Some days I want to be the author that young kids run to. I want to write mysteries too, partly because I love to read them, partly because kids get such a kick out of early mysteries. So, I tell myself, go ahead. Write it.
But then I stare at the page and have no idea how to start so I go back to a form I know well. Finally, one summer, I decide I must figure this out. It is, a mystery how mysteries are put together. And I should be able to crack the code. I decide I want to do an early chapter book mystery, so I gather up many Magic Tree House, Cam Jansen, A-Z and others. What I’m going to do is simple. I’ll take these books apart and learn the structure from the inside. Since the books are all about 5,000 words, I could read a lot of them.
And they all have a formula. Each chapter is about 500 words. There are ten chapters and none of their problems involve bloodshed. I decide that I need an outline of at least 10 books.
To do this, I create a spreadsheet and start listing attributes. Where is the problem introduced? Where is the secondary problem introduced? When does the first plot twist come? What about second? How many characters? When is the first problem solved? When is the second one solved? Does the solving of one create more problems? How are the characters developed? And then working backwards, when was the clue introduced?
It isn’t easy to decode books. It is well-written, you get caught in the writing and sail right through the important turning points without anyone holding up a sign saying “Here’s the important point!” I had to read some of the books several times to uncover the formula. I grew to greatly appreciate subtle writing.
In the end, I learned it well enough to rewrite my sample mystery. I was starting from a short story (2,000 words) that I had written 20 years ago when I first started writing for kids. The mystery was fun, but didn’t fit the format for magazines or short books. However, it fit my purposes. I now knew it needed a b-plot (secondary problem), and some other interesting characters. I needed to try to get each chapter to 500 words. I knew where the problem had to be introduced and the key clues.
I did it. I hit the form. It wasn’t great but hey, it wasn’t expected to be. When I saw a call for submissions from a new company called Schoolwide, I revised it again and sent them Hunt for the Tomato Killer. To my delight, they bought it. It is due out in August.