What It's Like To Be...

A Mystery Novelist

November 28, 2023 Dan Heath Season 1 Episode 6
What It's Like To Be...
A Mystery Novelist
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Scouting body disposal sites, investigating obscure poisons, and computing royalty payments with Donna Andrews, the mystery novelist behind the Meg Langslow series. How do you make a living as a mystery novelist? And could Tylenol be a murder weapon?

Know someone who is a great storyteller that we should talk to about their job? Email us at jobs@whatitslike.com

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  1. What do people think your job is like and what is it actually like?
  2. What’s a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know and what does it mean?
Dan Heath:

Mystery novelists work in perhaps the only profession in which people are paid to come up with ingenious ways to kill people. And while that may sound kind of fun, if your job is to kill two or three fictional characters a year, every year, it can become a challenge to keep things fresh and original. So when a mystery novelist meets a welder, for example, they might ask some strange questions.

Donna Andrews:

They want to know about the welder so they can figure out if there's a way to kill people with it. Now we're always looking for unique murder methods, motives and body disposal sites.

Dan Heath:

It's a peculiar lens to see the world, isn't it?

Donna Andrews:

It's an occupational hazard.

Dan Heath:

Donna Andrews has been writing creative, funny mystery novels for more than 20 years. I love the idea that you meet some new character in some peculiar profession and your first thought is like how could that person be killed or kill someone else in a creative and fresh way?

Donna Andrews:

Yes, or what unique motives would they have for a crime? What reason that I haven't suspected yet would they have for knocking someone off? When you go into a situation, you start thinking what are the lines of alliance and tension here? And since I write humorous mysteries, I'm always looking for what's funny and what's deadly here - s ometimes in the same thing.

Dan Heath:

And Donna is not the only mystery writer with an insatiable need for plot ideas.

Donna Andrews:

Well, I mean, it is rather amusing when you're sitting with a group of mystery writers and something amusing happens and you all look at each other and if you're polite, you say, is anyone going to use that? Because if you're not, I am, and if you're not polite, you just say dips.

Dan Heath:

I'm Dan Heath. On each episode of "What It's Like to Be.", we walk in the shoes of someone from a different profession a forensic accountant, a couples therapist, a TV meteorologist. What do they spend their day doing? What does it take to be good at their job? What frustrates them about it? On today's show, we asked Donna Andrews what's it like to be a mystery novelist?

Donna Andrews:

If the only person in a book who ever lied was the killer, you'd have a short story. A lot of the fun from a mystery book arises from all the different people who are lying about something. They aren't the killer, but they have something they don't want to come to light. It could be another equally dastardly crime, or it could just be that your alibi was you're off having a facelift and you don't want to admit it. I mean, we all have secrets. Most of our secrets are not homicidal, so we're always looking for ways that we can complicate our fictional detective lives by having more than one secret going on in a book, which can be more than one crime. Or it could just be people who want to hide embarrassing stuff.

Dan Heath:

And do you ever? I hate to out you in public here, but do you ever use your friends' dramas or personalities in your books?

Donna Andrews:

Oh, yes, If they're your friends, you usually say, oh my God, that was horrible. What happened to you? Can I use that in a book? I had a friend who did one of the genealogy forensic DNA things. She had her DNA tested and some time later she was contacted by someone who turned out to be her half sister. Her father had not had another marriage. This was a half sister who was older than her but not as old as her brother. This was a little bit of a shock and I contacted her and I said "this is a great idea for a plot. Would you mind if I use it"? And she said absolutely not. Go use it.

Dan Heath:

From what I understand, you're working right now on your 38th mystery novel. Is that right?

Donna Andrews:

I'm working on the 34th book in my current series, which features an ornamental blacksmith who usually gets involved in a crime when one of her friends or family is in trouble. They're a suspect or they might be the next victim. My characters spend all their time taking evidence to the cops and then end up getting accosted by the bad guy anyway usually. So yeah, and I had another four books in a series about an artificial intelligence living in a computer, kind of like Hal, but nice and turn detective. Did you write today?

