By Z.J. Czupor
HOW TO WRITE A BEST-SELLING MYSTERY OR THRILLER NOVEL AND FAST
If you think writing an 80,000-plus-word mystery or thriller novel is difficult, just consider all the articles you can find in the Google universe which tout the opposite:
- How to write a mystery in 6 easy steps
- 30 tips for writing a book in 30 days
- How to write mystery novels: 7 steps (with pictures)
That’s right…just follow the formula and voilà…you’ve got a best-selling mystery or thriller novel completed in hardly no time at all, and your efforts are sure to reward you with a best seller.
Serious writers know there is no magic bullet, or shortcut. It takes a year or more to complete a full novel. Maybe two years…or even longer with a recipe that includes just the right plot, with the most compelling characters, an interesting setting, and the wittiest dialogue. As we all know, it’s not as easy as the formulaic articles will have you believe.
However, you might be surprised to learn how quickly some of the following three best-selling novels were written:
The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene – six weeks.
Greene was fueled by Benzedrine, an amphetamine, which induces wakefulness and sex drive. He had already started working on what became defined as his masterpiece, The Power and the Glory, and struggled with it when he decided to write another novel to make some money. He wrote The Confidential Agent in the mornings and ground out The Power and the Glory in the afternoons.
He rented a room in Bloomsbury (in the West End of London) from a landlady who lived in an apartment below him. He references the apartment in his novel and while writing the novel had an affair with the landlady’s daughter.
This thriller follows a conscientious agent who gets pushed around, double crossed, assaulted, robbed, threatened, and hemmed in by international intrigue. The novel was written in 1938 and published in 1939 by William Heinemann. Greene was not happy with the novel and wanted to publish it under a pseudonym, but critics loved it. Katherine Woods writing in The New York Times Book Review called the novel “a magnificent tour-de-force” (Oct. 1, 1939).
Greene said, it was his first and only time he relied on the drug. “For six weeks I started each day with a tablet and renewed the dose at midday. Each day I sat down to work with no idea of what turn the plot might take and each morning I wrote, with the automatism of a planchette, two thousand words instead of my usual stint of five hundred words…the book moved rapidly because I was not struggling with my own technical problems.”
The 1945 film Confidential Agent was based on the novel, which also was adapted as a radio drama on the Escape radio program (CBS,1949).
Born Henry Graham Greene in England (1904-1991), he was shortlisted twice (1966 and 1967) for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was recruited as a spy for MI6 during the Second World War. His supervisor was Kim Philby, who was later outed as a Soviet agent.
A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle – three weeks.
This is the first novel to feature Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and one of only four full-length novels Doyle wrote featuring Holmes. Written in 1886, this also was the first piece of detective fiction to incorporate the use of the magnifying glass as an investigative tool. When he wrote A Study in Scarlet, Doyle was 27 years old and had earned his Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degree. He received 25 pounds in full rights (the equivalent of about $4,000 today). The novel was published two years later and included drawings by the author’s father, Charles Doyle.
The story was originally titled A Tangled Skein and after many rejections eventually published as A Study in Scarlet in 1887 by Ward Lock & Co. and first appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual and in book form in 1888. Only eleven complete copies of the magazine exist today. In 2007, you could have purchased a copy from Sotheby’s for $156,000. The magazine was published in November for one shilling and sold out before Christmas.
Doyle’s novel was adapted into numerous films, TV, and radio programs, as well as for the stage and graphic novels.
Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born in England (1859-1930) and is most noted for creating the character Sherlock Holmes who appears in four novels and fifty-six short stories. Doyle also wrote fantasy, science fiction, and seven historical novels, which he and many of his critics considered his best work. Doyle said he felt exploited by his publisher Ward Lock and left. Thereafter, short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes were published in Strand Magazine.
And the winner for fastest mystery novel written…
I, the Jury, by Mickey Spillane – nine days.
Written in 1947, this was Spillane’s debut novel and the first to feature his private eye, Mike Hammer, who serves as judge and jury for the vicious killing of an old army buddy. In Hammer’s world, bad people don’t get off easy.
At the time, Spillane was a struggling comic book writer and editor at Funnies, Inc. where he wrote an eight-page story every day. He wrote stories for such characters as Captain Marvel, Captain America, Batman and Superman. He first wrote, I, the Jury as a comic book with a private eye called Mike Danger. When it didn’t sell, he took a week and reconfigured it as a novel, and re-named Danger to Mike Hammer. Spillane was motivated to write the novel fast as, at that time, he and his wife had bought several properties of land in Newburgh, NY and he wrote, I, the Jury quickly so he could afford the $1,000 property.
I, the Jury was published by E.P. Dutton and Signet Books. By the time the novel was adapted into a film in 1953, it had sold 3.5 million copies. The book went on to sell 7 million copies in three years.
Spillane was mostly published in paperback form. With World War II over, the public clamored for entertainment. Paperbacks were lightweight and cheap. In 1953, copies of I, the Jury cost 25-cents and were printed on 160 pages in 9-point type. His critics called his writing “atrocious, nauseating, dangerous, paranoid, sadistic, and masochistic,” if not distasteful for his attention to violence and sex. But Spillane shrugged it off saying, “You can sell a lot more peanuts than caviar.”
Frank Morrison Spillane was born in Brooklyn, NY (1918-2006). In his lifetime, more than 225 million copies of his books were sold. He was also an actor and often played himself in films and on the TV series, Columbo. In the 1980s, he appeared in Miller Lite beer commercials. In 1995, Mystery Writers of America named him the “Edgar Allan Poe Grand Master.”
Take heart. If you want to write your best-selling mystery or thriller novel fast, here are three “take-aways” for you—which by the way, I do not endorse: (1) have a burning desire to make some quick money; (2) take a stimulant stronger than coffee; and (3) have the occasional affair.
What are your tried and true tips for writing a quick best-selling thriller?
What fascinating tales about those bestselling and “speed-writing” authors! Of course, an author today could hunker down and pen a story quickly by never leaving the computer for days and nights. However, achieving “bestselling” status is harder as harder – with the competition to nail an agent and publisher (when so many of them have consolidated) – and millions of authors (over 2 million I believe at last count) have “self-published” on Amazon or other platforms. In any event, I love your stories about the talented authors you described….thanks for a great post!
Ugh. And I’m struggling and struggling just to get an outline done!!!
I love all three of these authors. I remember writing a term paper on The Power and the Glory, though the teacher left out the part about the affair with the landlady’s daughter 😮 !!
Hmmm? I wonder why?
This is just so depressing that they could write such good novels so quickly. Well, there were the drugs, definitely not a good idea. Years ago, there was a study that determined the amount of alcoholism among published authors was higher than among the general population. We know why. 🙂 Thanks for another terrific blog, ZJ!
Thank you Karna for the kind comment. You’re absolutely right. The competition and marketplace has changed dramatically since these great writers found their success. But their passion for making it happen got them there and that’s one key ingredient we can all take advantage of.
Thank you Gayle. Once the COVID restrictions are lifted, I think we should have a drink to discuss this. Cheers!
I took notes. My latest book has taken an excruciating amount of time to write. Maybe Benzedrine is the key!