We are building up to NaNoWriMo 2021. For the last few weeks, I’ve been focusing on the creation of a storyboard. We’ve discussed characters and worldbuilding. Today, we’ll talk about book construction and what we can learn by reading work published by the big traditional publishers.
Whether you hope to be published traditionally or plan to go indie, you must know what the reading public is buying. You will probably write a book that is squarely set in your favorite genre.
I read in many genres. Most of what I write is genre fantasy, but mystery and contemporary fiction also intrigue me.
Your assignment for today is to find a book you love, sit down with a notebook and pencil, and dissect that narrative to discover what that author did to draw you in and keep you involved.
Even the best books have flaws. Great characters, proper pacing, and attention to plotting keep those rough places from derailing a brilliant book. The flaws are just as important for me to identify as are the things I love.
So, let’s take a look at the construction of a recent entry into the classic mystery genre that impressed me, Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz.
Publisher: Harper; Unabridged edition (June 6, 2017)
Publication date: June 6, 2017
Print length: 501 pages
But first, THE BLURB:
When editor Susan Ryeland is given the manuscript of Alan Conway’s latest novel, she has no reason to think it will be much different from any of his others. After working with the bestselling crime writer for years, she’s intimately familiar with his detective, Atticus Pünd, who solves mysteries disturbing sleepy English villages. An homage to queens of classic British crime such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, Alan’s traditional formula has proved hugely successful. So successful that Susan must continue to put up with his troubling behavior if she wants to keep her job.
Conway’s latest tale has Atticus Pünd investigating a murder at Pye Hall, a local manor house. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but the more Susan reads, the more she’s convinced that there is another story hidden in the pages of the manuscript: one of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition, and murder.
Masterful, clever, and relentlessly suspenseful, Magpie Murders is a deviously dark take on vintage English crime fiction in which the reader becomes the detective.
First, Magpie Murders was published by one of the Big Traditional Publishing houses, Harper. This means the publisher decided it would sell enough in hard copy to justify supporting the author with advertising.
What makes this book better than the competition? Many authors published by Harper don’t get the kind of support this book got. What made this book more marketable?
- It was an original way to twist the Agatha Christie formula for cozy mysteries.
- Readers are given a story within a story, and within that story is hidden another story. The novel opens with an editor reading the manuscript of an author whom she despises personally but whose work she loves.
- We read the manuscript that editor Susan Ryeland has been given, experiencing it simultaneously as she does.
- Within the novel that Ryeland must edit are many clues, not only to the mystery she is supposed to edit but also to solve the murder of the author.
- Those clues take an unusual form—word games, something people who love anagrams and word puzzles will enjoy. The dead author used this trick to write his acquaintances into his novels, rearranging the letters of their names and portraying them in an unflattering light.
- The murdered author was known for using the plots of his less talented students’ work and stealing plots and names wholesale from Agatha Christie.
- These name anagrams are intended to be noticed by his fellow authors and acquaintances, a deliberate attempt to make them uncomfortable or angry.
- Halfway into the novel, our editor discovers that the final chapters of the book are missing. She goes on a mission to find those chapters.
- In the process, she discovers just how hateful and rotten the murdered man was.
Now, let’s talk MECHANICS. The author of the Magpie Murders has worked as a journalist. He has taken the time to become educated in grammar and understands common industry standards.
- If you want to write a book that other people can read, you must understand the fundamental rules of grammar.
- He didn’t get too artful, except when he was writing as the murder victim. That artfulness was there to point out the victim’s arrogance.
What I take home from dissecting books like this is that a plot can be complicated, but simplicity is sometimes best for prose.
A few things I didn’t like, some of which were deliberate. These things didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book:
- The pacing was a little uneven. In one place, it grinds to a complete halt. I could see why the author had made that choice as part of the overall plot, but I didn’t like it and wished he’d found a different way to make that point.
- The novel “written by the murdered man” was gripping, but I didn’t understand that fictional book’s ending until the editor confronted the author’s murderer. Again, that was deliberate on the dead author’s part, written that way as one more reason to hate him. But I would have liked to understand it before we got to that place.
- The relationship between Susan Ryeland and her boyfriend lacks tension. When their relationship was threatened with falling apart, I didn’t care.
Overall, this is an excellent, well-written book. If you write mysteries and want to know what the big publishers are looking for, you must read what they publish.
This is why I read what Tor Forge publishes in my genre of fantasy. If I hate it, I dissect it and find out why. An editor accepted that manuscript and promoted it, and I want to know why. If I love it, I dissect it for the same reason.
You must read if you want to know how a good book is plotted, how worlds are created, and how characters are built. Make notes and learn from the mistakes and successes of others.
#NaNoPrep series to date:
#NaNoPrep: part 1: What’s the Story? (the storyboard)
This Post: #NaNoPrep, Construction and Deconstruction