So you want to write crime novels and thrillers and make a living doing it. My first bit of advice is to put pen to paper while still working your day job. As I’ve mentioned before, I started writing while still practicing law. It all started when one of my partners complained bitterly to me about the behavior of one of our colleagues. My response was, “Let’s write a book and kill the son-of-a-bitch off in the first chapter, then spend the rest of the book figuring out who did it.” Of course, I was just being a smart ass, but that flippant remark turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy when I wrote Motion to Kill.
This didn’t happen in one surge of inspiration, it took ten years to finish and publish that first book. I like to say that I’m a ten-year overnight success. Now, the stories and dark plot twists come more quickly and I’ve found my writing groove, so to speak. Give yourself some time when pounding out your first novel. You’ll likely need it.
Beginner Tips for Writing Crime Novels
• Choose the type of crime novels to write – cozy, hardboiled, police procedural and thrillers, legal or otherwise. I particularly love legal crime thrillers. As a trial lawyer, that was the obvious choice for me. I believe our system of justice works beautifully most of the time. I find my stories in the cracks – the few times our system of justice doesn’t work. Whichever type you choose, make sure you thoroughly research the relevant non-fiction aspects of that sub-genre. For example, if you write police procedural thrillers, you need to know the protocols, jargon, and historical background. If you don’t, your readers will know it and call you out. And whatever other mistakes you make, don’t screw up when it comes to guns because those readers knowledgeable about firearms will always let you know about it.
• Beware the cliché – Want to craft your story around an innocent man sentenced to death? Or how about a terrorist bomb plot or Ted Bundy type of serial killer? These are familiar plot templates. But that doesn’t mean you can’t write a great story around one of them. You’ve just got to find a fresh voice and a new twist on that courtroom drama and come up with a tantalizing new way to approach the espionage thriller or serial killer plot. Read my post, Are There Any New Stories for further clarification on avoiding clichés.
• Focus on characters – Fully develop your characters—write their complete backstories. Even if these details never make an appearance in your novel, the personal history of each of your characters informs their choices and behavior throughout. Give readers at least one person to root for. Steadily reveal things about your characters as the plot progresses. No matter how clean-cut or innocent your leading characters, don’t be afraid to make them go through awful experiences to show their grit, or lack of it. Make your readers care deeply about the protagonist and despise the antagonist. Every character, no matter how insignificant, should want for something – even if it’s just a drink or a warm place to sleep. I introduced Alex Stone in my short story Knife Fight. She’s the leading character in my latest novel, Stone Cold and she’s a lesbian – a lesbian in a long-term committed relationship. I created Alex’s character because I wanted to write about someone so different from me that I’d really have to work to get inside her head but I wasn’t surprised when I realized Alex and her partner were more like my wife and me than I realized. Wonder if the Supreme Court will figure out the same thing when they decide the cases on gay marriage and marriage equality.
• Develop a complex plot – For successful crime fiction that people will want to read, you’ll need a complex plot that contains several well-planned and precisely executed twists. Modern readers have become accustomed to the intellectual stimulation given by a plot of mind-blowing complexity that delivers a gauntlet of impossible-to-predict twists and turns. You can’t afford to go the simple route if you’re writing for an adult audience.
• Stay brutal and dark – Unless you’re writing a cozy, your passport to success in the crime fiction genre involves action steeped in brutal crime scenes, fear-inspiring suspense, and an underlying darkness. You can vary the level of darkness and sadistic twists, but clean and bright crime just doesn’t play in the modern world of crime fiction. People want gritty stories that pull them into their convoluted, dangerous world. Make certain that the blood and guts serve the plot. Otherwise, that stuff is just gratuitous and underestimates your readers.
• Every word counts – Each sentence should advance plot action or reveal something about characters. When editing your book, cut out needless words, sentences, paragraphs, and entire chapters, if necessary. The thrill of crime fiction comes from the relentless, white-knuckle pace of the plot. As hard as it is, always resist the urge to fall in love with your own words…off with their heads!
No matter what type of fiction you write, keep writing and don’t get discouraged. With practice and perseverance, you’ll develop your own distinctive style and find your writing groove. What are some of your favorite crime thriller novels? Other fiction? How about memorable characters? I’d love to hear about elements in your favorite novels that have made them memorable for you.
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