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138 of 140 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great guide, but some "facts" are actually opinions
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...
Published on February 14, 2004 by hear-hear.com

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100 of 112 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Real Mystery...
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...
Published on June 13, 2004 by Kim B


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138 of 140 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great guide, but some "facts" are actually opinions, February 14, 2004
By 
hear-hear.com (Clovis, NM United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript (Hardcover)
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. This makes me a little wary due to the old truism, "Those who can do; those who can't teach."
One of Frey's opinions, presented as a fact, is that you must have a plan before you begin writing fiction. Read interviews of your favorite writers and you will notice that they all have different writing habits and approach their work in different ways. For instance in one interview, Elmore Leonard said: "I have no idea where it's going. I have no idea how it will end. I just start it. Sometimes, Chapter 1 will become Chapter 2 or 3; one time it became Chapter 10. I don't plot the whole book out. I'd rather not know what's going to happen myself." Dean Koontz, in _Writing Bestselling Fiction_, also suggests that beginning writers start with an outline, but admits that is not the way he writes. Elmore Leonard and Dean Koontz are best-selling authors, whose books are still in print. They and many other authors I have read recognize that the creative process can be different for each writer. It drove me nuts every time that Jim Frey presented his experience a fact or as the only way to perform a particular writing task.
Frey also offered examples that showed how his method fits in with those presented by other authors. One I can think of is what he calls a "mini-scene" which Swain and Bickman call a sequel. I gravitate toward the practical and examples and Frey offers the ultimate example by walking you step-by-step through creating the characters and plot in write-along mystery, Murder in Montana. He also goes into how to actually write a scene and revise it through the final draft. This example is great and I wish he spent more time "where the rubber meets the road," with the actual writing process.
_How to Write a Damn Good Mystery_ is easy to read, and offers good sound advice (if you take the author's opinions as just that) presented in logical, step-by-step approach. Here's what I took away from Frey's book in the order he recommends:
1. Start with creating the murderer using concepts from Lajos Egri's _The Art of Dramatic Writing_: creating the physiology, sociology, and psychology of the character and giving the character a ruling passion.
2. Creation of the murder and what Frey calls the "plot behind the plot": the plot line of the murder from the murderer's perspective. Write a journal in the voice of the character [I find this very practical as this type of writing is very close to fiction writing].
3. Create the detective, then 2-3 false suspects, and the other characters who will people the novel. Create journals in the voice of each of these characters.
4. Create what Frey calls a stepsheet, which is a plot outline for the entire novel that also shows what happened outside the scenes to appear in the book.
5. Speed write a first draft, writing important dialogue, but summarizing action in all-caps [the way action is summarized in a screenplay]. The idea is to get through the first draft in a few days.
6. Polished prose is actually prose that has been rewritten many times: rewrite the story 15-20 times, then polish the prose, bettering bits of it hear and there 30-40 times more.
7. Learn how to write good prose by typing 2-3 pages a day, verbatim, from a novel of a highly accomplished author. Then try to write a page in the same style.
I found a lot to like in this book. I will be reading it again, but I'll skip over the parts that grate, and concentrate on the golden nuggets. On a scale of one to ten, I'd give _How to Write a Damn Good Mystery : A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript_ a solid eight.
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100 of 112 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Real Mystery..., June 13, 2004
This review is from: How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript (Hardcover)
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. I finished the book frustrated I had purchased what amounted to a paper-thin infomercial for books I now have no desire at all to purchase.
Skip this silly book completely and invest in Orson Scott Card's excellent "Characters & Viewpoint" or Carolyn Wheat's "How to Write Killer Fiction."
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring and Practical, June 23, 2004
By 
Sophie "doceo336" (Fresno, CA United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript (Hardcover)
I have been a fan of James N. Frey since his first "how to" book, "How to Write a Damn Good Novel". I was pleasantly surprised that he has now adapted his method to the mystery genre.
This book does not go into all the poisons, weapons, clever plot reversals, etc. that you might find in other mystery writing books, but it does tell you where and how to begin, how to create characters with depth and interest, a plan for a logical and surprising plot, and tips on improving writing style. To me, it is the first book I have read on this subject that makes the writing process clear. I have been a fan of mystery novels since childhood, and I always wanted to write one but did not know how to generate a good enough story. Now, since Frey's book, I have an idea I am excited about and I am, for the first time, writing a mystery novel.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great guide .. but come prepared., August 28, 2005
A Kid's Review
This review is from: How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript (Hardcover)
Sure, the author offers many opinions as facts and writes as if his way is the only way. So? He still gives PLENTY of solid advice, and so this book must be read with an open mind. The only reason I purchased it was because I am working on a cross-genre novel, and am quite unfamiliar with writing mysteries. I knew not where to start. Thus, while reading this book, I understand that I am breaking many of the "rules" that the author states, for this is the art of fiction.

I would not recommend this book to any writer who is familiar with mystery fiction. However, just as it was for me, it is an excellent book if you are new to the field. Just remember to read it with an open mind (I actually find the author's obvious resent of literary fiction rather humorous - just one of many things that you must grit your teeth and bear as you read onward).

