Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Something arrived in my mailbox in July of 2010 that knocked me for a loop. A publisher had actually contacted me to inquire if I’d be interested in writing a book for a new series they were planning. To say the least, I was overjoyed – and humbled.

The publisher is Orca and the series is Rapid Reads, a line of books for those with literacy challenges (include ESL in there), reluctant readers (that teenage son of yours, for instance) or for those who need a quick mystery fix when they have some waiting to do like for a doctor’s appointment or a short plane ride.

However, the commission came with some pretty strict marching orders: no more than 20,000 words, a simple plot with little or no use of flashbacks or sub plots, easy vocabulary (Grade 4-5), basic sentence structure and not many characters. Hmmm... I can easily write chapters in excess of 4000 words, just for a starter. A different manner of working was called for.

I spent about two months hatching my plot. My proposal was quickly accepted and I set to work. Since what they called for was a radical departure from my usual novels where musicians and the world they inhabit take centre stage, I decided to write something that was even more of a departure. I still kept music front and centre in the setting, but I decided to write a police procedural with two homicide
detectives as the protagonists. Two months later, the result was Orchestrated Murder – which made its debut on book shelves this October 1st. The story’s basic premise is that someone has murdered a famous conductor, and by time the cops get on the scene, the entire orchestra has confessed. So instead of a few suspects as in most mysteries, Pratt and Ellis have to deal with 76!

To any who might decide to travel down this writing road, I have a few suggestions. It wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be, but I did make some mistakes that maybe I can help you step around. No sense falling into the same holes I did.

First, don’t try to take a plot that you might use for a full-length novel and try to “cut it down to size”. There’s something inherently different in writing a novel, in much the same way that a short story is also different. For these novellas, you need a plot that’s simple in the first place, not as an after thought.

Forget any character development of the sort you can get away with in a novel. You can develop your characters, but it must be development via “hit and run”: do it in dialogue, little sprinkles of description about a character’s body language, things like that. And remember, every time you do this, you’re chewing up that word allowance!

My method of starting my day’s writing is to read (and correct/refine) what I wrote the day before. I find it helps me get into the right headspace quickly and easily. For this novel, I would often go through the previous day’s work, mumbling things like, “Three syllables for that word. What was I thinking?” or “That’s definitely the wrong sentence for this book. It has three clauses!” Often I just muttered to myself. If you work in this fashion, use your warm-up period to chuck the things that snuck in the previous day when you weren’t looking. It happens surprisingly easily.

The most important thing Orca told me about their Rapid Reads is that they only accepted “good stories, well told”, so even if it was simple, I couldn’t just throw anything down on the page and expect it to fly with them. This is where I really struggled. I mean, this is minimalist writing of a kind I’d never attempted. In the end, I was surprised in how much I really enjoyed the whole process. Writing with such tight restrictions was actually quite liberating. I really had to think about every single thing I put down. There were no slam dunks in this game!

Rick Blechta is the author of seven crime novels, including Orchestrated Murder and next fall’s full-length novel, The Fallen One (from Dundurn Press), which is all about an opera singer who might be seeing ghosts. His 2005 novel, Cemetery of the Nameless, was a finalist in the Best Novel category for the Arthur Ellis Awards. He’s also a musician and currently plays in an 18-piece big band called The Advocats (It has a lot of lawyers in it.) and does any other gig that comes his way. Find out about all of this at www.rickblechta.com. Rick also blogs every Tuesday on www.typem4murder.blogspot.com and on the subject of baseball every Saturday at www.lateinnings.blogspot.com.


  1. Love your description of this kind of writing, Rick! Having to make every sentence/word count - rather like a 'clean, lean' writing challenge.
    I am discovering it myself...and I like it too.

  2. Good post, Rick. Lots of good advice.