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Now that the holiday season is over, and I’m back from living two weeks disconnected from the Internet for the most part, it’s review time! Committing the Perfect Crime is the first of two classes I took in the Fall Semester, and I had a lot of fun with it. Like all prior classes, the instructor, Kris Neri, was excellent. As a published author in the Mystery genre, she brings a wealth of personal experience and insights to the table, and I found it invaluable.

Though this course is considered a beginner class, it covers everything about writing a novel, from outlines, to very in-depth character sketches, to building a plot synopsis, to understanding the unique elements required for this genre, to finding an agent, writing query letters, and understanding the market for mystery and suspense. Kris was also more than happy to cater to each of us according to our needs, as many of us already had a good foundation in the basics. I was actually blown away by the quality and amount of feedback she gave us, and her editorial suggestions further illustrated how well she understands the genre and the market. I took this class more out of curiosity, because while I love reading books in this genre and dreaming up convoluted plots to match them, my passion for writing these stories fluctuates. I realized pretty fast that I didn’t have a good grasp of what makes these novels successful (or not), but that was one of the best things about the class, learning how to interweave and then bring together all the plot twists, red herrings, and of course, the freaky or downright creepy elements that are always fun to write.

Something else Kris did that I especially appreciated was going through our submissions as an editor would, making suggestions for plot and character as well as grammar, punctuation, and spelling corrections. It may seem trivial, but she emphasized how the little things can make a big impression (good or bad), and for me it was a huge help because some rules I haven’t used since high school and this leads to mistakes I never even noticed, even after revisions. For example, here are just a few of the things she flagged in the draft of my first chapter, so you can see how detailed and helpful her feedback was:

“Yeah…yes…of course, it’s just weird that’s all. [Break sentence and use somewhat different punctuation: “Yeah…yes…of course. It’s just weird, that’s all.] I have everything in the office.”

Zadie went from feeling awkward to annoyed. No, she wanted to yell at the page, [Re-punctuate: No, she wanted to yell at the page. He said he thinks you’re beautiful, not that you are beautiful.] he said he thinks you’re beautiful, not that you are beautiful. A subtle difference with a world of meaning and a classic example of false—yet carefully crafted—flattery if Zadie had ever heard it.

“No,” she said. “That’s my point. Miranda would never use such a ridiculous name. Never mind talking to some stranger calling himself ‘Hades’.[In this case, the period would go within the quote, even though it’s single.] I mean come on.”

“I haven’t found the tablet yet. The phone’s here,” he opened the top drawer and pulled it out, “but it’s not charged.” [What he does is an action, not a speech tag, but you have it punctuated as a speech tag. Correct: …here.” He opened the top drawer and pulled it out. “But it’s not charged.”]

“OK, [okay — spell out] then what about that silk dress she was wearing? [Have you previously established what she was wearing? If you haven’t established these things, and/or don’t discuss them further here, you’re burying them in dialogue. More needs to be made of them. For instance, after this next line about how much the victim hated that style of dress, Zadie might agree in her own mind. She might even bring up a memory of something the victim said or did that confirms it.] She hated those things and never wore one her entire life.” [How did she typically dress? The reader never got to see her in life, so we need to see her through the eyes of others.]

All of my assignments received the same level of attention and feedback, and some weeks Kris spent a lot of extra time on top of this working through plot elements and character development with each of us individually. Again, it was amazing and beyond helpful. The lessons I learned here are going to help me in all my future revisions by serving as a guide for how to go through a manuscript, not to mention a quick reminder of the errors I tend to make by default. Basically, I could go on and on about how great this part of the class was, but you get the picture.

The lecture materials were also top-notch, and actually, many of them were the best I’ve ever read. It’s hard to describe just how good they were, and how practical and relevant, but you know how when you read instructional or technical material, it either feels like a repetitive rehashing, or it excites you because it explains it in a way that makes you think, “Ah ha!”? Well, all of the lectures and reference material in this class gave me major “Ah ha!” moments, and that was awesome. During the ten weeks, I learned so much more than I expected about how to write a mystery and suspense novel, as well as what to expect when dealing with editors, agents, and publishers. I’m not sure how she managed it, but this class struck the perfect balance between encouraging creativity while learning the often creativity stifling rules of the professional writing road. Granted, most of us students won’t ever write to a level that requires that kind of professional polish, but that doesn’t mean we should know how to do it, and even strive to do it.

Anyway, if you can’t yet tell how much I enjoyed this class, then let me just say it was one of the most informative, interesting, and helpful because we had a terrific instructor who knows how to teach. I highly recommend it for anyone curious about the genre and how the industry works (genre specific and in general), but I especially recommend it for aspiring mystery writers, because they will benefit most from the instructor’s expertise, experience, and insights. If you have questions or want to know more about this class or others I’ve taken, don’t be shy to ask!