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How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript
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How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript

3.9  ·  Rating Details ·  291 Ratings  ·  45 Reviews
Edgar award nominee James N. Frey, author of the internationally best-selling books on the craft of writing, How to Write a Damn Good Novel, How to Write a Damn Good Novel II: Advanced Techniques, and The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth, has now written what is certain to become the standard "how to" book for mystery writing, How to Write a Damn ...more
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published February 12th 2004 by St. Martin's Press
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Jan 13, 2016 K rated it did not like it
Many writers--especially outliners--may find the system in this book helpful, but the woman-negative content of the examples in the book generated too much cognitive dissonance for this reader to pay proper attention to Frey's techniques.

In chapter 4, Frey generates an example murderer complete with backstory to demonstrate his writing process. This murderer's backstory should presumably lay the groundwork for why he is a murderer and Frey's brief explanation of the murderer's family implies tha
Nov 15, 2015 K rated it really liked it
I spent a fair amount of time reading other folks reviews here - and it's always interesting to see how different folks feel about the same book. I don't think I've rated another book as generously as I've this one. It taught me several useful things and most importantly did help me as a step-by-step guide.

Let me get the niggling stuff out of the way first
- yes there's over use of the phrase 'damn good' - after the first few times I probably did not notice it
- yes there's reference (some woul
Jul 06, 2016 Thomas rated it it was ok
Frey includes what sound like some decent tips about developing characters and plotting. He has an especially good idea about the process of devising a mystery plot, and uses The Maltese Falcon to illustrate it (there's few better examples of mystery novels a novice writer could to aspire to than that one). However, Frey then proceeds to spend much of the back-half of his book running through an outline of what sounds like a somewhat inane and pedestrian sounding mystery he's concocted as a work ...more
Jul 25, 2011 Stephen rated it it was ok
Jim Frey is qualified to tell people how to write a good mystery novel because he has written several which I have never read and has taught in lots of writers' workshops of which I have never heard. His text is adequate but flawed in several respects. He insists on using the modifier "damned good" in front of nouns like sentence, plot, scene, character, complication, resolution and the like ... doubtless in furtherance of what he considers to be a clever book title. He offers ou... (show more)
Jeffrey Hammerhead
This book gave me som great insights on how to improve my craft of writing. A must for all mystery writers.
Tyra Masters-heinrichs
Aug 14, 2011 Tyra Masters-heinrichs rated it it was amazing
A must read for those writing in the mystery genre and wanting to understand how this genre differentiates from other genres. A great into and confidence builder for writers.
Chris Bauer
Jul 15, 2017 Chris Bauer rated it really liked it
For decades I've read mystery novels, along with other kinds of genre fiction. After I started writing, I had always wanted to try my hand at penning a mystery novel but really had no idea of HOW to do it right. Horror, fantasy and sci-fi? Yeah, no problem.

But the mystery genre was...well, a mystery to me.

Until I read this book by James N. Frey.

Simply put, it was like a grenade went off in my head once the fundamentals sunk in. I don't place a great deal of faith in many of the "learn to write!"
Jun 30, 2017 Ekaterina rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, writing
This book had a lot of good writing advice for writing mysteries. The author had a lot of good points, so I'm glad I read this book. I started writing a mystery, but after the first couple of pages, I knew something was wrong because I didn't know how much to write, develop, and plot. After reading this book, I feel confident about writing the mystery.

After reading this book, I learned some things like writing mysteries are tons of fun, but can be extremely complicated. When the author started t
Karen Roberson
Mar 10, 2017 Karen Roberson rated it really liked it
I have been plotting a mystery for over a year now and getting nowhere. Now I feel I have a roadmap to get me started that was not there before. Awesome read and funny too!
Jackie Franklin
Jun 11, 2009 Jackie Franklin rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone interested in writing
Recommended to Jackie by: a good reads reader
I have always loved to curl up in bed after a long day and pick up a good mystery, usually Mary Higgins Clark but unfortunately I could not find a book about her experience as a writer. So, I found one by James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Mystery. The title alone spoke to me. It sounded daring, exciting, and to the point. I was right; I read the book in 4 days, easily. When writing for the first time or changing your style of writing I believe this would be the most practical way of going ...more
One of the better how-to-write books that I've come across, despite some (personal) annoyances (see below). Frey takes the fledgling writer from the beginning of why to write a mystery (quite an interesting chapter) through the acutal process of writing (including character creation and development) right up to how to find an agent and work with an editor. I especially liked how he took you step-by-step through the writing process, with an actual example (personally, I learn better that way).

