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Writing Crime and Suspense Fiction
and getting published
Instead, and perhaps unusually, it concentrates on encouraging you to explore your own ideas. From the beginning you will be working on your novel and very soon writing parts of it. That doesn't mean you have to have a clear idea of the story or the characters before you begin, or even much of an idea. The point is to help you work with what you have got, not to start from an ideal starting place but from where you actually are. All you need to provide is your enthusiasm and an interest in tackling a crime or suspense novel.
You probably think that to write suspense or crime fiction, and in particular the detective story, an author needs to prepare an extremely detailed outline. Most people believe this. Luckily it's wrong. It would be awful if the intensely satisfying business of imaginative writing were to be reduced to the equivalent of following a knitting pattern. Besides, I have yet to meet a writer in the genre who works that way, and there are probably as many approaches as there are authors.
Writing is the most personal of the arts. My aim in this book isn't to teach you to use my working methods but to help you discover what best suits you. Neither will I coerce you into trying to write imitations of my novels. What we both want is for you to find your own, distinctive voice as a writer and to complete a novel that is the achievement of your imagination and yours alone.
By all means read the book straight through, if you feel you need to understand the general picture before you begin to work a chapter at a time. That's allowed, too.
To Begin at the Beginning
Before every attempt on a novel there are questions to be asked. Let's begin with this one. Why do you enjoy reading crime and suspense fiction?
The predictable answers are that the books tell intriguing stories, they are exciting and they are easy to read. While other novels might provide you with some or all of those things, this genre guarantees them.
And what, exactly, is this genre? No neat answer, I'm afraid, although I offer a detailed one later. For now, let's agree that a crime novel is a novel with a crime at the core of it, whether it's a detective story or another kind; and that a suspense novel is a tantalising tale that might involve a crime but doesn't necessarily do so.
If your honest answer is that you don't read the genre or don't admire it, then it's fair to warn you that you will find it very hard to write. Unfortunately, people are tempted to believe that because a book is easy to read it must have been easy to write. Would that it were true! Don't, then, be misled into imagining that a detective story is a simple matter because there are rules to follow; or that a suspense novel is easier yet because there aren't. In reality, the writer of crime or suspense fiction achieves everything that an ordinary novelist does - but also has to ensure that the result is intriguing, exciting and easy to read.
The best way of learning about any kind of writing is to read good examples of it. You may sign up for writing courses or read books, like this one, on the craft of writing, but they are optional. Reading the work of successful authors, though, is indispensable. This is why, at the end of each chapter, you will find reading lists which will point you in the direction of books worth your attention.
But you know how it is with exciting books: you just have to keep turning the pages. To reap the maximum benefit from your reading, allow yourself to gallop through the story but then go back to the beginning and consider the writing carefully on a slower second reading. Notice, for instance, how individual writers link scenes, introduce characters, change mood, heighten your interest and fight any inclination you might have to put the book down. When you aren't caught up in the dash to the finishing line, you will be able to appreciate their techniques and learn from them.
And as you cut from one respected author to another, you will become aware of their comparative strengths and weaknesses. All authors have their failings as well as their strong points. In a perfect world a tough editor would demand revisions and rewrites until the perfect book emerged. We don't live like that, partly because time comes into it: there's an assumption in genre fiction that writers will produce a steady flow of books.
Notice, then, whether a writer who scores on story and atmosphere might be sloppy about prose, perhaps scattering adverbs and adjectives where one apposite word would provide more effect. Or whether one whose English is elegant, confuses you by an unlikely twist of the plot. Or one who serves up all the rest in splendid fashion, leaves the principal characters too shadowy for your liking. Obviously, your verdicts will be subjective. While you are muttering about situations not being fully explained to your satisfaction, another reader may be enthusing about the subtlety of the novel. But you will be learning what can be achieved within the genre and what perceived failings you wish to avoid in your own work.
Have you asked yourself why you want to write this kind of book? Is it that you have a story in mind, and that story centres on a mystery? Or that you have thought up a character whom you think you could use as a detective? Or you have a professional background, perhaps in the law or police work, that you feel you could draw upon? Those are all sound reasons and not at all uncommon. Any one of them is good enough for a starting point from which to build your novel.
