A Conversation With Mystery Editor Faith Black Ross

What is something you always tell your authors?

Resist the temptation to jump on the next big trend. Yes, Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train were huge hits, but don’t sit down at your desk thinking that the surefire path to success is to write the next psychological thriller with the word Girl in the title. For one thing, you should write the book you want to write and that you are best equipped to write. For another, by the time you get your manuscript written, revised, edited, and submitted to agents and then to publishers, that trend may well be over. It’s an exercise in frustration and futility to go chasing trends that have already peaked. It may sound like old-fashioned advice, but write the best story you can write, then worry about trends later—who knows, perhaps you’ll be the one to start the next big one.

What should your authors always keep in mind when it comes to developing their characters?

They don’t necessarily need to be likeable, but they do need to be relatable. Your readers need to be able to identify with them in some way. Yes, Amy in Gone Girl was a truly terrible person, but we all know what it feels like to be betrayed by someone we care about. You need to give readers something to lock onto—a compelling backstory, some moment that gives us a glimpse into their motivations or a hint of sympathy for them. Nuanced, flawed, complex characters are what keep us turning pages.

How late in a novel can the inciting incident happen?

There are always exceptions to a rule, but generally, if it’s a murder mystery, the killing needs to happen in the first three chapters—no more than fifty pages in. It’s easy to get caught up in the fun of creating characters and scene building, but all of that needs to happen in service to the mystery itself. Rather than dumping a lot of background information at the outset, authors need to work assiduously to intersperse those scene and character details into the action scenes so that they are relayed to the reader as organically as possible while keeping the story marching forward.

What’s the right number of red herrings for a mystery?

I get asked that all the time, and the fact is that there’s no single right answer to that question. It all depends on the book. A multilayered 120,000-word thriller has room for more red herrings than a 70,000-word cozy mystery. What’s most important is that the reader hasn’t figured it out by the end. You want them to have figured out some of it, but you don’t want to blindside them completely. You want readers to experience the satisfaction of that all-important aha! moment, but it can’t be a total shock. Keep some twist or element of surprise in play for the end.

Do you have any tips or tricks for keeping track of all the plot threads?

There’s no single system that works. My only advice is to find something that works for you, and use it consistently. I have some authors who have detailed Excel spreadsheets to keep track of every aspect of their plot. Others just keep handwritten notes by their computer. Others manage to fly by the seat of their pants and keep it all in their heads. One thing that often gets lost in the shuffle as authors craft an entire world and cast of characters from scratch is the timeline. It might help to keep a detailed outline of what happens when (not only what day, but what time) so that you can refer back to it and ensure consistency throughout.

Any tips on how to write great dialogue?

Oh yes. The only real way to know if your dialogue is any good is to read it out loud. Period.

Any final thoughts for our readers?

I get asked a lot about how to go about finding the best agent, editor, or publisher. The best advice I ever heard was to go down to the bookstore, find the books you think yours is most like, flip to the acknowledgments page, and you’ll most likely find the editor and agent’s names listed there. Those are your best starting point. Good luck!

 

Faith Black Ross has over a decade of experience in commercial publishing working on bestselling and award-winning fiction and nonfiction—everything from mysteries, historical fiction, and women’s fiction to true crime and popular culture. An alumna of Williams College, Faith also has an MA in English from Rutgers University and studied at Oxford University.