How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript By James N. Frey

Many writers--especially outliners--may find the system in this book helpful, but the woman-negative content of the examples in the book generated too much cognitive dissonance for this reader to pay proper attention to Frey's techniques.

In chapter 4, Frey generates an example murderer complete with backstory to demonstrate his writing process. This murderer's backstory should presumably lay the groundwork for why he is a murderer and Frey's brief explanation of the murderer's family implies that the mother was the problem. His father is described in less than one complete sentence as drunk and weak whereas 10 lines/2 paragraphs are dedicated to detailing how the mother was a slut.

In chapter 5, Frey shows us how to create journal entries from the perspective of the murderer. From the murderer's perspective, it appears that the father being an alcoholic had little to do with the murderer's upbringing, but the mother sleeping around had a profound effect on him--which seems incongruous to me. An alcoholic parent often has an affect on children.

I thought Frey might use the protagonist to juxtapose this underlying woman-negative theme he created in the murderer. Not so. In chapter 7 Frey generates the protagonist's backstory and she is described as having been a problem child who seduced a sixty-one-year-old teacher when she was fifteen. To me, that doesn't sound like edgy, problem child behavior--that sounds like statutory rape.

During the protagonist's introductory journal entry the protagonist hated [her] mother, but not [her] father. In one sentence the father is described as merely absent and then the next 14 lines describe how the mother was vain and uncaring. Both of these parents are neglectful and would have contributed to the protagonist's backstory problems, but only the mother is held accountable by Frey.

Later in the protagonist's backstory the protagonist is described as having had a spiritual transformation which leaves her celibate. This doesn’t do well against the murderer's slut mother, the protagonist's own neglectful mother, or the protagonist's history of sexual abuse. It is as though by being celibate the protagonist is excused from the unacceptable sexual behavior exhibited by the problem women in the story, especially her younger self.

It's possible that Frey intended to show the protagonist as having gained control over her own sexuality, which would be fine, but then in chapter 8 Frey introduces a romance-novelish, cowboy love interest. This recalls outdated beliefs that sexually immoral women (lesbian, asexual, rape victim) can be fixed by sex with a cishet man.

Frey doesn't seem to be aware of this woman-negative tone in his example murder mystery. If it was intentional, that would be one thing, but trying to navigate through a series of problematic depictions of women while also absorbing the lessons about writing-as-a-craft generated a kind of cognitive dissonance for me that was too distracting to push through. 9780312304461 This book is dense, and provides a lot of information. I found that a lot of it is quite restrictive, and it’s a little dated (it came out in 2004). For instance, the guidelines surrounding what a protagonist should be like were stifling, and if you take into consideration the current trend with unreliable narrators, a lot of these “rules” are no longer valid or even followed in mainstream fiction.
All that said, there’s a lot of information to consider, just take it with a grain of salt, and don’t consider this to be the holy bible of mystery writing. The author does talk a lot about creating “step sheets” for mysteries, and provides a very detailed example using The Maltese Falcon. The book is worth checking out for that reason alone. 9780312304461 It amuses me how much writers seem to hate how to write books, judging by their Goodreads reviews. They're dying to find flaws so they can feel like a better writer than the how to write author. That may preserve your ego, folks, but I don't think it helps you improve your books.

Part of writing better is listening to what others advise. That's what I'm trying to do. Criticizing and being defensive is easy. Listening to advice and taking it seriously is more difficult.

I think this book has a lot of helpful advice. I'd add some more helpful advice: read a lot of novels. I think I lot of people who want to write novels fail to read enough. That's why they think they're so great -- because they don't read.

I'm trying to write. I'm not sure which genre. This was an interesting and helpful book. Sometimes it's sexist. But just because someone isn't woke doesn't mean they have nothing to offer and I can write off their advice. There is a lot of good advice in this book despite moments of underlying sexism.

After reading this, do you feel defensive and full of criticism for Frey and the novel he outlined within this book? If yes, chances are, I'm not interested in your writing. Stop defending your bad writing and start improving.

I'm interested in improving. I want to write books that aren't a chore to read. I don't want to have to beg for readers. I want them to beg for more.

This is a helpful book. 9780312304461 I spent a fair amount of time reading other folks reviews here - and it's always interesting to see how different folks feel about the same book. I don't think I've rated another book as generously as I've this one. It taught me several useful things and most importantly did help me as a step-by-step guide.

Let me get the niggling stuff out of the way first
- yes there's over use of the phrase 'damn good' - after the first few times I probably did not notice it
- yes there's reference (some would say over reference) to his other books - minor irritant and at times while he appeared concerned about repeating what was in those here, I'd rather he did so that each book stood alone

But neither of those things were more than minor matters for me. I found it immensely useful - particularly in the context of writing mysteries. Three techniques I took away, in the order of value

Plot behind the plot - what drives the murderer - I'd always been so focused on the protagonist/hero/detective
Journals for key characters - this was different in that it was done in their voice revealing interesting facets to them
Stepsheets - while I'd tried and read about outlining, the step sheets - were a great way to get a quick handle on where you wanted to take the story and in some instances where the story wanted to take you

I really liked his piece on writing Writing Damn Good Prose - almost reminiscent of of Strunk & White - concisely captured a lot of good actionable ideas on writing tight prose

I really liked that he tried to work through all of Murder in Montana - unlike other reviewers who found it both cliche-ridden and too long - I found it actually useful, as an actual practice of what he preached - regardless of whether it was the final manuscript, seeing where he started and how it evolved, even more than where it ended, taught me a whole lot. I think as another reviewer commented - the main value that Frey brought was he did away with most excuses all of us as writers make and took apart any obstacles that stand in our way - by providing practical methods to work through them. It's now to each of us, reader and writer to make as much good as we want out of this.