Donna Andrews:

I'm not a morning person, so I have written maybe a page. Today, I will be writing a lot more later.

Dan Heath:

So take me back in time before you started the page today. How did you scope what you wanted to accomplish today? Did you know it was a certain scene, or was it one bullet point from an outline you had to flesh out? Or what did you have as the input into what you did today?

Donna Andrews:

Well, I don't know whether I'm unique or weird, but I don't know of a lot of writers use this method, although I'm converting a few to it. I look at my spreadsheet. The first thing I do is I open up my spreadsheet.

Dan Heath:

You have a spreadsheet.

Donna Andrews:

I have a spreadsheet. As soon as I know what my deadline is and I know approximately how many words I have, I work back and say, okay, I'd like to have at least a month to polish and edit and everything before I turn it in. So I set, in addition to my publisher's deadline, I have my deadline, which is to finish the day before I have to turn it in, and then I figure out if I'm really on my game. I set a nice doable quota for every weekday and I take the weekends off.

Dan Heath:

And what is the quota?

Donna Andrews:

It varies depending on how frantic I am, and my favorite quota is something like four pages a day, Monday through Friday.

Dan Heath:

And in terms of just sheer words, what does that represent? Four pages.

Donna Andrews:

A page is 250 words, so that's like a thousand words. I'm often going at six pages, which is 1,500 words, which is harder than it sounds. I mean it's like only 1,500 words.

Dan Heath:

Yeah, but you got to plot them. It sounds plenty hard.

Donna Andrews:

So when I wake up in the morning I open up my spreadsheet and I make sure I know how many words I have and then I open up whatever the last piece I was on. Sometimes I stopped in the middle of a scene and I just pick it up and go on. I'm not sure that was hemming away. Several people have recommended the best way to get yourself writing in the morning is to leave something unfinished. Leave a sentence unfinished, and you know how to finish that sentence.

Dan Heath:

So do you approach it like I've got to have a thousand words a day on average, and some days it might be 2000 and some days it's zero? Or are you kind of relentless about no, every day it's a thousand.

Donna Andrews:

I'm really good at making myself hit the quota because it feels like a good discipline. Say, my quota is six pages a day and I wrote seven yesterday. I could forgive myself and only write five today. But then you start saying oh well, I've only written five today, but I can catch up to. You know, the great thing about having a system of some sort? You have the confidence that you know, if you just do your quota every day, you'll come out of the end of the draft period with a complete book. It may be a pretty rotten book, it may need a lot of work, but as the saying goes, you can't edit a blank page, you can edit rotten, you can't edit nonexistent.

Dan Heath:

And how long is a book of the kind that you write?

Donna Andrews:

My contract usually calls for approximately 80,000 words, which is about 300 and some pages. If I were writing thrillers, for example, they usually come up more like 100,000 words, sometimes 125,000. If you look at a lot of light craft cosies, sometimes they go as low as 60 or 70,000 words.

Dan Heath:

Can you give me a sense of the taxonomy of the mystery world? Like what are the major sub-genres that exist?

Donna Andrews:

The major division is sort of like between what we call the hard-boiled and thrillers and the lighter, sometimes called cozy mysteries.

Dan Heath:

So there's two primary what do you call them? Domains, genres.

Donna Andrews:

Well, the problem is that there's not two primary, that's one of the big divisions. It's kind of like two ends of a spectrum.

Donna Andrews:

On the one end you have books that tend to be more violent. They have more on-page violence, they tend to have a law enforcement professional or a spy professional, as opposed to books on the lighter end of the spectrum, which may have an amateur sleuth rather than a professional, and by professional it can be a police officer, a detective, a forensic person, a spy. There's a sub-genre in the lighter end of the spectrum called craft cosies, where you have someone whose profession is baker, basket maker, whatever, and you have a lot about that craft. One of the divides is between classic mysteries and thrillers. The difference there is in a mystery, you're trying to figure out who done it.

