By Chester Campbell
I'm in the midst of reading manuscripts for a mystery writing competition. I thought it might be instructive to mention a few of the most common shortcomings I've found. Overall, the writing has been quite competent, but most entries could use the sure hand of a skilled editor. I took on the job with some trepidation. When reading for pleasure, I (like most readers, I suspect) tend to ignore minor miscues if the story is interesting. With this task, I have been forced to adopt a more critical stance.
The most common problem I've found is getting too carried away with the characters or the settling and failing to move the plot along. Let's face it, a mystery is about a crime and the difficulties it causes, usually including a murder. Character is important, but unless all these well-drawn people get involved in the crime or its solution before too many chapters pass, readers will lose interest. In so-called "literature," characters can go on doing mundane things ad nauseam, but in mysteries something critical has to happen.
In a minority of the manuscripts, the writer needed to loosen up when it came to dialogue. That's one place where reading the lines aloud helps. If it doesn't sound natural, it ain't. Some casual conversations sound more like lectures. Long, carefully constructed sentences instead of several fragments, the way real people talk.
One manuscript began: "It was a dark and stormy night." The second sentence said, "No really, it was a dark and stormy night." It was written as a humorous piece but rambled too much. The rules for the contest said you could send up to fifty pages. This one stopped at sixteen. If the manuscript ended there, it would make a great short story. But this was a novel-writing contest. Oh, well.
Another problem I encountered was overwriting. I got introduced to that subject early in my novel-writing career when I sent a manuscript of more than 600 typed pages to an agent. The agency was interested but said the story was overwritten and needed to be pared considerably. I didn't know what the term meant but quickly learned I was guilty of things like too much description. One of the contest entries is set in a popular European city and sounds too much like a travelogue.
Frequent shifts in point of view can be a show-stopper for a mystery writer. Constant head-hopping leads to confusion. You encounter an important point and wonder "how did he know that?" Then you realize you're wandering around in some other character's mind.
Fortunately, all of these problems are fixable. Unfortunately, most of the writers guilty of them don't realize what they're doing wrong. It's why the advice to let a competent editor critique your manuscript before you send it off is so important. We all make mistakes, and with a little extra effort we can correct them.