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Month: October 2019

Despatch from Capital Crime on what agents and publishers are looking for

I know you’re not reading this for my take on this, but I feel I should start by saying that what agents, in particular, want is not as big a mystery as some think it is. Most agents are very clear about what they are looking for and put the information out on their own websites and on posts and interviews you can find online. They want clients, they want submissions and they want writers to send in the work they want to see in the form they prefer to see it. It would be commercial insanity for them to be secretive about what they want. The problem for writers is delivering it.

Here are some of the points I noted down from the panel at Capital Crime 2019 on the craft of writing that, I hope, offer some insight into how to do this.

The writing

David Headley, an agent at DHH Literary Agency, says that he starts by looking at the writing – the first chapters submitted. He’s looking to see if the story starts in the right place and if there is a ‘voice’ – does the writer know what they’re doing.

The characters

You need characters that readers can engage with, that they care about, whether or not they like them. Vicki Mellor, publishing director at Pan Macmillan, is looking for characters that feel real. ‘The psychology of a character is key,’ she said. She suggested thinking about their back story, such as where they went to school. Adam Hamdy, author and screenwriter, advised making characters dynamic. ‘You need characters that aren’t fully formed. They’re trying to get somewhere and something happens in the book that stops them getting there.’

The synopsis

The writing carries the most weight and, David Headley said, ‘synopses are the hardest thing, so don’t get hung up about it’. In practical terms, a synopsis should be a page long, lay out the bare bones of the story and be engaging. Adam Hamdy said: ‘If you can write a good synopsis, the book is working – you should be able to articulate what your book is about.’


Authenticity was a word that came up multiple times as being a vital ingredient that agents and publishers are looking for. This is a depth of realness that comes from knowing your character and your story backwards.

The pitch

The pitch is not the same as the synopsis and I am hearing it mentioned as a vital ingredient in submissions more and more – perhaps reflecting the increasingly competitive and commercial nature of publishing. The pitch sums up your book in a way that pinpoints what is unique and interesting about it. It should sell your book, rather than simply describe it. Vicki Mellor said that, although it is her job to sell the book, the writer having it easily pitchable in one or two lines is really good.

Getting feedback

You need to get your manuscript to the very best level you can get it before sending it to an agent/publisher. At that point, they will offer you another pair of eyes to look at your book in a new way and identify ways to make it better. Be happy with your book when you share it – and then be open to improvements. Vicki Mellor advised that agents and editors can help you develop plot but, fundamentally, what they can’t change is the voice and the authenticity.

Good luck everybody!

Advice for writers (as garnered at Capital Crime 2019)

Ok, here’s some advice for writers that I picked up at Capital Crime 2019: don’t read while you’re writing; read while you’re writing; plan, especially for crime fiction; don’t plan, especially for crime fiction; write for 15 hours a day; write for three hours a day; get it right first time; write 25 drafts; writing is a hellish job; writing is the best job.

Alongside the readers and published writers at Capital Crime, there were a good few unpublished writers and newly published writers eager to learn from the more experienced authors on the panels. All were generous with their advice and insights into the writing life. However, although some patterns emerged, there were a good number of inconsistencies.

Anthony Horowitz told us that he never reads other people’s books when he’s writing. It’s not that he is afraid of plagiarism – ideas are free for all – but that if he sees a good idea in someone else’s story it will annoy him. Maybe he will see something that is perfect for his story that he might have come up with, but once he’s read it in someone else’s story he won’t feel able to use it.

Ann Cleeves said that she always reads, even when she’s writing.

Both Adam Hamdy and Anthony Horowitz said that they put in long writing days – up to 15 hours. Kate Atkinson, on the other hand, said that it was all about focus and that she could get as much done in three good hours as she could in much longer, less focussed hours of writing. She also isn’t one for sitting around thinking, saying that the story comes to her when she has her fingers on the keyboard. However she did say that you shouldn’t start a book until you’re absolutely ready. She was thinking about the spy story in ‘Transcription’ for three years before she started to write it.

I saw a tweet from Elly Griffiths recently saying that she wrote one draft before sending it off for structural edits. Denise Mina said that she writes multiple drafts – up to 25.

You usually hear how important it is to plan a crime novel. Ann Cleeves told us that she finds out what happened at the same time as the detective and that she writes like a reader. Denise Mina agreed, adding that she’ll find herself three quarters of the way through a novel and completely lost. Where would the fun be, she asked, if I knew how it would end? (Might this be why she does so many drafts after the first?)

There was agreement about location. You need to know the location for your story well. Ann Cleves said, ‘it’s the small details that bring a place to life’. She said that she liked to get under the skin of places people think they know. Kate Atkinson said that she likes writing about places she knows well, so that she doesn’t have to do a lot of research.

Publisher Vicki Mellor and agent David Headley explained the importance of getting good feedback from people you trust. Then, in the bar, a writer I shall keep anonymous told me very firmly that it was important to ignore all advice and follow your own instincts. I suspect the answer lies somewhere between the two – listen and then decide for yourself. Someone – I can’t remember who – told me that if someone gives you editorial feedback, you should believe them if they tell you that something isn’t working, but not if they tell you how to fix it.

Although I heard it said that writing could be hell and that it’s very tough to make a career as a published author, especially in today’s market, there was a clear consensus that the writing life is a joy. ‘For people who love to write, it’s the best life in the world,’ Adam Hamdy said. For Denise Mina the joy was centred around ‘sitting at your desk making up lies’, but included the added bonuses of not having to commute, or get dressed to go to work.

Neither Denise Mina nor Ann Cleeves were immediate commercial successes and, realistically, some of us never will be. This means that the writing itself has to be the primary source of enjoyment and satisfaction. You don’t have to be making millions to have this. You do have to write. As Don Winslow said, ‘writers write; it’s a verb before it’s a noun’.

Adam Hamdy suggested thinking hard about what you wanted from your writing – a published book or a writing career. The first is easily achieved through self publishing; the second is much, much harder and you need to be prepared to work at it like a business, because publishing is a business, a very demanding one. There are long waits and strict deadlines (covers for novels are briefed 13 months in advance of publication), it is highly competitive (more and more people are writing and David Headley alone receives 400 manuscripts a month), you are constantly exposed to criticism and maintaining profile is almost like having another job.

So, whatever you want from your writing, do the writing, do the best work you can and enjoy it.