each one of these and loved them! If you liked the Mr. Monk TV series and you love murder mysteries, give these a try!

That’s it for today! Have a great weekend and I’ll talk to you again on Monday. Till then, good writing!

Wednesday, April 5

Purple Prose: What It Is and How to Exterminate It

Purple Prose: What It Is and How to Exterminate It

The first time I heard the term “purple prose” I was puzzled. Exactly what mistake was I being warned against. For years afterward I felt I knew purple prose when I saw it but the injunction remained frustratingly vague.

What is purple prose?

Edward Bulwer-Lytton famously began his novel “Paul Clifford,”[4] with the sentence, “It was a dark and stormy night.” As wikipedia states, this phrase “is considered to represent the archetypal example of a florid, melodramatic style of fiction writing also known as purple prose.”[1]

Of course Leonard qualified his statement by saying that “If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.”[5]

In other words, writing about the weather is fine as long as it’s either fascinating in and of itself or if it is relevant to something in the story. One way of making weather relevant is to write about a character's reaction to it. For example, is the weather preventing the character from accomplishing her goal?

Here’s an exception to the rule: One of my favorite books growing up was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. How do you think that book begins? That’s right! “It was a dark and stormy night.” I kid you not!

Which brings us to the nub of the issue: What makes purple prose undesirable? An important clue comes from the history of the term.

The history of purple prose:

The first mention of purple prose (literally, “purple patches”) goes back all the way to the Roman poet Horace (65 to 27 BC) who wrote:

“Weighty openings and grand declarations often / Have one or two purple patches tacked on, that gleam / Far and wide...”

In Roman times purple dye was expensive and therefore purple clothing was a sign of wealth. Folks who wanted to appear to have more money than they actually did sewed patches of purple into their clothing. Horace is saying that purple patches are a sign the writer is insecure about their writing and so attempts to prop it up—attempts to make it appear better than it is—by using flowery language. (An attitude which reminds me of Stephen King's injunction against adverbs! Namely, that their overuse comes from a writer’s own insecurity. See: Killing Your Darlings.)

The characteristics of purple prose:

In my opinion, these two mistakes lie at the colorful heart of purple prose:

1. Purple prose doesn’t belong. It’s markedly more floral than the prose around it.

For example, what would not be purple prose for Anne Rice would be purple prose for Isaac Asimov. Consider the the following examples:

"[T]he sky was never quite the same shade of blue again. I mean the world looked different forever after, and even in moments of exquisite happiness there was the darkness lurking, the sense of our frailty and our hopelessness." (Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat)

"Gaal did not carry out his promise. He was awakened the next morning by a muted buzzer. He answered it, and the voice of the desk clerk, as muted, polite and deprecating as it well might be, informed him that he was under detention at the orders of the Commission of Public Safety." (Isaac Asimov, Foundation)

So, to a certain extent, whether a particular passage is purple depends on the writer's overall style. His or her voice.

2. Purple prose is intended to distract the reader from the fact that nothing is happening in the story. 

The plot isn’t moving forward, it’s stagnant. The characters aren’t pursuing their goals. As a result the story is dull and dry. The extravagance of the writing itself is the only thing driving the story forward. So, of course, it fails.

As I mentioned, above, purple prose needn’t be awful. That is, purple prose needn’t itself be poorly written. In fact, it can be beautiful. The thing that makes prose purple undesirable is that it distracts the reader. Why? Because it’s unnecessary.

Examples of purple prose

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” (Paul Clifford, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton)

“Grignr's emerald green orbs glared lustfully at the wallowing soldier struggling before his chestnut swirled mount. His scowling voice reverberated over the dying form in a tone of mocking mirth.” (The Eye of Argon, by Jim Thesis)

How to avoid purple prose

As we've seen, purple prose breaks the reader out of the story because it calls attention to itself. Purple prose is like a fairy tale king, dressed sumptuously giving a long flowery speech to plainly dressed commoners, a speech that holds nothing relevant to them, to their lives. His subjects would rather he just stopped speaking so they could get on with their day.

So here are 2 ways to avoid purple prose:

1. Kill your darlings. 

The advice to “kill your darlings” is, at least in part, an admonition against purple prose. Purple prose is, above and beyond anything else, unnecessary. If you removed a purple passage the story itself would not change. That’s the test.

