The Benefits of Writing Fanfiction

 

 

I know, you’re thinking fanfiction has a bad reputation. Mostly because what you may have found published on the Internet is poorly written by emo-angsty teens blasting My Chemical Romance.

But there are definite benefits to writing fanfiction, even if you aren’t emo or plan on anyone reading it. Ever. So whether you’re going to write The New Adventures of Old Sherlock Holmes or The Lost Chronicles of Narnia, here are some ways to use fanfiction writing to your advantage.

1. Fanfiction is a low-stakes writing opportunity

If you recall in my previous post, finding low-stakes exercises takes the pressure off what you’re writing without taking the pressure of writing off you.

Sound complicated? Think of it this way, you can still be productive, you can still hit your word goal or write for your allotted amount of time without worrying if inspiration will strike or if you’re just throwing down words in your WIP, sending it off course all in the name of progress. Taking a break from “serious” projects to work on something you enjoy may just get you around that impasse and refuel your passion. fanfiction article 2

Fanfiction is also low stakes because you don’t have to worry about anything being good enough to publish. Plus, all the work has been done for you–the setting, the characters, the plot, the structure, the genre.

Because these elements come ready-made, they allow you to develop individual aspects of your writing in any number of ways.

2. Fanfiction helps you develop stronger characters

One way to write fanfiction is to use minor or secondary characters from your favorite book series, television show, or movie saga and make them the protagonists of the story. You’ll already have a basic understanding of the character you’ll want to use, but by making them the hero, you can develop a more complex character by exploring his or her backstory, internal needs, and external goals within the world that has already been created. You get to orchestrate how he will plan and act and react to a specific set of cirumstances.

Television series do this all the time. You’ll notice a few episodes every season that focus on one or two of the minor characters to make them seem like more than just the sidekicks. For instance, in one of my favorite television shows, Castle, you’ll see episodes dedicated specifically to exploring Detectives Ryan and/or Esposito, as well as Castle’s daughter, Alexis; and both Castle and Beckett take a backseat, appearing in only a few scenes in an ancillary capacity.

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You can also develop your character creation skills by insinuating completely new characters into the fictional world already made.

I do this with my own fanfiction serial, which is set in Azeroth, the world in World of Warcraft.

My hero-protagonist and all her little friends are completely based off one of my in-game characters and friends’ characters, but I maneuver them around the lands and landscape, the races and classes, the political factions and society of the world as built-in game as they embark on their own adventure.

 

 

3. Fanfiction helps you write plot

So you’ve got a cast of characters to play with, a setting set up, and a structure to work with. Now all you have to do is bring them all together in a plot completely your own. Give Nancy Drew a new mystery to solve or Nero Wolfe a special case to crack and work on how to incorporate clues and subplots into an original story.

Perhaps Jacqueline Natla comes back for one more go-round with Lara Croft. You already know there will be certain elements such as foreign lands with ancient relics, henchmen with weapons, and vehicles for all terrains. All you need to do is find a reason for Natla to return, add a chase scene or two, and put Lara in mortal danger.

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When you think about it, aren’t all sequels really just a form of writing fanfiction plot? It doesn’t even have to be that original. One of my favorite movies, The Mummy Returns, is basically just the same “take over the world” ploy as every other superhero movie. You can’t do worse!

4. Fanfiction helps you write setting

If your fanfiction du jour is a visual medium such as a video game, TV series, or movie franchise, you can work on describing the setting that has already been created visually, if not stunningly, for you. You can also work on using these aspects of description to create a specific atmosphere for your story. Read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper for a brilliant use of setting description to not only create a claustrophobic atmosphere but a vehicle for plot and character study. fantasy house

Take any short story you like, for example, and really ramp up the description. This could be in a story that doesn’t have a lot of description because of word count constraints, or it could be you choose to write a story that takes place in a little-utilized or  even new setting for the characters.

Once Upon A Time did this when they threw fairy tale characters into the modern-day town of Storybrooke, Maine. They also did it this last season when key characters set up shop in Seattle, Washington.

I’m not suggesting you have to write a 300-page novel to work on writing better description or even a complete story, but you will have enough material already created for you to write a few key scenes or chapters. And hey, it’s fun to travel!

5. Fanfiction helps you write better. Period.

As long as you’re writing, and it doesn’t much matter what, you are practicing. And that is what’s going to make you a better writer. There’s no pressure with fanfiction unless you plan on publishing it online, and most of the time you’ll probably be breaking some copyright laws. Just knowing this subconsciously will allow you to take risks with your writing. Try new things, not be afraid of failing, or worry if it’s “good enough.”

If you’re up to the task of working on everything all at once, try rewriting a simple story or novel. I’m currently thinking of rewriting the original Nancy Drew novels (well, maybe one of them). Granted, the 1930s were a different era, but the writing is pretty simplistic because they were meant to be read by young girls at the time. However, there is plenty of opportunity to explore character, settings (including building atmosphere), pacing, and suspense. Plus, they are relatively short as far as novels go.

