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Tag: crime writing

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.

Kate Atkinson – sharing some tidbits from Capital Crime

One of the highlights of the Capital Crime festival for me was the conversation between Kate Atkinson and Jake Kerridge. I have been a fan of Kate Atkinson since ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’. I loved her literary fiction and was thrilled when she took a turn towards crime with the Jackson Brodie books. It was such a treat to have one of each this year, with ‘Transcription’ and the latest Jackson book, ‘Big Sky’. In case anyone would like the inside scoop on Ms Atkinson’s writing practice (I can’t seem to call her Kate) and what comes next, I made some notes…

Why the gap?

There’s been a few years between the first four Jackson Brodie books and this new one. Asked about this, Kate (I have to make myself use it because it’s shorter) said, ‘I never thought he’d gone; I’d just run out of steam’. She later referred to a concern about getting into ‘a Jackson rut’. She also suggested that she needed a gap after the TV series was made, so that she didn’t have the actor who played Brodie in her head when she wrote him.

So will there be more?

The first 30,000 words of the next Jackson Brodie is written, but the book is on the backburner, so we are going to have to wait. Apparently, it’s probably going to be the book after next. She talked about writing an homage to Agatha Christie’s ‘The Death at the Sign of the Rook’. She also said she’d thought Brodie would come back in Paris, so maybe that will come later – and that she really wanted to send him on a cruise ship. Lots to look forward to then.

What about Jackson?

‘If Jackson was a dog, he’d be a German Shepherd – or a Collie.’ Although it seems that lots of women tell Kate that they want to marry Jackson, she can’t imagine Jackson settled down – ‘he has to have that gunslinger attitude’.

Readers aren’t falling for Jackson’s looks, though. She pointed out that Jackson doesn’t have a physical persona in the books because she doesn’t tend to describe characters physically.

What about her move into the crime genre?

Kate said that she’d been wary of putting a detective into a novel because then it would be a detective novel. She said, ‘I try not to put myself into a genre because it effects how I write’. However, she says that she now embraces the crime genre quite happily.

What about coincidence?

I’ll just give you what she said about using coincidence in her plots: ‘a novel isn’t real life. You’re constructing something; it’s an artificial construct. There is something very satisfying about coincidence’.

What about the way she writes?

Apparently, Kate was trained as a secretary and learned to touch type when she was 18. She said, ‘I can’t think about a novel until I’m typing. Everything changes when I touch those keys’. She said that she doesn’t have much of a routine, although she is very self-disciplined.

I loved what she had to say about a metaphor for the way she writes. She rejected mosaic and said instead: ‘I think of writing as like a tapestry’. There’s a lot of interweaving and going back and mending. She likes to achieve a sense of texture and thinks that you have to do a lot of reworking to achieve that. ‘Transcription’, she said, was very, very character based, whereas ‘Life after Life’ was more about structure. (She considers ‘God in Ruins’ to be her best book ‘by miles’. She referred to it as ‘a very emotional book’.)

What does she enjoy most about writing?

Her immediate answer to this was: ‘I enjoy finishing a book’. (Hallelujah to that!) She said that she felt a sense of triumph.

She talked about good days being those when she felt like she’d written a good sentence – adding later that these came about every third day.

Taking a slightly broader perspective, she said that she really enjoyed creating characters and having that slightly God-like control over them. Earlier she’d referred to authors as being ‘the arch manipulator of everyone’s fate’, saying that this meant that you needed to keep your characters at arm’s length to enable you to do this.

I find it comforting that she finds it hard to get started again if she stops writing. Although this meant that she started ‘Big Sky’ the day after she finished ‘Transcription’, so then I felt like a pathetic failure. She’s currently writing short stories ‘to keep her hand in’.

What next?

Plans include a novel set in the sixties and another set in the 18th century. She said that she enjoyed bringing the past to life so that people could see that it was just the same as the present. ‘I have a lot of novels I want to write; I’m going to have to live for a long time,’ she said. I’d call that very good news.

Capital Crime 2019 – as welcome and refreshing as a good cup of tea

As part of his advice to writers, David Headley (agent, bookseller and co-founder of Capital Crime) said, ‘Don’t get in a taxi with Adam Hamdy’ (author, screenwriter and David’s co-conspirator on the festival). It was a reference to the amount of time the festival took to organise whilst juggling the other demands of writing and publishing, and the fact that they cooked up the idea in the back of a New York taxi. I’m glad he did get into that taxi because Capital Crime was marvellous.

I still have a soft spot for the Killer Women who put on the first London-based crime writing festival (that I’m aware of). Their event has the intimate feel of a club, and those of us who spend most of our time holed up alone reading and writing, and feeling very ‘unclubbable’, love to find a club to which we can belong. And London is plenty big enough for two crime writing festivals.

Capital Crime was a blockbuster, with big names and a fancy venue, but it had an inclusivity and generosity of spirit beyond my expectations – and I loved it for that. It was a perfect reflection of London.