The action of every character needs to have a goal, a purpose. It should either forward the plot or advance a character’s goal (and, really, these two are the same thing).

2. Minimize modifiers.

Instead of writing “Grignr’s emerald green orbs glared lustfully” write “Grignr glared.” The two statements express more-or-less the same thought.

Eliminate adverbs whenever possible. Instead of writing, “He crossed the street quickly,” go with “He ran across the street.” They say the same thing and the second one is clearer.

Recommended listening:

Writing Excuses: Beautiful Prose, Purple Prose. As I mentioned in a previous article (6 Inspirational and Informative Writing Podcasts), I’m a big fan of podcasts, especially writing podcasts, and Writing Excuses is one of my favorites. Recently they published an episode (see link, above) all about purple prose. Highly recommended!

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending an anthology put out by the hosts of Writing Excuses: Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology.

From the blurb: “From the Hugo Award-winning hosts of the Writing Excuses writing advice show comes a collection of all-new stories of the fantastic, with beautiful illustrations and a behind-the-scenes look at each story’s creation.”

That's it! I'll talk to you again on Friday. Until then, good writing!


1. “It was a dark and stormy night” from

2. Writers On Writing; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle, by Elmore Leonard.

3. Eye of Argon, by Jim Thesis.

4. “Paul Clifford,” by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

5. Here's an example of prose which doesn't at first seem to have a clear purpose but which, nevertheless, drew me in: "When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily." (Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn) 

Tuesday, April 4

8 Ways to Get Honest Reviews for Your Books

8 Ways to Get Honest Reviews for Your Books

It will come as no surprise that the number one way to get reviews is to ask for them. Today I talk about, first, who to ask and, second, how to ask. Let’s get started!

1. Use focus books to find reviewers.

Ask yourself, “What other well-reviewed books is my book most like?” Go to your book’s product page and scroll down until you see the heading “Customers who bought this item also bought.” This tells you what other books your customers are interested in. For our purposes here, what we’re interested in is who reviewed these books.

Step One: Filter the reviews.

Go to the page of a book similar to yours. As an example, here’s a link to the review page for Jim Butcher’s Changes. You’ll notice, near the top of the page, Amazon gives you the option to both sort and filter the reviews. I used the following settings:

- Sort by the MOST RECENT:

I chose to sort by the most recent reviews because CHANGES was published in 2010. I suspect some folks who left reviews in 2010 don’t review books anymore, or perhaps their tastes have changed.


The other option is “verified purchase only.” I didn’t choose this because reviewers who were given a copy won’t show up under the verified purchase option.

- Filter by 5 STAR ONLY

I’d suggest concentrating on 5 star reviews because you want to reach out to reviewers who love this sort of book.

- Filter by Kindle Format

Personally, I find it easier to give reviewers an electronic version so you will want to find reviewers who read digital books.

Step Two: Choose 10 reviews.

10 is an arbitrary number; choose whatever amount works for you.

The process:

Look at the list of reviews you’ve discovered and read the first. Was it well written? Did the reviewer demonstrate she has a clear understanding of the book reviewed? Did you think the review was well written?

If the answers to the above questions are yes, then right-click on the reviewer’s name to bring up her page. Look at other reviews she’s written (sometimes the reviewer’s profile contains a list). What you’re trying to assess is whether the reviewer has done a good job. If the book under review was poorly written then a negative review is warranted. (If you don’t want to buy and read the book reviewed, think about reading the sample.)

Also, and perhaps more importantly, pay attention to whether the reviewer is careful to separate the writer from their work. After all, even a good writer can produce an awful book.

For example, though I admire Stephen King’s work, he’s written at least one clunker. It happens. But just because King wrote an awful book doesn’t mean he’s an awful writer; you want to try and get an idea whether the reviewer respects the difference between the author’s work and the author.

Why is this important? After all, your book isn’t an awful book. Your book is well-written, well-formatted and has been copyedited.

Here’s why: Everyone is different. Ask 10 people what they think of something and you’ll get 11 opinions! Because taste is both idiosyncratic and quirky it’s inevitable that someone, sometime, is going to think your story is complete and utter dreck. When this happens you hope they will review the work not the writer.

Step Three: Contact the reviewers.

