Short and sweet, here are my (Harry Bingham’s) top ten tips for writing crime fiction and thrillers that will please the reader and make publishers reach for their chequebooks.
1. Know the market. Read very widely. As many authors as possible, not as many books. If you’ve read one book by Patricia Cornwell or Linwood Barclay, then move on. You know their prose, their style. Find what else is out there. That means also reading the classics, knowing genre history, and reading plenty of fiction in translation, too. It also means reading relevant non-fiction. If you’re writing political espionage thrillers, for example, you need to know the political, military and security background. If you don’t, your readers will, and you’ll be caught out.
2. Understand where the leading edge lies. The biggest names (think Coben, Rankin, Reichs) are not the most current. They built their reputations years back. Try to locate the sexiest (i.e. bestselling, most praised, most innovative, prize-winning) debut novels. That’s what editors are buying today. That’s the market you’re competing in.
3. Don’t just trot out old clichés. You’ve got a serial killer, have you? A terrorist bomb plot? Be tough with yourself. These tropes are tired. They can work if you handle them in a new or dazzling way, but the old ways are no longer enough.
4. Be complex. Your plot needs intricacy and a surprising number of well-planned, well-executed twists. Modern crime authors have become great at developing complex but plausible plots, and because modern thriller writers have become so adept at delivering endless chains of impossible-to-see-it-coming twists, you can’t afford to be less than devilishly clever yourself. With rare exceptions, simple no longer sells.
5. Stay with the darkness. Your book must be dark and tough. That’s your entry ticket to the genre. What you do there can be very varied, but cute, cosy crime is a very limited market now.
6. Don’t forget jeopardy. Crime novels now are also thrillers. It’s not fine for the detective to solve the mystery and explain it all to a hushed and respectful audience. On the contrary, he or she must live in fear of his or her life. It’s got to be thrilling, as well as intellectually satisfying.
7. Concentrate on character. Crime and thriller plots are easily forgettable, and often feel very samey anyway. Characters like Elvis Cole, Hannibal Lecter, on the other hand, never leave us. If you find a strong character, and do everything else reasonably competently, then you quite likely have fiction that’ll sell.
8. Write well. Bad writing will almost certainly kill your chances. You don’t have to be flowery. You do have to be competent.
9. Be economical. Thrillers need to be taut. Check your book for needless chapters, your chapters for needless paragraphs, your paragraphs for needless sentences, and your sentences for needless words. Then do it all over again. Twice.
10. Be perfectionist. Very good isn’t good enough. Dazzling is the target. Being tough with yourself is the essential first ingredient. Getting someone else to be tough with you is quite possibly the second.
I said ten tips, didn’t I?
Here’s an eleventh:
11. Don’t give up. Be persistent. You learn by doing, and the more you write, the better you’ll be. Think about building your skills, engaging with the industry, or getting editorial advice. All those things will enhance your writing, too.As ever, best of luck!
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