I used to live in London and people often say to me, ‘but wasn’t it really unfriendly?’ They’re thinking of the reputation Londoners have for not smiling on the tube and not tolerating slow walking on pavements. That’s just about getting on with the business of living in a city bursting at the seams with people, people with things to do and places to be. If you’re stuffed in under someone’s armpit, you don’t want to make eye contact. Out of that context, I have always found London folk – those staying and those passing through – to be open and friendly. London itself is a huge collection of neighbourhoods that have merged together over time and it contains people of every nationality, culture, type and interest. London opens its arms to all – with respect for personal space – and Capital Crime was just like that.

So many of the huge names in crime writing were giving talks and on panels on Friday and Saturday. Highlights for me were Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson and Denise Mina. The Killer Women were there. I have to admit to never having read Will Dean, but a number of swoony ladies told me that I should go to his panel – and I’m not sure it was completely about what he had to say. (I have seen A LOT of photographs on social media of women posing at the festival with Will Dean and his fabulous hair. Just saying.) Other people will have named other writers as their headline events. There were so many to choose from: Mark Billingham, Robert Harris, Lynda La Plante, John Connolly…

What there wasn’t so much of was big publishers and writers’ cliques. There were no separate parties and meals and ‘dos’ for people on the inside track (or if there were, they kept them very quiet and didn’t invite me *cue moment of social insecurity*). If there were any stars of this show, I’d say it was the bloggers. There was a particular posse of bloggers whose glee and enthusiasm lit up whichever room they were in. They were fabulous and represent the readers to whom every writer and publisher at the event owes their living and career.

I took part in the Digital Festival, recording video footage that will go live as part of an online showcase at the end of October. I’m new to this game – one little book being digitally published by Orion’s new imprint Dash Books. I saw other new authors waiting to be recorded alongside much bigger, more established names. Again, a platform for all, and one that recognised how much of the book business is now in the virtual world, rather than ink and paper, and bricks and mortar. (Like London, accepting of and alive to change.)

For me, the symbol of this festival was the free tea and coffee (sponsored by Pan Macmillan) – kind, practical and sustaining. Every effort had been made to keep the festival affordable – writing isn’t always the most lucrative of endeavours and books are a costly addiction – and free tea was a much-appreciated touch. (Hoping for an aligned sponsorship from Mcvities next year, maybe??) Capital Crime was a tea and coffee festival, rather than a prosecco and cocktail festival, and I loved it for that. I’m feeling energised and ready to get writing, and reading, ready for next year’s Capital Crime.

Thank you to all the organisers for making it such a smooth-running, friendly and enjoyable festival.

Killer Women Killer Weekend 2017

I was lucky enough to win a ticket to the Saturday of the Killer Weekend, an event that I would not otherwise have been able to attend (thanks Killer Women and Mslexia). It only seemed right to spread the good fortune by sharing some snippets. So here are a few points I took away from the workshops and master classes I attended.

Intro to Crime Writing with Kate Rhodes

  • Frinton-on-Sea is a genius location for crime (but someone is already doing it).
  • Even really good, successful writers had to write more than one novel before they got a deal and still have unpublished novels under the bed.
  • It starts with character.
  • I want to read Kate’s new book – Hell Bay – and it comes out in January 2018.

Creating Characters with Henry Sutton

  • Character and plot are one.
  • Menace comes from character.
  • You need to know what your character wants more than anything – and this might be something outside of the line of duty/work.
  • Setting enhances character – it doesn’t exist independently because it is seen through character.
  • Know your characters’ relationships.

Book recommendations:

  • James Woods – How Fiction Works
  • David Lodge – Consciousness and the Novel
  • David Lodge – The Art of Fiction
  • Patricia Highsmith – Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction

Changing Crimescape (Katherine Quarmby, Matthew Blakstad, Imran Mahmood, Vaseem Khan)

  • Be aware of what is ‘in the air’ – #metoo, technology, diversity, global locations.
  • Listening to writers talk about their books can distract you from learning from their experience (opps – sorry).

Creating Suspense with NJ Cooper

  • Suspense is about withholding.
  • Make readers wait for payoff, in the novel, in the chapter, in the paragraph, in the sentence.

Plotting with Julia Crouch

  • Pantsing lets you go with passion and intuition, but plotting is more efficient.
  • Find a way to plot whilst keeping the passion and intuition.
  • Conflict is the source of all plot.
  • Plot is what happens and why.
  • Plot demands the intelligence and memory of the reader to make connections.
  • Use the tools out there to help – structures from books, types of plot, software, and corkboards and post-its.

Book recommendations:

  • Anne Lamott – Bird by Bird
  • James Scott Bell – Plot and Structure
  • Alexandra Sokoloff – Stealing Hollywood

Pitch to the Panel (Mark Billingham, Joel Richardson, Felicity Blunt, Karen Sullivan)

  • If you put your name in a draw to pitch, bear in mind that you might get a slot and you might have to go first (so maybe write a pitch in advance).
  • Mark Billingham is the crime writing world’s Dermot O’Leary and very soothing on the nerves.
  • Highlight what makes you and your novel interesting and different.
  • Some subjects are so dark that they will put people off – if you must write them, think about how you present them, in the novel an the pitch.
  • If you are writing something that has done before, think about what makes your story different.
  • There are characters/subjects that agents are looking for.

In conclusion:

  • Character, character, character.
  • Think motivation and conflict.
  • Get it written and then get it re-written.
  • Crime writers are lovely.
  • Getting out in the writing community is re-energising – do it when you can.