Donna Andrews:

A murderer is committed, and you don't know who did it and the struggle is to find that person. Agatha Christie, Agatha Christie, yeah. And whereas in a thriller, you know who done it or who is planning on doing it. A book in which you have a threat to drop a nuclear device on Washington and the hero or heroine has to find the person who's going to do it and stop them before they do it that would be a thriller plot, a police procedural is. You know, in an amateur sleuth book, which is what I usually write, there's a murder that happens within the circle of friends and family of the protagonist and he or she either assists the police or runs parallel to the police or tries to stop the police if they think the police have fastened on the wrong suspect.

Dan Heath:

So, like with the amateur sleuth-style books, like, what are the aspects of the structure that you can't mess with? Like with a romance novel, you know the two lovebirds have to end up together at the end. You can mess around with the structure, you can have fun with it, but that's non-negotiable, like what's non-negotiable for your kind of books.

Donna Andrews:

I think non-negotiable is to play fair with your reader. You know it's generally considered bad form in the mystery world, although we get away with it sometimes. If you pull a suspect out of left field in the last few pages of the book, aha, it was the butler. That's the worst. I didn't know they had a butler, but the butler did it Right. The finest form of the art you're looking at it from both the appreciation as a reader of mysteries, which I am, and as a practitioner of them is to have the killer him or her, to have them around from the first chapter. And yet when the reader gets to the end, the reader says oh my God, I never guessed it was them. You know, but in my line of whatever, I don't care if you guessed the killer, as long as you enjoyed the you know. Aha, I knew it was him, I guessed it. That makes the reader feel smart.

Dan Heath:

So, given the kind of books you write, you know, involving murder mysteries, I was imagining you must have a colorful search engine history. I hope what are some of the prompts we might find if we did a check on your browser.

Donna Andrews:

Yeah, you'll find all the common poisons strict need, arsenic. You'll find unusual poisons, toxic mushrooms. I had a friend, Ellen Crosby, who writes a series about a woman who runs a vineyard and she had picked a really cool poison and she wanted to find out more information about this chemical. It was a chemical that had been outlawed in the wine making world, a pesticide so toxic they don't let you use it anymore, but a lot of established wineries probably have some of it on a shelf back somewhere. So she ended up calling the CDC to try to find out some more information and she sent them her list of questions and she was hoping to talk to someone who knew about this chemical and what led up to the banning of it and what the effects were.

Donna Andrews:

All kind of you know, get people talking, you find out things you didn't even know enough to ask. She got this woman from the CDC, caller her back. Here are the answers to your questions question number one: yes; q uestion number two: no; question number three: we don't know. A nd at this point I think she's "well, I was hoping I could talk to someone and she said look, you're lucky that the first guy who saw your questions wanted to turn you over to Homeland Security? That's a possible terrorist.

Dan Heath:

Hi, Dan, here Just a quick time out for a casting call. We want your help in finding potential guests from these three professions nurses, call center employees and insurance sales people Could be any kind of nurse, any kind of call center, any flavor of insurance. At the heart of what we're looking for is two things. Number one they like their job and they've been doing it a while. And two, they're a good talker, a good storyteller. Do you know somebody like that? If so, we want to hear about them. Reach out to jobs at whatit's like. com. Thanks, folks. Have you ever come up with such an unusual or clever way to kill off a character that you had sort of like a fist pumping moment?

Donna Andrews:

Well, I did manage to kill someone with a mouse, a computer mouse.

Dan Heath:

Oh, tell me more.

Donna Andrews:

It all arose out of the fact that the day job I had quit by that point, but I remembered the day job had this installed an automated mail cart in our building. It was like a cart that ran I think it was an infrared trail that they laid around each floor. They would come up, put the mail in the cart and then this cart would run around and stop at each secretary's desk so that they could take out the mail for their department. And for the first couple of weeks that we had this thing, everyone was like putting weird things on top of it, decorating it seasonally. You know, it had a scary face on it for Halloween. It had a little tree on it for Christmas. I immediately began figuring out how we could kill someone with that mail cart.

Dan Heath:

And that's when you knew you were a mystery writer.

