So, crime fiction post, here we go.
Crime fiction is a hugely popular genre and includes many different sub-genres. It's changed a lot over the years, too, so what used to work and what you remember working may no longer do so. As ever, you have to read in genre and focus on what's being published now if you want to attract a publisher.
I'm not an expert in the subject, from a writer's viewpoint. Yes, I did write a YA thriller, Deathwatch, which would fit the category. In fact, I feel driven to point out that bookseller, Vanessa Robertson, wrote on her blog: "Something that did strike me at the end was that Nicola is clearly a talented crime writer and it would be interesting to see her write a crime novel aimed at a grown up readership…" Oooh, now there's a thought! And yes, I do enjoy reading crime, especially the psychological types, such as Barbara Vine's deep and nasty ones, but I haven't kept pace with the huge leaps forward in recent years and don't feel qualified to enlighten you very specifically.
Aline has come a long way since, at the age of six, she wrote her first book, The Adventure of Mr Wiz and Mrs Woz. No cover available... I am terribly sad never to have the chance to read this doubtless thrilling oeuvre. After reading English at Cambridge, and then spending some years teaching, bringing up a family, and doing journalism and radio / TV work, she (Aline, not Mrs Woz) had her first novel published. Following that came a number of stand-alone novels - Shades of Death was the first one I read and I loved it, though it did nothing for my claustrophobia - before the launch of her current highly successful series, featuring the formidable DI Marjory Fleming, or Big Marge as she is called behind her back. Big Marge is a hugely engaging character, as she remains professional and yet caring while dealing with domestic dramas and the sometimes wayward behaviour of her Rabbie Burns-loving side-kick, Tam MacNee.
The most recent and hugely recommended one in the series is Dead in the Water, of which the Daily Record said, "A scalpel-sharp plot... Takes Fleming from strength to strength."
Before I ask for Aline's advice to you, I will copy a paragraph from her website, because it echoes what I often say: first be a reader in your genre, before you write in it.
"Why crime? Sometimes it seems strange to dwell on the darker, bleaker side of life, when my personal pleasures come from laughter and the love of family and friends. But it seemed natural to write what I enjoyed reading, and still when I'm writing a book to some extent I'm telling the story to myself as well."I recommend that you read Aline's website, because there's a lot of useful stuff about how and why to create a series character, and many other aspects of crime writing, though Aline does not set out to preach or teach.
By the way, if you ever meet her, it's "short A as in apple" followed by "leen". Get it right - many don't!
Here we go. Oh, and by the way, I decided, for good reason, to schedule this blog post for April 1st, the day of entry to our new flat, sans furniture. The good reason: my husband and I will be having supper at Aline and her husband, Ian's house that day, no doubt with guffaws of laughter, as they are very valiantly rescuing us from our boxes and paint brushes. So, we will raise a glass to you as you read this and hope to see some comments or questions.
NM: I'm always cautioning writers to read current work in their genre. What changes do you see between crime writing years ago and now?
AT: "From what is known as the 'Golden Age' of crime fiction - Sayers, Allingham, Christie, Campion, Dickson Carr and a dozen others - the crime scene has changed so much as to be almost unrecognisable.
NM: What do you think are the ingredients of a good crime novel?It has always been a broad church, and never more so than now: cat detectives and the English village at one extreme, the pornography of violence at the other.Undoubtedly, the most successful novels now tend to be fast-paced, gritty and dark, but there's a strong following for the psychological thriller type too. The classic ingenious Agatha Christie solution has definitely fallen out of favour.
The crime novel has certainly moved closer in style to what might be characterised as literary fiction, using the device of murder to work through serious issues."
AT: "An absorbing plot which arises out of the nature of compelling characters. When you reach the end of the book you should be able to see that the outcome was inevitable - but you shouldn't have been able to guess what it would be!"NM: Why crime? What draws you to it?
AT: "I enjoy feeling that as I write my readers are in the room with me. I constantly think of their reaction as the plot unfolds. I want to keep them guessing, but I don't cheat so if there's something I need to disclose I rewrite the scene, and rewrite it again - and again, if necessary - until I'm sure that while the information is there, it won't be recognised. Pulling off the conjurer's trick of misdirection is a particular pleasure.