A novel is a way of examining ideas. The author takes a story and uses it to comment on the world in which we live. Through his characters he illuminates human relationships. Every novel is written because the writer is burning to share his ideas with readers. There are no limitations on the ideas he may discuss, the whole gamut of human experience is available. As far as content goes, all that distinguishes crime and suspense fiction is that the novels feature criminality or else characters caught in a tense situation. The genre is ideal for illustrating moral issues. Because we live in a society where the fear of crime is more prevalent than crime itself, novels featuring it are both pertinent and popular.
Criminals make good characters for fiction because they are active, not passive. They are not the stupidest people, either. To commit a crime they have shown initiative and intelligence in the planning, and audacity in carrying it through. Their moral failing is in wanting to do it; their folly is in believing they were merely unlucky to get caught; and their arrogance lies in doing it again. Whether stories centre on criminals or their victims, crime is rich ground for novelists.
Flights of fancy
Suppose you and your friends are leaving a pub when you see a couple having an altercation near a parked car. The man snatches the ignition keys and drives off abandoning the woman. Your friends become very interested in the brief scene but at a more or less factual level. Perhaps they slightly exaggerate what they heard of the exchanges but otherwise they stick to events as they were acted out. They are content to have seen and heard enough to justify a remark about the husband's behaviour being disgraceful or the wife getting her just deserts. The novelist in you, though, is having a wonderful time.
What if, you are wondering, the couple's baby is in its carry cot on the rear seat? The man didn't seem the type to be tender with babies. Oh, and the woman doesn't have a bag so presumably that's in the car, too. How will she manage without it? But suppose they aren't man and wife. What if he has hijacked the car? As it was exceptionally badly parked, you readily picture it hurtling into the car park, slewing to a stop, doors flying open and the occupants leaping out, the woman trying to run to the safety of the crowded pub but the man cutting her off and grabbing the keys.
A story pieces itself together as fast as kaleidoscope pieces falling into a pattern. It goes like this. A man worms his way into a woman's confidence but while she's giving him a lift he flourishes a knife and forces her to drive him across country. Spotting the pub car park, she swerves into it and tries to escape but he's the one who does the escaping, and in her car.
But wait. That doesn't fit. The woman isn't rushing into the pub begging for a phone call to the police. No, she's walking quietly away from the pub and, now that you come to think of it, she looks guarded. You would expect a victim of a frightening crime to appear shaken. She isn't. Perhaps you have got it the wrong way round. What if she was the one who forced herself on him, and was coercing him into something he couldn't face? What if..?
A story along these lines, reversing the more likely relationship between the two central characters, is more original and therefore more interesting than the first one that came to mind, and it could form the basis of a novel. As I just made it up for you now, I don't think anyone has used it. But I wouldn't be deterred from working it up into a novel, anyway, because once the story and its conclusion were determined, the characters given backgrounds and motivations, and I had settled on a theme of, say, persecution, it would be written in my personal style and would therefore be unlike any other writer's work.
Students have told me they shy from beginning to write because they assume they are called upon to be wholly original, and they fear that, within the bounds of a genre, originality is harder than ever to achieve. Well, anyone who waits for originality will wait a very long time, and it's actually no worse writing within a genre than outside it. Were there to be no star crossed lovers after Romeo and Juliet?
So when you catch your imagination entertaining you with stories woven around incidents like the one in the car park, or an unusual person, or a snippet of conversation overheard, or a newspaper story, recognise them for what they are: the glimmers of a novel. As soon as you can, write it all down, the ideas you reject as well as the ones you favour. Additional ones will probably occur to you as you are scribbling. Later on you can sift them, rearrange and rethink, but notions that aren't written down have a habit of being forgotten.
I doubt whether you would want to drag out a notebook in front of your friends, and display your peculiarity quite so openly, but seize the first real opportunity while the ideas remain fresh. It's marvellously entertaining to have the mind of a novelist but to become a novelist imposes disciplines, including note-taking. Otherwise your imaginative flights remain mere day dreaming.
Meanwhile your friends, who aren't day dreamers in your league, are moving on to talk about the rotten price of beer, and how much better pubs used to be when you could sit in the bar in peace to discuss the rotten price of beer, instead of having to shout against the noise of modernity: piped music, television sets, games machines and karaoke in the next room.
People often ask writers: 'Where do you get your ideas from?'. And they can be piqued when you tell them ideas come from everything and anywhere, piqued because that isn't their own experience and they lack any understanding of the novelist's way of looking at the world. Occasionally, though, they too identify a personality or a story they believe should be 'in a book', but as they have no means of using it themselves, they offer it up to any writer of their acquaintance. I don't remember one of these offerings ever being of the slightest use to me, because what sparks off my imagination is different from what sparks theirs or, indeed, yours.
