river water

“I should try to just scribble out a mystery.”

Ever heard that before? I have. I think I’ve even been guilty of saying that myself. Writing a serious novel is hard, Olympian work, but writing a mystery? Oh, c’mon, anyone can do that. It’s not even writing: it’s just scribbling.

My friends, what I’ve learned from working on a novel of my own is what you probably already know: No writing is ever just scribbling. It’s all hard work. Any story demands steady commitment (and a kind of madness) to stay focused on it for weeks, months — even years — because you want to get it right. Writing a novel has made me far more humble as a reader and a critic … and far more careful about the words that I use.

Mystery-writing, I think,  often gets reduced to “scribbling” because there’s a simplicity to the narration — especially in hard-boiled tales — that makes it all seem plain and easy. I started thinking about that because of David Riley Bertsch’s “Death Canyon: A Jake Trent Novel” (Scribner), published in mid-August but that I’m only getting to now.  It’s a perfect book for summer — murder and secrets in the great outdoors — but since it’s not summer anymore, I realized something else: It’s a perfect book for anytime, especially if you’re in the mood for a lesson about good writing.

When I read, I like to search for the author’s biography in between the lines. That’s a complicated thing in some author’s work, but in Bertsch’s novel it was easier to detect. This story is suffused with a love and celebration of the great outdoors that’s obvious. Then I turned to the jacket flap and discovered why:

Since 2009, [Bertsch] has lived in Jackson, Wyoming, where he is a professional fly-fishing guide.

Of course he is. How could he NOT be?  (For more about Bertsch, you can visit his author’s website.) Some passages about the experiences of Jake, an ex-prosecutor, are so full of bliss and joy that they must be rooted in Bertsch’s own experience, like this one:

After he finished setting up his sleeping quarters, Jake pulled the fire pan from the skiff and walked a short way down the island to prepare dinner; not daring to attract bears or other curious predators to his sleeping area with the scent of food. He season the trout with a mixture of salt, pepper, garlic powder, and dill that he kept with his fishing equipment. He opened the bottle of beer he had brought along, and as evening settled further into the river canyon, the dusky ambiance and alcohol lightened Jake’s mood. He smiled when he thought of his earlier frustration with the council. Things moved slowly here, and he needed to be patient and persist. Besides, he thought, I moved here to escape external pressures. I’m hard enough on myself.

Think Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” Think of Jake — like H’s Nick Adams — burned by the world and seeking some healing in this beautiful place, Wyoming’s Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

And this, mind you, comes in one of those easy-to-scribble mysteries.

This landscape is Eden-like, and soon enough Jake discovers a serpent. He comes upon a corpse, and this death — along with two more — are unexpectedly linked. Villains and a development project loom on the horizon.

It’s a great deal to juggle, and some reviews have been lukewarm, but I think that’s because those critics have never written books of their own.  If they did, passages like the Hemingway-inspired one would have impressed them. The same goes for the descriptions of the corpses, which Bertsch pulls off without resorting to cliches. Try to write a scene about a dead body and you’ll see how hard that is.

In the end, “Death Canyon” is a deftly executed thriller that serves as a simple reminder of something else: Writing’s never easy.


  1. Very thoughtful review, Nick. No writing is ever just scribbling, unless you’re a toddler. 😮 I’m sitting here working on a short story I’ve rewritten several times. Each time, I think the rewrite is a distinct improvement. Then I go back in a few weeks and see that I’ve got more work to do. THIS time, I hope to have it ready to send out soon.

  2. Since I began writing, I’ve found myself veering away from most of the current offerings in the “how to write” genre. Some are too mechanistic, others are a bit too “let’s-go-out-into-the-moonlight-and-recharge-our-inspirational-crystals” for me. Always, there are people who would much rather talk about writing than write, and I tend to avoid them, too.

    So. What to do? I’ve found immense wisdom in snippets from the past, taken from authors who clearly knew what they were doing. For example, Anton Chekov’s admonition – “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass” – is a worthy guide.

    Your post recalls another which I’ve held close. Of course you remember Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous reminder that “easy reading is damned hard writing”.

    The marvel is that, more often or not, the pieces I struggle with the most, work hardest at, are precisely the ones that elicit comments like, “This was such an easy read”. When that happens, I smile and smile, and go back to work refreshed.

  3. Thanks for this, Jil. One question: how do you know when you’re really done? Lately I’ve turned to some friends for their feedback because it’s easy for me to lose perspective. I need other eyes… Eyes that I trust, you know?

  4. Yes, I know what you mean. That’s why I have my writers group, Dogpatch Writers Collective. We’ve been together since starting our MFAs in 2000. Do you have a writers group? I’d be happy to swap work with you, if you’d like to do that. Just let me know.

  5. And as far as ever being done, I believe Jhumpa Lahiri says that she hates reading her work after it’s been published because she always wants to edit whatever is there on the page. Don’t know if that makes you feel any better.

  6. Thanks for the offer Jil. I think I’m almost ready with the current manuscript (thank God) but I would love to do a trade with you for the next one. Thank you!

    It’s funny: I was in the same grad program with Lahiri, and I remember venting with her about a class we didn’t like! It’s very cool to see where she’s gone since then.

  7. Shoreacres, your comments are better than the original post! Thank you: I’m going to post a follow up to direct folks to yours and Jil’s comments. I love writers talking about the craft.

  8. Hello Nick,
    lovely post. How do you know when you’re done? When you are dying to move onto something else; when tinkering with the draft makes you feel sick to your stomach and unable to face a lap top again; when you have exhausted volunteers who will read your stuff IN FULL! (yes, this is an important point, because I am a member of a wonderful writers group to which I have read a few sections of my book, but the truth of the matter is that no group will ever comment on your work as a whole, from beginning to end); when you feel that whoever read it didn’t ask silly questions (why has this happened? what? who is this again? you mean these two names refer to the same character? could you not think of a more NORMAL name? (any reference to my own son’s comments when reading my book are purely coincidental….)
    Happy to read your work, any time….will you read mine???
    Best wishes,

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s