Sometimes reviewers give their email address in their profile. If the reviewer doesn't, you can leave a comment on their review. If you feel comfortable, leave your email address in the comment so the reviewer can contact you. (Amazon will notify the reviewer that a comment has been made.) If you don’t want to leave your email address for all the world to see, come back in a week or so and either delete your comment or edit out your address if the reviewer hasn’t responded.

How to ask for a review

At this point you’ve got a list of 10 people you want to ask to review your book. How do you go about contacting them? Joanna Penn in How To Get Amazon’s Top Customer Reviewers To Review Your Book) has you covered. She suggests sending an email that includes the following information:

  • How you found them.
  • Why you think they will like your book. Mention you’ve read another review of theirs (include that book’s title) and mention that your book is similar.
  • Offer them a copy of your book, free of charge. You’re not offering the book in exchange for a review. You’re offering them the book and if they choose to review it then great. If not, that’s okay too.
  • Thank them for their time.

For example:
Hi [Name], I read your review of [book title] on Amazon and noticed you liked [list points]. Given this, I thought you might like my book, [your book’s title], since they’re both [list similarities].

[Include a one paragraph summary of your book].

I’ve included a link to it, below:

[Link to a downloadable version of your book.]

Thank you for taking the time to read this email. If you read [book title] I would love to know what you think of it.
[Your name]
[Your email]

2. Offer your book, free of charge, to anyone on your mailing list who would like to write a review.

Another way to get more reviews for your book is to offer it to anyone on your reading list who would be interested in reviewing it.

If you don’t have an email list then forget about soliciting reviews, set up a mailing list! Here’s a terrific article on how to do this from Joanna Penn: How Authors And Writers Can Build An Email List For Marketing.

3. Develop a list of dedicated readers, people who will receive a copy of your book before it’s published.

The next time you send out a newsletter you could mention you’re looking for dedicated readers. These folks would get a copy of your upcoming books before they’re published. The main purpose of such a list is for you to receive feedback about a book BEFORE it’s published, but dedicated readers often end up leaving a review as well.

4. Offer a free review copy to your contacts on social media.

If you have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc., don’t be shy about asking the folks you’ve connected with if they would like a review copy of your book.

5. When someone leaves a review, thank them publicly.

Use social media to share each positive review you receive. I think this is a lovely way of thanking the reviewer for taking time to write a review as well as subtly encouraging anyone who has read and liked the book to leave a review of their own.

6. Ask book bloggers to review your book.

Years ago, this was one of the better ways of getting reviews. Recently, writers I’ve spoken with have reported mixed results. If you do contact book bloggers for reviews it’s important to record which ones you were able to contact, which ones read your book and posted a review as well as any personal details about them that will help break the ice and show them you’re not a bot! Keeping a spreadsheet of all these details will save you a lot of time in the future (I talk about this, below, as well). Here are a few directories that contain links to a number of book blogs:

The Indie View
Karen Tilton
Directory of Book Bloggers on Pinterest
YA Book Blog Directory
The Book Blogger List
Book Reviewer Yellow Pages

7. Ask Amazon’s top reviewers if they would consider reviewing your book.

To read more about this I recommend, “How to get reviews on Amazon once you’ve launched your book,” by Milena Canizares. Here is her advice:

  • Make a list of reviewers. If you want 10 reviews, MC advises compiling a list of 40 names.
  • Put these names into a spreadsheet. Include the reviewer’s email addresses and personal interests. (KW: If they have a website or blog I would list that as well as their social media accounts. You don’t want to stalk them, but any information you can obtain will help you tailor your pitch.)
  • Put together a template you can send out to reviewers (see above), making sure you personalize it for each reviewer.

Pertinent links:

This is a lot of work, but it's difficult to overstate the importance of reviews to book sales.

8. Offer reviewers your book in the format of their choice.

Although digital publishing is easiest, some reviewers prefer reading physical books. Using a print on demand (POD) service like CreateSpace you can order a book and send it directly to the reviewer: this has the advantage of being easy, quick and not very expensive.

Tip: Say Thank You!

When you approach someone to review your book it’s nice to give them something, a small gift.

For instance, if your book—the one you want reviews for—is fiction then perhaps put together a short document that contains information about your characters’ backstories. Or perhaps write a short story, perhaps even a piece of flash fiction, about a crucial bit of your most popular character’s backstory.