Maybe you have a favorite book or series from when you were a kid or you’ve read something recently that you think you could write better. Well, why don’t you? What did you think wasn’t good about it? It probably falls into one of the aforementioned categories: character, plot, setting, etc.

Take a beloved fairy tale and rewrite it from another character’s point of view or put your own twist on it the way Jane Yolen does in The Emerald Circus.

The options for writing fanfiction and the benefits of doing so are boundless.

And I promise you won’t turn into an emo-angsty My Chemical Romance loving teenager.

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5 Ways to Improve Your Writing This Year

We can sometimes be so focused on improving how we write in our respective genre, buying craft after craft book on how to concoct the perfect mystery, that we forget great writing transcends mere labels.

So here are five ways you can improve your writing skills in a low stakes environment. (You know, when you’re sick of working on that novel that’s been banging around for ten years and not getting any closer to done.)

1. Go Strunk & White on your ass

No, seriously. Pick up the latest edition of your preferred style guide, study it, quiz yourself, then proofread your work. The art of great writing is not limited to theme and character and voice. It’s about your command of the English language and how you use it to articulate your thoughts. It’s sentence level stuff–grammar, punctuation, usage, composition. Using the Oxford Comma. (Hint, hint.)

Let’s face it, do you really know when to use a dash and when to use an em dash? Or when to use the past perfect tense if the rest of your story is just in past tense? Or how to make the plural of letters, numbers, and names ending in -s?

Classic guides, including, The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr and E. B. White, can show you how, and there’s even a workbook to practice. Or check out sites such as Grammar Girl.

Eighth grade was forever ago for most of us, but you won’t have to diagram sentences very long before you master the elements of style and the art of great writing. You may even find yourself silently judging poorly punctuated texts from your significant other.

2. Read and imitate your favorite author

There’s nothing wrong with trying to write like your favorite author. After all, there’s a reason why he or she is your favorite. What is it? What makes you pull her next book off the library shelf as soon as you put one down? What makes you stand in line at the bookstore or pre-order his latest novel?

Make a list of your favorite authors, then list the reasons that drew you to them. The best part is you get to reread any to remind yourself.

If you can identify what it is you like about how these authors write and dissect how they do it, you can practice incorporating these skills into your own writing. And by practice, I mean trying them out in a low stakes environment first. Think, something you don’t mind burning at the stake when you’re done. A warmup, if you will. Something to pass the time while on the subway, during boring business meetings, at family holiday gatherings.

You never know, you may find someone admitting to imitating your style some day.

3. Write one scene three different ways

Here’s another warmup exercise that shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Write one scene then rewrite it two more times using one of the following methods:

  • Write a scene from three different points of view: first, second, limited third, omniscient third. (How do each of these affect your word choice, sentence structure, tone, voice?)
  • Write a scene in three different tenses: past, present, future, or if you’re really hardcore past perfect. (What do you notice when someone views the scene from the past–are they nostalgic, depressed, insightful? From the future–are they filled with anxiety or hope? In the present–does everything flow peacefully or move too fast?)
  • Write a scene to convey three different moods: excited, scared, desperate, ecstatic, pessimistic, etc. (Again, how does this affect word choice and sentence structure? What details do you focus on? Does setting play an important role or is it the character’s feelings and reactions?)
  • Write a scene using three different genre voices: noir, flowery Victorian, Hobbit. (See #2 above and use inspiration from your favorite authors.)
  • Write a scene with three different narrators: This is different from using three different points of view because now you will be writing the scene from three different characters’ perspectives. (For instance, how would a victim, a killer, and a detective describe the same scene of a crime. Use the same point of view for each iteration, e. g. first person, to make it easier.)

You can use a random scene generator like this or this to get you started.

4. Join a writing group

A writing group is different from a critique group. I belong to two writing groups. We meet informally and we usually always write on the same prompt that is given at that meeting. One person from each group volunteers to bring in a prompt–it can be anything from a first line, an exercise on descriptive writing, or a template for an entire short story–then we write for about 30-40 minutes, depending on how long people need to finish up last thoughts or sentences. (I’m usually the last one done.) At the end, we volunteer to read what we’ve written. Some members never read, some always do, and some read depending on the night.

We generally add comments of praise and sometimes suggestions if the writer requests it, but we never point out flaws or what could have been done better. We also don’t bring in larger pieces or WIPs to be critiqued by the whole group unless it is agreed upon ahead of time.

And don’t worry about finding a writing group whose members write in the same genre or have the same level of writing experience as you. In my groups, there are children’s writers, women’s fiction writers, academic writers, poets, technical writers, and genre writers. Some women have been published, some self-published, and some never published. Some members don’t even want to be “writers;” they just want to get out of their house. Some women have never taken a formal writing class. Others have devoted their entire education to it.

