Allister Thompson on Writing a Mystery and More

In this interview, editor Allister Thompson shares advice on writing a mystery, developing believable characters and dialogue, and avoiding common fiction writing pitfalls.

Allister Thompson has edited a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction, including three books that went on to win the Arthur Ellis Award for Canada's best crime novel. His editorial firm offers a full range of services for authors.

"The best mysteries keep you guessing about the results but also have interesting characters and settings."

- Allister Thompson on Writing a Mystery and More


A Conversation with Allister Thompson

CWN: What are some of the most common problems that you see in fiction manuscripts?

Allister Thompson: While it’s sometimes better to write too much than too little (easier to hack away than try to come up with content), first-time writers often over-write: too much unnecessary description, too much backstory that doesn’t need to be there, too much of the author’s own voice interjecting with views and theories. Even in poetic writing, you have to keep your plot lean and moving… if it doesn’t need to be there, take it out!

Also, a lot of people have trouble with believable dialogue. Who are your characters? What is their social group/age/demographic? When is your novel set? Make sure your characters speak like real people. If you have a teen girl of today talking like a kid from 1965, you have a problem.

CWN: You have overseen quite a few manuscripts in the crime fiction genre. Are there any specific kinds of problems that authors should watch out for when writing a mystery?

Allister Thompson: Well, there are different ways to approach a mystery (ie, cozies, procedurals, etc). Still, as much as colour can add to a mystery, it’s crucial that almost everything that happens has a relevance to the mystery at hand. Get lost in too many side-tracks and the reader will forget why they should care. The best mysteries keep you guessing about the results but also have interesting characters and settings. This goes back a bit to over-writing, but it’s especially essential in crime fiction.

Also, if it’s a whodunit, really think your plot through…if we’re not supposed to guess correctly, you’d better not drop too many clues by 2/3 of the way in!

CWN: Several of the crime novels you have overseen have gone on to win awards. Could you talk about the steps an author can take during revision to turn a good mystery into an excellent one?

Allister Thompson: I have found that a lot of writers have improved their craft by having their manuscripts evaluated by their peers before submission. A critical writing group can really help you figure out what’s wrong before it’s too late. In Canada, there are a number of mystery fiction writing groups whose members really help each other out.

It also pays to read a bit in the genre, or the subgenre, that you want to be in. Mystery fans are very picky about their genres, and very devoted to them, so they will be very critical if your novel doesn’t make the grade. Find out what’s worked for others, and don’t copy it, but take some lessons from their success.

And finally, not to harp on it, but believability is key. Mystery series are very character-based, and readers become loyal to their characters. Make your protagonists believable and compelling.

"Figure out what you’re good at. If you’re most comfortable drawing inspiration from your own life, there’s nothing wrong with that."

- Allister Thompson on Writing a Mystery and More

CWN: Could you offer some tips for authors on improving characterization?

Allister Thompson: Figure out what you’re good at. If you’re most comfortable drawing inspiration from your own life (I’ve worked on a number of published series where the protagonist is a thinly disguised version of the author!), there’s nothing wrong with that. If you are adept at creating new characters, and you have a good imagination, well, go for it! Really, see above… make sure your characters think, talk and behave like the people they really are, or no one will fall for it.

CWN: Could you offer advice on revising a fiction manuscript to improve pacing or suspense?

Allister Thompson: Any novel needs a plot arc that puts things in the right place. If your big suspenseful section leads to a crescendo ¾ of the way through your novel, followed by a hundred-page wind-down, this is not good. Pacing is one of the most important things in a novel. What needs to happen and when? It helps to chart out in advance everything you want to happen …the key stuff anyway. You can throw stuff in as inspiration takes you, but if there is to be a build-up of suspense, this takes some planning.

CWN: Could you offer advice for fiction writers on revising beginnings and endings?

Allister Thompson: This goes back to pacing. If your beginning is boring, no one’s reading on. You have to seize the reader’s interest right off the bat. Read what you’ve written. Is it interesting? Do we care what’s going on? Or have you taken two pages to describe in agonizing detail your protagonist’s breakfast? A reader should get a sense of what they’re in for if they commit to 300 pages of reading.

The ending has to be focused. Are you offering a nicely wrapped up story? Or is there a cliffhanger? A foreshadowing of a sequel? Decide what you want people to take from the ending, and make it powerful. Nothing worse than a novel that ends with a whimper, or feels cut off in some way. Just as the intro must draw them in, the ending must let them out as powerfully or as satisfyingly as possible.

CWN: Do you have any other advice for fiction writers who are revising a manuscript?

Allister Thompson: Do as much revising as is necessary, to a point. If you are in your eighth draft, you may need to let it go!! But as long as there is something real that needs to be fixed, do it. It’s hard to get something published, and you have to put your best foot forward.

If you aren’t confident, hire an editor! They’re not always expensive, and a good one knows language. Novelists sometimes need help with the mechanics of language, and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that.

"Decide what you want people to take from the ending, and make it powerful."

- Allister Thompson on Writing a Mystery and More

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