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How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript [Hardcover]

James N. Frey
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 12 2004
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.

Frequently Bought Together

How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript + How to Write a Damn Good Novel: A Step-by-Step No Nonsense Guide to Dramatic Storytelling
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From Booklist

From the author of How to Write a Damn Good Novel (1987) comes a companion volume aimed at would-be mystery writers. Frey doesn't believe in those collections "of tips on what to do and what not to do," arguing that they give the false impression that writing good fiction is merely a matter of mixing ingredients in the right proportions. Instead, Frey contains, the key to a good mystery isn't picking clues and getting the technical stuff right; it's a matter of finding the right people to tell your story, finding the right words to frame it, finding the right sequence of events to maximize suspense. Frey also spends time on an important but frequently neglected aspect of the writerly trade: the audience. Who reads mysteries, and what do they expect from them? Meanwhile, he tackles the nuts and bolts in a particularly clever manner, by guiding the reader through the creation of a virtual novel, which he calls Murder in Montana. This approach proves eminently practical and rich in details. A must for budding crime-fiction authors. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


"Confidently guides the novice through the crime-writing basics."
--Publishers Weekly
"Eminently practical and rich in details. A must for budding crime-fiction authors."
"Frey ... delivers a witty and entertaining writer's-conference-in-a-book."
--Library Journal

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4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Despite its drawbacks, How to _Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript_ is the best book I have yet read on writing a mystery. For a step-by-step guide to mystery writing, I found it more flexible, more readable and less stuffy than _The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery_. _How to Write a Damn Good Mystery_ offers excellent guidance for character creation, but I would recommend _Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors_ by Brandilyn Collins, which goes into character creation in greater depth, as supplemental reading.
I highly recommend _How to Write a Damn Good Mystery : A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript_ with two caveats:
1. The author often offers his opinion as fact.
2. The book sometimes reads like an advertisement for the author's other how-to-write-fiction books.
Jim Frey mentions his other how-to-write-fiction books about twenty times during the course of this 267 page book. At an average of one plug every thirteen pages, that doesn't sound too bad. But, Frey tends to begin chapters by talking about his other books, which quickly becomes repetitious and grated on my nerves because I thought it unnecessary: Don't tell me what you said in another book, just tell me again in this book. I can only recall one place where he mentioned a fiction book he wrote. This may be because all the mystery novels he has written are now out of print.
Jim Frey uses his ten years of teaching experience to justify some of his opinions, which he presents as facts. Jim's mystery novels are all out of print and he appears to be making a living putting on writing workshops and writing how-to-write-fiction books.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Truly the best there is. Feb. 12 2004
I had a mystery novel in the works and I had troubles. My plot wouldn't hold together. My characters felt unreal and under-motivated. I had to struggle to get every word written. But I had an idea I couldn't let go. Then Mr. Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Mystery showed up in the mail. Having read all of his previous writing books, I expected some good advice. I did not expect this 270 page book to blow me away and save my mystery novel from total decay. I tore through this book, constantly amazed at every insight Frey had on writing the mystery novel. No one had ever boiled it down so perfectly. I suddenly realized what I'd been doing wrong. I've now revamped my novel and am in the process of replotting the thing from scratch. And, man, this baby is soaring. After reading this book, I'm quite confident I can write a damn good mystery. If you have any aspirations to do the same, get this book. While much of my review here may sound clichéd, just another five-star Amazon book review, I can't take the time right now to revise. I'm too busy writing my mystery. The only thing better than this book would be to have James Frey in the room with me as I wrote.
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1.0 out of 5 stars The Real Mystery... June 13 2004
By Kim B
This was one of the worst writing guides I have ever purchased. The real mystery is why it received so many great reviews on this site. Are you all Friends of Frey?
I bought the book thinking that the previous review ("A great guide, but some "facts" are actually opinions," February 14, 2004) was a great kickoff, eager to hear more from Frey himself. For example, the idea of flying through a quick first draft, writing it almost as a screenplay and blocking out the actions in all caps, intrigued me. Frey rolls around to this idea towards the end of the book and admits it wasn't even his own idea but one he'd lifted off a half-ploughed writer at a conference. Having finished the book, I can say I got as much from the review above as I did from the book itself.
Frey treats his own method as THE WAY to write, gives no alternatives, and makes no acknowledgement that there are a number of ways that writers approach their work. Worse, he states that thick, well-rounded characters are preferable, but then peoples his own examples with the thinnest of trope characters. He even advocates these 'archetypes' (which read more like stereotypes) as a good way to start framing your characterization, a process I think is completely backwards, and tends to leave writers in the shallow waters where they began to kick about. The examples he gives throughout tend to be uninteresting and lack consistency; when he gives an example of a poor writing sample he does not remedy the ill by making that same sample better or good or 'damn good,' he just skips to a new example completely, which tends not to be 'damn good' itself.
Most annoying, Frey kicks off nearly every chapter or salient point with a blatant stump for one of his other published books on writing.
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By A Customer
If you're interested in writing mysteries, this is a good place to begin. A lot goes into the writing of a mystery, so it's important to put some forethought into the process. I concur with the reviewer who asserted that some of Frey's "facts" are actually opinions. Frey is very much a "planner," so if you're a blank pager, you may feel put off by Frey's perspective. Let's face it -- There is NOT exclusively one way to write a novel, and that includes mystery novels. Different writers have different ways of approaching the page -- and different ways of approaching story. Thus, keep in mind that "Frey's Way" is not "The Only Way."
One element that I disliked about Frey's book is that he seems to have a bias against "literary fiction," and that bias definitely comes through in the book (although he doesn't address this often). However, if you're willing to overlook that element and take whatever helpful advice Frey does impart on his readers, the book is definitely worth reading.
That said, even with the annoyances of Frey's clear grudge against the literary, I would still recommend this book for those who are interested in writing mysteries. He does dwell on some important, and generally crucial, points to consider: character development and character "biographies," knowing your culprit and your hero/detective/sleuth, and the "plot behind the plot." Overall, I'd say that the exercises he recommends are helpful. His perspective also provides a nice balance for those of us who are not necessarily "planners" in our writing; thus, he addresses many issues that we may be wise to address either before the start of a novel, or at least at the story's outset. Keep in mind, however: There are numerous ways to go about the writing process. Writing is not a formula; it's a creative process.
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