I'm going out there to buy this as a keeper. 9780312304461 There's not a lot of evidence, on Goodreads anyway, that Frey knows how to right a Damn Good Mystery, but if he does, he's keeping it to himself. In this guide he's often comically vague and permissive, listing out parts of a story with “step-by-step” instructions like “Write a fun, engaging beginning,” and, “Do a great job with act II!” He uses the phrase “Damn Good” so often you'll worry that he thinks he means something by it. Here's an example of a typical nugget:

“Pulling off a gripping climax is important if you're going to satisfy your reader, and every damn good mystery leaves the reader very well satisfied.” (p. 175)

I wish I could say this quote is the throat-clearing at the beginning of a more in-depth explanation, but I would be lying. This is the whole of the advice on the subject. Instead of getting more specific he teaches by example, writing the character sheets, plotline and ultimately scenes of a schlocky novel called “Murder in Montana” that did not make me hasten to imitation.

Frey does more than mince words, but unfortunately, when he does come out with actual prescriptions, they're often dated. For instance, Frey states that above all, a detective should be extremely clever and good at a number of things, so we as readers can live out our fantasy of cleverness through him (or her. Frey has a whole section on how detectives can be women now.). Anyway, it's advice that I'm sure sounded better before One for the Money and The Girl on the Train, two mystery bestsellers about heroines who are, at least initially, bad at everything.

The best of Frey's advice is that you should do outside writing, sketching characters, planning out the plot, and writing what's happening that the reader isn't seeing. There. I saved you some trouble. 9780312304461

Edgar award nominee James N. Frey, author of the internationally best-selling books on the craft of writing, How to Write a Damn Good Novel, How to Write a Damn Good Novel II: Advanced Techniques, and The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth, has now written what is certain to become the standard how to book for mystery writing, How to Write a Damn Good Mystery.

Frey urges writers to aim high-not to try to write a good-enough-to-get-published mystery, but a damn good mystery. A damn good mystery is first a dramatic novel, Frey insists-a dramatic novel with living, breathing characters-and he shows his readers how to create a living, breathing, believable character who will be clever and resourceful, willful and resolute, and will be what Frey calls the author of the plot behind the plot.

Frey then shows, in his well-known, entertaining, and accessible (and often humorous) style , how the characters-the entire ensemble, including the murderer, the detective, the authorities, the victims, the suspects, the witnesses and the bystanders-create a complete and coherent world.

Exploring both the on-stage action and the behind-the-scenes intrigue, Frey shows prospective writers how to build a fleshed-out, believable, and logical world. He shows them exactly which parts of that world show up in the pages of a damn good mystery-and which parts are held back just long enough to keep the reader guessing.

This is an indispensable step-by-step guide for anyone who's ever dreamed of writing a damn good mystery. How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript

While I won't be taking every single bit of advice in this book, while the damn good phrase got old really quickly, and while I'm not sure I'd ever read Murder in Montana, Frey's example project, this book was incredibly useful. It had me thinking about structure, plot, and character development that definitely shook me loose from some stuck places on my current mystery novel. Like many, I'm not entirely a plotter or a pantser, but Frey's suggestions were practical, sensible, and useful in working out ideas. 9780312304461 Jim Frey is qualified to tell people how to write a good mystery novel because he has written several which I have never read and has taught in lots of writers' workshops of which I have never heard. His text is adequate but flawed in several respects. He insists on using the modifier damned good in front of nouns like sentence, plot, scene, character, complication, resolution and the like ... doubtless in furtherance of what he considers to be a clever book title. He offers ou... (show more) 9780312304461 I found this book really helpful. It made me come up with some important questions about the plot of my story, and even a few answers :) 9780312304461 The book’s clear, casual style and many solid examples made its concepts easy to grasp. It helped me brainstorm some breakthroughs on my mystery novel revision, and I will probably revisit this book again to help me on future projects. The only thing holding me back from a whole-hearted recommendation is that some of the word choices and attitudes in the examples are a little ... retro/not PC. If that kind of thing really bothers you, I would steer clear of this one. 9780312304461 For decades I've read mystery novels, along with other kinds of genre fiction. After I started writing, I had always wanted to try my hand at penning a mystery novel but really had no idea of HOW to do it right. Horror, fantasy and sci-fi? Yeah, no problem.

But the mystery genre was...well, a mystery to me.

Until I read this book by James N. Frey.

Simply put, it was like a grenade went off in my head once the fundamentals sunk in. I don't place a great deal of faith in many of the learn to write! kind of books - I've read too many which are just terrible. This book was anything but. While I may not agree 100%, I'm nodding my head at least 90% of the time while flipping pages - and that is more than good enough.

Might as well confess that, as a direct result of reading this one book, I've become addicted to Frey's writing style and have two more of his works waiting for me.

Readily understood, easy to grasp, yet no-frills and fresh - this is the perfect book for me at this time in my own writing.

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