Case Cracked: Editing Mystery Novels

This post was originally posted on the Lee & Low blog.’ve long been a fan of mysteries. Trixie Belden was my BFF as a third and fourth grader. Nancy Drew was another favorite. Veronica Mars updated the teen sleuth idea, bringing the storytelling form to a new generation.

When I got the chance to work on Valynne Maetani’s Ink and Ashes, our new YA mystery which comes out in June, all of those mysteries and more were going through my mind. Claire, the main character, has the spunk and curiosity of Veronica Mars and all of her predecessors, but she’s also a little different. And to honor those differences in the editing process, I needed to refresh myself on what’s out there right now in the teen mystery/suspense genre, and the mystery genre in general.

As I was editing Ink and Ashes over the course of about a year and a half (which spans two developmental edits and a line edit), between edits I was reading mystery after mystery. I stocked up on Agatha Christie, I rewatched Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and read the first book of the series it’s based on (Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood), I read multiple YA suspense, spy, and murder mysteries.

Miss Fisher ABC
Miss Fisher from the TV show “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”

That reading reminded me that a great mystery read requires the same elements as any good read: well-paced plotting, characters the reader cares about enough to want to know what happens next; even world-building, though that’s a term we generally associate with speculative fiction, is tremendously important in setting the stage in a mystery. But my rereading of classic and contemporary mysteries also showed me that more than in any other genre, a sense of suspense and danger must permeate the mystery book, must drive the reader to breathlessly wonder what will happen next.

Ask probing questions

One of the biggest challenges in this edit—with any edit, really, especially with an author you’ve never worked with before—was discovering how to bring the author’s vision of the characters fully to life. An editor’s job is often to just ask questions: Why is this happening right now? Why would that character decide to do this? What is the goal here?

In that way, figuring out the goal allows the editor to ask further probing questions on what the solution might be—figuring out how current plot points and character decisions hamper the desired effect.

“The plot thickens” turns out to be trueink and ashes cover

The biggest thing I learned while editing Ink and Ashes and reading all these mysteries is the importance of plot escalation. In the original draft, clues did of course build up into a frenzied final few pages of conflict that were very enjoyable—that’s one of the reasons the book won our New Visions Award. But comparing the early manuscript to mysteries I enjoyed the most, I realized that there were so many ways that the narrative could be complicated. (Valynne was on the same page. As she waited for the results of the contest, she was also already thinking of ways to improve the manuscript. That kind of editor-writer synergy makes a huge difference in any book project like this.)

We looked at the end goal, and discussed the plot points that got Claire and her friends to that point. In particular, we discussed how the inciting incident—the moment that gets Claire to veer her course to investigating whether her father and her stepdad ever knew each other—might be complicated and how those complications would have a ripple effect that would improve multiple other plot points, and increase the pacing.

In other words, escalation. If the reader didn’t feel the suspense at every page turn, we had work to do.

Valynne worked very hard on making that happen, and I’m very happy with the results! In answer to all my probing questions, Valynne improved on an already-well written manuscript to bring what was an interesting read to the level of an exciting page-turner that’s getting readers hooked. That’s the end goal for any editor and author: Creating a final book that readers can’t put down. I’m happy to say, we succeeded with Ink and Ashes.

BYU event before LTUE

Life, the Universe, and Everything is NEXT WEEK! That means I’ll be seeing many of you then. If you’re unable to attend LTUE, though, and are in the area, you should check out this event. It’s free for any who’d like to attend—you don’t have to be a student. And if you are going to LTUE, come anyway! Karen won’t be on any panels officially, so this is your chance to ask her questions and perhaps even get a book signed after the program.

So You Want to Work in Publishing For Young Readers?

Courtesy Howard Tayler,

If you are interested in working as an author, an illustrator, an editor, or in any other position in the publishing for young readers market, you are invited to come listen to, discuss with, and learn from Stacy Whitman, on February 8th, from 5:10-7:40 pm. in room 251 Tanner Bldg at BYU.

