Discovering a new review can make an author’s day. If that review emphasises the positives in your published work, even better. If the book has extended the review’s knowledge of the world, that’s a bonus. Then, if the reviewer has analysed the book from the perspective of developing their own writing – and not in identifying the pitfalls to avoid – it’s extra special. So excuse me for revelling in Marsha Ingrao’s review of my debut novel, Sugar and Snails. Her focus on the way I’ve managed mystery in my novel has prompted me to retrieve some of my prepublication thoughts on the matter that have languished on my phone for nearly three years. (With so many articles and blog posts already published, I’m surprised there’s anything still unsaid.) This post is an attempt to integrate those early reflections with what I’ve learned from reader feedback and reviews that might be of use to other writers building mystery into a novel that sits outside the mystery genre.
Most reviewers, for example Carol on Reading Writing and Riesling, felt the novel offered much more than they expected from the blurb and that Diana’s secret was well worth waiting for. When readers reported (e.g. Tales From A Bruce Eye View) relishing following the clues along the way, I was glad I’d ignored advice on an earlier draft of the novel to have Diana share her secret with the reader right from the beginning.
Make the journey to the reveal interesting in itself
If readers enjoy solving mysteries, why would anyone suggest depriving them of this opportunity? Well, readers also appreciate honesty, and not being “played with” or having vital information withheld. This was a risk with Sugar and Snails, albeit one that paid off, which is partly why my second novel, Underneath, begins by making it explicit that the narrator is keeping someone captive in the cellar (although, as with any novel, there are surprises to come). I’ve taken this a step further with what I hope to be my third novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, by structuring it in such a way that the reader knows more than the characters.
What makes that journey interesting will differ from reader to reader. For Marsha Ingrao, as for some other readers, it was the emotional resonance (again, this can be risky with an awkward character or unheroic heroine) and the small questions raised by the narrative alongside the “biggie”. As well as (some would say more than) mysteries to solve, readers need some forward momentum in terms of a current dilemma with a solution (or not) in the future. For Diana, this arises partly in her on-off romance with Simon and in her struggles at work, but the overarching question is whether, as Simone Perren on Goodreads and several other readers noted, she’ll find peace with herself.
Don’t keep readers guessing longer than is necessary
I don’t know whether some readers would have preferred Diana to have kept her secret until the end of novel (although, if my memory serves me right, no-one has mentioned this), but I wanted it to come midway so that the second half of the novel will be about managing a marginalised identity as well as what I’ve termed a “midlife coming-of-age”. (As it turned out, although some readers guessed before the midpoint, albeit fewer than I’d expected, a good number didn’t until a couple of chapters later. If I were doing this again, I’d position the scene where her secret past identity is confirmed at the halfway point.) Since one of Diana’s issues is around the barriers against having it both ways, it gives me a certain satisfaction to have written her story as a journey into both past and future.
As any story is co-created between reader and writer, what works for some readers won’t work for all. From my own reading, I’m aware of novels where I’ve enjoyed the secret being kept to the end (e.g. The Night Rainbow) and where I’d have preferred to know earlier (e.g. The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy).
Where do you draw the line between an unreliable narrator, a mystery and a twist? Neither of the two novels I mention above is framed as a mystery, which worked for me for the first but not the second. Excessive teasing of the reader with repeated promises that “all will be revealed in due course” can be an irritation but the opposite, making out that everything is as it appears, can also frustrate those readers who aren’t totally convinced by the author’s fictional world. In the end, perhaps it’s a matter of winning some and losing some, but who wouldn’t rather win more than we lose?
Thanks to everyone who’s posted reviews and especially to Marsha Ingrao for prompting this post by writing about the mystery and to Norah Colvin for prompting her to read my novel.
What are your thoughts about the mystery element in novels as reader or writer? Do you have any examples of where it’s worked particularly well?