Donna Andrews:

Yeah, I didn't end up killing with the mail cart, but my fourth book, Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon. It started off with my heroine filling in at her brother's company, at the front desk, and there's a guy who's been riding around on the mail cart with fake blood, with a rubber knife stuck to his chest and fake blood making dying noises. He's been doing this all morning and everyone is just really getting tired of it. And so everyone was just, oh God, just don't look at him and maybe he'll stop. Which is why nobody noticed when someone converted him from a fake corpse to a real one by strangling him with a mouse.

Dan Heath:

Strangling him with the mouse.

Donna Andrews:

The cord. If he'd gone wireless he would still be alive. I love it Strangling with the mouse cord. Yes, so I mean everything is a weapon to us, and I did one of the most popular features. There's a lady named Lucy Zahre. We all call her the poison lady. Her day job is as a pharmacologist for a hospital, but her hobby is poisons. She goes around like yard sales and junk shops and sees how many old poisons she can collect, Because there's a lot of patent medicines from past decades, not that long ago, I mean even the 20s. I think A lot of old medicine bottles in junk shops and antique and yard sales might actually have medicines with arsenic or strychnine or things in them.

Dan Heath:

I wonder what it would feel like to be her spouse. That's sort of like a high wire act, you know.

Donna Andrews:

She's pretty public about the hobby so I don't think her friends worry, but she will give talks at various and she studies all poisons. She was the one who made me aware of the danger of drinking after Tylenol, because Tylenol is a liver killer and if you pair it with alcohol it's even more toxic. Tylenol is an interesting drug, according to her, because the difference in the safe clinical therapeutic dose and the part that causes either injury or death is a lot closer than with a lot more dangerous sounding drugs.

Dan Heath:

This sounds like it could be shaping up as a plot of a future book.

Donna Andrews:

People have done it. I think I can't offhand think of someone who's killed someone with Tylenol in a book, but it's doable and I'm sure it has been done.

Dan Heath:

You could probably get Advil to sponsor it! On top of everything, has writing mysteries ruined you on reading mysteries?

Donna Andrews:

Yes and no. It's not writing mysteries that spoiled my reading. It's writing period, because remember the last time you just totally got into a book and when you weren't reading it you were walking around thinking about it and maybe you put it down. You could read some more, but you put it down because you want to savor it and walk around thinking about what could happen next or what's just happened. You're walking around living in the book for a while and that's a really wonderful experience. But if I'm writing, I need to be walking around in my own book. I mean, if I'm reading a really good book and I'm trying to write, I hope, a really good book, I can't live in both of them. When I'm working on a plot, I need to let my brain work on my own book. I need to let it do that kind of almost subconscious noodling on the plot that comes up with good ideas, which means either I don't do my own book Justice, or I don't really immerse myself and get full enjoyment of a really good book.

Dan Heath:

That's really interesting that you don't want another similar book to kind of steal your mind. Share in a way.

Donna Andrews:

Well, it's not. What if I were that easily influenced that I would start writing? Like you know, I would read some of the best plotters and prose stylists I could and let them influence the devil out of me. But it's more that I need to be doing my work and not caught up in theirs, which it really, especially since I'm doing two books a year in a lot of recent years. It really cuts into my reading time.

Dan Heath:

Donna, let's talk about the economics of the business for a moment. Talk a little bit about how you get paid as a mystery novelist. Like, obviously you're not on salary with the publisher. How does it work?

Donna Andrews:

Right the way it works, and it varies depending on the kind of publisher you have. If you're working with a large traditional publisher, what usually happens is that when you sign your contract you get what's known as an advance, which is short for advance against royalties. So if, for example, you sign a contract with your publisher that they will pay you $30,000 for your book, what usually happens is that you get, say, $10,000 up front when you sign the contract. That's first part of the royalty. Then when you turn in the book you get the second $10,000. And when the book is actually published you get the third $10,000. At that point you don't get any more money from the publisher for that book until your book has earned enough money that you would have gotten $30,000. If you're sure the book adds up to $30,000.

Dan Heath:

So the writer gets a percentage of the books.

