Award-Winning Author ~ Editor ~ Writing Instructor


Committing the Perfect Crime: Writing Your First Mystery
Instructor: Kris Neri
UCLA Extension Writers’ Program Online
10 Weeks

Course Description: Do you long to commit the perfect crime--and see it bound between covers and on the bestseller lists? Designed for beginners as well as those with a work-in-progress who need direction, this course is a supportive, results-oriented workshop that guides you in planning your mystery or suspense novel, or revising some of the choices made in your work-in-progress. Through weekly writing assignments, some of which draw on characters and develop scenes for the students' projected novels; lectures on craft; assigned readings; and instructor and peer feedback, students learn the fundamentals of crime writing, including structure and pacing, point-of-view, setting, character development, dialogue and voice, and clues and red herrings, as well as critical self-editing techniques. Also covered are the practical aspects of attracting the right agent and/or editor. The goal is to draft the first chapter of your planned mystery or suspense novel.

Prerequisites: If participants in this online class have not completed a Canvas student orientation, they should plan to spend a little extra time learning the platform during this class. It is preferred that participants have basic computer skills, which include being able to use internet browsers such as Firefox, Safari or Internet Explorer and knowledge of how to upload files to and from the internet. A technical advisor is available if problems occur.
Goal: The goal of this course is to provide students with all the basics necessary to plan and begin writing their crime novels or cross-genre novels. Each student's goal should is to complete the process of planning his or her novel and to draft the first chapter, which will be posted for review during the ninth week. Lessons will be presented in a way that will effectively guide students through the novel-planning process. Emphasis will be placed on developing and refining the students' craft and crime novel-related skills.

Format: There is no text for the course. Lectures and articles on significant elements within the crime genre and general writing and editing will be provided, in addition to supplementary lectures related to significant aspects of students’ works. All assignments will be posted or attached in the appropriate forum for both instructor and peer review. Students pasting assignments are encouraged to use a .doc format, so they will be accessible to everyone in the class. With continuing supportive, constructive feedback, the format of this class will be that of an intensive writing workshop.
Course Requirements: Read all lectures and assigned articles, participate in discussions of weekly lectures, complete all homework assignments. Active participation in the virtual classroom is one of the more valuable aspects of this course. Please bear in mind that in working online, we aren’t able to communicate the way we do in person (through voice intonation, facial expression, and gestures), so it’s important to make an effort to be polite and respectful.

Due Dates: Each week begins on Wednesday and ends the following Tuesday. Assignments may be posted any day during the week in which they are assigned. (You can post them in future weeks, too, but I don't look at them until we get to that week.) Assignments meant to be spread out over a couple of weeks are to be posted when they are completed. Ideally, all assignments should be completed in the week in which they are assigned (except for multi-week assignments), but the ultimate due date for all assignments is the last day of class.

Enrollment requirements: As UCLA's principal provider of continuing education, the majority of UCLA Extension courses are designed for the post-baccalaureate professional-level student. Enrollment is therefore normally reserved for adult students 18 years of age and older. The Writers’ Program may consent to enroll younger students based on special academic competence and approval of the instructor. Students who enroll in a Writers’ Program course without first receiving permission of the instructor are subject to withdrawal. To request instructor approval, please contact the Writers’ Program at 310/825-9415.

Grading: Each component of the course will represent a percentage of your grade, as follows:
Novel planning = 24%
Weekly scenes, readings & exercises = 34%
Character profiles= 24%
First chapter or final writing = 15%
Supportiveness to other students & willingness to learn = 3%

Letter grades are as follows:
A= 90-100 points
B=80-89 points
C=70-79 points
D=60-69 points
F= 0-59 points

Course Evaluations: To help the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program better serve our students, at the end of the course you will be asked to complete an evaluation. These evaluations are 100% anonymous and help shape the program curriculum. Please take the time to fill out this quick form, and don’t be afraid to be candid in your responses.

Week One:
Lectures: Introductions. Review of the range of crime novels--finding where yours fits. Differences between and the sub-genres of mystery and suspense novels explored. The proper format for a novel.. The dust jacket description and how it can be used to guide the direction of the book.

* Post an introduction with your biographical information (where you live now, where you're from, etc), as well as your favorite type of mysteries or thrillers and/or your favorite authors, your writing and/or publishing experience if any, any areas where you know you need work, and your goal for the course.
* Write a dust jacket description for your planned novel up to one page in length and post it before the next session. Post whether your novel is a mystery or thriller or cross-genre, based on the information in the Mysteries vs Thrillers lecture. Also post your title. If you don't have a title yet, share your thoughts on the subject of your possible title.

Week Two:
Lectures: The three story parts that go into every novel. Exploring backstory. The 3-act structure for both mystery and suspense; the concepts of foreshadowing and the setup of critical plot and character elements. Each act's unique challenges, and strategies for overcoming them. Showing vs. telling.