Therefore, I do appreciate that you might well have been wriggling with irritation at my car park example, because that isn't remotely like the story you hope to write and would like my help with. Very well, no more car park scenes. Time to consider what you have in mind.
Unless you have already spent a long time toying with an idea, and know what your story is and who the characters in it are, you have probably either thought up only part of a story or else one or two of the principal characters. Perhaps it's vaguer than that: you might just have an urge to use a particular place as the setting, or you might have one scene in your head and not much else. You are in good company, then. PD James is one of those who find that their novels are generally born of an urge to use a particular place in a story. Buildings figure prominently in her work; for instance, Sir John Soane's house, transferred across London for Devices and Desires. It's also well known that John Fowles's first intimation of The French Lieutenant's Woman was an image of a cloaked figure gazing out to sea from the Cobb at Lyme Regis. Such moments are treasure to the novelist. Whatever your starting point, we will start from there.
You will need a notebook small enough to carry around, so that you can record ideas as they occur to you; and either a sheaf of loose sheets of paper that you can clip together or else a big pad from which you can tear pages. A folder, for holding loose pieces of paper, is a boon. A box is better, though, because it can also accommodate your growing manuscript plus any magazines, books or photographs you are using for reference. In addition to the pens you will write with, presumably using black or blue ink, it's good to have a contrasting colour, say red or green, for highlighting specific notes. In Chapter Six I shall discuss equipment again, but at present all you require is the basic means of writing.
Writing a novel is the craft of managing ideas. The fruits of your imagination are more easily considered once they are trapped on paper, so begin by setting down the gist of what you already know about your potential novel. Assuming you have a story, in full or in part, aim to encapsulate it in a paragraph. Since these are merely notes, it needn't be a beautifully written paragraph, merely one that tells the tale in a few lines.
This is how I encapsulated the story that became my second suspense novel, Threatening Eye.
1. Man A: porn magazine, prison record, shady behaviour, dog fighting.
2. Man B: hiding out and subject of major manhunt.
3. Colleague who suspects A is murderer. Locate in Hertfordshire.
Black wooden barn could be dog fighting venue.
That was the nub of it. The genesis of the story was a police search for a serial rapist. They had twice questioned a man I knew. I also knew that my acquaintance had a prison record for killing a man and was leading a double life: editor of a respectable magazine plus 'glamour' photographer who preyed on teenage girls. My 'what ifs' exaggerated rape into murder and the rest was sheer invention, except for a welter of topical detail about the resurgence of dog fighting, and topographical and social detail about a typical Hertfordshire village.
It is acceptable to take actual people and events as the basis for fiction but they must be distinctly altered. There are both practical and literary reasons for this. You wouldn't want to libel anyone by having him appear, only transparently disguised, as a murderer; and you certainly mustn't use genuine names. Besides, the fewer fetters on your creative powers the better.
Even when you set out thinking you are going to use a real person, you will rapidly drift away from him as you dream up ways to enhance the character. There might be more advantage for you as a plotter if the vet changes career and becomes a doctor; the semi-detached where he lives is so humdrum you might prefer him to move into the haunted mansion on the moor; and if he's to endure a skittish wife, the conscientious soul offering her free time behind the desk at the local Citizens Advice Bureau had better be swapped for a flightier model. By the time you have finished playing with him, you will hardly recognise the vet and, more to the point, neither will he.
Conflict and crime
Common methods of dispatching victims are: shooting, asphyxiating, stabbing, hitting with a blunt instrument, poisoning, drowning, or contriving accidents. To make it convincing, the method should be suited to the character who kills. An habitual criminal might reasonably produce a gun but a housewife is more likely to brandish a heavy pan.
As the genre examines human beings in extreme situations, the story you are developing must allow scope for this. At least one of your characters will be under pressure, and it will increase during the spinning of the yarn. The springboard for your story is most likely to be friction within a family, between friends, neighbours or colleagues. Trouble in human relationships, and the excesses that can result when someone becomes stubborn, jealous, obsessive or vengeful, is a bountiful source of story ideas. Another popular way in which novelists arrive at stories is to imagine how characters might react if their lives were to be disturbed by a repetition, or revelation, of events in the past.