Donna Andrews:

The writer gets a percentage of every book sold, and usually it's something around 6%, 5% might be as high as 10%. It varies with the publisher, but say for round numbers that it's 10% of the cover price. If you have a book that sells for $15, and you get a 10% royalty, you get $1.50 for every book sold, but you don't get any more on top of your advance. If you get an advance, until your book has sold enough copies that you would have earned that amount.

Dan Heath:

So, with your $30,000 advance example, just to pay this off at $1.50 a book, you've got to sell 20,000 books. So it's the 20,000 and first book where you finally start getting royalties.

Donna Andrews:

Yeah, the 20,000 and first book you start getting royalties,

Dan Heath:

And how common or uncommon is it for you to earn out an advance, you being a generic mystery writer, not necessarily you personally.

Donna Andrews:

I think on a small advance. It's not uncommon, but it's not guaranteed. The $30,000 advance that I suggested, that's a good advance. You're more apt to have closer to a $3,000 or $300.

Dan Heath:

$3,000 for what might take you a half year or a year to write. How is that sustainable?

Donna Andrews:

Well, if you went into this to earn a living, you picked the wrong profession. Hmm, most mystery writers, most writers in general, most writers do not necessarily earn a living from what they do. I mean, of the people who start a book, they say, only 10% ever finish it. I don't know what percentage of people who finish a book succeed in getting it published. It's higher now that you can also self-publish. But of the 10% of all the people who start a book, who finish it, only a percentage end up getting it published and it's a very small percentage of working writers who actually earn a living from it.

Donna Andrews:

The most common scenario you've seen and this is with people who are regularly writing books and selling them, who are getting good reviews, who may be getting nominated for winning awards, but they may not be earning a living from their book, because just because you have a hit one year doesn't mean the next book is gonna sell as well. It tends to sell better. I mean, one of the things that's good about a series is it tends to have a more reliable sales pattern. If you write standalone, I love that character oh, this is not about that character, I'm not gonna buy it. Whereas with a series, people love the series. They will continue buying the series.

Dan Heath:

So, given the somewhat stark odds, like if a young person asks you about this career, I mean, do you recommend it or do you recommend against it?

Donna Andrews:

I recommend it if they're passionate enough about it that they understand that they may have to support themselves by doing something else. So I recommend find something else you really like doing and do that so you can afford to do your art. But it is tough because you are sending them on a trail that is not gonna make them rich. Unless they're, Stephen King probably can afford anything he wants. Stephen King is a rarity, so I wouldn't discourage someone, but I try to make them understand this is how it really works. Do not expect that you write something and turn it in and your editor fixes anything that's wrong with it and then it becomes a best seller.

Dan Heath:

That's not what happens, and what about once your book is published, like what role as the author do you have in the marketing of the book?

Donna Andrews:

One of the things that is true of most publishers these days. I mean, I don't know many people whose publisher picks them up and takes them on a whirlwind tour of 20 cities to promote their book, books them on the Today Show. It just doesn't happen very often. Usually the people who get that are the people who would sell books without it. It's kind of up to you to do a certain amount of marketing and there's varied ways that you do that. I mean, one of the good ways is to appear at mystery conventions. I remember someone was calculating I didn't sell enough books at this convention to make it worth going. That's not why you go. You go to meet what I call "noisy readers. Those are readers who if they love a book, they tell the world about them.

Dan Heath:

I love that idea of noisy readers. That's a great phrase.

Donna Andrews:

Yeah, I mean you hear people like I'm on a fixed income, I get your books in the library. That's okay, be a noisy reader. I mean I know people who have never bought a book of mine, ever, but they've sold who knows how many books because they will tell people how much they love them.

Dan Heath:

But it sounds like that outreach is on your shoulders. There's not like a big marketing juggernaut working for you.

Donna Andrews:

They do some marketing. The problem is that they can't afford in today's market. Frankly, publishers can't afford to do a lot of marketing for everybody. They tend to focus marketing on the books they think they can push onto a best seller list. But you know what being with a traditional publisher does get you? It gets you into the bookstores. It gets you into the bookstores. So when people walk in and look at the new book table, your book might be there. When they wander down the shelves, your book is there. If you're with a smaller publisher, they may or may not have a good distribution to the bookstores. If you're self-publishing, you have very great difficulty getting yourself into anything other than a few local bookstores or genre bookstores.

