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Thursday, 2 April 2009

Writing Guide-01

Edited by Robert J Randisi
(Writer’s Diget Books, hardback)

For a number of years I’ve wanted to write a private eye novel so I bought this book when it was new – 1997. There hasn’t been a new edition since, but really there’s little call for one. Virtually everything said in these pages still holds true. This won’t tell you how to write a mystery and few specifics are covered, but its advice will certainly prove useful and probably save a lot of time for anyone embarking on a PI novel. And, if you want to go down those mean streets, the recommendation is go for a series character. To do that, start building his or her backstory before you write the first book; that includes friends, relations and the neighbourhood. Sound advice for any novel, actually, but for a series character it’s almost essential.

Founder of the Private Eye Writers of America and creator of the Shamus Award, Robert J Randisi has gathered together a number of accomplished authors to offer their nuggets of writerly wisdom.

Lawrence Block advocates gripping the reader at the outset, never letting go till the end. He quotes Mickey Spillane, who said, ‘The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book.’ We all know that beginnings are important; but don’t neglect the end – don’t rush it, don’t over-explain and don’t leave the reader disappointed. Intriguingly, Block says that his literary apprenticeship began with writing soft-core sex novels, which taught him to avoid sections of novel that were liable to lose the reader’s attention: keep the action going.

Loren D Estleman spells it out. ‘Suspension of disbelief is a high-wire act, requiring enough plausibility on one end of the balance pole to counter the pull of audacious invention on the other.’ He advises beginners to beware of proven authors who might ‘break the rules’; they can afford to, they have a fan base, followers. Beginners should stick with what works. For example, avoid soliloquies and clunking lengthy expositions at the end. He concludes that your book should ‘keep the reader tied up until the last knot is unravelled, then make them want to be tied up all over again.’

Ed Gorman advocates that writers should read – anything and everything. But especially as much as possible in your chosen genre. Choose four or five favourite books and analyse their chapters, characters, motivation etc and before long the mysteries won’t be that mysterious. That’s what many writing guides do, actually, they relieve prospective authors from wading through entire volumes doing their own research: the offer up the nuggets in digestible form. But even so, writers have to apply themselves rigorously and simply write and write and write.

Female private eyes are discussed, and writing a first person narrative from the perspective of the opposite sex. The setting of a PI novel can become a character in the series in its own right; so you need to know as much as possible about the chosen environment where the action takes place.

Max Allan Collins contributes twice – which isn’t surprising since he’s been nominated and won the Shamus Award more than once. His first foray discusses historical PI fiction, citing his award winning Nathan Heller novels which cover the early decades of last century. Needless to say, this kind of approach entails considerable research. Mr Collins’s second item is about writing private eye comic books. The market isn’t so great, but if you have a visual as well as a dramatic sense, then this may be worth investigating. You could check out Mr Collins’s Ms Tree graphic novels.

Writing the PI short story is covered too. This is quite difficult as the PI tale invariably relies on character and atmosphere, both of which eat up precious words. The writer of this section, Christine Matthews, quotes Stephen Vincent Benet: ‘A sort story is something that can be read in an hour and remembered for a lifetime.’ She also mentions the latest trend (1997) is Church lady mysteries. (It was about that time when I first thought up my Sister Rose character (Pain Wears No Mask), so that’s intriguing!

John Lutz emphasises the four main elements of fiction – character, setting, situation and theme. Whatever the fiction. Though in most good PI fiction, character dominates.

And of course there are crossover possibilities, mixing and matching more than one genre with your PI tale. They can work, and have the advantage of perhaps appealing to two distinct sets of genre readers.

An encouraging book if you’re inclined to write a private eye story. One of many useful books from Writer’s Digest Books. Check out their Howdunit Series for details about everything from poisons to weapons.


Paul Brazill said...

Ta for that!

Barbara Martin said...

This sounds just like the book I need to read.

David Cranmer said...

This is a very fine reference that's on my shelf as well.


Yep am ordering from Amazon tonight.