Re: plotting a mystery. I don’t plot ahead or outline.  I rarely know who done it until I’m at least two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through the manuscript.  But I do have a plan.

By the time I need to know who done it, every character has a secret or two to hide, everyone, just about, has a motive, and most of them the opportunity, and some of them the ability (strength, or marksmanship, and so on) to commit the crime.  And there are a few clues that could point to any of them.  Those clues that don’t finally point to the killer are the red herrings.

Easier than going back and putting stuff in.  It should almost all be right there.  Then you can pick the suspect you believe it will be hardest for the reader to guess.

Piece of cake.  Right?  Well, maybe not, but it’s a start.

Pink cake by Anonymous - Pink cake by Gabrielle Nowicki. From old OCAL site.

However, if you’ve already finished the book and discover you didn’t hide the villain well enough, I suggest going back and taking three or four other characters, give them each a motive and a clue or two that leads to them, and have your protag eliminate them one by one. Then go through the manuscript on screen, search for each character’s name, and read through each scene he or she is in to be sure it all holds together.

Then have another piece of cake.


Here are some ideas I gave another writer who asked how to cut down a piece that is too long for today’s market.

 tango edit cut by warszawianka -

How many characters does it have? Can any be combined into one character to do the job? Or cut entirely?

How many subplots does it have? For a novel over 90,000 words, probably too many. For a short story, zero is the correct answer almost one hundred percent of the time. (I’m talking about the average short story which is between about six and six thousand words.)

Is it too heavy on description–in today’s market, short is better, especially for short stories. Three lines maximum is often suggested as a good rule-of-thumb, but if you do fabulous descriptions, of course, you don’t want to limit yourself this way. Do be careful when writing short stories, though, not to have too many. Frequent readers usually expect short stories to be full of character and plot and little else, unless you’re writing literary fiction.

After looking at the big picture, you can go in and look at each sentence. Is it pulling its weight? Look for trailing phrases that can be cut. Often the words at the ends of sentences mean little or are redundant or obvious.

Next look at excess words, mostly modifiers, making the words they modify as strong as you can.

And if you’re done and still not down to where you need to be, either get someone who’s published to look it over and make suggestions, or hire a professional editor to do the job. Or both.


Even some famous novelists will tell you they have trouble writing short stories, and some say they cannot write them at all.

Since I have a much easier time writing short stories than novels, I decided to try to figure out why that’s so. Or at least how you can do it yourself.

It may be obvious, but if you’re a novelist, you’re thinking on a grand scale. You fill your story with characters and subplots. And even settings.

For shorts, you need to hone in on probably one or two characters, one problem/plot point, only a setting or two, and forget about subplots.

Timeframe is also different. Most likely, a short story takes place in a short amount of time. You don’t usually wrap up your main character’s whole life in the story. Instead, you use a fascinating incident to point up your protagonist’s good and bad points. Give her a problem to solve, an interesting setting, another character or two to talk to and you’re good to go.

Often mystery writers say they have a problem writing a puzzle mystery in the short form. I agree this is very hard to do, so I rarely write that type of story. You need at least three clues and a red herring or two. You need three or four suspects. And a villain, plus the protagonist. The setting is often important in a puzzle mystery. It can be done, has been done, but it’s very difficult.

I’ve only written a couple of short story puzzle mysteries. Instead I write what are called crime stories. These are stories that, obviously, have crimes in them, but are not necessarily traditional mysteries. The reader may know right from the beginning who did it. There may not be anyone even interested in solving the crime. Other things are going on in the story.

If you want to write short crime stories, I suggest you find several of your favorites and deconstruct them to find out why they appeal to you. With the bones of your favorite, make up your own characters and settings and see what you come up with. You may surprise yourself. If you try this, please come back and let me know how it went. And of course, who published it. Think positive!