"Of course, the most addictive part of crime-writing - and any writing, I suppose - is when the characters develop a life of their own and you find you are writing faster and faster, being drawn on by the story to see what happens next."NM: What about gore and gruesomeness? How far do you like to go and how far is it necessary to go?
AT: "Where you stand on the scale of gruesomeness is a matter of personal taste. I don't like to read books with very graphic descriptions so I don't write them, and I have reservations anyway. In the first place, there's the problem that once you have done maggots and intestines, what do you do for an encore? In the second, with a hint, the imagination can construct horror much more effectively than any words you could write could. The Monkey's Paw by WW Jacobs doesn't give any detail, yet by the end you are in thrall to a nameless terror which I've never felt reading books where it's all spelled out.[NM: Oh gosh, I SO agree with you! I haven't read that since I was about 12 and I still remember the horror of that understated idea.]
"In fact, I sometimes think there should be a 'Bad Violence' prize like the 'Bad Sex' one; I have a regrettable sense of humour, and reading a book by one of the most successful horror writers left me in fits of helpless laughter!" [Yes, Aline, you do have a regrettable sense of humour but I'm delighted you do. She does, everyone - I have regularly been shocked.]I'm going to quote something else from Aline's website, which goes to the motivation and craft of the crime-writer.
"The other great joy about writing crime is that we're in this together. ... When I've written a crucial scene, I ask myself, 'What will the reader take out of this?' because you're a clever lot and you will guess there's a clue in there somewhere. So then I rewrite it again, and again, until I reckon that the clue you pick up won't be the one you need to crack the mystery – though it's there, I promise! I don't cheat.""What will the reader take out of this?" Exactly! How many times do I say that we're doing this for the reader, not for ourselves (even though we must enjoy it, too)?
Aline also talks about "constructing the puzzle", and this is another crucial thing about a crime novel - it must be well constructed and must incorporate puzzles and red herrings. Actually, even though I know that I never know the outcome of my own books in advance, I do wonder if real crime writers perhaps need more of a clue, so I asked Aline.
"Do I know in advance? I think I know, but I'm not always right. As the plot and characters develop, sometimes a balance changes, and another solution emerges. There was one occasion when I was nearly at the end and reading through the book I suddenly realised that the person I had thought had done it, hadn't! There was a much clearer and stronger solution, with an additional twist. So I wrote the new ending, then went back to make the mechanics work and to my astonishment, everything was in place. Apart from giving the real murderer a little more prominence, for the sake of fairness, I had nothing else to do.- a clear case of the unconscious mind and the conscious one not communicating.
"Mostly, though, I know where I want to start and I have a pretty good idea of what someone once called 'the clever bit at the end' and work towards it, but in between I really don't know what's going to happen. When I have that middle-book panic, when I think it's just not going to work at all, I tell myself, 'Trust the story' - and so far it hasn't let me down." [NM: I know that middle-book panic and I tell myself exactly the same.]Fascinating stuff, and it certainly resonates with me.
Allan Guthrie, another Scottish crime writer, who is also an agent with the Jenny Brown Agency. His Noir Originals website has a whole load of links that you'll find useful. I asked him about resources for crime writers.
If you'd like to buy any of Aline or Allan's books, do go to Amazon through this link, and you'll send a few pennies my way. I would then get down on my knees and gather every last one up and put them to very good use. I'd find a way, somehow."There are a lot more online resources these days. For crime writers, http://www.crimespot.net/ is a must. It's an aggregator of most of the best crime fiction blogs. CrimeSpace, a social networking site with close to 3000 members, is well worth checking out too - http://crimespace.ning.com/. I'd also recommend the networking opportunities provided by crime writing festivals such as Crimefest http://www.crimefest.com/ and the Theakston's Crime Festival in Harrogate http://www.harrogate-festival.org.uk/crime/"
So, there you have it - wise words and great resources. even so, nothing beats reading and reading analytically to work out what works and why a publisher said yes to these authors and might say yes to you.