You’d be surprised at what you can learn from a diverse group of writers. You can obtain a similar effect by checking out online short story blogs. (You can find a list here, though I can’t vouch for any of them.)

Writing groups are perfect for low-stakes practice and the prompts offered should aim to improve creative writing skills in general. If you’re looking for specific feedback or how to whip your manuscript into publishable shape, you may want to join a formal critique group in which participants have an extended period of time prior to the meeting to read your work and formulate thoughtful comments on how to get you where you want to be.

5. Practice on your own

If you don’t like the idea of joining a writing group, reading your work in front of others, or leaving your cat home alone, you can get the same benefit by practicing on your own.

The best way to practice is to compile a list of writing prompts. Writers Digest has free ones (they also have a link for writing groups) or you can buy Storymatic cards.

If you’d rather come up with your own ideas, here is an example of a prompt we did in one of our groups that you can tailor. (I don’t know the exact origin of it, so you may have seen it elsewhere.)

On seven slips of paper, make one entry for each item below:

  • a male character
  • a female character
  • what he said (line of dialogue)
  • what she said (line of dialogue)
  • where they met
  • where the story takes place
  • what happened in the end

Repeat this process at least five times. The more choices the better.

Now, place all the entries for each item into separate bags (or boxes or bowls or baseball hats or whatever) and shake them up. You should have six male characters to randomly choose from and so on.

Pick one entry from each bag/box/bowl, set your timer, and incorporate all of these items into one story.

Don’t worry if you suck at first. Or for a long time. That’s not the point.

When I first joined my writing groups, I couldn’t write a short story to save my life. Especially not in 30 minutes. I’d only ever written novel-length (or at least novella-length) pieces. So I worked on the prompts for the allotted time and focused mainly on character and voice, which are my weak areas. Over the past year, I’ve gotten to the point where I can finish most of the short story prompts (to an ambiguous conclusion) within 30-45 minutes. They are not perfect. They are not as well-developed as my friend, Trudy’s, as richly detailed as Sara’s, as humorous as Jenn’s, or as poignant as Kathy’s . They are not supposed to be. We are different writers.

But over time, like me, and hopefully with the help of these tips, you too can improve your writing. Practice as often or as little as you like. Revise everything or nothing. When you write for yourself in a low stakes enviroment, anything is possible, and you’ll find your main projects become that much better.

Do you have any tried and true writing prompts you turn to in times of need?

What are your thoughts on or experiences with writing groups? Would you recommend them?

First Draft Mindset

In a May/June 2017 interview, winner of The 12th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards, Travis Madden, offers this piece of writing advice, “Just get that first draft completed, knowing it’s not going to be anywhere remotely near the quality of your finished work. And be OK with that!”

So how do you get to be OK with that when you’re constantly thinking about how to incorporate all the things you’ve learned about storytelling?writer-1421099_640

First, forget everything you’ve learned about storytelling. Honestly, you don’t need to know how to create compelling characters, how to raise the stakes, how to pace, plot, hook the reader, etc. to write a first draft. That’s what revision is for. Instead, you need to just write. Maybe you have an idea for a character or a vague sense of setting with no plot. Maybe you have a plot but your characters are flat and cliché. Who cares? You write first drafts to explore these things and figure out what story you’re trying to tell. With that being said, you shouldn’t formally outline before you start a first draft either. Let the words and the plot and the characters come and go as they please without trying to mold them. Save the outline, character sketches, plot summaries, setting descriptions, etc. for revision. I mean, how can you make those things better before they’re even written?

img_0278-1024x683Indeed, first drafts are a lot like corn mazes– you don’t know how to get yourself out of them ahead of time. That’s why they’re so much fun. Sometimes you can only see a few feet in front of you at a time and never know whether the next turn will bring a dead-end or another path to the next fork in the road. You’re excited at the adventure of it and a little anxious about getting lost (and possibly afraid of a Bible-thumping 9-year old named Isaac jumping out at you), but it doesn’t stop you from entering the maze and having fun.

Secondly, adopt the mindset that first drafts should be like creative, unstructured child’s play. I grew up in a time when we didn’t have computers or video games or even VCRs. My parents never sat my sister and me in front of the TV to keep us entertained. We played outside in all kinds of weather, building entire houses out of snow or pine needles. We created menus and played restaurant with my mother’s dishes. I played Wonder Woman, paper dolls, Barbie, bank, shoe store, house, and school. I turned my bike upside down and pretended it was an ice cream shop. 4aeb9200a5c8eccce526a2c407f5ef60

There are no rules in child’s play–at least not in creative, unstructured play. You can be a superhero one moment and a gun-toting stagecoach robber the next. (Yes, I did have a cap gun and no, I didn’t grow up to be a murderer.)