Stacy Whitman is the editorial director of Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books. In 2009 while living in Orem, Utah, she founded a small press named Tu Publishing, dedicated to publishing multicultural fantasy and science fiction for children and young adults, which was acquired by Lee & Low Books of New York City and became Tu Books. The imprint launched fall 2011 with Tankborn, Wolf Mark, and Galaxy Games: The Challengers, and will follow up with BYU graduate Bryce Moore’s book this spring, Vodnik. Whitman holds a master’s degree in children’s literature from Simmons College. Learn more about Tu, including submissions guidelines and links to buy books, at Stacy’s blog of writing and publishing advice can be found at

Stacy’s presentation will be a wide open discussion on the publishing business, including, but not limited to the following topics:

  • Preparing for a career in publishing
  • What does an editor do all day?
  • Working with authors and art directors
  • Advice for writers and illustrators on getting published
  • Diversity in publishing and books
  • Genre fiction and children’s fiction

Stacy will be accompanied by author Karen Sandler.

Karen Sandler is the author of seventeen novels for adults, as well as several short stories and screenplays. Before becoming a full-time writer, she worked as a software engineer, including work on the space shuttle program and communications satellites. TANKBORN, published by Tu Books, is her first young adult science fiction novel. She lives in northern California with her husband, three cats, and an Andalusian/Morgan mare. For more information about Sandler, visit



My LTUE schedule 2012

I’ll be in Utah this February again this year for the excellent science fiction/fantasy convention Life, the Universe, and Everything. It’s the convention’s 30th anniversary this year. Normally it’s hosted at Brigham Young University, but due to scheduling difficulties it’ll be held this year at neighboring Utah Valley University only a few miles away—and a few miles closer to my greatest restaurant love, a restaurant I have yet to find matched in New York City (seriously), Sakura. Seriously, best deep-fried sushi (sometimes called tempura—not just for shrimp!) that I’ve found anywhere. Particularly the Geisha, Spider, Firecracker, Ninja, and Hawaiian rolls. If you’re in Utah and you haven’t discovered this place yet (and you’re not Jessica Day George) GO. It’s SO GOOD.

But I digress. (Good sushi can do that to me.)

Anyway, my point is that you need to attend LTUE, especially if you live in the Intermountain West. Sure, they’ve started charging a nominal fee (it used to be free), but that fee makes sure this great convention can continue to happen every year, giving them a modest budget for facilities, guests of honor, and so forth. The committee that runs the con are all volunteers.

Speaking of guests of honor, I’m looking forward to meeting a longtime internet but not (yet) real-life friend, James A. Owen. He’ll be talking about both writing and illustration, including a whole seminar on how to draw dragons, so if you’re an illustrator, you want to come to this LTUE.

Also attending will be the Writing Excuses team—not just locals Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler, but also SFWA vice president, puppeteer, and author Mary Robinette Kowal, not to mention a number of locally-based pros, writers and editors like Mette Ivie Harrison, Larry Correia, James Dashner, Bree Despain, J. Scott Savage, Tyler Whitesides, Chris Schoebinger, Robert J. Defendi, Lisa Mangum, and many more.

Check out the full schedule here (where there may be some tweaks to the schedule, so you might want to check back before the con), but here’s my schedule:


Thursday, February 8, 2012

10:00 AM—What Exactly Does an Editor Do, Anyway? (Rick Walton (M), Stacy Whitman, Suzanne Vincent, Lisa Mangum, Kirk Shaw)

11:00 AM—Middle-grade books for boys (Tyler Whitesides, E. J. Patten, Michael Young, Stacy Whitman(M))

2:00 PM—Feeling Fake: What to do about that pervasive feeling that everyone belongs in the publishing world except you. (Sandra Tayler, Jason Alexander, Ami Chopine (M), Stacy Whitman)

7:00 PM—A Vampire is NOT your Boyfriend!: Real Vampires (Mette Ivie Harrison, Michael R. Collings, Dan Lind, Stacy Whitman(M))


Friday, Febrary 10, 2011

No panels for me, though I will be around the convention, so I’m open to individual meet-ups for lunch (particularly at Sakura…). I’m also looking forward to James Owen’s main address this day, and the Writing Excuses live podcast. .