Nov 09, 2012 Brandi rated it liked it
There's a lot of solid advice in this book, if nothing (much) new to anyone who's familiar with the writing process and/or mystery novels. I suppose I have spent quite a bit of time and energy thinking critically about how mystery novels are put together - writing a PhD thesis on the topic will do that to you, as will reading (and watching) almost exclusively mysteries. I haven't taken any creative writing courses since one taught by a TA who clearly didn't want to be there, but a lot of Frey's ...more
Jun 16, 2015 PoligirlReads rated it really liked it
This book is pretty great. Only a few pages in, I thought "This book is going to force me into a real think about my novel." Sure enough, it did. I had a lot of light bulb moments on areas in my book that were sagging, due to his suggestions.

Bits I liked:

-I loved how he called out "literary" writers on their BS. I liked how he slipped in his own creds, and used examples from some of his students.

-Particularly helpful was the discussion on the components of a good villain.

-Really liked his use o
Nov 08, 2007 Kim rated it liked it
It's hard--and maybe not fair--to evaluate a how-to book when you haven't executed whatever project the book outlines. I haven't written a mystery, either following James Frey's method or any other approach. But books about writing make up a good portion of my leisure reading, so I can compare this one to others. Frey's approach seems executable and potentially effective; as evidence, he's coached a number of successfully published mystery writers and has published several of his own mysteries. ...more
Jul 02, 2015 M rated it did not like it
There was some helpful and interesting advice in here, but it was far outweighed by all the bad and useless stuff. The informal tone was nice at first, but I got bored of seeing "damn good" applied to everything. Frey acts far too much as if his way of doing things is the only way that can possibly work, which I really don't like. He spends far too much of this book outlining a mystery in an attempt to show how it's done. While creating an example is a good idea in general, the mystery he writes ...more
Apr 07, 2013 Trudy rated it really liked it
Frey takes his clever title a bit too far by overuse of the adjective phrase "damn good" throughout the text, but the book itself is quite interesting. I am inspired to read his other writing how-tos (which he also mentions perhaps too frequently throughout this book). I do wonder, however, if much of the basic information will be repetitive. We shall see.

Reading How to Write a Damn Good Mystery feels a bit like taking a creative writing class, without the assignments and grades. It would be hel
Deborah Taylor-French
Frey claims that the mystery genre is the last bastion of the hero. I think it is his take on this genre, which causes him to urge writers to draw vivid mythic detectives for this long tradition of good battling evil. He also stresses that killers be formed into round characters, worthy, strong and intelligent, thereby making the hero/detective speedup his or her manhunt, while rising to greater strengths of logic and risk.

James N. Frey knows what makes mystery novels successful. His points offe
Terry Irving
Dec 28, 2012 Terry Irving rated it liked it
Shelves: recommended
I read this, among a bunch of other such books, before I started to write "Courier." It's a useful book because (like "How to Write a Movie in 21 Days"), it breaks down your reluctance to launch into writing. I know there are many many more aspects to writing a novel but Frey either simply tells you to forget them or simplifies them to the point where you can't use fear as an excuse not to write.

That, and as far as I can tell, if you aren't writing Great Literature, he's correct on all the esse
Jan 16, 2014 Tim rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm usually pretty reserved in my ratings for how-to writing books. Most have advice that is cheer leading or conjecture, often bad at that, and don't give any actionable advice. This one is different. It does. Not applicable to everyone and not suited to individuals who want to be artists or pantsers. It attacks the goal of getting published by treating your work as a product. LOTS of example work (I tended to skim that) but it is there for as much as you need that additional support. You will ...more
Bran Bennett
Apr 20, 2015 Bran Bennett rated it really liked it
Shelves: writing-reading
I love to write. I don't know how to write. I know how to push keys on a keyboard and put words together, but I have no idea how to write, write. James Frey's, "How to Write a Damn Good Mystery" has given me great practical "how to's" that have been helping me get my fiction from my mind to paper in a fast and orderly fashion. Well, at least a fast(ish) and orderly(ish) fashion. Well...a faster and more orderly fashion than before.