Often when kids make up games, they make up their own rules as they go along as situations call for it. They don’t sit down and plan for every scenario ahead of time the way some writers do. They are true pantsers. Free and unencumbered. They never feel the need to go back and “re-play” what they did earlier because they changed something.

Next, start your story where you need to not where you have to. If that includes beginning with decades of backstory or a dreaded prologue, then so be it. Seriously, how ridiculous is it to try to start your story in the middle of things if you don’t even know where the middle is because you haven’t gotten to the end yet?

As humans, we literally start every day anew when we wake up. So if you have to follow your main character from the moment he opens his eyes until the time something life-altering happens, so be it. That’s what the Delete button is for.young-man-wake-up-morning-rub-eyes-stretch-89053809

This is also why NaNoWriMo is so popular. It allows writers to throw down anything and everything and just write with reckless abandon. Who cares if you followed all the rules? Who cares if it doesn’t make sense in the end? Who cares if your story started out as fantasy and morphed into contemporary realism? You just wrote 50,000 words! Fifty-thousand words you didn’t have time to deliberate over. Fifty-thousand words with a better idea of what kind of story you want to tell and what to revise to get it there.

And finally, don’t ask for critiques or share your first drafts with other writers. It’s tempting to want feedback to see if you’re on the right track. Only you don’t know what the right track is yet. You don’t know how your baby is going to grow up, if it’s even going to make it. This thing you’re writing is like a newborn. parentIt can be infected with other people’s germs super easily and get really sick. It can also turn out to be something you never wanted, depending on who’s taking care of it. So protect it (and your self-confidence) in the process. Remember, no one likes being called a bad parent

To recap, here are four ways to change your mindset around first drafts:

  1. Forget everything you’ve ever learned about writing and just write.
  2. Know there are no rules in creativity. (We never would have been able to send men in outer space unless someone dreamed it was possible. Only then did rules about physics and engineering apply.)
  3. Start your story where you need to, not where you’re supposed to.
  4. Protect that baby from backseat critiquers until it’s fully developed.

What’s your current mindset about first drafts? Do you get trapped in the never-ending cycle of editing? What other advice would you give someone about writing a first draft?

 

Just Another Dead Body

I know it’s tempting, but don’t let the victim in your murder mystery fall prey to Just Another Dead Body syndrome. This is when your victim becomes a means to the plot’s end. Meaning, you only killed him to create a mystery for your detective to solve.

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Victims are not props. They are characters.

And the more you can breathe life into them before they’re dead, the more compelling they’ll be after they’re dead.

So how do you begin? Just as you would with any other character.

Start by asking the hard questions:

  • What are his hope and fears?
  • What does he live for? Who would he die for?
  • What great and terrible things has he done? Will he never be able to do now that you killed him off?
  • Who loves him? Who hates him?
  • Who can’t live without him and who would kill to save him?

You may even want to get super creative and have your victim speak in his own words. It can be in the form of a monologue, a stream of consciousness, a letter, or a dialogue with someone important. It could even be a beyond-the-grave tirade to the murderer after being killed. (Seriously, dude? Wtf?)

Take this a step further and start interviewing important people in the victim’s life (even if they turn out to be suspects themselves) about what they thought of him. Avoid cliches like “everybody loved Jamie.” Instead, offer a scene, a vignette, or a personal anecdote involving the victim to show what he was like and how others reacted to him instead of just telling us. Chances are you’ll find some good stuff to use when it comes time for your sleuth to start conducting her own interviews.

Next, give your victim a sanctuary, a space in which he felt most comfortable. It could be his workplace, his favorite bar, his bedroom, his mancave, his mother’s basement, the diner down the street.

Fill the space with meaningful objects that symbolize what your victim was all about not just with clues your sleuth will use to piece together who shot him.

If you’re looking for ideas, look no further than your own sanctuary. Imagine a stranger walking into your space. What could she infer about you from what’s lying about (or hidden in drawers).

  • Do you own a preponderance of CDs, DVDs, books? What genres? What titles?
  • Is your mail scattered all over the dining table or organized in a command center?
  • Is your bed made with hospital corners or are the covers just thrown over it? Did you even make your bed this morning?
  • What kind of clothes are in your closet?
  • What kind of art, if any, hangs on the walls?
  • What food is in the cabinets and the refrigerator?
  • How clean is your toilet? The kitchen counters?
  • What do you hide that you don’t want anyone else to see even if you live alone?

All these little things make a person, a person.

This may also be a good time to start jotting down the must-have scenes that involve your victim.

  • For instance, do we meet the victim before he’s killed? When? Where? In what context?
  • What was he doing on the day leading up to his murder?
  • What does the crime scene look like? Where did it happen, how is his body positioned, what is he wearing, what objects did he have on him or are conspicuously missing (like a cellphone, wallet, etc.)?
  • What does his sanctuary look like to the detective investigating?
  • Who is going to be interviewed about him and what do they say?

