Geoff Sanders worked on an early draft of his novel The Taken Girls on our 3-month London-based novel-writing course back in 2013. I remember intensive discussions with him about plotting – particularly the decision to split his original complex idea into two separate novels – and about the development of his series detective DI Ogborne (we had vigorous debates about what her name should and shouldn’t be!). I was delighted to hear that Geoff’s novel is to be published by Avon, and am very happy to welcome him to the CBC blog …
When I look back at the material I worked on during my CBC writing course, it all looks pretty complicated: a two-part prologue, material written in the first, second, and third person, 8 scenes set in 7 locations, and introducing 11 characters … But the ideas, and most of the words, albeit heavily revised, formed the basis of books one and two in my contemporary crime series. It’s been a long road but my first DI Ogborne novel, The Taken Girls, is now scheduled for publication in December 2018.
Here are some writing tips and techniques which have worked for me …
WHY WRITE CRIME NOVELS?
Really your reason should be that there’s nothing else you’d rather write. Crime fiction is always popular and has voracious readers. However, on the negative side, it’s a very crowded genre and you must stand out in the market place. Moreover, to succeed with a series your first novel must capture readers’ attention and the second must get them hooked. Plot is crucial but getting your central character right is really key.
Crime plots need intriguing beginnings – your first sentence, paragraph, page, must hook the reader – and satisfying, believable endings (which doesn’t necessarily mean a complete resolution). A good crime plot should be well paced with unexpected twists and turns to misdirect your readers and maybe your investigator. Elements of your story should be dark but that doesn’t necessarily mean graphic violence – you can use implication rather than showing every last gory detail.
The central character must carry your series of novels and make readers want more. Read lots of contemporary crime fiction to get a good sense of what works. You need elements of novelty or differentiation but, above all, make them human. Remember you’re planning to write a series so include events featuring your protagonist and their associates to revisit in future novels.
Ideally, you should go for a setting which will appeal to a wide readership. Whether it’s a real place or an imaginary/ unidentified location, make it somewhere you know well or will get to know well. Maps, guide books, and online street views are useful but don’t rely on these alone. Also, remember that location can to some extent determine the occupations and personalities of your characters.
I do little preliminary planning before writing – instead I do extensive background character and plot research in bursts whenever the story line requires it. I may have to go back to re-write earlier chapters but that’s a price I’m willing to pay for the freedom to follow my imagination and seeing where my characters take me. I’m not led by my characters – I’ve created and moulded them to take me where I want them to go – but sometimes they surprise me.
When writing, I primarily work with one document. I use “to do” notes including problems and potential solutions, and I colour-code my text extensively, with all deleted sections pasted at the end.
My first DI Ogborne novel reached draft #28. Make sure you save your drafts in case you need them again. I also keep a timeline and a list of brief chapter synopses with annotations. Both take the form of tables so that I can readily move blocks of text from cell to cell – I’m not a fan of sticky notes.
I’m forever grateful to my trusted readers, including the writing group formed with fellow students from the CBC course. Positive comments are good but I welcome negative comments because they serve to move the manuscript forward.
However hard we work, however much we hone our manuscripts, network, and self-publicise, we all require good fortune. We need to hit the right agent at the right time – not just an agent who likes our writing but an agent who loves our manuscript, an agent who has room for a new author and one who doesn’t have a similar writer already on their list. We need the same serendipity when our agent seeks a publisher.
When you’ve honed your manuscript and done all you can to get it right, target a small number of literary agents and submit. If necessary, revise and submit elsewhere. A writer needs persistence and determination.
Find out more about The Taken Girls and Geoff’s two-book deal with Avon, here.
Barney Thompson – who attended the Curtis Brown Creative Crime Writing Weekend – shares his notes on how to write a crime novel.
If you’re writing a novel and want to take a London-based writing course like Geoff did, our next London novel-writing course is open for applications.