Inspiring book full of wise advice, read it, underline it, do it.
Feb 23, 2011 earthy rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
I like Frey's irreverent tone, and I do think he has some good advice for writers, but the story he mocks up is full of cliches and uninteresting characters, and at times the prose makes it seem like he's very stuck on his way of doing things without acknowledging that different writers write differently. Worth a read, certainly, but you might get more out of his book The Key with its focus on archetypes and the hero's journey. A lot of that (and apparently material from his other books) is reha ...more
May 22, 2015 Michelle rated it liked it
While there were useful bits in this book, it suffered from the "how to draw an owl" problem: there was a huge jump from the chapter where you picked out some characters to the chapter where you started plotting, without any discussion of how to plant clues, how many suspects to have, etc., etc. It was just "here's how I would do it", albeit with a fairly good worked-out example, rather than "here's how you should do it". I'm currently reading another how-to-write-a-mystery book that looks more ...more
Alyssa Watson
Frey focuses on the pulp mystery genre and I write mostly scifi but I still found it very useful. good for any writer tackling a mystery element in their book. i will say though that his chapter on making your characters well rounded was not that good. the example character he used he made religious but she came off flat because the author clearly had not done enough research into the particular religion so she came off sounding stereotypical and fake. good book for understanding how the build c ...more
Erin L
Nov 13, 2015 Erin L rated it liked it
This isn't bad and the parts where he talks about plotting and character development are great. But then there's a lot of this book that is just his sample stepsheet for a book. Which, while fine as a sample, it just seems to go on far too long.

Then he gets back into providing information on rewriting and polishing which is really helpful.

Good, but not great. And he keeps pointing you to his other books about writing for more information which is irritating.
Amy Wadsworth
Apr 04, 2012 Amy Wadsworth rated it really liked it
One of the things I loved about this book was the example that Frey used to support his technique. Not only does he tell the mystery writer what to do, but he gives an example as he creates an outline for a new story. Two outlines, really--what the reader sees and what he doesn't see. Great book whether you're writing mysteries or not because of the idea that there is more going on in a story than what the reader sees, which is true in all fiction!
Candy Lyons
Jul 17, 2008 Candy Lyons rated it really liked it
This book was extrememly helpful in plotting the mystery element of my romantic suspense. I learned a lot about mystery plotting and creating a murderer from Frey in this how-to. I read through the whole book in one day. So it's an easy, fast read. I took copious notes to help me with my own writing and advise others. I really enjoyed it.
Kelly H. (Maybedog)
I read another book by him, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller: A Step-by-Step Guide for Novelists and Screenwriters, that I thought was terrible. I don't think I would find this helpful.
Jean Oram
Apr 25, 2009 Jean Oram rated it liked it
Shelves: writing-books
This one goes through step-by-step with a very methodical way of building your mystery. I think if you follow his approach, you will have less plot point edits on the backend. However, you will have to be careful not to plan everything out so much it takes the fun out of the actual writing and closes off surprises.
Michael Mc Donnell
Jul 12, 2013 Michael Mc Donnell rated it it was ok
Soom good advice obfuscated by unhelpful biased personal opinion and page after page of useless examples which failed to express the values the author expoused or demonstrate the lessons he was trying to teach. Also a large amount of material rehashed (or straight up cut and pasted) from his earlier books.
Mar 27, 2015 Sally rated it it was amazing
This one needs a 6 star rating. He spells out the process with such simplicity and inspiration it made me want to write mysteries, and to read the one he used for an example. This series is a brilliant how-to for writing, and it's done with fun. What more is there to ask for?
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Madison Mega-Mara...: How to Write a Damn Good Mystery 1 4 Apr 07, 2013 11:16AM  
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