How to write a mystery novel in 10 days

1) Kiss your partner goodbye before they leave town for work for 10 days.

2) Think about how long 10 days is, and how much you'll wish you had accomplished something significant. Fish around for that mystery story you've had kicking around in you for at least a year. The one your brain juices have really been marinating.

3) Ask yourself: Have I watched an acceptable amount of Euro-noir mystery shows on Netflix?
If yes, proceed to 4).

4) Buy so many index cards. No, more than that. Still more than that.
Consider writing an email to Sharpie about why none of their black markers seem to work when you need them to, decide to focus on story instead. Use crappy Sharpie.

5) However strange and broken your protagonist is, make sure you give them an even stranger, even more broken sidekick. Also, put them in the strangest, most broken town imaginable.

6) Drink a lot of coffee. So much so that it feels like you have eleven brains, not one, and they're all speaking at the same time and the same volume.

7) Don't worry if everyone in the story has horrible names like 'Randall' and 'Dickie'. Or if all the roads are "Side Road 7". You just need to name them so the details can be included in your poorly crafted scenes that barely move the plot forward.

8) Write poorly crafted scenes as though it is your specialty. It's okay if you're stage directing too much (e.g.: "He walked across the kitchen floor and looked out the window."). Or if you're running out of non-verbal gestures that convey confusion or discomfort (e.g.: rubbing at chin, twisting hair on finger, furrowing brow, etc.) You will fix all this later. Probably. Maybe.

9) Absolutely have five red herrings— why not 50? 

10) Go ahead, lean too much on coincidence and your protagonist’s uncanny ability to keep poking around when any other reasonable person would have given up.

There you have it! 

Oh - and when you're finished, ensure you give your manuscript as moody a title as possible. For example, mine is currently titled Before the Flooding Dawn. Don't name it after anything too banal or on the nose (e.g.: The Knife Murderer).


George Saunders, on writing his forthcoming novel

"The truth is, you leap into something and then for (in this case) five years, you keep leaping, making tens of thousands of intuitive choices, but you’re not really sure why you’re making those choices, except that they seem, in the moment, to produce more beauty – and then, at the end, you look up and you’ve made something that is the sum total of all those choices, made over those many years.  The wonderful thing, and the thing that keeps me writing, is the hope that the result is somehow better than you, the writer: more alert, kinder, funnier, more big-hearted, more big-minded, and that working on it has enlarged your view of things – made the world seem wilder and more confusing than before, albeit lovelier."

Lucky Duck

I'm a lucky duck who got to see+hear Zadie Smith in person tonight. She was every bit as charming as I expected. She and Eleanor Wachtel had a great chat, but the part that really stood out to me was the role that Smith said 'found objects' play in her work, whether it's a real person who ends up an influential force in her novel (Jeni LeGon in Swing Time) or a peculiar name, borrowed from a real person. It was liberating to hear her say this, as someone who often feels ashamed by my own hidden stash of "objects", garnered throughout my quest to create "lies that tell a deeper truth".

Literary Gut Punch: From Zadie Smith's Swing Time


I'm two-thirds of the way through Zadie Smith's new novel Swing Time, which may be the best exploration of female friendship and motherhood I've ever read. In typical Smith fashion, there are shimmery jewels of prose and dialogue glinting from every page. One of my favourite characters in the book is the unnamed protagonist's father, a man who cannot help but love a woman who does not respect his mind, and who adores the duties imposed on a good parent. This statement, made by the protagonist about her father, felt like a knee to the heart:

The thing I feared was no longer my parents' authority over me but that they might haul out into the open their own intimate fears, their melancholy and regrets. 

I'm afraid of Zadie Smith

I love Zadie Smith. She is precise and direct and not at all precious about her work, or about being a writer. Which also makes me afraid of her. It's a healthy fear though. The kind of fear I also have for the ocean, or a tiger. There's just so much to respect there. Here's what she said when she was asked about her writing routine:

Any small room with no natural light will do. As for when, I have no particular schedules... afternoons are best, but I'm too lethargic for any real regime. When I'm in the flow of something I can do a regular 9 to 5; when I don't know where I'm going with an idea, I'm lucky if I do two hours of productive work. There is nothing more off-putting to a would-be novelist to hear about how so-and-so wakes up at four in the a.m, walks the dog, drinks three liters of black coffee and then writes 3,000 words a day, or that some other asshole only works half an hour every two weeks, does fifty press-ups and stands on his head before and after the "creative moment." I remember reading that kind of stuff in profiles like this and becoming convinced everything I was doing was wrong. What's the American phrase? If it ain't broke... 

I agree, Zadie Smith. But like usual, I could never have said it better than you. 

Literary Gut Punch: From Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated

I've been waltzing down memory lane the past few weeks, first, enjoying my favourite novel— Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close— in an entirely new form, and then, feeling ravenous for all the Safran Foer work that exists, I decided to reread Everything Is Illuminated.

Last night, as my eyes were still reading, my eyelids began doing their sleep dance. And through drifting lashes, my eyes swept across these two sentences, so beautiful that my eyes shot open again. I creased the upper corner of my book and made a note on my heart to add this to my Literary Gut Punch collection as soon as I woke up. Here it is:

He would fall asleep with his heart at the foot of his bed, like some domesticated animal that was no part of him at all. And each morning he would wake with it again in the cupboard of his rib cage, having become a little heavier, a little weaker, but still pumping.


Don't be a competent clone: David Mitchell's writing advice

In a recent interview, Mitchell gave some awesome advice for young writers. He wanted to be a writer in order to "do to other people what [his] favorite authors had done to me."

A few parts really stood out for me:

"Send the thing out and forget it. Quickly get to work on the next thing. Don’t sit by the phone or watch your email. Don’t hope. You’ve done a big thing by finishing something. Spend all the energy on possible despair. Avert that possible despair. Transfer the despair to the next manuscript. Right away, like the next day."
If you don’t want to write a realist novel, that’s not who or what you are. Work out the kind of novel you want to write, that you’re best suited for and do that one instead. It’s likelier to be more interesting. It might be awful but it won’t be a clone. Better to be brilliantly bad with your first novel than competently clone-like.
Things that are your obstacles often turn out not to be. Things you think are stopping you from writing, these distractions, can feed into your work in positive ways. You just may not know it yet. Things you don’t want to discuss—your scars, your shadows, your psychological baggage from childhood. It’s useful. It’s therapeutic to deploy them. You kind of win by using them. You can give them a right to exist but actually give them a job to do as an informant about reality, about language, about the human heart. 

Tracy Chevalier on "putting a frame around" small moments

I listened to a fascinating conversation on the TED Radio Hour between writer Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and Guy Raz. Chevalier talked about growing a whole novel out of a single painting. If you haven't listened yet, I highly recommend it. She said one thing in particular that really stood out to me as a short story writer:

"We have dramatic lives, though they might not seem dramatic to the outside, but to us it's those little daily incidents of life that are dramatic, and if you put a frame around it—an actual painting frame, or if you put a frame that is a novel around small incidents—they suddenly become bigger because you focus. And anybody can focus on things that don't seem to mean much, and suddenly they become much bigger and much more important than you ever imagined."

I would argue that the short story also frames these small, uncelebrated moments, zooming in and examining the minutiae of a life, pixel by pixel.