LULU UK recently asked published crime author Christina James for her best tips for writing fiction. Christina is also a book editor, a frequent speaker at literary festivals and creative writing groups and also runs writing surgeries. Her first crime novel, In the Family, was published in 2012.
Christina is keen to point out that her advice comes all the usual caveats stating:
“It reflects my own opinion, you don’t have to agree with it, and if you read books on writing by practising authors, you’ll find they’re all very different from each other and often contradict each other in what they say. I therefore hope that at least some of what I say will chime with your own approach to writing and perhaps help you, too.
To be a writer of any note you need to be brave, self-disciplined, self-critical and industrious; but it’s also true that writing is, or should be, great fun. Your brain is unlikely ever to feel more alive than when you’re writing, or when, after many revisions and rewrites, and quite probably having overcome other significant drawbacks along the way, you at last see your cherished novel in print”.
What in your opinion constitutes a good book?
There are only two kinds of writing – good writing and bad writing – and obviously readability is pretty high on everyone’s list of the things that make a good book.
What are the building blocks of writing?
Let’s start with the basics – the building blocks of writing. Grammar, syntax, spelling, sentence construction, the correct use of words and avoiding the over-use of individual words. I don’t necessarily expect these to be perfect – all authors need a proof-reader, even very famous ones. But if the nuts and bolts of the narrative are so peppered with mistakes that as a reader can’t enjoy what they are reading, they are unlikely to persevere with the book for very long.
The Narrative Voice
Establishing an interesting narrative voice is also important. You might like to try doing this by writing some of the novel in the first person and contrasting this with an ‘omniscient’ author’s third person narrative or you may choose to be what has become known as an ‘unreliable narrator’. The latter explains events in such a way that the reader knows there is something not quite right about the way in which they are presented, and consequently that all is not what it seems. Jane Harris’s Gillespie and I is a good recent example of this.
What makes a good character and a good plot?
Let’s focus on the characters for a couple of minutes. Most authors write sketches of their main characters before they begin work on the novel itself, and it’s my belief this is good practice. It’s very unsettling to the reader to discover inconsistencies in characterisation. Discrepancies can relate to either characteristics or facts and circumstances: for example, don’t give the heroine blue eyes in one chapter and brown eyes in another; if the protagonist is poor, don’t suddenly send him off to Stockholm without explaining how he obtained the money for the flight; and if you say he boards the plane for Stockholm at, say, Luton, make sure there are flights from Luton to Stockholm and that they run at the time of day you say he travels. It all sounds very simple, I know, but many authors come unstuck over details like these. What I’m really saying is that you need to be both disciplined and industrious, otherwise your readers will find you out!
Which brings us to plot. It’s a rash author who doesn’t have the plot properly mapped out before s/he starts writing. As a indie-published author, you don’t have to write a synopsis but I would strongly advise you to do so. It’s for your own reference much more than anyone else’s. But the thing about plot is that it should be an invisible thing: the plot is the skeleton on which you hang the flesh of the story. What doesn’t work is to give a flat account of sections of the plot as part of the story itself. The plot should unfold, rather than be told. Your reader is not going to be impressed by a simple demonstration of your ability to get from A to Z in the novel by cataloguing B, G, Q and Y along the way. You need to reveal, rather than explain, what is happening, also, if you can, lacing your narrative with tensions, twists and ambiguities that are only gradually ironed out as the novel progresses. Your aim is to tell a story that’s so compelling that no one will want to put it down. Ways of doing this include making effective use of dialogue. Successful dialogue gives the author an opportunity really to get into the characters’ heads, to think and speak as they do.
Plots shouldn’t be so fantastic that they lack credibility, but they shouldn’t be too plodding, either.
What about crime novel plots?
A good plot is particularly important if you’re writing a crime novel. It’s become fashionable recently for crime writers to construct very tortuous plots containing multiple ‘surprises’ along the way. I suspect that one of the reasons for this is Gillian Flynn’s stupendous, and well-deserved, success with Gone Girl.
