Random List: An Obscure Mystery Novelist Offers Up a Mixed Bag of Advice on Improving a Writer’s Craft

Be mentally-ill.  Believe me, if you want to be a writer, having a reasonable, manageable amount of mental illness is a God send. (Note: being neurotic can and often does reek havoc on your personal and professional life, but the fleas come with the dog).  Here’s why being afflicted with a mild to moderate mental illness is beneficial to a writer: because you suffer, you better understand the suffering of others.  Your suffering allows you to better understand human frailty, and that, in turn, fosters empathy for others, which will help improve the depth of the characters you write. Plus, do I really need to list all of the great writers, male and female, who struggled with depression, anxiety, OCD, and other neurotic ailments?


Have a toddler.  Or, if parenting isn’t your thing, then babysit a friend’s toddler for an hour or two.  Playing with a toddler is an excellent crash course in the art of improvisation, and there’s only one rule when it comes to improv: ALWAYS say yes.  This is important to remember, especially when writing a first draft. Don’t try to control everything; don’t dictate every little thing your characters say and do and think.  Allow your characters to surprise you, allow them to hurt themselves, make mistakes, say boneheaded things. In other words: improvise. You’ll be amazed what those figments of your imagination will get up to once you stop helicoptering over them all the time.

Listen to Rap music.  My old man forced John Prine and Jimmy Buffet and the Allman Brothers Band down my throat when I was a kid, and, eventually, I grew to love that music, too, but really my first love was rap. I love the rhythm and attitude in hip-hop, the bravado, and all of those things have helped improve my writing. I’ve been told my books have a pretty strong voice, that the words create a rhythm when read, and I credit my love of rap for that. Plus, whenever I write a hardcore villain, I try and channel the devil-may-care-attitude of classic rappers like Public Enemy and NWA.


Handwrite letters. It’s a tragedy that people don’t write letters anymore. A real shame. I still write them though, and I love receiving them as well. Writing anything by hand helps you develop patience, the ability to slow yourself down and reflect before simply, for example, pecking away at a laptop or tablet. Letters are more personal, too, and the best writing, whether it’s a mystery novel or an email, has an element of the personal to it.

Read outside your genre. Yeah, I know: this is a mystery blog, and I like mysteries. I’ve written several. I’m writing another one as we speak (well, it’s sort of a mystery, sort of a meta-spy, break-all-the-rules novel of complications).  But anyway. Reading outside your genre: this will only improve your writing, expose you to new ideas, new styles, and new modes of storytelling, and that is always a good idea. Too, I get bored reading the same types of stories over and over and over again. Am I the only one?


Watch TV. Before I get lambasted for suggesting something as crass as staring at the Idiot Box, let me clarify. Watch good TV. And actively, not passively, watch it.  Guess what, there’s plenty of great TV shows out there these days (movies, not so much). Better Call Saul, Mr. Robot, and Silicon Valley are just a few of my current favorites. Watching good TV is a quick and easy way to improve your dialogue writing skills. Ditto storytelling. Good TV also teaches you to always, no matter what, focus on the story. No fat. No filler. Everything in a good TV show serves the story in some form or fashion, and the same should hold true for your novels.

Tell lies. Yes, I know: lying is bad. I’m not saying you should lie about anything important, but when you meet a stranger at a party, go ahead and tell a few whoopers. Why? Again: improvisation is a tool every storyteller should have in his or her toolbox. If you can tell a credible lie (or a series of lies) to a stranger, and they actually respond to them, that tells you you have created a believable fib, and, possibly, a fascinating character. That’s what we writers do, isn’t it?


Be an introvert. My opinion, you want to be good at writing, you need to spend a lot of time alone honing your craft. Sure, workshops are. . .no, I can’t even tell that lie with a straight face. I don’t like workshops, never have, not even when I was required to attend them in order to obtain my so-called Master’s degree in English. But full disclosure, I do not and never will work and play well with others. Writing is a solitary endeavor. Period. Hell, that’s at least half of its appeal to me; I get to be alone for a few hours every day. You can talk to writers and readers and hang out at conferences, and all that’s fine by me. But if you want to get good at this tricky thing called writing, go inside, shut the door, and write. And you need to be alone when you do it.

Which reminds me, I need to be alone for a while, so the next sound you hear will be my door shutting.



5 thoughts on “Random List: An Obscure Mystery Novelist Offers Up a Mixed Bag of Advice on Improving a Writer’s Craft

  1. I’m a commodian–I make people flush. BA-DA-BOOM! Nice advice (I’m a poet, too), Obscure Mystery Novelist.

    Mentally ill–check (I’m certified. No, really. Just ask the VA).

    Have a toddler(s)–been there, done that. Never again!

    Listen to rap music–uh, no. First of all, it’s not music, it’s jibber-jabber. Makes me cringe, plus the language offends my virginal ears. (Just kidding about the language. I can’t understand a word he/she/they/it are saying.)

    Handwrite letters–okay, maybe. My handwriting is atrocious and has deteriorated along with my body through the years. Also, stamps are too damn expensive for my tastes. And speaking of taste, that glue tastes sh**ty. Back to handwriting: I wrote my first book in longhand. Still have the spiral notebooks I filled up. Someday that handwritten manuscript will be a treasured relic in the author’s library they erect for me. Or, it’ll go out with the rest of the trash when I kick the bucket.

    Read outside your genre–check. I like that one. I read (or used to, when I had the time) divers genres. (Not the SCUBA divers, Kait, the more archaic meaning.)

    Watch TV–check. Never heard of the shows you mentioned, OMN, but I get your point. Cut the fat, make every scene/bit of dialogue/sentence count. “Reality” shows don’t count.

    Tell lies–check. I’m pretty good at it. I practice alot with my two grandsons. Even my son-in-law falls for my BS. I usually fess up later, but not always. I don’t want anyone suspecting I’m a liar. 😉

    Be an introvert–check. Easy one. I’m a born introvert. I used to cross the street if I spied someone walking my way a couple blocks ahead. I once lived in a house for almost twenty years and never met my neighbors. Does that qualify?

    Okay, I’ll watch your kid for an hour or so, but he has to promise not to rap!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Funny stuff Michael, good answers for laughing

    I think I am just about over this morning’s panic attack, I am happy about that and hope for a normal day. The dog just came in my office with his fleas and that’s a good sign that he regards me dependable at this point. I have put everything I can think of on him to get rid of the fleas but they do actually come with the dog.

    I think I will loosen the death grip I have on my current novel and let it fly along, then edit more. I’m not sure why I’m being such a control freak over the book. Maybe it’s because the characters have tried to take over constantly. They have a strong grip and I disapprove of them.

    I hate rap music. TV is booooorrrrrrrrrinnnngggg. Dancing is wonderful.

    Yes, I believe the morning “Will I live through the day?” is about over. Back to work.

    Liked by 2 people

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