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Tips for Writing Crime Fiction and Thrillers

  • By Harry Bingham
  • Published 06/25/2011
  • Fiction

Here are my top ten tips for writing crime fiction and thrillers that will please the reader and make publishers start groping 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 shtick. Find what else is out there. That means also reading the classics, knowing the history of the genre, and reading plenty of fiction in translation too. It also means reading the relevant non-fiction. If you’re writing political espionage thrillers, for example, you need to know the political, military and security bacground If you don’t, your readers will – and you’ll be caught out. 2) Understand where the leading edge lies. The biggest names (eg: Coben, Rankin, Reichs) are not the most current. They built their reputations years back. Try to locate the sexiest (biggest selling, 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 the cliches. You’ve got a serial killer have you? A terrorist bomb plot? Be tough with yourself. These things are tired old cliches. They can work if you handle them in a new or dazzling way, but the old ways are no longer enough. 4) Get complex. Your plot almost certainly needs a brain-aching level of complexity, and a surprising number of well-planned, well-executed twists. Because modern crime authors have become really good at developing complex but plausible plots, and because modern thriller writers have become so adept at delivering an endless chain 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. If you want to write cosy crime, then expect a small readership and meagre sales. 6) Don’t forget jeopardy. Crime novels now are also thrillers. It’s not OK for the detective to solve the mystery and explain it all to a hushed and respectful audience. On the contrary, (s)he’s got to be in fear of his/her life. It’s got to be white knuckle as well as intellectually satisfying. 7) Concentrate on character. Crime and thriller plots are easily forgettable, and often feel very samey anyway. Characters, on the other hand, never leave us: Holmes, Marlowe, Elvis Cole, Hannibal Lecter. 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 of success. And quite right too. You don’t have to be flowery. You do have to be completely competent. 9) Be economical. Thrillers need to be taut. Check your book for needless chapters, your chapters for needless paragraphs, your paragraps 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? What the heck, here’s an eleventh: 11) Don’t give up.

Be persistent. You learn by doing. You’ll improve. Think about building your skills, engaging with the industry, or getting editorial advice. All those things will increase your maturity as a writer. Now write that thriller, polish it – and sell it. Best of luck!


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