Perhaps you are taking an incident from your family history and using that. When you are working with something from real life, particularly your own family, it's prudent to strip it back to essentials so that you can be clear about the bones of the story. Take the personalities out of it for a moment, because you can be clouded by knowing an enormous amount of detail that would be extraneous to a novel. Reduce Auntie Anna to X and you may realise the shortcomings of her story. With her out of the way, you will be free to invent a more vigorous character to fill her role, and to lead the narrative in a direction Auntie Anna didn't go. There's no point in being sentimental. You are seeking a story worth developing into a fiction, not producing biography or a family history.
Before you delve into an elaborate piece of work I should raise a warning flag. You will see from the excerpt I quoted from my notebook that Threatening Eye was conceived as a rather ambitious piece of storytelling using three different viewpoints: those of A, B and A's colleague. Perhaps you are tempted to try something similar.
Cutting from one character's viewpoint to another's is, I find, an effective way of heightening tension and speeding the pace of a story. As the reader follows one character through a relatively carefree spell, he can't help but remember what the other character has been up to and feel apprehensive. Nothing encouraging can be taken for granted. During the good times there will be a current of unease.
But much as I enjoy writing and reading multi-viewpoint novels, it would be a dereliction of duty not to issue a caution to new writers. The more viewpoints you have to cope with, the more complicated the writing. Please think very hard about whether you feel ready to tackle a form that presents extra difficulties. (There's more about viewpoint in Chapter Four.)
I don't urge you to mangle your story so that it re-emerges as a single viewpoint tale. Maybe the most advantageous way to tell it is from three or four viewpoints, in which case it could be something to put aside until you are more practised in novel-making. Writers' minds generally teem with ideas and you probably have a more straightforward one jostling for your attention and could proceed with that instead. Having cried 'Watch out!', I leave the decision to you.
The extract from my notebook also reveals that I knew from the very outset that Threatening Eye was to be a suspense novel, not a detective story or another kind of crime novel but a suspense novel. It could, you see, have been any of them. I might have concentrated on the police investigation of a series of murders in Hertfordshire villages, in which case it would have become a detective story. A and B would have been suspects until the police proved, despite helpful red herrings from A's colleagues, whodunit. Or it might have been a crime novel centring on A, suspected of murder and finding it impossible to refute without relinquishing the secrets of his own sordid life of crime.
What about your own novel? Do you know yet which broad category it fits? Writing a detective story, complete with sharp-eyed inspector, ever faithful sergeant and none too bright constable, you can be confident that you have pinned on the right label. Otherwise, determining which kind of story-telling best suits your idea might take a little more thought. And having thought, you might later want to revise your decision in the light of new ideas as you explore the story and its characters further.
In its early stages a novel is fluid, nothing is for keeps, and you can reinvent and reject until you settle on something that feels right and goes on feeling right. But as you rethink and revise, don't discard any notes because you might find you prefer an earlier version after all, or at least wish to reconsider it.
To create a satisfactory novel you need more that a good story and convincing characters. Above all you need to tell the story in the way that allows you to get the most out of it. In the case of this genre, that means whichever way results in it being most intriguing and exciting. Established writers can get it wrong, authors of detective fiction being especially at risk. Because their publishers may demand a new story about Detective Inspector Wizard every year, each idea that occurs to them is tailored to suit the inspector and the chance to write a first rate novel that doesn't feature him is passed up.
This is why I believe it unwise to commit yourself to a specific kind of crime or suspense novel until you have explored your ideas fully. But should this approach trouble you, and you are desperate to reach for a label right now, then dip into Chapter Three which is devoted entirely to defining the different kinds of crime and suspense fiction.
Paul Benjamin: New York Trilogy
Working on your novel 1
1. Make notes on the story you are planning to use. Don't go into the characters in depth at this stage because you can do so after the following chapter.
2. Indicate the source of information on your notes: newspaper cuttings or television, an anecdote heard or an incident seen. You may need to refer to the source later, to ensure you have made significant changes and disguised real people.
3. Check whether you are yet able to answer these key questions about your novel: who, what, where, when, why and how?
4. Reduce the story to its bones and pinpoint where the conflict lies.
5. Encapsulate the story in a paragraph. Keep it to one page.
Decide whether you feel it has the makings of a suspense novel, a detective novel or a crime novel of a different sort.
2. List any tentative ideas for a story. Make a note of what you think is promising about them or why you suspect they won't do.
© 1996 Lesley Grant-Adamson
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