Another point worth making about plot construction for a crime novel is that not only should the plot be meticulous in its attention to detail, particularly those concerning the timing of the crime(s) and the subsequent investigation, so that it is watertight, but it’s also imperative to stick to it once you’ve hammered it out. In other genres, although it’s still possible to trip yourself up, you may be able to make significant alterations to the plot if you have further inspired ideas once you’ve started writing. With crime fiction, this will almost always result in disaster. Building the plot in a crime novel is like building a house: if you start knocking it about before it’s completed, it’s liable to collapse.
Dialogue should offer a semblance of being realistic, but it can’t be based on ‘real’ dialogue, which, if you listen to it, you will find is usually repetitive and bound, over the course of a conversation of any length, to be quite mundane. You are seeking to create apparent, rather than actual, verisimilitude. For example, if you’re writing a detective novel and Mr Dobbs the gardener was outside digging his garden when the killer passed by, the detective who interviews him shouldn’t be subjected to a disquisition on how to grow sweet peas (unless the novel is meant to be humorous, in which case the dialogue needs to be very clever, or alternatively the sweet peas have to turn out to be crucial later on – did the killer get one caught in his shoe?).
The importance of research
Your novel should be well-researched, and avoid mistakes and anachronisms. Your background preparation should be diligent and faultless. The knowledge you have thus acquired, however, should never be paraded. Such lightness of touch is often difficult to achieve: it presents a trap into which even the most accomplished and experienced authors often fall. It’s an excellent idea to introduce an unusual topic, whether it’s one you’re already knowledgeable about or one that has required research, into your novel: most readers like to learn something new from what they’re reading, even if it’s fiction. However, only do this if you have the self-discipline and skill to pull it off. Although you may have researched the topic extensively, you should reveal this only with the odd fact and reference. Introducing indigestible masses of technical or specialist information into your work is not going to cut it. A novel isn’t a manual or a how-to book. It shouldn’t even primarily be an exposé of your own ideas on the subject, though of course it’s fine for you as author and, especially, your characters to offer some opinions along the way. It’s one of the most difficult things to have to do, not to over-egg the cake once you’ve mastered something and know all about it, so if you don’t feel confident in your ability to handle specialist facts lightly, don’t do it at all. If you are brave enough to attempt it, try to think about the topic in the same way as something you’re more familiar with and how you would represent that in your novel: the layout of a house, maybe, or sitting down to an evening meal. You’d be sparing in the details you provided about these things, wouldn’t you? Try, therefore, to sketch rather than paint in oils the more specialised subject in a similar way.
Method of publication
We’re fortunate to live in an age in which indie-publishing has become an economic possibility. It’s also now highly respected: some very famous authors, including Stephen King and Kazuo Ishiguro, the 2017 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, have indie-published some of their books. You may decide you like indie-publishing so much, or do the maths and realise that it brings you better financial rewards than signing a contract with a conventional publisher, that you will never feel the need to consider other options. If, however, your ultimate goal is to be published by a conventional publisher, indie-publishing is one of the best ways of getting your work noticed. Publishers and their scouts are continually on the look-out for promising indie-published novels. When I meet an author at a festival and s/he tells me that they’ve already self-published, I both admire them and know they have the seriousness and tenacity that it takes to make a successful writer.
I can assure you, therefore, that indie-publishing does work. There are just a couple of pieces of advice that I’d like to offer you:
If you choose indie-publishing, I strongly recommend that you pay a professional copy-editor and proof-reader to check your work. Unless you are confident in your artistic and composition skills, you should also pay to have the jacket designed. Remember that the jacket should resemble a commercial publisher’s as much as possible – it should include some quotes from reviewers if you can get them (try other sympathetic authors or local newspapers or a local bookseller when you’re first starting out). Lulu can help you both by finding a good editor / proof-reader for your work and help you to produce a professional-looking jacket. These cost extra – they’re not part of the standard package – but, believe me, every penny that you invest in this way will be worth it.
You must be a stringent self-critic. If you can labour over your writing for many hours and then scrap most of it because on reflection, when you read it next day, you realise that most of it isn’t up to scratch, you’re well on the road to achieving your writing goals.