EDIT: I have been added to the below panel to give the editorial side:

6:00 PM—Book Bombs: How to make an bestseller (Randy Tayler (M), Robison Wells, Larry Correia, Stacy L. Whitman, Michaelbrent Collings)


Saturday, February 11, 2012

1:00 PM—Writing Cross-Culturally: Mistakes to Avoid, or, How to Avoid Cultural Misappropriation (Stacy Whitman)

This will be a workshop in which we talk about all the mistakes that even well-meaning authors can make in diversifying our writing, and how to use strong worldbuilding and characterization to prevent that. Also: how making mistakes doesn’t mean we’re racist—it just means we’re willing to learn.

2:00 PM—Plots, Subplots, and Foreshadowing (Bree Despain (M), J. Scott Savage, Brandon Sanderson, James A. Owen, Stacy Whitman)


I’m not on the following workshop, but want to highlight it because both Sandra and Mary are people to learn from, and given that the workshop will be two hours long, you’ll get an opportunity to really go in depth.

3:00-5:00 PM

– The Published (and aspiring) Author’s Toolbox: Learning skills for networking, blogging, social media, and self-promotion.  This workshop will teach principles and give you a chance to practice skills to integrate networking, blogging, social media, and self-promotion into your professional life without being the person who annoys and without pulling you out of balance with yourself.

(Sandra Tayler, Mary Robinette Kowal)


FAQ: Muslim protagonists

A writer asks:

I recently submitted the first three chapters of my manuscript to Tu Books as per your guidelines, and I am a ball of anxiety. My MC is a Muslim girl, and while the story itself is pure historical fantasy, I am worried that you will feel a Muslim protagonist is not relatable enough. Can you share your thoughts? I’ve been told that publishers might not want to take a chance on a Muslim protagonist.


No need to worry! Muslim protagonists (as well as non-Muslim Arab and Arab American protagonists) are welcome here, both historical and contemporary. I’ve been on the lookout for a story set in the Middle East and hadn’t found the right one yet. So please, yes! Send them along.

The biggest concern I’d have about any character being relatable would be on an individual basis, not because they were Muslim. If the main character were unsympathetic, that kind of thing—that’s what makes it hard for me to relate to a character. For me, relatability is based more on emotional connection rather than situational relatability. I can’t directly relate with the situation of being a genetically engineered untouchable/slave, but I completely related to Kayla in Tankborn on an emotional level. Who hasn’t felt as lost and disoriented at some point as she did, needing to discover what was most important to us and where we fit in the world, whether we shared her situation (being Assigned to her first job as a GEN caretaker) or not?

What I look for in something I might like to publish: strong, relatable characters; settings that interest me (whether familiar or unfamiliar); plot lines in which interesting and important things happen, action abounds, and connect closely with character development; worldbuilding that brings a reader into the world (in fantasy, no one knows this world, even if it is closely related to one in the real world; skillful worldbuilding is very important on a number of levels); well crafted voice. This can be done with characters of any background (well, I might not sympathize with a story told completely from Sauron’s point of view; completely evil characters are generally not sympathetic!).

I hope that helps allay some fears. When we say “about everyone, for everyone,” we mean everyone. Except maybe Sauron.

On query letters and “requested” material

Writers often ask me about query letters—how to write them, what to put in them, what will hook me.

The problem is that I hate query letters. I much prefer a simple cover letter with the first three chapters (NOT three chapters randomly sampled from the book). This is why my submission guidelines explicitly say, “Please include a synopsis and first three chapters of the novel. Do not send the complete manuscript.” The cover letter just needs to let me know the basics about your manuscript: genre, plot synopsis/hook, intended audience (middle grade or YA), and perhaps your writing credentials. Usually I don’t even bother reading the cover letter until I’ve read a page or two of the partial—until I’m hooked on the actual writing, it just doesn’t matter to me.