I want to remind you again not to get into the habit of only killing off innocent little kitten victims. Sometimes bad things happen to bad people too. So make your victim as bad as he wants to be.

Once you’ve got a pretty detailed character sketch of your victim, go ahead and start to dive into his relationship with the villain.

  • Where did they meet? How long have they known each other?
  • How well did they get on? Were they best friends, adversaries, co-workers, family members, business partners? (Remember, not all murders are motivated by hate, and you can still be jealous of your best friend.)
  • Did your victim stand in the way of your villain’s goal or did they want the same thing that only one of them could have?
  • Was your villain’s perception of the victim’s ability to get in the way overrated?
  • How long did your villain and victim get into it before murder was the only option? (Unlike real life, fictional characters don’t resort to murder just because someone bought the last big screen TV at Walmart on Black Friday.)
  • Did your victim fight back on previous attempts with his own brand of vindictiveness like blackmail, bullying, insults, maybe a murder of his own?

In other words, what commodity, perceived or otherwise, did your victim hold that led to his murder? Was he the last person standing in the way of a corporate takeover?  Would her paternity ensure she would inherit the estate before your villain did? Does the murderer think your victim knows too much or is he just being used as a pawn for something bigger?

Many of these questions you’ll be able to answer or will have already pondered as you explored your villain, but by giving your victim a life before he gets killed, you’ll be able to create a more complex character rather than a stark chalk outline.

Remember, victims are people too.

Which technique did you find most helpful?

What did you learn about your victim that you wouldn’t have known otherwise?

Interview With a Killer (or not)

While we’re on the subject of villains…one way to get a handle on your mystery is to get a handle on your villain.

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Your killer (or any other criminal) should be fully developed before your story even opens. That is to say, he won’t be changing over the course of the novel. Everything that has contributed to your villain’s life of crime has already happened, especially because, by the time your story opens, the crime will have already been committed or will be committed very soon. So it makes sense to create a comprehensive character sketch of your villain before he sets foot on the page.

The best place to start is with the most significant event in the killer’s life that directly affects your story–AKA the murder or other terrible crime that needs to be solved. You can learn more about this event and get a feel for your villain’s voice by conducting an interview with him.

A few ways to do this is by establishing the scene as:

  • A police interrogation after being arrested
  • A written statement after confessing to the crime
  • A courtroom trial with testimony and cross-examination
  • A deathbed confession
  • A confession to a clergyman
  • A confrontation with the sleuth (amateur or otherwise), possibly in the moment he’s caught

Or you can get creative and have your villain apply for a job with Killers For Hire and get called back for an interview.

The idea with any of these interviews is to establish not only your murderer’s character but the details of the mystery as well.

Consider asking the following questions in your interview to establish the motive, method, and opportunity of the crime:

Who was the victim and what was the nature of your relationship?

Where did the murder take place and why this particular place? 

What time did it occur? What was the weather like?

What were you wearing? Were you trying to blend in or avoid being seen?

How did you get there? How did you get away?

How much planning was involved?

What weapon did you use, if any, and why that particular one? 

Where did you get it or who did you get it from?

Have you ever used that weapon before? Did you need special training to use it?

Did the weapon deliver a swift death or a long, slow, tortured process?

What wounds were inflicted?

How long have you planned the killing or was it a crime of opportunity?

Were there any accomplices?

Were there any witnesses that you know of?

Was this your first kill? If not, how old were you when it happened? How did the killing make you feel?

What did you do with the victim? Did you leave the body there, mutilate it, bury it, drown it, burn it, pour chemicals over it, leave it for the vultures?

I know this may sound scary to some of you pantsers out there, but trust me, once you decide who your killer is and figure out the what, where, why, when, and how of your murder, writing the rest will be cake. Even Dame Agatha Christie knew her killers and how she wanted her novels to end before she began writing.

So what does your killer have to say for himself?

 

 

Villains, Antagonists, and Everything in Between

In last week’s post, I wrote that one of the most important aspects of writing a mystery is the villain. I chose this word, instead of antagonist, because it sounds delicious.

But there are differences between the two. So here’s the definitive answer on both.

Villains are always villains.

Antagonists are always antagonists.

Sometimes villains can be antagonists.

Sometimes antagonists can be villains.

Sometimes antagonists can be protagonists.

If that didn’t clear things up for you, here’s a better explanation:

Villains are motivated by evil. Not necessarily Satan, though I suppose that could also be true. Villains are cruel and malicious by nature and resort to criminal activity. Their whole existence is to cause harm and destruction. They may feel slighted by humanity or superior to it. They may even feel their diabolical actions are a form of social justice or in the world’s best interest.

