26 November 2021
The bestselling crime writer shares top tips about crime writing and the liver-flavoured toothpaste rule
W. Somerset Maugham reportedly said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
I believe, though, that there are guidelines, let’s call them, that can help fiction writers improve their craft. Here, I’ll share a few that I’ve formulated and that have helped me in my four-decade career as a novelist and short story writer.
1. Remember your mission.
Your job in writing crime fiction is to tell the most emotionally engaging story you possibly can. And what is an emotionally engaging story? My definition is this: It’s a fictional account of fully formed, living-breathing characters—both good and bad—confronting increasingly difficult questions and conflicts, which are ultimately resolved to the readers’ satisfaction.
I love – and I write – fast-paced thrillers that throw road-blocks up in front of my characters with some frequency (every chapter, if not every few pages). Mickey Spillane said people don’t read a book to get the middle; we read to get to the end, and as quickly as possible. I try to make my readers constantly wonder: What’s going to happen next?
As for that resolution, satisfaction doesn’t mean a happy ending (though I myself prefer one); it means no loose ends or ambiguity.
2. Avoid liver-flavoured toothpaste.
Authors of crime fiction are manufacturers of products, like any other consumer goods. We don’t go to Boots and ask for liver-flavoured toothpaste. We want mint or cinnamon. Companies have thought long and hard about what their buyers want. We authors need to do the same. Every time you sit down at your computer or with pen and paper, ask yourself: Will what I’m writing please my readers? It better.
What are some examples of liver-flavoured toothpaste?
• Creating a story or writing in a way you think it’s neat or quirky, without considering the benefit to the reader. For instance, a book with no quotation marks around dialogue, writing a book whose length is not in harmony with the story (too long, too short), mixing genres (Philip Marlow solves a crime at Hogwarts).
• Relying on gore and shock, rather than suspense. I don’t want to read passages that make me squirm. Avoid graphic scenes of viscera, violence against children or animals. Murder as many adults as you like, but keep the gross stuff off the page, and drive the story along with Hitchcockian tension, not images from an autopsy.
• Violating the Gimme-a-Break Rule. If you’ve written something that makes readers mutter, “That’s not credible” or “That’s a cheat,” you’ve wounded our precious emotional engagement. Into this category of flaws fall coincidences, impossible feats and the ever-popular, and -irritating, mobile phone failure at convenient moments.
3. Plan out your story ahead of time.
Ah, the controversial question of whether to outline or not. I’m a firm believer in the process. I spend eight months planning out my novels – a full-time job, along with doing the research. (I outline my stories too.) Some very successful authors don’t do so, but writing fast-paced, multi-plotted thrillers requires me to construct a blueprint first. There’s some serious and occasionally tumultuous wrestling with the plot during outlining, but it’s far easier and less frustrating to do battle at that stage as opposed to ploughing ahead and just seeing where the story goes (and confronting incidents of writer’s block along the way). You don’t need to be as obsessive as I am, but at least have some sense of where you’re going before you begin to create the prose.
4. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
Hemingway said there are no great writers; there are only great rewriters. I edit extensively: Fifty times for my novels, several dozen for my short fiction.
I revise in three stages: first, twenty to thirty times on the computer, which allows me to make fundamental changes, like moving whole chapters, and use the search and find-and-replace functions. Second, I print out the book and edit on the paper. This is vital because we experience writing differently on the page than we do on the computer screen. Third, I use a program that reads the book aloud to me as I follow along on a printout. This lets me catch typos and sometimes larger glitches for a final polish (I can’t recommend the process highly enough).
5. Remember that rejection is a speed bump, not a brick wall.
What writer doesn’t have scars of rejection from an agent or editor? It goes with the territory. Occasionally a rejection letter might contain a nugget of helpful suggestion; more often a “No” means nothing more than that the rejecter simply wasn’t moved by your submission. But there’s someone out there who will be. Writing fiction is a long-haul job. Never give up.
Jeffery Deaver has been a full-time novelist for more than 30 years. He’s written 45 novels and 80 short stories. His latest novels are The Midnight Lock and The Final Twist. See more about him at jefferydeaver.com.
Want more crime-writing tips? Read about the importance of place in crime fiction, with Nick Quantill