Occasionally I’ll get an emailed query from someone who has obviously been to our website, where they could have easily found the submission guidelines (which are prominently linked), because they’re using our Contact Us email address to query. When I email back with the link to our submission guidelines and telling them they’re welcome to send the first three chapters and a synopsis per the guidelines, often what happens is that a few days later I’ll get a package in the mail with “REQUESTED MATERIAL” written on it.

So, as I’ve said before, asking you to follow the directions does not mean I have requested your manuscript. It just means that I’ve asked you to follow the directions so I can receive your material in a way that will allow me to give it all due consideration. Once I have read the partial, I may request to read the full manuscript. But until then, writing “requested material” on the envelope for something I know I haven’t requested just makes me believe you aren’t listening, and that makes me think that working with you might not be an enjoyable experience.

Most agents, however, prefer query letters. As do some editors. Their work preferences are different than mine. This is why it’s SO important to read submission guidelines.

So if you are working on a query letter because someone you want to send it to prefers them, I can’t offer much advice. But there are plenty of people who can. For example, this  recent episode of Writing Excuses features Dan and Robison Wells’s agent, Sara Crowe, giving her take on query letters and what hooks her.


Submissions update

For those of you who submitted PARTIAL manuscripts, I am nearly up to date on everything that has come in up through June 1. I’ll post when I am, so that you’ll know that if you haven’t heard from me, the answer is no. But I’m still working my way through a few.

For those of you from whom I asked for FULL manuscripts, I’m working my way through that reading, getting back to people with editorial letters, feedback, or (sadly, yes) declines as necessary. I respond to full manuscripts; it just takes me a while. If it’s been more than four months since I got your manuscript, a reply to you might have slipped through the cracks. Feel free to follow up to see where your manuscript is in such a case. If it’s been less than four months, I should be getting back to you sometime this month.

Also, if you are a member of a writing community, listserv, message board, or other group for which this might be interesting—to which I haven’t already posted a call for submissions—you are welcome to share this around:

Call for submissions

TU BOOKS, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS, publishes speculative fiction for children and young adults featuring diverse characters and settings. Our focus is on well-told, exciting, adventurous fantasy, science fiction, and mystery novels featuring people of color set in worlds inspired by non-Western folklore or culture. We welcome Western settings if the main character is a person of color.

We are looking specifically for stories for both middle grade (ages 8-12) and young adult (ages 12-18) readers. (We are not looking for picture books, chapter books, or short stories. Please do not send submissions in these formats.)

For more information on how to submit, please see our submission guidelines at We are not accepting unagented email submissions at this time.

What I’m particularly interested in seeing lately: Asian steampunk, any African culture, Latino/a stories, First Nations/Native American/Aboriginal fantasy or science fiction written by tribal members, original postapocalyptic worlds, historical fantasy or mystery set in a non-Western setting.

Stacy Whitman
Editorial Director
Tu Books

“I have this GREAT idea!”

I see this so often—most recently earlier today: A “writer”* tells his or her friends, “I have this great idea for a novel! What do you think? If I wrote it, would you read it?”

There’s no way to answer this one honestly as a friend if you’re also an editor. Because my honest answer would be no way, thanks. Unless you were Brandon Sanderson or Dan Wells or another published friend who I’ve talked with about a few ideas in the past—published authors with a track record of turning ideas into readable prose. And even then, those ideas were often only half-formed in those conversations, ideas that grew into something so much more complex and interesting once the friend actually wrote his schizophrenia novel or his chalk-drawing novel or whatever. (I had nothing to do with the germination or the development of those ideas—I just happened to be in the room, physically or metaphorically, when a conversation about what they were working on next happened at some point.)


