Writing to the Headlights


I keep trying different processes for writing mystery novels like some people try new diets. Someone tells me about another writer’s great book on how to write a mystery, and I inevitably buy it. I read three chapters…and then I set it on the shelf. As if I’m going to absorb the wisdom through osmosis.

There are two approaches I’ve taken from two different books, both of which I’ve used to write more than one book. The first is the idea of character profiles for your main characters, from Elizabeth George’s Write Away. The second is the idea of a blueprint from Hallie Ephron’s Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel. Hallie’s book also involves a (shorter) form of character profiles, and in particular, both books emphasize figuring out what every one of your characters wants and is hiding—their secrets, in other words.

Knowing a lot about my victim and killer and innocent suspects is a huge help going into the actual writing of a new book, and you’d think that once I found something that worked, I’d keep doing it. Or I’d think that. Until I don’t.

Because so far, I’ve written every book differently.

  1. Dead Man’s Switch: totally seat of the pants writing. I knew the timeline and the victim, and I figured everything else out—including the killer—as I went along.
  2. Braking Points: almost no planning, seat of the pants writing, started it five times. When I finally got really rolling, I had a nervous breakdown at the one-third point. I stopped writing, figured out a plan (aka, an outline) and finished it, a year later.
  3. Avoidable Contact: planned more, did detailed character sketches, even worked through most of a blueprint for the whole book…then had a nervous breakdown at the two-thirds point. That’s when I stopped writing, outlined what I had and figured out what I needed to do to finish.
  4. Red Flags: some planning, some character sketches, wrote about a third of it halfway seat-of-the-pants…then freakout, outlining, finishing.

Yes, you should be sensing a theme here. I put it this way: the fun part is throwing out all kinds of characters and clues and motives and teasers of secrets. The hard part is reining all that in, sifting through them to find the real clues, and wrapping up the mystery. The other hard part is the “mushy middle,” which comes between the excitement and drama of the inciting incident (usually a murder) and the thrilling conclusion. And you’ve guessed it, the mushy middle is the middle third, more or less.

Small wonder I have issues with it.

I’m writing book #5 now, Kiss the Bricks, and I’m doing something different. Again. Partly it’s because I’m not a big fan of the mid-point freakout (despite evidence to the contrary). And partly because I’ve backed myself into a corner as far as deadline goes. So there will be no stopping in the middle this time!

Or really, maybe I did all of my stopping and freaking out ahead of time. I’ve been planning and thinking about this story for eight months. I’d written eight thousand words by May, and it’s due in October. So in June, I got busy, and I got focused. I have the Doctorow quote printed out next to me, and I just keep writing to the headlights every day.

When I stop and think about the big picture, I’ll admit to being a little—no, a lot nervous. Because I’m just getting to that two-thirds point, and I don’t have the time to freak out about it this round. So every day, I remind myself, head down, just to the headlights.

And if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an illuminated stretch of pavement in front of me to address…