* Synopsize the backstory of your planned novel; can take up to three weeks for this, but post when it is completed. These may be from one double-spaced page to six double-spaced pages, or up to 1500 words.
* Write two paragraphs in the show vs. tell exercise.

Week Three:
Lectures: The W-plot structure and the M-effect. Prioritizing sub-plots and integrating them into the main plot. Discuss the question of whether or not to outline, and various approaches to the organization of the novel. First person and third person presentations; POV and POV pitfalls. Discuss ways to capture a sense of place and to establish an emotional atmosphere in the book. The integration of setting and viewpoint to bring a compelling attitude to the book.

* Print out the POV exercise. Examples #1-3 all have some POV problem/s. See if you can figure out what’s wrong with them. Post your observations the appropriate discussion forum.
* Select a real place you know, or an imagined setting you plan to use in your novel, and write a couple of different descriptions of it. In one passage, through the choice of your language and the way you choose to describe the place, give a negative impression of that place. You can make it seem cold or off-putting or outright sinister – whatever negative impression you choose. Then write another passage, describing the same place, but make this one feel warm and inviting. Make it cozy, or make it friendly, or sunny – whatever you choose, but make this impression positive. Try to infuse a strong sense of someone’s perspective in each, ideally, that of one of the characters you plan to include in your novel, but it also can be your own. Each of these passages should be at least one paragraph long, and may be as long as a page.

Week Four:
Lectures: Discussion of the scene as the building block of the novel; the elements of an effective scene. Primary conflicts, and ways to layer in sub-conflicts. Discuss the stakes necessary to sustain a novel. Explore the relative weight of the various character-roles present in crime novels, and ways to keep the novel in balance. In-depth method for creating characters from the internal core to the surface traits.

* If not already posted, complete your backstory and post/attach it. These may be from one-double spaced page to six double-spaced pages or up to 1500 words.
* Complete 3 character surveys for characters planned for your book. Take up to four weeks for this.

Week Five:
Lectures: Naming characters. Character arcs as they're used in a single novel, and as they can be employed to sustain and propel a series. Techniques for describing characters. Paranormal and supernatural integration (for those students writing cross-genre novels).

* Write a 2-3 page scene in which character and/or setting descriptions are reflected. OR: If your novel deals with paranormal aspects, write a 2-3 page scene in which paranormal or supernatural or world-building aspects are evident.
* Continue posting your character profiles until you have completed three.
* If you have completed and posted your backstory assignment, move on to the synopsis of your hidden story/villain’s story. These may be from one double-spaced page to eight double-spaced pages, or up to 2000 words. May take up to three weeks for this.

Week Six:
Lectures: Writing dynamic dialogue. Voice – discovering your own, and creating voices for characters. Humor and the crime novel.

* Write a 2-3 page scene in which dialogue and relationship dynamics and/or conflict is/are present.
* Continue posting character profiles until you have completed three.
* If you’ve finished your two earlier synopses, you have an option of how you want to do the next assignment. You can either move on to synopsizing your story as it will be presented in the book. OR: You may instead relate what plot events you intend to include in each of your three acts. With either approach, you may take up to three weeks for this. These presentations may be from one double-spaced page to eight double-spaced pages, or up to 2000 words in length.

Week Seven:
Lectures: The necessity of a strong opening, and the various approaches to opening a novel. Writing Sex and Violence.

* Reading: "Ten Tips for Better Sex Scenes," by Elizabeth Benedict. Comment in the appropriate forum.
* Consider how you want to begin your first chapter and what you want it to contain.

Week Eight:
Lectures: Rhythm and pacing. Explore techniques for holding the reader's interest. Effective handling of clues and red herrings. Self-editing techniques; reviewing self-editing checklist.

* Continue novel planning as needed.
* Review the self-editing checklist handout and share comment/s and observation/s in the appropriate discussion forum.
* Begin writing your first chapter.

Week Nine:
Lectures: Rules for wrapping up and ending novels.

* Reading: "Getting in Touch with Your Inner Editor," Barbara Keiler. Comment in the appropriate forum.
* Complete and post the first draft of your chapter. These may be from four double-spaced pages to twenty double-spaced pages, or up to 4000 words in length.
* For students who have already posted their chapters/final writings and received a full edit, you may submit a revised version for a quick overview — time willing. (These reviews are optional for me and receive no credit).

Week Ten:
Lectures: The nature of writer's block and strategies for avoiding/overcoming it; making time to write. Independent presses vs. large publishers--advantages & disadvantages. Writing an effective query letter. Writing the submission synopsis. Review of first chapters. Farewells.

* If you haven’t already, post the first draft of your chapter. These may be from four double-spaced pages to twenty double-spaced pages, or up to 4000 words in length.
* For students who have already posted their chapters/final writings and received a full edit, you may submit a revised version for a quick overview — time willing. (These reviews are optional for me and receive no credit).
* All assignments are due by the last day of class.