Ideas are a dime a dozen.

It’s not the concept that matters so much as the execution. Well, I take that back partly. Worldbuilding matters in fantasy and science fiction, that’s for sure. Obviously, or I wouldn’t be giving a whole 2-hour workshop on it this weekend, and we wouldn’t have endless fan conversations about what magic system is better or which would win in a fight, pirates or ninjas.

But even a story with something as awesome as pirates or ninjas needs good execution to make it worth reading (or watching—just look at Pirates of the Caribbean 3. Though that would be an awesome Rifftrax. But I digress). And interesting characters. And a plot that holds up under pressure.

Ideas don’t matter if you can’t write the book (period) and write it well (which will require revisions—too many novice writers think they’ll be the exception because they got away with writing term papers at 3 am on the day they were due and getting an A on the first draft; novels are not term papers). Worrying about whether readers would like the idea before actually writing the book is putting the cart before the horse. If you don’t write it, talking about the idea to all your friends/the internet/that editor you just met randomly on the train is just all talk and no action—especially when the idea usually involves vagaries like a generic romance and “the characters learn that love conquers all, and they learn that bigotry is wrong.” Or “and all the kids learn that friendship is better than bullying.” Or “and they learn that they really do need their mother after all.”

Even Max learned that home was the best place to be. But that’s not why most people have loved Where the Wild Things Are for almost five decades (yes, that’s right–it’s almost 50 years old). We love it because Max makes mischief, because he runs around the house in a wolf costume telling his mother, “I’ll eat you up!”, because he goes on this fantastic journey to the land of the Wild Things where they have a wild rumpus, and because when he comes back home his supper was still hot. It’s the details that make the story a classic—the way it’s written, and in this case, the way it’s illustrated. Sure, Max learns a lesson, if you want to call it that. But the idea isn’t as important as the execution when it comes to making the book linger in the minds of five decades of children and their parents.

If you’ve gotten an idea that grabs you and you think it would make a great book, then write it. And write some more. And join a writing group, and share your actual writing with your family. Tell them about the idea after you’ve let the seed germinate.

You might say, “But what if they say it didn’t sound interesting? Why bother to write it?”

Well, then you’ve got some revising to do if their feedback makes sense to you, don’t you? But it’s your book. Don’t wait until your spouse or your coworker or your running partner with completely different literary tastes says they find your idea interesting. If you find it interesting, that should be enough for a first draft, at least. Because if it’s not, how are you going to get through multiple revisions, the submissions process, and the editing process? Is this an idea that you want to live with for the next several years of your life? Who cares what they think?

Go write it. Let the “theme” take care of itself in the telling of a great story with interesting characters and a compelling plot and worldbuilding. If you executed it well, it’ll find its audience, even if your spouse/coworker/dog walker don’t appreciate a good ninja-pirate love story.

*Usually, said writer hasn’t ever actually written anything, because they’re waiting for the “right idea” to come along before they start.

LTUE schedule

Also, one more reminder: If you’re in Utah and have a chance to get to LTUE next week—only $20-25 to rub elbows with a bunch of professionals working in fantasy and science fiction right now and free for students—you should definitely come. I’ve been filling up my schedule left and right, and if you’re at BYU you might also want to know about the English dept event I’ll be at on Wednesday night (February 16):

BYU’s STET Student Editing Club presents . .  .

Stacy Whitman, editor of fantasy and science fiction for children and young adults

  • Editorial director of Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, New York (publisher of multicultural fantasy and science fiction for children and young adults)
  • Freelance editor
  • Former editor at Mirrorstone, an imprint of Wizards of the Coast (publisher of children’s and YA fantasy)
  • Former editor at Houghton Mifflin, Boston
  • Former editor at Electrical Apparatus (a trade magazine), Chicago
  • Graduate (M.A.) of Simmons College, Boston, in children’s literature, 2005
  • Graduate (B.S.) of BYU, 2001

Wednesday, February 16, 2011
5:10 to 7:40 p.m.
3714 HBLL

I’ll be talking about publishing both for a writer’s perspective (because this is picture book author Rick Walton’s class, after all) and an editorial perspective (because the professor over the editing minor, Mel Thorne, who also happens to be my old boss, is bringing his students along too).