Of course, do not for the life of you depend solely upon his advice for plotting and characterization. It will be death of you. For both plotting and characterization, I HIGHLY recommend reading some of Nancy Kress's writing books. Although not a mystery writer, she gives some of the best advice I've ever read.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One Philosophy of Writing Mysteries, But Not the Only One, May 20, 2004
By A Customer
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This review is from: How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript (Hardcover)
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. Hopefully. We all have unique ways of approaching that process, and creativity is about uniqueness--in thought, in word, and in action. Read this book, but keep in mind the old adage: To each his (or her) own.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Practical Guide, March 30, 2007
By 
C. Secomb (Portland, Oregon USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript (Hardcover)
I really liked this book. You read right along with the author as he creates a mystery novel, step by step. He teaches you how to create characters with depth by writing a detailed background and having your characters write a journal. He starts with the murderer, the plot behind the plot, then takes you on to your hero/detective and each of your other characters. You learn to write a plot by using a stepsheet. I especially found helpful the fact that you write a stepsheet for what the reader sees and what the reader does not see (what is happening offstage). You learn about the five act design in which a mystery novel is divided. The author then gives helpful pointers in writing good prose, writing the mystery scene, choosing viewpoint, the final steps in rewriting, and then some words on marketing your novel. I found this book enjoyable to read and very helpful in writing a mystery or any novel. It's one of the best "How to Write" books I've read because it's so practical in how it teaches you to write a mystery novel. It would be a great resource in any writer's library.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If you buy only One Book on Writing--Buy this one!, February 9, 2004
By 
Tess Collins Ph.D. (San Francisco, CA. United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript (Hardcover)
Too many people sit down in front of a computer and decide to write a novel without knowing how. Ignoring the craft of writing has put too much boring and dull material in the bookstores. Frey's book is the nuts & bolts of building complicated well-orchestrated characters plus creating a step sheet for an exciting story full of conflict and drama. His chapters on plotting theory and the villain's plot behind the plot are positively brilliant. There comes a time in every writer's career that they have to decide--Am I going to write schlock or a damn good novel. James N. Frey makes the choice easy.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars King of the How-tos, May 4, 2007
This review is from: How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript (Hardcover)
I have been writing for 28 years and I admit I'm not God, but after reading over 300 writing books, most of them I own, I can unequivocally tell you that this one is tops!

Please read it. It anwers all your questions and shows you exactly what to do then what to do next.

If you don't find this book helpful, send it to me and I'll save it for you until you are serious about your work.

It also works up an exciting novel to show you how it's done, and will fire you up while entertaining you.

Joan of Art
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dig Deeper to Create a Damn Good Mystery, March 8, 2009
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This review is from: How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript (Hardcover)
I liked the book and as an author, I know there are many different ways to write a book - but each of us are best qualified to write about the strategies that we personally use -- that could be one reason why so many different people write how to books about writing. So, I'll say that there are many ways to write and I use different strategies, but I enjoyed Frey's book. I will admit that I skipped through many of the examples :) I also have several other how to books about writing thrillers and mysteries and I learn something new from each one.

How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James N Frey

My next book will be a kidnapping mystery and its my 13th book, so I wasn't looking for the usual "how to write" book. I wanted to read something that delved into the nuisances of mysteries and this was just what I needed. There are a couple of characters on character development, point of view, writing, editing, rewriting etc - but the other chapters were the most interesting to me.

Frey begins by talking about why people read mysteries. How can we write a story that appeals to our target audience, if we don't know what they want?

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - moves into sorting through our ideas and getting started.

There is an entire story and plot, behind the obvious plot in a mystery. To be "mysterious" and to use red herrings, and to include those twists and surprises that readers love, we need to develop and completely understand the "hidden" part of the story.

Creating the Villain is another important element - is the villain three dimensional? Can the reader relate the them? Are they evil enough? A great and memorable villain must be well developed and realistic. This leads right into a chapter about being intimate with the villain.

Once you understand the villain and have developed them thoroughly, its time to move on to the hero and/or heroine. You must also fully develop the hero or heroine. At this point Frey talks about the hero's journey and how that assists you in the development of your hero or heroine. ****

The hero's journey will also help you to discover the type of secondary characters you can use and why they are needed.

Creating an effective plot for an edge of your seat mystery requires plotting and this can take many forms and chapter 9 explains some of these tips.

You need a believable detective - whether a professional or an amateur. How will they figure out the mystery? Will they have help? Who will help them?

The gripping climax is one of the most critical elements of the mysteries I love to read, so I was very glad to see a complete chapter devoted to the climax of the book. Part of the climax is capturing the villain and that is the topic in chapter 15.

There is so much great information in this book and if you plan to write mysteries - I highly recommend that you read this book. Its definitely worth the cost and if you are a beginning author - there is plenty of informaiton in this book to help you with the writing basics.

**** If you aren't familiar with the Hero's Journey, there are all kinds of articles online and a number of books that you can use to understand the details of the hero's journey - or do a search for "hero's journey" or "writers journey" for books and articles.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How To Write a Damn Good Mystery, March 15, 2007
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This review is from: How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript (Hardcover)
This is a great book. I found it totally by accident when I was trying to find a book on plot and mystery. It has information on plot and more. What makes this book a great find is that it not only has the information on the components of the mystery, but also it gives information about the structure of a good mystery, using examples from classics such as "The Maltase Falcon" or the more recent "Prime Suspect." From answering questions such as "Why do people read mysteries anyway?" to discussing " Mythic Motifs of interest to mystery writers," Frey obviously knows the genre well. It should rank up there next to classics such as Dorothy Brande's "On Becoming a Writer" or John Gardner's "On Becoming a Novelist." What makes this book truly unique is that it is well-written, and it is one that you can learn more each time you read it.

It makes you think.
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