Author & Editor Teams: Writing a Mystery Novel with Caleb Roehrig

mystery week header

Ever been curious about editor/author relationships? In honor of our newly announced acceptance of All YA, we’ll be featuring different editor/author teams in different genres each week. Next up, Mystery! Caleb Roehrig, author of Last Seen Leaving, tag-teamed with his editor, Liz Szabla, to answer some burning questions about crafting thrilling stories and the rush that comes with finding the perfect twist. And be sure to check back tomorrow for Caleb’s questions for Liz!

Do you love pulse-pounding stories full of secrets and intrigue? We've got you covered!

Liz Szabla (LS): What is the most rewarding part of writing a mystery/thriller? 

Caleb Roehrig (CR): As an dedicated suspense junkie, there are actually two things I'd identify as the most rewarding part about writing a thriller: 1) I love creating the kind of tension that exists in the best mystery stories—the feeling you get when a chapter ends on a cliffhanger and you cannot wait to see what happens next, and 2) I love putting together puzzles that don't have immediately obvious solutions. I crave the kind of brainteaser that makes you want to do a victory lap if you can figure it out, and when I start to feel that the twist or reveal I've been building up to is going to "hit" in that exact way, it is such a rush!

LS: What is the most challenging part of writing a mystery/thriller? 

CR: In order for a twist to work, the reader has to be in possession of enough clues to figure it out ahead of time. It's like cheating if you get to the big climactic sequence and then suddenly reveal that the narrator has been withholding a critical piece of evidence from the reader for no reason other than to make the solution impossible to deduce. (Although I love her, Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a perfect example of this.) So, the most challenging part of writing in this genre is figuring out how to get all the necessary information out into the open, but in a way that doesn't immediately give away the game. And, believe me, no matter what sleight of hand you use, it will always, always feel like you've made it too obvious! 

LS: What advice do you have for writers interested in writing a mystery/thriller? 

CR: Read a ton of thrillers—and read all different kinds! You have no idea where inspiration will come from, and the more you read, the more you'll get a sense for how you want to construct your own stories.

LS: Can you describe the writing process?  

CR: It begins (for me, anyway,) with a short breakdown of a new story idea, which is usually a few sentences long. From there, I write a couple paragraphs to myself explaining the central conflict; then a series of character sketches, introducing myself to the players; and then a few more paragraphs that explore all the twists and turns as they come to me. At this stage, I always decide who the Bad Guy is. (Although I've been known to change my mind if a more intriguing possibility occurs to me during the actual drafting of the novel.) Before I write word one, however, I take everything I've written out and turn it into a detailed outline that can be anywhere from five to twenty pages long. (I find it imperative to work from an outline; I need the complete picture in my mind before I start cutting it up into puzzle pieces, or else they might not fit together in the end!) And then it's nose to the grindstone until the first draft is complete!

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