Any way you slice it, villains are always villains. They may, however, not always interfere with the sleuth’s investigation. A villain may just go about her merry way killing off all the bellringers in a local competition to atone for the murder of her ancestor over five generations before without ever thwarting the investigation because she wasn’t on the suspect radar until it was too late.

Antagonists, on the other hand, don’t have to be evil at all. They may merely oppose or try to block the sleuth from achieving his external goal, which is to solve the mystery. This can be done without breaking any laws such as by starting rumors, deliberately stalling, lying, or evading. An antagonist may have the same goal as the main character or may just want the main character not to achieve it.

An example of the difference between a villain and an antagonist in a mystery might be:

Little Timmy, seeking revenge on a classmate, causes an accident that kills the classmate. Timmy’s mother, trying to protect her son, obstructs the investigation by hiding physcial evidence and lying to the detective about Timmy’s whereabouts at the time in question.

Timmy is the villain because his motive was to cause harm out of revenge. Timmy’s mother is the antagonist because she literally opposes the sleuth–she does not want your main character to solve the mystery because it would mean something horrible for her child.

Now as I said, villains can sometimes be antagonists. Not only do they commit the crime, but they lead the detective on a wild goose chase as well, perhaps taunting the sleuth with riddles, leaving false clues, and goading her into playing an “I’m smarter than you” game. Many mysteries centering on serial killers will use this device.

Villains as antagonists also love to knock your sleuth unconscious (every Nancy Drew mystery ever) in order to escape or even hold your sleuth captive.

In the same sense, you may have an antagonist who becomes a villain due to circumstances beyond her control, like feeling threatened or being exposed.

Consider a woman who stages her own disappearance in order to leave an abusive marriage. Her husband hires a private investigator to track her down. The woman’s goal is to not get caught and is in direct opposition to the P.I.’s. As the story progresses and the investigator closes in on her, the woman who is desperate and afraid she’s been recognized, murders the potential witness to prolong her freedom.

Though I’ve only seen the movie, I suspect Amazing Amy from Gone Girl is an antagonist who becomes the villain because she uses misdirection first which then escalates to murder as a means to an end.

In most mysteries, the protagonist will be a sleuth, amateur or otherwise. In capers and heists, however, the antagonist becomes the protagonist because we see the story from the thieves’ point of view. The thieves are not considered villains despite resorting to crime because they don’t steal with evil or malicious intent. They do it mostly because they can, mostly to see if they can get away with it. (And I’m sure the money it brings isn’t too bad either.) By definition, capers are lively and playful, often humorous, and you would be hard-pressed to find much more than childhood mischief as motive.

We want the thieves to succeed because the victim of the theft is usually a horrible person and deserves it, so the detective who investigates the crime becomes the adversary or antagonist.

So there you have it, the definitive answer on all things villain vs. antagonist.

Take a look at your own “bad guy.” Where does he or she fall on the scale of villainy?

Do you like your villain or antagonist more than your detective?

Do you want your villain or antagonist to get away with the crime?

10 Things You Need to Write a Killer (or not) Mystery

If you’re thinking of breaking into the mystery market, here’s 10 things (in somewhat order of importance) you need to have.

1. A CRIME: aka The Mystery, aka Whatever Your Sleuth Has to Solve crime

The Crime wins first place in order of appearance because without it, there would be no story. Sure, some of you may balk at the idea of basing your novel on plot rather than character, but if you don’t have a handle on the who, what, where, when, why and how of your mystery, then you really have no story.

Mysteries are all about misdirection, reversals, knowing what to reveal when, and keeping your reader (and your sleuth) guessing.

And though it’s a perennial favorite, not all mysteries have to revolve around murder. (I mean, I don’t recall Nancy Drew or Scooby Doo ever stumbling over a dead body on one of their cases.) And there are plenty of other options out there, especially if you’re writing for children or are just the non-violent type (which apparently, I am not).

A few ideas to get you started include: finding a missing item, a missing person; a mysterious person; uncovering the reasons behind a mysterious disappearance, a mysterious event from the past, a tragic accident; solving a burglary, a kidnapping, a poisoning; revealing a blackmail scheme, a crime ring, a crime spree, a drug ring, a drug spree; investigating a seemingly supernatural event, a not-so seemingly supernatural event, a stolen identity, a missing identity, a mistaken identity.

The options are endless, and you could just as easily use a dead body to uncover the real mystery or vice versa.

2. A VILLAIN:

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It goes without saying that every crime needs a villain to commit it. A real live, tangible person who gets what’s coming to him. And while it’s tempting to create a crazed psycho serial killer, it’d be much more interesting for the reader to meet, say, two elderly spinster ladies  who poison lonely old men out of charity.