The point is that it’s often unproductive to ask someone for something without first giving them something. I’m not talking about payment or tit-for-tat, this is just being considerate.

Here’s my own (not terribly subtle!) pitch: If you would like a review copy of my book, The Structure of a Great Story: The Structure of a Great Story: How to Write a Suspenseful Tale! please contact me and I'll send you one.

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending The Author Startup: A Radical Approach To Rapidly Writing and Self-Publishing Your Book On Amazon, by Ray Brehm.

From the blurb: “[T]he truth is, you do 20% of the work for 80% of the result (The Pareto Principle). How does one accomplish this? By streamlining all the tasks down to the minimum requirements, and focusing on those. The Author Startup is a process to create a minimum viable product for your book. It is used to get your book out there and build momentum for you.”

That’s it! Thanks for reading and I’ll talk to you again on Wednesday. Till then, good writing!

Wednesday, March 29

Writing a Murder Mystery: 7 More Characteristics That Make a Murderer Interesting. Part Two of Two

7 More Characteristics That Make a Murderer Interesting. Part Two of Two

This post is a continuation of my last post, Writing a Murder Mystery, Character Creation: The Murderer, Part One of Two.

Let’s continue our discussion.

7 More Characteristics That Make a Murderer Interesting:

1. The murderer must be a worthy adversary for the sleuth.

Storytellers want their audience to think the detective is clever and resourceful. How is this done? Easy! SHOW the detective being clever and resourceful by pitting her against an opposing force—the murderer—who is as clever and resourceful as herself.

When the detective fails (as she inevitably will at some point) the reader will understand that the detective is up against someone brilliant. If the murderer isn't clever, then when the sleuth fails there is a real danger the reader will lose interest.

In addition, if the murderer is at least as clever as the detective, when the detective solves the mystery and unmasks the murderer it will mean more. We want the murderer to be perceived as being so clever that ONLY your detective could have brought him to justice.

2. The murderer should act from motives of self-interest.

No inexplicable desires or drives, please. The murderer should have an easy-to-understand motive. This goes back to what P.D. James wrote about all motives boiling down to lust, lucre, loathing and love (see: The Murderer, Part One of Two[]).

3. The murderer often has a deep psychological wound.

Having a deep wound will help humanize the murderer, it will make him more sympathetic. A sympathetic character is one a reader can understand and understandable characters are ones readers can relate to. They are compelling.

4. The murderer’s ‘type’ is clear.

The murderer is brilliant.

Fictional murderers come in all sorts of flavors but we could say, broadly, that they come in two types: some murderers are brilliant (e.g., Moriarty from Sherlock[link]) while others ... not so much.

If a murderer is brilliant then, often, their strength is also their weakness. For example, in the TV show Sherlock[link] Moriarty is a brilliant psychopath. I say brilliant but it seems he’s not QUITE as clever as Sherlock. Moriarty’s oddness is explained by his intelligence, as is Sherlock’s (in this sense Moriarty is Sherlock’s nemesis[]).

Moriarty is so intelligent ordinary humans are like ants to him. The master criminal thinks of himself as a different, and clearly superior, species. Just as many humans wouldn't bat an eye at killing a mouse or deer so Moriarty wouldn't hesitate to kill a human if it was in his interest to do so (shades of Hannibal Lecter).

As for Sherlock, his friends—John Watson and Mrs. Hudson—keep him connected to humanity, they keep him human. Moriarty has no such connection and in consequence his brilliance has stripped him of his humanity.

Another detective who, broadly speaking, fits this pattern is Mr. Monk[link]. Recall Mr. Monk’s catch phrase: It’s a gift ... and a curse. Sherlock’s brilliance is both what allows him to solve crimes and it’s also what isolates him from other people; it’s what sets him apart.

The murderer is garden variety.

If the murderer is more of a garden variety murderer then his motive usually has something to do with greed, desperation, depravity, and so on.

In a psychology course I once took the professor said that humans have four motivations for all their behavior: feeding, fleeing, fighting and ... sex. Translating this into the language of a murder mystery, the common murderer is interested in:

  • Feeding: The murderer wishes to continue life as it is but someone is threatening his status quo.
  • Fleeing: All hell has broken lose and the murderer has to disappear but someone is preventing this.
  • Fighting: The murderer is in a smiting mood. He wants to destroy an enemy. 
  • Sex: Love and lust. Obsession. Love and lust are distinct and yet intertwined. Though, arguably, one can love or lust after something inanimate, here I’m talking about loving or lusting after a person. The murderer would do anything—and I do mean ANYTHING—to gain the affections of this individual, but someone is standing in her way.