Dan Heath:

So, Donna, we always have a lightning round of questions for our guests at the end. Let me fire away at you here. First up. What's a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know, and what does it mean?

Donna Andrews:

How about pantser? Okay, pancer. A pancer is someone who writes by the seat of their pants, as opposed to a plotter who writes with an outliner synopsis. Ah, and you are. I used to be a total plotter and now I'm a plotter with pancer elements. It's not an either/or. S ome people: "? Oh, I'm totally a pancer. Most people fall somewhere on a continuum. There are people who sit down and just start writing and let the plot evolve and then have to do a lot more revision. I will never be one of them. I have to know where I'm going.

Dan Heath:

Who is the most famous mystery novelist, real or fictional?

Donna Andrews:

Say it's gotta be Agatha Christie. I'd s ay Edgar Allen Poe was a runner up, but people don't tend to think of him. As you know, he was before her, and he's the one that the Edgar Awards are named after.

Dan Heath:

Am I right that Agatha Christie has sold more books than anyone? Basically?

Donna Andrews:

If she hasn't sold more books than anyone, s he's one of the people that is up there Agatha Christie and the Bible and she's definitely of an influence.

Dan Heath:

All right ready for the final question. Okay, what is the highest compliment a mystery novelist can receive?

Donna Andrews:

I think it's probably. Oh my God, I couldn't put it down. I stayed up until four in the morning reading your book. When's the next one coming out? Yeah, I tell you. What isn't the highest compliment, though? If you ever hear someone say this book transcends the genre, that just sets our teeth on edge. You know why. If we thought this genre we were writing in was something that needed to be transcended, why would we be writing in it? We write mysteries because we love mysteries and because we think a well-written mystery transcends a lot. Is a well-written mystery somehow lesser than a literary novel? You know, that's genre snobbery. If we didn't love mysteries, we wouldn't be writing them.

Dan Heath:

Donna Andrews is the author of more than three dozen humorous mystery novels, including Murder with Peacocks, some Like it Hawk and Let it Crow, Let it Crow, let it Crow. You can find more books at her website, donnaandrewscom. I've been thinking about the inherent tension in Donna Andrews' job. Like, on the one hand, her core job is to breathe life into funny, distinctive characters as they deal with crazy situations. All of it made up in her head, you know, pure imagination. But then if you zoom into the actual day-to-day mechanics of the job, it's got a bit of a workman-like or, I guess, workwoman-like vibe to it. You know Donna wakes up and it's time to make the donuts. She's got to crank out a thousand words before she can clock out for the day.

Dan Heath:

Stephen King wrote a great book years ago called On Writing, and one of his quotes was: "Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work. And that's what Donna does get up and go to work, open document, insert words, and then, while she's away from the computer, she's mulling the story. You know, remember her telling me she didn't read great books while she's writing, so she can devote her brain cycles to her own work and then she's talking with other writers, getting them to noodle with her on problems in the story she's writing. It's almost like she's building up her mental inventory of ideas for the next day's work shift. I love that blend of unbridled imagination plus brass, tax operations and folks. That's what it's like to be a mystery novelist.

Dan Heath:

If you're enjoying the show, would you be a noisy listener for us? Tell somebody about us that you think might like what we're doing and, by the way, a shout out to all our new listeners on Cast Box - welcome to the family. Thanks for listening. I'm Dan Heath. The show is produced by Matt Purdy, and I've got to leave you with one more quote from that Stephen King book: ". The road to hell is paved with adverbs Love that. See you next time.

The World of Mystery Novelists
The art of mystery writing
Do you ever use your friends' dramas or personalities in your books?
On writing dozens of mystery novels
The writing process
The kinds of mystery novels
The fundamental structure of a mystery novel
Search engine history
Developing creative ways to kill characters
Has writing mysteries ruined you on reading mysteries?
The economics of mystery writing
Do you recommend the career?
Lightning round of questions
Reflecting on the conversation