Get fun and creative with your villain before you start writing. He may be as affable as Casper Gutman or as perverted as Antony Bruno, but either way he (or she) will need to be completely developed before ever hitting the page. Unlike, say, your sleuth who will necessarily become more complex and (hopefully) change in some way as the story progresses.

It may also be tempting to redeem your villain by the end of the story so that he or she feels remorse for whatever crimes were committed and/or possibly commit suicide before spending an eternity in jail, but that is not the point of a mystery. We read mysteries because we want people to get what they deserve. We’re tired of seeing real-world crimes go unsolved, real-world villains get away with murder, real-world victims go unrecognized. We’re just tired. We want justice.

3. A VICTIM

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Just as with villains, every crime needs a victim. When we think of victims, we think of poor, innocent people whose lives are irrevocably changed (or terminated) because of the dastardly deeds of some unscrupulous bastard. And while it does help the case against your villain to nick off a defenseless old lady, not all victims are blameless or defenseless. Sometimes bad things happen to bad people. So if your sleuth is a stand-up gal, she will still feel compelled to solve the crime in the name of truth, justice, and the American way. Or because she just likes a good puzzle.

So remember, victims don’t all have to be puppy dogs and lollipop-licking kids, high school seniors, senior citizens, or battered housewives. In fact, think about the moral dilemmas your sleuth (and your readers) will have if the victim is more villain than not. Do we still want justice? You betcha. (And you can probably throw in a little poetic justice for the victim as well.)

4. A SLEUTH

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Were you wondering when I was going to get to the detective? Well, the possibilities for character, here too, are endless. Really, anyone with keener-than-the-average-person’s observation skills and the desire to solve a puzzle can become the sleuth in your mystery. (For that matter, you could also make a bumbling French detective work.)

There are of course professionals who have extensive resources such as police detectives, private investigators, insurance recovery specialists, lawyers, medical examiners, bounty hunters, FBI agents, MI-6 operatives, etc. These characters will have an easier time of it because 1) it’s their job and 2) they’ll have more practice, so that means you will also have to make the crime harder to solve, the villain harder to identify.

Of course you could always go the route of average Joe turns amateur sleuth, the basis of most cozies. Some tried and true options include: archaeology professors, art historians, clairvoyants, librarians, mystery writers, old ladies, old ladies who are mystery writers, shopkeepers, schoolteachers, postal workers, old men, village vicars, old men who are village vicars, teenage girls, teenage boys, talking dogs, talking cats. Heck, you can even relocate your NYC police detective to Cabot Cove, Maine; or your Cabot Cove, Maine sheriff to New York City.

More often than not, the amateur detectives will have to rely on their ingenuity, analytical skills, women’s intuition, or penchant for gossip rather than forensics and crime databases.

Really, anyone and anything can be a detective. What sets yours apart is what sets millions of characters apart in millions of books: it’s all in how you write them.

5. A DISTINCT NARRATIVE VOICE 

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Speaking of how you write your characters, at some point you’ll have to consider the narrative voice of your story. Many writers confuse voice with point of view. In fact, I read an entire article in Writer’s Digest called, “Amplify Your Narrative Voice,” which was basically three pages describing the difference between first person, third person limited, and third person omniscient perspective. And it had little to do with how what was being said was being said.

Think of it this way, point of view (and the verb tense you use to tell your story) is like a vehicle. It’s a mode of transportation that you control (and can smoke in, if you so desire). Narrative voice is the choice of vehicle you make. It shows off your personality, your preferences, your style. It’s an extension of yourself and your character. It’s the difference between, “Wazzupp?” and “May I inquire how you are doing this evening?” It’s the difference between a shiny, red Maserati and stuffy old man Buick.

6. A KNOWLEDGE OF SUB-GENRE CONVENTIONS

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It goes without saying that your story may fall either completely or mostly in one sub-category of mystery fiction or another, and knowing in which category you’re writing will effectively help you make choices. One of those being narrative voice. So the sooner you realize what type of mystery you want to write, the easier it will be to get your story out.

For instance, if you are writing a noir mystery a la The Maltese Falcon, the tone of your story will be dark, gritty; the world of your story will be steeped in shadows; your characters will be hiding more than they’re revealing, even your sleuth. Especially your sleuth. The narrative voice will be harder, meaner. Descriptions stark and sparse.

Sub-genre conventions will also help you decide what kind of sleuth is appropriate (police procedurals will have, well, police detectives) and lend themselves to specific types of crimes (capers/heists mainly focus on stealing heavily guarded items). Conventions will also inform how technical or descriptive information is given (in cozies, the murder usually happens off-screen and is particularly bloodless in description; in legal thrillers, expect to rely heavily on laws and judicial procedures.)

Of course this goes without saying, there are exceptions to every rule, and if you can pull off a hard-boiled mystery set in the bucolic Scottish countryside, then more power to you. Perhaps this would be a good time to introduce a talking sheep amateur private eye who falls in love with a double-crossing wolf while searching for the Balkan Diamond.