4. Make the conflict personal.

Make the conflict between the sleuth and the murderer personal. Whatever motivation you give the murderer, make him want to taunt the sleuth. Also, make the sleuth willing to take crazy risks to catch the murderer.

If the murderer is caught then his/her life is over, perhaps literally, but if the murderer gets away with it, what then? What will the sleuth lose?

If the sleuth isn’t able to solve the puzzle and figure out the who, what, where, why and how—or, worse, if he offers up an incorrect solution—this would not only ruin the sleuth's reputation but send an innocent person to prison. And condemning the innocent is something the sleuth MUST care about unless he or she is an anti-hero. Caring about justice, about fairness, is a large part of what separates white hats from black hats.

5. Show that the murderer is one sick puppy.

For most of the story the antagonist is going to wear a mask. Underneath the mask she is getting more desperate and her sickness, her desperation, escalates.

One way we could show this is by escalating the number of murders, their violence, as well as the murderer's reckless daring.

6. Let your antagonist win occasionally.

Your sleuth needs setbacks. He needs strong opposition to battle against and, so, occasionally, he needs to fail. Often this happens at or near the midpoint. The sleuth—or the sleuth's helper, his Watson—thinks he knows who did it. But he’s wrong. Around either the Midpoint or the All Hope is Lost point, the suspect is found dead, killed the way the other victims were.

7. Show the killer's true face at the end.

So far the killer has hidden her true face: she is a cold-blooded killer. She has taken the lives of those she knew, perhaps even those she loved. And she did it for personal gain. She's not nice, not ordinary, perhaps not even sane. But for most of the story she has hidden in plain sight and has acted like everyone else. At the end we need to show her as she really is. We need to show readers the murderer's contempt for those around her, for those who counted themselves as her friends.

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Midsomer Murders, Season 18.

From the blurb: “The cozy villages of Midsomer County reveal their most sinister secrets in these contemporary British television mysteries.”

That’s it for today! I’ll talk to you again on Friday. Till then, good writing!

Tuesday, March 28

Writing a Murder Mystery, Character Creation: The Murderer, Part One of Two

Writing a Murder Mystery, Character Creation: The Murderer, Part One of Two

"Once I figure out whom to kill, and how, and of course why, then I start asking myself what the killer did wrong, or what he overlooked, that will lead to his undoing." —Lee Goldberg[1]
“One of the most critical skills an aspiring writer needs is the ability to build a solid villain. Even the greatest protagonist in the world cannot truly shine without an equally well-rendered opposition. The converse of that statement isn’t true, though—if your protagonist is a little shaky but your villain absolutely shines, you can still tell a very successful story.” —Jim Butcher[3]
A murder mystery is primarily about the murderer. It is not primarily about the detective, it is not primarily about the sleuth’s sidekick, it is not even primarily about the victims. After all, it is the murderer's desire, his goal, that drove him to kill. If your detective doesn’t have a strong antagonist to butt heads with, things will get boring quickly. In a murder mystery creating a strong murderer can be especially tricky because readers (hopefully!) don’t know who the antagonist is until the very end.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of creating a strong antagonist, one your readers will love to hate. It is the battle between the protagonist and antagonist, their contest of wills, that generates the narrative drive that will mercilessly pull readers through the story.

How to Create an Interesting Murderer

Make the antagonist sympathetic: As strange as it may seem, we want readers to become emotionally connected to the antagonist. Readers need to be able to see themselves in the antagonist and, in so doing, understand her. (Or at least that's one way to go. Many of Agatha Christie's antagonists weren't in the least sympathetic and yet her stories are worldwide bestsellers.)

The antagonist provides obstacles for the protagonist: The antagonist puts obstacles in the way of the protagonist as she seeks to identify the murderer. This generates narrative drive by either providing new clues (or pseudo clues) or by resolving one clue while providing another.

The antagonist is equal but opposite: The antagonist is often very much like the protagonist. For instance, Luke and Darth Vader were both strong in The Force and both trained as Jedi Knights. One could say they both wanted what was best but they had very different ideas about what that was.

