GJ Minett is the author of The Hidden Legacy & Lie In Wait, as part of his blog tour to celebrate today’s paperback release of The Hidden Legacy, he’s taken time from his busy schedule to talk to LifeOfCri.me about his personal Dos and Don’ts of writing crime fiction.
Dos and Don’ts of Crime Writing
So … let’s get all the self-effacing disclaimers out of the way first, shall we?
I’m not entirely sure that a body of work comprising two eBooks and one paperback qualifies me as an expert on how best to go about producing a crime novel. I’m sure I would bristle at the idea of having to conform to someone else’s notions as to what constitutes good practice, so I’m not about to pontificate here. Feel free, as they say, to try this at home but please don’t feel under any obligation to wear the strait jacket. The right way is what best suits you.
I’ll share with you three examples of what works for me, with no significance at all attached to the order in which they appear.
Treat your readers with a bit of respect
I’m a reader. Part of the fun for me, in reading a crime novel, is working things out for myself, following clues, weeding out red herrings and trying to anticipate where the author is trying to take me. I don’t need to have my hand held. I certainly don’t want an idiot guide thrust into my hand. But equally, if I’m going to invest a great deal of time and mental energy into reading a 400 page novel, I expect to be able to believe the outcome. I may not see a twist coming, I may miss one or two crucial clues and shake my head when I think back, wondering how I didn’t pick up on them. What I do NOT want though is to be defeated by some startling coincidence or miraculous intervention I could never have foreseen in a million years that leaps out of nowhere and changes everything. Whenever this happens, it’s difficult to avoid the impression that the author has backed her/himself into a corner and not had a clue how to get out of it without resorting to desperate measures. Keep it real. Avoid shortcuts. Work the plot through beforehand and don’t short change the reader by settling for the mediocre.
Show don’t tell
OK … I know. Very MA in Creative Writing. But there’s a reason why this particular mantra is chanted at every writing course you’ll ever attend. It ties in neatly with the previous section because most readers are quite capable of working out for themselves how a character is feeling if they’re given the right visual clues. It is after all how we operate in real life. If I see someone wiping away a tear, I don’t need to be told “I’m feeling sad”. If someone is twisting the cord of a blind around a finger while gazing out of the window or slamming a glass down on the table so that the liquid slops over the side, I can tell what sort of mood we’re dealing with here without any need for some disembodied voice to tell me she’s sad or he’s angry. Why should these visual clues be any less effective in a novel? Some writers are so gifted in the way they allow feelings to seep through without any need for explanation that they add an extra layer of enjoyment to the whole reading experience. Try it next time you feel the urge to have one of your characters explain how she/he is feeling.
Listen to your dialogue
If you wrote a song, you’d probably want to play it and hear what it sounded like. I wonder sometimes how often writers apply the same principle to dialogue because all too often it clunks, for want of a better word. I read a novel recently that was excellent in many respects but whenever the police officers decided to go to the pub for a drink my heart sank because I knew what to expect. What was supposed to pass for male banter sounded more like cheeky chappie dialogue from 1920s Music Hall minus the boom boom and it simply didn’t ring true.
Dialogue is very important in most novels as a device for ‘nailing’ a character, making sure that she or he comes across as an authentic person you might encounter next time you walk into a bar. If it isn’t quite right, the reader will quickly pick up on any inauthenticity and the spell can be broken just like that.
Try recording your extended passages of dialogue and playing them back or maybe getting friends to read them out to you. Also try recording others when they’re speaking so that you can pick up on any nuances. Not many people string together whole sentences without digression, hesitation, repetition, sudden changes of subject. If you can work some of these subtle differences into the speech patterns of your characters, they will appear more authentic.
As I said at the outset, these three examples matter greatly to me and have helped me enormously. I hope they will be of some use to you too.
And I just know someone is already trawling through my novels right now in search of instances where I haven’t managed to practise what I’ve preached. I’m sure they’ll find them!