7. AN APPROPRIATE SETTING

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This would also be a good time to talk about setting. As seen in the example above, setting will play a huge role in the nature of the crime, villain, victim, and detective. I’m sure you won’t find many private dicks peeping about people’s windows in a sleepy English hamlet, although if you’ve seen Midsomer Murders, there probably should be.

You’d also be hard-pressed to find Interpol looking into the death of a Russian spy (do they even still have these?) during the Cold War at the Sonic Burger on Route 66.

Or: suppose your story takes place on a Texas cattle ranch where the nearest neighbor is miles away. There’s likely not going to be a lot of witnesses; therefore, your detective will have to rely more on forensic evidence than on interviewing suspects. You also probably won’t find the local sheriff investigating the theft of the T virus on the ranch, although I suppose if it was being injected into cows, you might.

In general, setting will be intrinsically linked to sub-genre conventions and narrative voice.

8. MOTIVE

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Which brings me around to motive. You better have a damn good reason why your villain does what he does and one not so easily figured out if you want to keep your readers guessing. And please don’t use the “crazy psychopath serial killer kills indiscriminately just because he can” or because “the victims all remind him of his abusive mother” motives. I’m sure they can be used in an original story, but it’s not one I want to read.

Oh, there are the old standbys: revenge, greed, lust, even a crime to cover up another crime, but giving your villain, as well as all your other suspects, multiple motives for committing a crime will make your detective’s job that much harder.

For example, an art thief named Falco murders a museum security guard while pulling off a heist, not out of greed or malice, not because the guard could identify him. Instead, he kills the guard because he is the last man standing between Falco and the art smuggler who hired him, who is also holding Falco’s daughter captive until his debts are paid off.

Who is the real villain in this story and what is the real crime? Whom do we want to see brought to justice?

If your motive merely stopped at “the guard was killed because he could identify Falco,” the real crime, the real villain would never be discovered. And you’d probably have a much shorter story.

9. PLOT POINTS, PIVOT POINTS, AND REVERSALS

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If point of view is like the vehicle driving you toward the end of your story, plot points, pivot points, and reversals are like the road signs along the way. They help you figure out where you’re going, how to get there, and if you’re taking too long.

Plot points give your journey structure and move you along. They are like mile markers on a highway telling you that by mile 39 you need to do something so you (and your passenger) don’t fall asleep.

Generally, when your main character makes a decision or takes some form of action, a plot point is born. For instance, your sleuth’s decision to solve the mystery is a plot point because it moves the story forward (and if he doesn’t, the story effectively ends right there). Before this point, your sleuth may have been only mildly interested in the case or even refused to take it, but something forced his hand and now he’s in with both barrels. Likewise, when a new lead or suspect is presented, a new line of interrogation opens up, the story propels forward.

Pivot points, however, are more like exit signs because if you follow one, your journey takes off in a new direction. Think scenic byway instead of straight-shot highway. A bend in the road, a switchback trail. These are the twists and turns that make mysteries exciting. We follow your detective right off the road even if it turns out to be a dead-end because driving on a highway for an extended period of time gets monotonous–the speed, the scenery, the same old CDs. Not to mention sometimes you just need to pee.

Pivot points might include the introduction of a new character or following the thread of a subplot. They provide suspense and excitement. They don’t change the destination just the course of the journey. Buffy finding out Angel is a vampire is a plot twist. Did it change her Vampire Slayer destiny? No, it just took it in a new direction because now they’re fighting evil side-by-side. And kind of killing off his own race.

Reversals are just what they seem: they turn the journey around completely. It’s like the reader thought they were going to a cabin in the woods with you but found out you were heading to the beach instead, and they kind of like the beach better. These are moments of heightened danger and unexpected threats. It’s when the reader says, “Ooh!” because she didn’t see that coming. It’s the moment Buffy finds out Angel turned into Angelus after having sex with him and now he’s the enemy. But don’t worry, you can always turn it around again. And again. And again.

The trick with plot points, pivot points, and reversals is to not make them obvious to the reader. Be sneaky.

10. FALSE LEADS AND RED HERRINGS

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Last but not least, some of the above twists, turns, and reversals can be created by supplying your sleuth with some false leads and red herrings, clues that are too good to be true. Suspects that are too good to be real. The more suspects you have with either motive or opportunity for committing said crime, the more side trips you get to take your reader on. It’s fun to mislead and distract. Nobody wants to figure out the mystery by page 50 of 250. And quite frankly, the art of mystery writing centers on knowing what and when to reveal to keep your reader guessing.

By keeping these 10 things in mind, you’ll be crafting killer mysteries with the best of them.

What would you add to the list? What would you take away?

Stay tuned for posts on many of these necessities with further explanations and examples.