One crucial difference: There is one crucial difference between the protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist will hold a value that the antagonist doesn’t. So, for instance, the protagonist generally does something unselfish, sometimes it doesn’t even make much rational sense. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dr. Belloq was Indiana Jones’ nemesis. They were both archaeologists, they were both passionate about finding and bringing back the Ark and they both liked Marion Ravenwood. The big difference? People were more important to Indiana than relics.

5 Questions to Ask about the Murderer:

1. Who does the murderer need to kill? 

I’ve found that, usually, the first victim is the person the murderer needed to kill. But there are notable exceptions. Agatha Christie often broke with convention and used her readers' expectations against them (for example, Three Act Tragedy, The A.B.C. Murders).

2. What is the murder method?

Is the murder method, the means of death, an arcane poison? Or perhaps it's a normal poison but there is a problem figuring out how, or when, it was administered? Get creative! If at all possible make the murder method unique and extreme—which is to say, memorable. Read books, watch TV. Write down the many and various ways characters are dispatched. Mix and match. Use what you find to generate your own ideas.

3. Why does the killer need to kill? What is her motivation?

P.D. James once wrote that "All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing and love.”[2]

Lust. This is perhaps the oldest motive. Someone sees something they feel they can't live without. Something they covet, something they obsess over. It could be the corner office or the most beautiful girl at prom. It could be your neighbor's wife.

Lucre. Greed. The murderer wants to experience the lifestyles of the rich and famous and is willing to do anything to make that happen.

Loathing. Hatred. The desire to settle a grudge. A perceived offence. The desire to do unspeakable things to the drunk driver who mowed down your wife and children. His lawyer got him off on a technicality, so now you're taking matters into your own hands.

Love: Someone stole the heart of the person you've loved since fifth grade and then threw her away like garbage. As a result she committed suicide. Now you're out for revenge.

4. What does the murderer stand to lose, what are the stakes?

The murderer wants to prevent the detective from identifying her. If she fails in this then she will either be killed or spend the rest of her life in prison. In addition, she'll likely lose all her friends and possibly her family as well.

Of course often the stakes are more specific, more personal. It could be that the murderer is trying to save something he loves, a winery, a restaurant, or a relationship. For him, the worst thing in the world would be to lose that, but if he is revealed as the murderer the thing he loves most in the world will be ripped from him.

5. What did the killer do wrong? What did she overlook?

It seems axiomatic—at least in fiction—that every killer, no matter how intelligent or how well planned the crime, will make at least one mistake. With Agatha Christie, often the killer's mistake was trying to be clever, trying to pull the wool over the detective's eyes. But her detective turned this into a trap. For example, Poirot assumed the guise of the silly foreigner and so invited the proper English people of his day to underestimate him. His quirks, his foreignness, was his armor, his disguise.

What the killer did wrong, what she overlooked, has to be something the detective could discover, as well as something that plays to her strength. There are countless examples of this, but what comes to mind is the episode of Sherlock entitled The Great Game.

Sherlock Holmes is wonderful at noticing minutiae and bringing together diverse threads, strands of information and, from them, creating a synthesis that yields the answer (usually the 'ah-ha' clue triggers this epiphany). The graphical way the show's writers/producers/director have used to illustrate the information Sherlock notices (words suspended in air) works brilliantly and adds another dimension to the storytelling.

My point is that by working backward, looking at the killer, figuring out the motive and the murder method, and then asking where she slipped up is much easier than doing things the other way around.

The Goal: To Surprise the Reader

Never lose sight of the goal: to surprise the reader. I like it when I figure out the identity of the murderer a few paragraphs before the detective unmasks her. That way I feel clever because I've guessed right but I’m not bored.

Even more important, though, than surprising the reader is playing fair. Or, more precisely, it is important that the reader believes you’ve played fair and haven’t unfairly misled them. The reader must feel that everything hangs together and makes perfect sense.

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

This is one of my favorites: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 10.

From the blurb: "At the dawn of the 20th century, Detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) solves Toronto's trickiest cases with scientific insight and ingenuity in the tenth season of the award-winning mystery series."


1. How to Write a Murder Mystery, by Lee Goldberg.

2. Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James.

3. How to build a Villain, by Jim Butcher