If you aren’t a BYU student or faculty, come to LTUE! Here’s my (hopefully) final schedule:

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

2:00 PM:

Beyond Orcs and Elves: Diversity in Fantasy and Science Fiction for Young Readers (Stacy Whitman) Recent cover whitewashing controversies and the internet discussion tagged #RaceFail have brought to light how little diversity can be found in fantasy and science fiction for young readers. We’ll discuss the history of diversity in these books, including diversification through fantasy races that all share the same traits, and ways for authors to consider diversifying their own stories. We’ll also discuss writing cross-culturally, cultural awareness, issues of appropriation, and other things to consider as you write.

6:00 PM:

– Marketing and Publicity–what can you do? (Stacy Whitman, Bree DeSpain, James Dashner, Laura Card, Elana Johnson) Closet Costuming (Heather Monson, Jessica Haron, Sarah B. Seiter)

Friday, February 18th, 2011


– Romance vs. Story with Romantic Elements: Injecting romance into saving the world (John Brown,  Ami Chopine, Stacy Whitman, Lynn Kurland)

6:00 PM:

– How NOT to talk down to your YA audience (Michaelbrent Collings, Clint Johnson, Stacy Whitman, James Dashner, Frank L. Cole)

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

10:00 AM:

– What Exactly Does an Editor Do, Anyway? (Lisa Mangum, Suzanne Vincent, Stacy Whitman, Tristi Pinkston, Karen C. Evans, Dave Wolverton)


– Anime/Manga–what it is; what’s good in SFF (Stacy Whitman, Jessica Harmon, Scott Parkin (M), Joe Monson, Charlotte Randle)

I feel like I’m missing a panel I was supposed to be on, but I think that’s it. But there’s always plenty of chat in the hallways between panels. I always go to these conventions looking for writers who know their stuff, and what better way to learn your business than to come listen to a bunch of experts like James Dashner, Jessica Day George, Bree Despain, Dan Wells, Tracy Hickman, and a long list of others talk about writing memorable villains, pitching to agents/editors, paying the bills via your dreams, religion in science fiction, what writers wish they had done if they could do it all over again, how to recover from writing slumps, Tracy Hickman’s Killer Breakfast (hilarious how-fast-can-you-get-killed-off D&D for a crowd), what you can and can’t do in a YA novel, finding a writing group, dialog tags and speech patterns, the problem of sequels, how to write a good short story….


You get the idea.

LTUE pre-game

Well, I don’t know what else to call it. I’m flying in a little early before LTUE in mid-Feb. to visit Rick Walton’s publishing class, and he tells me that editing students will be invited as well. So if you’re a BYU student in one of the writing or editing classes and want to get in on the Q&A session in Rick’s class on the 16th (I’ll be doing a short presentation, but mostly it’ll be Q&A), find out more through your department or contact Rick directly.

If you’re not a BYU student, no fear—just come to LTUE! It’s official that I’ll not only be participating in a number of panels but also giving my diversity in children’s fantasy presentation:

Beyond Orcs and Elves:  Diversity in Fantasy and Science Fiction for Young Readers
Recent cover whitewashing controversies and the internet discussion tagged #RaceFail have brought to light how little diversity can be found in fantasy and science fiction for young readers. We’ll discuss the history of diversity in these books, including diversification through fantasy races that all share the same traits, and ways for authors to consider diversifying their own stories. We’ll also discuss writing cross-culturally, cultural awareness, issues of appropriation, and other things to consider as you write.

Sorry, I’m afraid I don’t have time to find hyperlinks at the moment, but google Life, the Universe & Everything (LTUE) to know more (or look at my last post for links).